By G. M. Donley
Data Visualization by Evan Tachovsky
The road racing bicycle is one of history’s great design achievements: it multiplies the potential of the human body, allowing a person to travel much greater distances and at much greater speeds than a human walking or running. And it needs only a tiny fraction of the energy expenditure of even the most fuel-efficient motorized vehicle. A cyclist can easily cover 50 miles on 2,000 calories worth of oatmeal and Snickers bars; meanwhile, just one gallon of regular gasoline contains more than 30,000 calories; if the average US passenger vehicle gets 25 mpg, it consumes 60,000 calories for 50 miles. That’s roughly a 30-to-1 advantage in energy expenditure for one person riding a bike vs. one person driving a typical car. If you put 4 people into the car, the bike still has a better than 7-to-1 advantage. Plus, a bike is beautiful too.
Racing bikes are designed to meet two contradictory goals: to be as strong as possible to transfer the maximum amount of energy into forward motion, and at the same time to be as light as possible because more weight requires more energy to move around. So the design beefs up strategic areas to make them stronger while trimming away at the rest of it to make it lighter. These competing pressures strip away all nonessential material to get the best possible strength-to-weight ratio. The need to distill the design around its essential function results in a simple, elegant form. The best bikes take that elemental design and refine it with superb craftsmanship and attention to the details not only of how beautiful it looks, but how it handles and how feels when you ride it. It’s a functional machine, a work of art, a trusted collaborator.While the basic design of the bike is more than 100 years old, it has been continually refined. This is why bike racers go faster now than they did 50 years ago: the motor is the same (one human body), but bicycles have improved. Today’s road bike weighs 15 pounds instead of 20, it has 22 speeds instead of 10, you can shift without taking your hands off the handlebars, its brakes work better, its wheels are stronger and lighter, its frame is stiffer, and its shape is more aerodynamic. Riders, meanwhile, have adapted ever-more-scientific training techniques and ways of cheating. But a lot of the performance gain has come from the design of the bike itself. A doped-to-the-gills Lance Armstrong riding a 1965 bicycle would have a hard time beating a completely clean Lance Armstrong using today’s knowledge and technology. In other words, design makes a difference.
So, why can’t Cleveland be more like a bicycle? Why can’t a city meet that design standard, combining economy of means, beauty, and utility? If the bicycle metaphor doesn’t work for you, pick something else that fulfills its essential function with minimal waste: a sailboat, an airplane, a chef’s knife, a bikini, a haiku, a 1965 Beatles song, a backpacking tent, a violin. From there, narrow down to the examples that best combine beauty and utility. That’s not to say that there aren’t great designs that have extraneous material — but it does mean that the extraneous material has to provide enough in the way of beauty or usability to outweigh the sacrifice in efficiency. In spirit, it’s not so much a matter of settling on a compromise as finding a sweet spot.
So, back to the bicycle. Even though the image of the bike is associated with “green” and often left-leaning attitudes, we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about the bicycle as a fundamentally conservative invention: it’s all about self-reliance and maximum output for a given input. This isn’t an abstract concept: it’s very real because you have to do all the work yourself. The government can’t do it for you. Your limo driver can’t do it for you. You can’t get out of it by calling in political favors or leveraging wealth or social position. You can’t unload unpleasant side effects on someone else. Because you have to power and steer the bicycle yourself, you are very aware of how qualities beyond just efficiency have a role in performance: if it’s uncomfortable, you can’t push as hard for as long; if it handles unpredictably, you end up in the ditch; if you don’t love it, you’re going to lack that extra bit of commitment to go a little further or a little faster, or to go out at all.In applying design thinking to the places where we live, we’re talking about two fundamental kinds of activity: making and editing. When we set out to make anything new, we should design with those three goals in mind—it has to be efficient, it has to be user-friendly, and it has to delight the senses. And when we evaluate it, we switch into editorial mode: if it’s inefficient, or hard to use, or ugly, then it has to go. It may be impractical to immediately get rid of things that fail that editorial test, but we can set priorities for future action so that decisions are guided by principles that gradually move us toward that sweet spot.
