“Bicycles are making our cities better, but what about our suburbs?”

Bicycle stop light for Aaron Betsky's cycling in suburbia opinion

As cities become more cycling-friendly it’s important not to forget about suburbia, says Aaron Betsky, as he shares what archicts and urban planners could learn from a cycle through the suburbs on World Bicycle Day.


Bicycles are making our cities better, but what about our suburbs? After a brief blip last decades, our cities are sprawling again. At the same time, suburbs and downtown areas are becoming more alike, with the former densifying into exurban villages and the latter filling with vertical versions of gated compounds and big box retail venues.

That also means that it is now easier to bicycle in suburbia: there are higher concentrations of destinations, and more and more suburbs are being designed to accommodate two-wheelers. The rapid rise of ebiking also makes it much easier for suburbanites to travel the larger distances and less uniform terrains they encounter outside of the downtown grid.

Riding a bicycle is the best way to experience a city.

For me, what is just as important is that bicycles are great tools for urban exploration. Sprawl is misunderstood and understudied by architects and designers, who generally live in downtown areas. That also means they are undesigned or, what is more often the case, designed badly: in ways that waste natural resources, that isolated us from each other, and that are ugly. I think we need to design better suburbs instead of just wishing them away, and one way to start is by understanding them better.

I have always felt that riding a bicycle is the best way to experience a city. On a bike, you move slower than in a car, bus, tram, or taxi. Cruising at ten to twenty kilometers an hour gives you a chance to immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of urbanity. With no barrier between you and all those sensory phenomena, they are all the more vivid.

Riding your bike through sprawl instead offers other insights and delights.

As you cruise down the streets and avenues, the city’s spaces unfold continuously, giving you a sense of the rhythms and the chaotic coherence that makes the metropolis an environment that overwhelms, delights, and terrifies, all at the same time. Suburbia, on the other hand, is much more distended and has fewer variations, making it seem like a less likely candidate for two-wheeled dissection. I would argue that riding your bike through sprawl instead offers other insights and delights – not to mention making a tiny contribution to suburbia’s original sin of car-dependent wastefulness.

In my case, I jump on my bike (a VanMoof Electric Assist, because, after all, the design of the tool is important) and head out from typical suburban development.  That swoosh through the pruned and controlled version of forests dotted with glades that are the sites of McMansions and lawns reminds you why suburbs are here in the first place: they give you the chance to be in nature with all mod cons.

It also makes you aware of how ugly the isolated houses are.

I have the sense of losing myself in the beauties of all those trees, bushes, and flowers, not to mentions birds, bees, deer and the occasional black bear. But after leaving an air-conditioned shelter I am still on a paved road. This is the great strength of suburbia and using the bicycle to experience this closeness to nature is important. However, it also makes you aware of how ugly the isolated houses are and how much they disconnect themselves from this setting. We need houses that are part of the landscape the owners are there to experience.

Along the way, there are other structures that reveal themselves: from my subdivision I climb up Nellie’s Cave Road, named for the site of a Black settlement that was wiped out in land grabs by suburbanization. At the top of the ridge, a sign tells me that I am leaving the freedom of the county road to enter into Blacksburg, Virginia. House sites become smaller, the buildings are closer to the road, and the forest scragglier. As I descend into the town proper, a grid, sloping up the hill asserts its rhythm over my ride.

Riding on my bicycle reinforces for me the sense of how little we understand – and thus are able to design for – this particular form of loose, hopscotch urbanism.

What is most remarkable is the messy quality of the spaces. The houses are other structures are relatively small compared to the size of the lots, and lawn, sidewalk, side yard, rear yard, and unclaimed or undeveloped space blend into each other without any clear separation. The collage nature of sprawl makes itself eminently clear as I cruise by structures in every style and of every material and vegetation equally mixed up in their literal and historical roots.

Riding on my bicycle reinforces for me the sense of how little we understand –and thus are able to design for—this particular form of loose, hopscotch urbanism. It has the potential to be more connected and integrated into its setting, to be less wasteful and to be more socially connected. Frank Lloyd Wright understood this when he designed his Broadacre City more than a century ago, but few architects since then have tried to tackle this landscape.

This is sprawl at its worst, but also a sign of the realities of our economic system.

I cross Main Street, here a ribbon of concrete between parking lots serving strip malls on either side of the street. These are the monuments of suburbia: the Kroger’s, clothing stores, and cinemas, all hiding behind the same facades carried out in hues of beige, gray, and brown. This is sprawl at its worst, but also a sign of the realities of our economic system. A society that relies on just-in-time inventory, the continual movement of goods, people, and information to minimize investment and maximize profits, and the emergence of warehouses and retail establishments as quasi-monuments is on display here. Could we do this better? Nobody I know has tried.

Main Street here is, as in so many other towns, a ridge street, and I could take it all the way through the little downtown to my destination my office at Virginia Tech, but I cross it and head past the elementary school and the subsidiary office clusters that tumble down the hill. The building blocks for a more connected suburbia are here, from the educational institutions that are now difficult to distinguish from the supermarkets to these trails. We need to design them as what they should be, not as the leftovers of a commercialized society.

The bicycle ride can reveal this history, now we just need to mark it with monuments and public spaces.

The trail snakes through the back of the University campus, revealing glimpses of both the playing fields that make use of what were once the fields were the indigenous people lived and animals roamed, and crops grew. I am now in the New River Valley, whose waters flow into the Ohio, the Mississippi, and then the Gulf Coast, while when I started, I was in the upper reaches of the Roanoke River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. I am, in other words, in the Midwest, despite still being in Virginia, and expanses of fields and seem appropriate for that place. The bicycle ride can reveal this history, now we just need to mark it with monuments and public spaces that make that background come forward.

In the twenty minutes this trip has taken me, I have moved from following and conquering contours, cutting my way through a landscape of which I felt part, through the collage confusion of suburbia, past the big blocks of buildings and the open space of fields that form the commercial and institutional gathering points for this community, and into the largest collection of buildings that house the region’s economic core. I am now in another place, where our business is to learn how to make such spaces.

The ride has strung them together into a continual line in which landscapes have flowed into each other.

None of these pieces has felt disconnected. The ride has strung them together into a continual line in which landscapes have flowed into each other, moving me from idyllic nature – albeit one once again stolen from Native Americans and later Black people, and controlled by hidden technology – to the abstraction of what humans beings do to design and control that nature. At the heart of the ride is space and form flowing into each other. Any attempt to control that seems useless to me.

It is making sense of that, learning from the movement, as first modernists such as the Futurists, Cubists, and Constructivist taught us a century ago, is what we should be doing, and the bicycle is as good a tool to start that process as any I know. Then we can design for a sprawl that is equitable, sustainable, and beautiful.

Main image is by Daniel Ramirez via Wikimedia Commons.

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