Rain, Rain

So I was going to thrill you all with the report of my ride down for the paper today – a whole massive 11 miles, on rather more undulating terrain than the ride back from Bigtown. There were all sorts of adventures including not one but two courier vans who decided I was two dimensional, being on a bike, and could therefore be passed as if I wasn’t there (sadly, just a day too late to be immortalised in the name of science by the Near Miss project), the cheery wave and a thumbs up I got from an elderly couple from the village who were driving back from the shop themselves – even a guest appearance from ASBO buzzard (or at least a buzzard that inhabits the stretch of road where ASBO buzzard’s reign of terror holds sway) which was flying off to watch me from the safety of a nearby tree, rather than dropping down out of the sky onto my head, fortunately enough. But the truth is, I got a bit distracted from all these delights because it was spitting with rain, causing me to resurrect an argument I’ve long been having in my head (and more recently fruitlessly on Twitter) with the idea of building solar powered covered bike paths to keep off the rain.

This superficially attractive idea is the brainchild of Steven Fleming, professional controversialist, architectural theorist and the bike blogger behind Cycle-Space who has been intermittently entertaining me for years, despite the fact that half of his ideas betray the sort of megalomaniac wrong-headedness that only architects and dictators seem able to keep up consistently (and I say this even as a keen supporter of the idea of building cities around bikes). I suspect most of them are floated largely to annoy the Dutch, who he regards as being insufficiently ambitious in their bike infrastructure, and to ensure a steady flow of invitations to various international cycling conferences. So replying to one of his tweets was undoubtedly foolish, especially as I then got snowballed in to one of those twitter debates in which, once you have included the twitter handles of everyone you’re disagreeing with, only leave you enough space to compare someone to a Nazi or, worse, John Forester, the bugbear of the cycle campaigning world.

Now I should say that I don’t object to covered cycle paths because I’ve got some romantic notion that it’s fun to cycle in the rain – I do live in South West Scotland, I know about rain – nor because I think that rain isn’t an obstacle to cycling among the portion of the population that we can loosely describe as ‘almost everyone who isn’t a bit obsessed with bikes’ or ‘everyone’ for short. I just don’t think that covered cycle ways are the answer – in fact it seems so obvious to me that I would have thought anyone but an architect would realise why. So what follows is probably of interest to absolutely nobody except myself, but it will at least hopefully save me from having to try and squeeze it into 150 separate tweets:

1. Unless they go from your door to the door of your destination, you’re still going to get rained on and – unlike with the traffic that segregated cycle tracks, which also don’t go door to door, protect you from – it’s not as if the rain gets less wet or less heavy when you’re on a residential street or a rural area (if anything, it gets worse, especially in the latter).

2. Unless the rain is politely falling down vertically from the sky, you’re still going to get wet because in Scotland at least, rain mostly goes sideways unless there’s a car passing you at speed in which case it goes upwards as well. And yes, you could also build walls, but basically then you’ve built a tunnel which is hardly very inviting for anyone to cycle in, especially women, or people who don’t like being mugged.

3. Even if the roofs did keep the rain off, you’d have to build them over the footpath as well because the instant it started raining, all the pedestrians would head for cover and it would be impossible to cycle anywhere for people. And even if you did cover the footpaths over, you’d still get stuck because every entranceway would be blocked by other cyclists peering out hoping it will stop raining soon.

4. In the unlikely even that it stops raining and the sun comes out, nobody would want to cycle under a roof because, in these northern latitudes anyway, we’re all a bit sun starved.

So yeah, it’s a pretty rubbish idea, and we’re saying so is not because we somehow lack ambition and want people to ‘man up and take the rain’ but because it WOULDN’T WORK. But then again, what do we know, we’re only people, not architects. And besides, shortly after thinking all this – and all but home by now – I realised that, astoundingly enough, there is a form of solar-powered bike lane roof that would keep a fair bit of rain off, not transform your cycle path into a piss-scented graffiti-strewn underpass AND allow the precious sunshine through, at least during the winter months. They’re called trees. But nobody gets invited to an international cycling conference for proposing that.

So I’m sorry to have bored you with all that, but I did have to get it off my chest, and besides, it was so distracting, it quite took my mind off noticing what the ride to the papershop was like so I don’t really have that much else to report. And I wasn’t about to go out again because no sooner did I get home than it started to really rain and I wasn’t going out cycling in THAT.

