The Bike and Micromobility Movement Needs Its Futurama Moment

Public Domain. GM Futurama Exhibit, 1939 Worlds Fair/ Wikipedia

"Make no small plans." It's time to stop building bits and start building big.

A few years ago, during a debate about building bike lanes in Calgary, urbanist and planner Brent Toderian tweeted one of those lines that stick with you because it says it all, that we should not make little plans but build for the future we want:

Now Terenig Topjian delivers a similar but longer message in CityLab that's also a keeper. He tells us that it is time to get bold. To stop being reactive.

More often than not, bike infrastructure is created reactively. Typically in response to a collision or near collision with a car, an individual or advocacy group identifies a single route that needs better infrastructure. We gather community support and lobby local officials for the desired change, trying as hard as we can to ask for the cheapest, smallest changes so that our requests will be seen as realistic.

His bridge analogy:

It’s like imagining a bridge and asking for twigs—useless, unable to bear any meaningful weight, easily broken. And it’s treating bike infrastructure like a hopeless charity case.

It's why bike lane networks are disconnected and inconsistent. It's why we get sharrows and paint and cars parking in the bike lanes. "This kind of bike 'infrastructure' doesn’t actually do very much to protect existing cyclists, let alone encourage and inspire the general population to start cycling."

1939 Worlds fair GM Pavilion

1939 Worlds fair GM Pavilion/ Wikipedia/Public Domain

Topjian calls for a grander vision, like General Motors did at the 1939 World's Fair, a Futurama-scaled vision, a Futurama for micromobility. We have shown GM's Futurama project, designed by Norman Bel Geddes and Albert Kahn many times on TreeHugger, mostly because it is a model for designing cities for self-driving cars, but also because it was such a grand vision of the World of Tomorrow, where GM said, "Here is how the future will feel."Dan Howland told Wired:

You have to understand that the audience had never even considered a future like this. There wasn’t an interstate freeway system in 1939. Not many people owned a car. They staggered out of the fair like a cargo cult and built an imperfect version of this incredible vision.

Futurama panorama

Futurama panorama/ Wikipedia/Public Domain

Topjian suggests that we have to do stop begging for scraps and should have a grander vision, and I think he is right. It's time to think big. Let's have people stagger out of meetings, dreaming of a world without cars filling all the space and killing us quickly in crashes and slowly with pollution. Let's not just take back the streets, but build better ones.

Let’s dare to design something that can actually make a difference and imagine micromobility infrastructure that goes beyond bike lanes and that leapfrogs piecemeal local approaches. Let’s create a blueprint that can have real, lasting impact, to excite the masses, bring together many groups, companies, special interests, and demographics, create real mode shifts, and actually make a real difference in pollution, climate, and car deaths.


Chris Hardwicke/CC BY 2.0

As we have here, he calls for a renaming of bike lanes to micromobility lanes. He even calls for micromobility elevated freeways, which is a bridge too far for me. But hey,

...shouldn’t our grand plan be to eventually provide a completely new infrastructure to support it? Once it is built, bikes and other micromobility modes could be lifted both literally and metaphorically and fly above cars on elevated freeways. How would micromobility freeways create support? If they are beautifully designed and branded, perhaps like a seductive new technology product, they could spark excitement in traditional and social media. Urban planning, architecture, engineering, and contracting firms would love such a large-scale project because it would mean lucrative contracts to plan, design, and build.

Futurama street intersection

Futurama street intersection/ Wikipedia/Promo image

And he has a point; Futurama called for elevated and separated routes for cars, and look what happened; they just took over everything. If you don't ask, you don't get.

We can’t let car companies again shape the vision for our future; if we don’t dream big now, we may never get the chance again. Let’s elevate a different kind of transportation infrastructure that recognizes universal basic mobility as a human right and brings it to every man, woman, and child. If we don’t think of micromobility as the serious solution to a whole host of societal and environmental problems, then who will?

He's right. We are in a climate emergency, and micromobility could be the fastest way to get people of all ages and abilities out of cars. Thing big, move fast. Daniel Burnham said it best in 1891:

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.

And here's the great movie they showed in Futurama, with a city of the future: