Bicycling and the Multiple Main Street Model
by Richard Risemberg (August 1997)

Perhaps it is time to expand the definition of bicycle advocacy. For a long time now--at least three decades--advocacy has concentrated primarily on bike paths and lanes, bike parking, and facilitating multi-modal commuting, where the bicycle is loaded onto a bus or train for part of the journey. There is no question that all of these things are helpful and sometimes necessary, just as are the efforts to encourage private employers to accommodate bicycle commuters, along with those that seek to open people's minds to the very possibility of themselves commuting by bike. But there is a longer-term project that, however quixotic it may now seem, will ultimately be necessary, and it is one that the activist community should engage itself upon now, in however small a way: that is the proposal of new zoning laws and planning practices to encourage decentralized development, which would site workplaces and housing near enough to each other that most people would not need to commute longer than is comfortable for them to do by bicycle, bus, or foot.

After all, that's how it used to be in cities all over the Old World, and it is the human-scale structure of those cities, with their neighborhoods that have actual neighbors in them, where the cop lives around the corner and the grocer sleeps next door, that give them the charm that Americans travel thousands of miles at great expense to see; and it is the development of the urban/suburban dichotomy, with the majority of work located in the city and the majority of workers scattered in surrounding housing tracts, that have made of the cities, ghost towns, and of the suburbs themselves, emotional wastelands. If you must drive forty miles to the office, drive ten miles to the restaurant or movie house, drive your children five miles to school, and drive four miles to buy bread and spinach, you will never meet your neighbor on the corner for a chat on the way home from your chores, you will probably never consider doing any of those chores on a bike, and you will spend altogether too much of your life inside a small metal box. It is a sad fact, as most of us know, that, since the forties, the American city has been structured around automobile use; no matter how many miles of bike lanes you stripe, you will not convince the suburban mother to pedal ten miles for her groceries. Now that the nineties are drawing to a close, we must promote a new wave of urban planning that re-establishes the neighborhood structure both in our cities and in the suburbs. This is a project that can be initiated first in the suburbs, because it is there that employment centers do not yet exist in the concentrations that they do in the city, and it is for the suburbs that planning practices can be changed to prevent the concentration of office and retail space in too small an area, distant from housing. In effect, one can create the new city as a series of small towns that abut each other, each having its Main Street with its shops and offices surrounded by a few blocks of houses and small apartments, rather than continuing the practices now prevalent of building vast, sterile industrial parks abutted by huge malls, with most of the workers and customers living in more or less distant developments that are themselves devoid of any services save gas stations and video stores.

In the cities themselves, the project would be both easier and more difficult: the cities have always had housing and employment side by side, but the cities are also full of massive office and retail developments, crowds of skyscrapers and hulking malls, which need far more workers and customers than the surrounding neighborhoods can generally provide, and which will not be torn down readily no matter how attractive an alternate form of development might be.

But the suburbs are just now beginning to draw employment centers in a big way, and now is the time when the activist community can voice its support for planning practices that will make a human scale the most important element of new or rebuilt neighborhoods. The Wal-Mart, the giant Safeway, the industrial park--in short, the scale and bleakness of postwar development--are more of an impediment to bicycle commuting than rainy nights or arrogant drivers; the fact that the adult use of bicycles in a community has been noted as an indicator of that community's livability shows us that this idea is at least an undercurrent in activist thinking. A civic structure that is built along the lines of the small town will naturally accommodate bicycles; one built around the car never will, no matter how many bike paths are put in. The bike paths will be used--on weekends, for pleasure riding. But they will do nothing to improve the workday world. We must begin to model our cities on the supercomputer, with its parallel processors, or on the Internet: many small towns working in concert will be more efficient than one big sprawling one that cannot communicate well within itself. (Even in Los Angeles, the capitol of car culture, you can see how well the Main Street model works in isolated but effective neighborhoods such as Larchmont Village or parts of Santa Monica, where bicycles are ever- present.)

A way to bring this about may be to demand that commercial development be limited in some sort of ratio to housing: small offices, small shops, surrounded by neighborhoods: again, Main Street, but Main Street every ten blocks. After all, the point of bicycle advocacy is not to ask favors for ourselves, who currently ride bicycles for transport; it is to use bicycling to make our world more livable, for those who ride and for those who don't. Encouraging the multiple Main Street model--and it is a model that some architects and urban planners have begun promoting in the last three or four years--will automatically result in more people riding bicycles, without bikepaths, without special laws or special treatment--just because a bicycle will then be the obvious best way to get around.

Richard Risemberg