11 Responses to Rain, Rain

  1. 2 quite simple answers to this question:

    Maintenance – a structure is expensive to maintain, a surface less so.

    Dual purpose objects can be a good thing – given you need to construct a flat surface, trying a prefab solar panel is an interesting experiment. A bollard that doubles as a seat or bike parking is the same principle. You do not “need” a roof on a bike path so proposing one misses the point.

    Architects like structures…..

  2. Don’t regret it! You have joined an important discussion in its early days. Writing from your sprawling wind-swept context, canopies would be useless, you’re right. It sounds as though you live in an environment that developed around agriculture and bulk haulage means like carts, or perhaps barges. But what if you lived in a city that was growing right now, around a knowledge economy, and that was primarily driven by the need to bring people together? The best mobility platform for that city would be mass bicycle use, but not if cycling were held back by an arbitrary disadvantage that is promoted by people who currently cycle, and who want to be applauded for cycling in the rain. Thanks for getting that off of your chest 🙂 I hope you understand my unique point of view a little more now, and where my (annoying) comments are pitched.

  3. Autolycus says:

    >>But what if you lived in a city that was growing right now, around a knowledge economy, and that was primarily driven by the need to bring people together?<<

    Still not possible to protect everyone from rain, passing vehicles splashing through roadside puddles and pedestrians seeking cover from the rain. Unless you cover the city completely.

    PS: NOW I understand the fuss over "vehicular cyclists". Of course it's ridiculous to oppose dedicated bike infrastructure in the vague hope that cars will give way (that's like the occasional eccentric pedestrian in the days when cars didn't totally dominate, who would simply walk into the road with, at best, a raised hand or umbrella on the assumption they had to stop).

    On the other hand, we do need to be careful to avoid letting the provision of proper bike infrastructure be used as a means of corralling us away from full use of the roads where necessary. And when riding in urban traffic you have to think and ride as a car driver should drive, when it comes to things like lane discipline and signalling your intentions, as a simple matter of both courtesy and survival; and mutatis mutandis the same degree of concern and alertness to people around you should apply even where the biking infrastructure is perfect. Or, in other words, if you wouldn't do it driving a car, don't do it riding a bike.

    It has to be admitted plenty of cyclists don't behave that way, in either context – often, I suspect, some of the vehicular cyclist brigade.

  4. […] My favorite Scottish bike advocate and blogger explains why covered bikeways won’t work. […]

  5. disgruntled says:

    @Tom – thanks, I hadn’t thought of that (although of course if it’s a good idea, the expense might still be worth it
    @Steven – you’re right about my environment but I did used to live (and cycle when I was brave enough) in London so, when I pick the straws out of my hair, I can remember what a big city is like. I was basing my argument on a city environment (out here, if there were rain shelters they would be full of sheep, not pedestrians). I’d love there to be a rain-keeping-off arrangement that worked, and I agree it can be a problem – sadly I don’t think covered bike paths are it. Keep thinking!
    @Autolycus – I think we’re going to end up with a mixture of provision – as indeed, the Dutch have.

  6. You do run a good blog here! As a thought experiment I have often pondered the missed opportunity post WW1, to get rid of horses, not allow cars, and totally cover the street. Cities would have shaped up to be like airports. Meanwhile, airports and mega malls are shaping up to be like cities. What I’m saying is we should be alive to the future possibility of enclosed cities, and as cyclists hedging for free active transportation to dominate in those realms… Don’t worry, I’ll follow that lead with my own bandwidth. Thanks for engaging with my crazy ideas 🙂

    • Koen says:

      If you would build cities like a mall, you would get that stuffy air, not my first choice, but of course you could offer alternatives: the main ride would be fast and in the open, and the alternative for snow or rain would be a covered one. I don’t think your idea is wholly crap, but you would have to ensure that you make it as nice and inviting a possible, to prevent it from becoming a hangout place for drug addicts. And fresh air would do no harm either.

  7. disgruntled says:

    Well, glad you enjoy it

  8. And you’d miss cycling under the stars if the sky was covered (here’s where you add a link to that blog…)

  9. […] even got a covered bridge, so you don’t have to get wet in the rain, at least for some part of your […]

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