Here’s one way in which Greater Cleveland is not at all like a bicycle: homes and businesses have spread out so much that we use up a huge amount of time and energy just moving ourselves and our stuff around. A bicycle designed to this standard would collapse under its own weight before you could swing a leg over it. Suburban sprawl tends to be discussed in political or sociological terms, but the great historic figure whose work has the most immediate bearing on this situation isn’t Locke or Keynes or Marx or Adam Smith — it’s Isaac Newton. He spelled it out 400 years ago: moving more mass over greater distance requires more energy. This is not politics, it’s physics.
What it means in practical economic terms is that, like a bike rider who would enter every race carrying an extra 50 pounds, you’d better get used to losing. Since WWII, the population of this region has not grown, yet that same number of people is now spread out over twice as much land area. Is it a coincidence that those decades were also marked by economic stagnation? Sure, some factors beyond our control contributed to those troubles, but at the same time we can’t deny that more and more time and money have gone into sustaining a less and less efficient settlement pattern. It makes no economic sense to continue to waste so much energy nonproductively that could be going to innovation or job creation.You don’t need to go far to find places that exemplify frugality by design instead of waste by design: the close-in neighborhoods clustered along transit lines and near the major employment centers of downtown and University Circle. You can get from work to home to shopping quickly, and often without having to haul around 3,000 pounds of car with you. Shorter lengths of pavement and utility lines mean less money spent building and maintaining them; less auto traffic means less pollution in the air, less wear and tear on the streets, and less space devoted to parking; denser settlement means customers are closer to retailers and restaurants; and so on.
Neighborhoods like these tend to have more people strolling the sidewalks, more trees and flower boxes and benches, and more attention to careful details of architecture and landscape. The pedestrian-oriented scale alone contributes many of these factors; the rest of it comes from people who live and work there making the street-level experience of their place better. While neighborhoods that grow around meeting human-scale requirements tend to have a kind of inherent design strength, the converse is also true: the space-hungry post-WWII settlement pattern has coincided with the proliferation of some supremely junky commercial and residential real estate development. When the inherently wasteful use of space eats up a disproportionate share of the budget, people tend to cut corners on quality of materials, construction, and design.
Unfortunately, the reality is that it took three generations of concerted effort to spread ourselves so thin, and we won’t get back to more structurally sound arrangements overnight. However, applying a bit of common-sense design thinking could get things pointed in a more promising direction and shape future decisions toward an “urban machine” that more effectively transmits human power into forward motion.
In that spirit, we ought to define “growth” in sensible design terms. Imagine attaching an extra set of handlebars to your bicycle: yes, you may say that addition has “grown” your bicycle, and the transaction of buying and installing the handlebars may have put money in someone’s pocket, but does it actually help your performance to add redundant function, load on extra weight, complicate the control system, and basically turn your bike into a goofy contraption best suited for a dancing bear circus? Paving over someone’s old farm to build a commercial center or housing development that will just suck the blood of some other district within the region may benefit the developer of that new construction or the municipality where it’s built, but it’s not a net gain for a region whose population and customer base have been flat for generations.In residential development, some of the spread has happened just because people wanted more elbow room, which is fine — but people who want extra space along with full city services should expect to pay a premium for that luxury just as they would when purchasing anything else. Instead we’ve collectively been offering a discount, funded through our utility and tax bills. These aren’t farms with their own off-grid water wells and septic systems and on-site storm runoff management. The sensible design response would be to bill the full costs of new development to the developers and residents, and not spread that burden to other utility customers and taxpayers; this approach should have an effect of encouraging new construction where utilities and roads already are and leaving more of the rural landscape unscathed. Let rural be rural and city be city. A more “clustered” settlement pattern not only reduces distances traveled; it also gives individuals more choices to use less energy- and cost-intensive means of getting around, leaving more time and money in our pockets to use in more productive ways.
