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Better City Spaces. Why Should it take an Earthquake?

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Across the world, people are waking up to the reality that cities designed for people are far better places to live than cities designed for cars. A recent article by Alissa Walker, “6 Freeway Removals That Changed Their Cities Forever” brings this point home with its opening case study, the Ferry Building in San Francisco, a perfect example of citizens taking back public spaces that were previously dominated by cars.

Today the Ferry Building is home to world-class restaurants, a bustling farmers’ market, and one of the city’s crown jewel public plazas. 25 years ago it was a different story, few people even knew it existed. The towering Embarcadero Freeway filled with honking and polluting automobile traffic blocked the spectacular waterfront views. A deplorable state of affairs that might have persisted if the “design firm” of Loma Prieta and Associates* hadn’t come along.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake led to tragic loss of life and widespread destruction. After the tragedy, however, bloomed growth. The Embarcadero Freeway was destroyed beyond repair and instead of reverting to the status quo and simply rebuilding the freeway, enough forward-thinking city leaders championed and won the opportunity to transform the space into one of public revitalization—the vibrant and beautiful world-class marketplace we enjoy today.

Octavia Street, San Francisco. Before and After Central Freeway Teardown.

The Loma Prieta earthquake was also partially responsible for creating another terrific urban space in San Francisco, an oasis in the city along the Octavia Street corridor called Patricia’s Green after legendary urban activist Patricia Walkup. Stroll through Patricia’s Green on a Saturday fortified with a freshly whipped cone of Smitten ice-cream and consider that instead of the blue sky above, just over 10 years ago a concrete freeway would have been overhead. This gathering space in the middle of the thriving Hayes Valley neighborhood is where PUBLIC will be opening a new store this Spring.

San Francisco isn’t the only city making strides in reclaiming public space for the better. There are numerous examples of this all over the world. Naples, Italy, is a dense gritty city, yet when visiting there recently I found that their subways have become super clean art galleries.  In car-centric, freeway-focused, Los Angeles communities like Santa Monica are boldly converting streets to bike friendly corridors. New York City’s Highline, which we’ve written about before, is one of our favorite examples of reclaimed public space.

Call it Enlightened Urbanism, the Livable Cities Movement or just Common Sense, the fact is people are moving back to cities in record numbers and opting for an urban lifestyle where car travel isn’t daily and green space trumps the concrete-kind every time. We started PUBLIC as a way to contribute to this movement toward more livable cities, and we applaud all the countless others who are working toward these same goals. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go. And we need your help to get there.

*There was of course no design firm lobbying to scrap the Embarcadero Freeway. Despite much public opposition local business fought to keep it in place.  The saga is a great read. We are fortunate that Mayor Art Agnos held his ground.

(For more on these issues, we recommend Jeff Speck’s book “Walkable City”, and Malcolm Gladwell’s talk “Place Matters” as two great places to start.)

Think The Unthinkable: Cities Without Cars

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

CicLAvia 2013

It is not a stretch to conceive of a time — a few decades from now — when people look back on the 20th century and the onslaught of cars into our cities, and ask “what were they thinking?” After all, who would knowingly lay out cities to prioritize the rights of cars over the rights of people? Who would construct surface level parking lots over precious real estate and not put parking underground?

Fort Mason Parking Lot, San Francisco

Here is an example from my neighborhood, a swath of underutilized asphalt in San Francisco that looks out onto the gorgeous San Francisco Bay. This decision is almost as absurd as putting a prison—Alcatraz—on one of the most scenic islands in the world.

But making the world a better place for cars was pretty much what happened in most US cities in the 20th century, all fueled by low gasoline prices, and the “modern” belief that car mobility was more important than community building. If we were designing cities from scratch today, wouldn’t we park cars on the outskirts, employ efficient mass transit to move people quickly and conveniently, and keep the city human scale safe and friendly for pedestrians and bicyclists?

This inconvenient truth is becoming obvious as cities cope with increasing traffic, congestion, pollution, and a crumbling antiquated infrastructure. The adage “you’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic” rings true in almost every city where the car dominates our public spaces.

The good news is that major change is afoot all around the world.

Groups as diverse as CicLAvia in Los Angeles and the city fathers in Hamburg, Germany both give us examples of how this problem is being confronted. Hamburg’s “Green Network Plan” goes so far as to call for a phase-out of automobiles in the center of the city altogether over the next two decades. The Hamburg concept is especially noteworthy because Germans love their cars almost as much as we do in the US. Read more here.

CicLAvia in Los Angeles and Sunday Streets in San Francisco are also great examples of how change is occurring in the US. These groups stage events all over the city, open streets for people, and encourage us to rethink our public spaces. These “open streets” initiatives have grown dramatically all over the world in a few years. The concept started in Bogotá, Colombia over thirty years ago as a response to the congestion and pollution of city streets.

You can support CicLAvia and Sunday Streets with a donations. We would love to get some customer pictures from anyone who participates in CicLAvia’s April 6 event on Wilshire Blvd. or Sunday Streets’ April 13 event in the Tenderloin.

The more you read about places like Hamburg and Open Streets groups like CicLAvia and Sunday Streets, the more you realize that the US is still playing catch up to most of the modern world when it comes to smart transportation design and Livable Cities. But perhaps our time has finally come as more people embrace Lewis Mumford’s ideal:

The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.

Or as he put more succinctly, “Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.”

