Sunday, 5 April 2020

Go With The Flow

I'm still adjusting to the new normal, but I've now at least got a routine of sorts in place. I'm also pushing myself a bit to do some learning and ensure that my CPD* is being kept up to date.

What has been heartening is how my industry and academia has rallied round to put on training and events - most of it free or at least free to institution members. Mind you, Digital WorldBike 2020 stole the march on everyone because it was planned before the Coronavirus hit!

The event was a virtual cycle conference and as you would expect, it had different pavilions to visit - some trade (including sponsors) and some giving a variety of talks around sport, technology and mobility. For me, the main interest was in the technology and mobility talks and if you register, they are available until the end of April.

The first mobility talk from Marco te Brömmelstroet of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam was especially interesting with discussion on how much of surface transport is framed in language from the point of view of traffic-centric design. It was also interesting to hear his comments on how Dutch design means that cycling allows for person to person interaction with people making small adjustments to speed and direction to move around each other - enabled by infrastructure and the use of upright cycles. Someone cycling is 85% person and 15% technology whereas this is reversed for someone driving!

The discussion got onto the concept of "flow" which is the state of where one can cycle optimally and in such a way that time becomes irrelevant (or one doesn't notice its passing); that the challenge of moving around is matched by one's skill - in other words, when everything is working well, one can be lost in the moment continually - the psychology of happiness. He quotes a book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the subject which at least tempts me to learn more!

It's a funny thing, because this idea of "flow" also came up in a discussion between George Liu and Lior Steinberg in the Urban Cycling Institute's series on the CROW Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic. This discussion was around Chapter 5 (the road in section) and as with the rest of the series, free to watch either as a regular livestream or a recording on YouTube. The idea of flow from a technical point of view is where the five pillars of design come together where cycling is direct, feels safe, is comfortable, coherent and attractive.

It's something which I've thought about while cycling around for my exercise/ parcel deliveries this week. The one big thing to have happened on our streets and roads of course is the removal of huge traffic volumes. I cycled along a section of the A12 Eastern Avenue today for my daily exercise and parcel drop off - being a sunny Sunday morning obviously helped!

Remember, the only thing which has actually changed is the removal of traffic. The path is still a little narrow and needs some repairs. There is also buffer next to the road and side road interaction is occasional. The road usually takes 46,000 vehicles a day and so I wouldn't normally use it because it is noisy and polluted, but it was a traffic-free alternative to the route I'd usually take which is also quiet, but where I'm mixing with speeding drivers.

With just a handful of people driving, the place is completely different. The level of coherence hasn't changed - there isn't a decent local network and in fact, this path isn't strictly designated as a cycle route; plus the directness to where I was going hadn't changed. My perception of safety had improved because the roar of the traffic had gone (mostly tyre noise) - I didn't feel as exposed (despite being separated in the same way as business as usual would be). The fact that I couldn't smell pollution, that I could hear birdsong and that I had a clear view of the greenery on both sides of the road certainly enhanced it's attractiveness.

Feel safer and having a more attractive experience improved the levels of comfort too - it just felt better to cycle in the peaceful sunshine. The uneven parts of the path felt less of an issue because I wasn't focusing on them - I was looking around. It's not a route of choice for me because of the noise and pollution; I've only used it before when it was a direct choice to get to/ from somewhere. Today, I could have been cycling along a country road with on a cycle path, the difference was that stark. 

Crossing the odd side road was easier because nobody was coming out of them and I could easily hear that there was no traffic behind me turning in. At one large junction, there are no signals for those not in cars and usually it's about finding a gap and trying to cross in several bites. Today, I just meandered around the traffic islands and took the direct route crossing the side road to the right on the photograph below (taken from a nearby footbridge).

I wonder if I was grasping at the edges of this concept of "flow" - it was certainly a very pleasant place to ride and was reminiscent of my experiences of pootling along the roads of South Zeeland in the Netherlands. Perhaps I'm just grasping at positives, but that's no bad thing at the moment.

The other thing I have done this week is enroll on the Dutch Cycling Institute's MOOC - Unraveling The Cycling City. Unless you are going to complete the assignment (I am), the five week course is free. I'll be looking out for hints on how I can design for flow as I progress! Stay safe everyone.

*Continuing Professional Development

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