Recent media stories have indicated that “millenials” are doing that right now, in effect choosing better neighborhood design by living in the cities and along transit corridors, in places that offer multiple options for how to get around. The reasons are both economic (when you really examine how to cut your fixed costs, the decisions you make about where and how to live instantly rise to the top) and aesthetic (if you’re walking and biking a lot, you really notice the finer the qualities of the physical environment). Not surprisingly, that means the places built as streetcar and walking neighborhoods originally — the Cleveland Heights, Lakewood, Ohio City-type places — are natural choices. These places exemplify efficient design, like concentrating the mass of the bicycle where it creates the greatest strength and leverage so that the rider gets the most forward motion out of a given effort.
The spread-out pattern isn’t our only challenge; we also have way too much housing, commercial space, and infrastructure overall for the current number of taxpayers, a result of building new stuff for 60 years without adding any population. It’s been a perfect recipe for high tax rates, devalued property, and unfilled potholes. But it would be pretty delusional to just slash taxes and hope that somehow physics won’t apply anymore; no, getting the fixed costs down will require on-purpose, common-sense reorganizing of our living and working so that on the regional scale our population centers are much more space-efficiently concentrated around transit lines and short-distance road networks.
Ironically, the decades of simultaneous overbuilding and abandonment may prove to make that quite a practical project. Not to be too callous, but the disaster of the Great Chicago Fire made it possible to reimagine how the land was used there, and that’s how they were able to build what everyone now thinks of as iconic downtown Chicago. The large amount of land that has become available close to transit and road corridors in Cleveland isn’t exactly the blank slate that was left by Chicago’s fire, but it does represent opportunity. When Baron Haussmann carved the grand boulevards of modern Paris out of the existing city, that project displaced tens of thousands of residents. In Rust Belt cities with significant amounts of abandonment, a lot of that clearing the way has been done already by sad circumstance.At the same time, we need to be careful about building lots of new housing and retail capacity until the population and customer base of Northeast Ohio begins to grow. That goes even for close-in places: while one might envision turning Burke Lakefront Airport into a multiuse retail/residential development, it may not really make sense to do anything like that until the regional population is once again growing.
The kinds of new projects that really make design sense are things like the proposed intermodal transportation hub on the lakefront: interlink as many transportation functions there as possible and then use the project to celebrate and magnify the inherent beauty of that site so that every traveler who stops there says “wow” because it’s so striking. There would be a lot of ways to do that, from a modest but handsome station with a nice public viewing platform on the roof to decking over the rail tracks and shoreway to make an expansive new public park with parking and stations underneath. Either way, it meets the bicycle design standard: efficient, user-friendly, and beautiful.
Similarly, making a better lakefront experience does not have to mean a huge project getting rid of the shipping docks or Burke airport. In fact I’d even say that since airplanes are beautiful to look at and great examples of design elegance, it’s actually pretty sweet to have an airport right next to downtown. It would be even better of course if the airport provided more of a function, and who knows, given United’s elimination of regional jet service at Hopkins, there could be great opportunity at Burke for Rust Belt Air to start flying those fuel-efficient 100-seat jets (ideally, painted to look like a 1974 LTD held together with coat hangers and twine) serving cities around the lakes every day. You could walk to Burke from downtown offices, or take the rapid from the east or west side, or transfer from Amtrak at three in the morning, or park your car there, or ride there on the bike path, or ask the Nautica Queen to drop you off. And in the meantime, just upgrade the pedestrian environment around the airport into more of a park setting and let the park and the airport coexist: that’s a very Cleveland-type amenity, like the flats or the canal towpath.Another smart design initiative underway has been the expansion of the network of bicycle routes and connections to neighborhoods and employment centers. The energy-leveraging design and low cost of the bicycle mean it can provide a viable short- to medium-distance urban transportation option at a small fraction of the cost of owning and operating an automobile. Cleveland’s recent enhancement of its cycling infrastructure, therefore, is significant not only in making the city more enticing to a demographic that values an active lifestyle, but it also enhances economic freedom and social equity for lower- and middle-income residents, and it benefits employers who locate near these networks because their workforce has an easier time getting to and from work. The key point is choice, not being tied to just one mode of transportation. If you live in a neighborhood served by good public transit, and are within biking or walking distance of places you want and need to go, you have flexibility and freedom even without using a car. You can take the rapid, ride a bike, skateboard, pogo, walk, ski, swim, drive if you have a car — whatever what works best on a given day according to the weather, grocery shopping needs, child care logistics, whether you need to be dressed up for a meeting, and whether you want your hair to have that tousled windblown look.
