The rewards of finally getting to conduct my own research on a topic of my choosing have made themselves starkly apparent. I feel energized by the thought of working on my thesis, exploring new territories of knowledge, and finding out new and exciting ways to solve the problem:
Cycling in integrated infrastructures
Futurists interested in visualizing the state of societies in 2050 project that the cities of the future will have fewer cars within urban centers, prioritizing walkability, and will be dominated by forms of public transit, car-sharing services, and bicycles . Transitioning car-centric countries, like the United States to this preferable future is truly a wicked problem due to its complicated nature in which many systems, services, actors, and motivations are deeply intertwined and interdependent. As an avid cyclist, I am greatly invested in this issue. Moreover, my hometown, Pittsburgh, faces significant issues in making the necessary modifications to its infrastructure to transition to a more balanced and sustainable future.
From a socio-historical viewpoint, Europe and the United States represent two different technological and design paths over the past 100 years with European countries investing more heavily in passenger rail (though not to the exclusion of automobiles) and promoting bicycling while the United States as a matter of policy and consumer choice investing in the suburbs and exurban areas. For example, urban design, with strong political support, could have focused on car-free urban centers, while cars (or passenger trains) could have been used solely for intercity or long-distance transit. As a result of choosing to support and develop bicycle infrastructure, Europe is poised to enter the so-called “preferable future”. In contrast, the United States has become a prisoner to its automobile-centric society in that it is having difficulty accepting policies and programs to permit the emergence of sustainable urban transit, where bicycles can play an important role. Significant changes will be required in order to successfully transition to a more balanced and energy efficient future.
American urban centers are noticeably behind, especially in older cities like Pittsburgh. It has a very compact core and mountainous topography which has led to narrow roadways that are hard to modify for the addition of cyclists. The introduction of bike lanes is often promoted as a positive attempt at improving relations between cyclists and motorists, principally drivers of automobiles. However, these initiatives have been met with significant pushback from the motorists, who view the road as their space and often resent the perceived infiltration of their space by cyclists, which has arguably escalated the tensions on the roads without separate bicycle infrastructure. Ultimately, the inconsistent segregation of cyclists on the roads has led to a decrease in safety as the separation of the two groups has heightened of the lack of understanding, caused miscommunications, and increased hazard as motorists now feel the territorial drive to assert their dominance on the road.
Given the limitations of existing physical infrastructure in many older urban areas, making the road a safer space for cyclists is, at its heart, a communication issue. Both motorists and cyclists are constantly struggling to communicate their presence and intended actions to the other. Solutions that improve the lines of communication between cyclists and motorists must be designed in ways that do not add additional distractions in the space. In some ways, the issue of motorist and cyclist communication is a paradox. Motorists would understand how to share the road if they were exposed to more cyclists; however, potential cyclists are wary of the roads because of the dangers of sharing the space with motorists who are not accustomed or hostile to sharing the road with cyclists. So, the question becomes, how can we enable cyclists to communicate their presence and intended actions more effectively to motorists with the goal of making cycling a safer activity with greater participation?
While work has been done in the field of urban planning, to date the solutions tend to be focused on creating separate bike infrastructure. This only furthers the communication disconnect by creating the illusion of separation when the reality is that these two groups can never be truly separated within the shared space of the road. However, little attention has been given to “integrated infrastructure” solutions. To achieve meaningful “integration” of cyclists and motorists, clear communication between motorists and cyclists regarding how to move safely through these shared spaces is critical.
Extensive research has been conducted, across many fields, around the creation of better safety gear, even specifically cycling gear, but to date these improvements fall short as their use of conscious and unconscious cues for both motorists and cyclists are limited and do not take into account the cyclists’ desire to express themselves through their bicycles and their gear. A workable solution must allow for customization and the expression of an individual’s personality as well as improved safety. Cycling gear designed with this dual purpose is key.
Designers could build on scientific findings that humans are hardwired to recognize and respond to certain colors, patterns, and behaviors. While countless safety-related products have been created to aid cyclists, few have applied the concept of biomimicry or incorporated adaptations by other organisms in the natural world other than a more narrow focus on illumination-based forms of visibility. Using the natural world as a laboratory, we can create gear for cyclists that will help them communicate their presence and passion for cycling, while increasing their safety on the roads particularly in congested urban centers. Over time, agreed upon bicycle-car rules of the road amplified by a cyclist’s safety gear should create a more organized predictable, and safe flow of traffic where dedicated bicycle lanes are not feasible.
So I ask,
How can design, informed by cognition, perception, and biomimicry, improve the safety of cyclists in shared transportation spaces and serve as an expression of their identity?
This is the start of my quest for answers to this question. I plan to provide updates to my research through this medium of Medium for both myself and others who are interested in my research topic.
 “2050: Something’s Green in the State of Denmark — Scenarios for a sustainable economy.” Redline and Monday Morning (2012).