Approaching our regional decisions with a bicycle designer’s attitude could not only significantly improve our productivity and enhance our quality of life … it could also set us up well to compete with other regions and other nations. One main reason the Southwest enjoys (for now) lower taxes than the typical Rust Belt city is that population growth there has stayed ahead of investment in infrastructure. The Rust Belt has had the opposite situation: flat population and too much infrastructure. However, the growth numbers in the Southwest mask a couple of huge looming issues: one, the settlement pattern is even more wastefully spread-out than ours, and two, they built great big cities where there isn’t enough water. When all that spread-out infrastructure built over the past 50 years starts to wear out, their costs will go up dramatically. When the water runs out, that will be even more expensive, because water is heavy and costly to transport. It’s that old hubris at work again: building things in denial of nature always fails sooner or later. So maybe think about putting your big cities on lakes or rivers and with some decent farmland nearby. Just a thought.
If our region is lean, user-friendly, and beautiful, that combined with the natural advantages of our location on a huge fresh water lake with easy access to about half the U.S. population, puts us at a great competitive advantage, and not only in making ourselves attractive to new residents and entrepreneurs. To return to the bicycle analogy one last time, imagine a fit, nimble, nourished, and well hydrated athlete competing against one who is carrying too much weight, whose equipment is outmoded and falling apart, and who is out of water. No contest.
[blocktext align=”left”]The positive effect on our regional economy would be immediate if individuals thought it their patriotic duty to go about their daily lives consuming as little energy as possible to complete a given task.[/blocktext]With any luck, the example of competitive advantage might catch on throughout the country and the USA might move away from some of its embarrassingly squanderous habits and set itself up to be economically competitive and offer a high standard of living for generations to come. Some of that could be encouraged with changes at the level of public policy to eliminate some longstanding counterproductive incentives, but more important would be for individual people to adjust their values in one subtle but significant way.
One reason the “bigger, farther, more” mindset has been hard to combat is that conspicuous consumption has long been accepted as a way to show status. What clearer signal could there be to tell everyone you have resources to burn than to burn a lot of resources? People will always play those games, but what if you change the equation so that the variable you care about is no longer the type or amount of energy input, but the performance output attained for a given energy input?
Applying “bicycle thinking” to daily life, people might start making some very different decisions. Those status games could be reimagined to be more like the one-upsmanship that takes place in the bicycle crowd. In that context, conspicuous consumption is about riding the lightest, fastest, coolest machine — more to the point, the machine that helps you get to the top of the hill first even though you’re not breathing any harder than anyone else. The positive effect on our regional economy would be immediate if individuals thought it their patriotic duty to go about their daily lives consuming as little energy as possible to complete a given task.
Cleveland’s most famous designer of bicycles was Viktor Schreckengost (1906–2008), whose iconic creations from the 1930s through the ’70s took visual cues from motorcycles and automobiles, with decorative “gas tanks,” banana seats, and swooping sheet metal, much as cars of the era often alluded to rockets and airplanes. The people who hired Viktor saw bicycles as mass-market toys more than as machines for moving, a fact that sinks in pretty viscerally if you ever tried to ride one up a hill or take a corner at high speed. Viktor’s bikes are super retro-cool now, and justly so, but their performance is primarily visual. If the assignment had instead been to design the fastest, best-handling, and yes — coolest-looking — racing bicycle, one can only imagine wistfully what Viktor would have created.
But his example lives on, and we can honor that legacy by giving ourselves the assignment we would have liked to give him: starting with what we already have, design a city for the century ahead that is efficient, user-friendly, and delightful. Is that even possible, one might ask, for humans to get our act together enough to make something that meets such a high performance standard? Of course we can. We created the bicycle.
G. M. Donley is a Cleveland Heights-based writer, photographer, and designer.
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