Is Dog Your Copilot? Portraits of Pets Who Pedal

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Meliza and BuddyWe often have dogs hanging out with us at the PUBLIC store, and we know the only thing more fun than riding a bike, is a bike ride with a four-legged friend. That’s why we want to do a bike photo shoot that features our customers with their dogs – or any other bike-loving pets! Here are a few examples from Copenhagen Cycle Chic and one of our own. Whether or not you’re available for our March 29-30 shoot, please get in touch as we may schedule a few photo sessions. And if you don’t live near a PUBLIC store, but you know a dog who likes to bike, please send us a photo too. We love seeing your pet photos and if we gather some good ones, we’ll do a feature on our blog soon.

(Speaking of photos, we’re also looking for humans who bike for a spring photo shoot, the weekend of March 29-30. Learn more here.)

Casting Call: Show Us Your Bike Style

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Seeking Bike Models
At PUBLIC we design our bikes for all kinds of people. But if there’s one thing all PUBLIC owners have in common, it’s their personality and original sense of style.

So whenever we photograph our bikes we prefer to shoot them with our real customers and fans. You really make our bikes look great, just like we hope our bikes look good on you too.

We’re getting ready to debut a new spring collection of bikes and colors, so we’re once again reaching out to our community of PUBLIC owners and friends and inviting a few local Bay Area people to participate in a bike photo shoot at the end of March. If you’re available in the Bay Area on the weekend of March 29-30, have a good sense of humor, like riding bikes and being on camera, drop us a note at models@publicbikes.com.

Be sure to include some photos (headshots and full figure shots). We look for diversity. If you are selected, we’ll follow up in the next week, and everyone who participates will receive $150 in store credit and our promise to make the shoot a fun adventure. We’ll be shooting for one day that weekend in either San Francisco or in the East Bay.

If you want some more inspiration for your bicycle couture, Copenhagen Cycle Chic and The Sartorialist are a couple of our favorite places to start.

PS: Got a pet who loves to pedal? We’d like to do a photo shoot of dogs on bikes. Learn more here.

Iconoclastic Crosswalks in Montreal

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Roadsworth Street Art

“I was provoked by a desire to jolt the driver from his impassive and linear gaze and give the more slow-moving pedestrian pause for reflection.” —Roadsworth

These urban images are the work of Montreal artist Roadsworth, a city dweller and bike rider inspired by many things including the environmental art of Andy Goldsworthy. He playfully draws attention to the ubiquitous traffic signage systems that shape our lives but often go unexamined. While critics may question the safety implications of these altered traffic markers, we appreciate his iconoclastic attitude for reminding us that our urban surroundings are too often designed to serve the needs of cars instead of people. And perhaps this playful approach can help mitigate road rage. His work reminds us of French artist Clet Abraham, about whom we have written before. Is it coincidental that these two artists come from French culture? Read the full article at Atlantic Cities.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights, and Public Space

Monday, January 20th, 2014

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we wish to acknowledge the achievements of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement in a genuine, non-commercial manner. We believe that the spirit behind our mission – to increase awareness of the value of public spaces, and reclaiming our streets for people – is at the very foundation of democracy and social equality. Public space is where our society’s diversity should be welcomed, encouraged and made visible. Many of the enduring images of the Civil Rights Movement are of people claiming their right to use public streets, plazas, and public transportation systems without fear. Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech is so powerful because of his eloquent message, but also because of the significance of the public space where it was delivered. The Lincoin Memorial, honoring a president whose legacy of emancipation remains unfinished, looks out onto one of the most noble and generous public spaces our country had designed. We are all greatly indebted to Dr. King, legions of civil rights activists and supporters, and his enduring inspiration in the continuing effort for greater equality and democracy in civic life.

Partner with PUBLIC

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Since the outset of PUBLIC four years ago we’ve enjoyed partnerships with individuals and companies ranging from boutique coffee roasters to enormous retailers like Gap. This eclectic list includes Tretorn, Kimpton Hotels, Clif Bar, Rickshaw Bagworks, Flos Lighting, and institutions like the California College of Art.

We have hosted numerous events at our South Park headquarters, including product launches for companies such as Parker Dusseau, bicycle-related movie nights and book readings, camping trips, and dozens of local fundraisers to support worthy charitable causes. We have worked with numerous arts organizations like Creative Growth and Southern Exposure, creating some unique one of a kind art bikes, and we’ve also partnered with 26 world-renowned designers and artists with our PUBLIC WORKS poster art project. And many of our signature products, such as our PUBLIC Stripe Helmet and Federico Red Bell, were done in collaboration with manufacturers.

Our second retail store on Valencia Street is a partnership with Harrington Galleries where we share space inside a furniture store. And we have partnered with many bike stores across the US and Canada.

Partnerships are simply the way we roll, and we may be as well known for these partnerships as for our bikes. At PUBLIC, we’re not just about bikes, but also about building more livable communities with great partners.

Looking Forward

New Retail Locations
We are looking for specific new partners this year, and at the top of our list are new retail spaces in San Francisco, but we are also exploring options elsewhere around the country. These might be locations where we might have a temporary pop up store. Ideally, we’d locate a ~1,500 square feet PUBLIC retail store in a bicycle-friendly corridor.

Food & Drink Vendors in South Park
We loved having Saint Frank Coffee set up a pop-up at our South Park store and we’d love to explore other opportunities.

Product Development
We do a lot of our own in-house product development, of our bikes of course (including some big new announcements coming in 2014), but also gear like our PUBLIC Basket and PUBLIC Farmers Market Twin Pannier. But we’re always looking for interesting product designers to work with us on new products.

Apparel Designers & Manufacturers
If you design and manufacture apparel that we can sell, we’ve got a potential platform for reaching new customers.

How to Partner With PUBLIC
Got an idea for a partnership? Have access to a potential retail storefront in San Francisco or pop-up outside of the Bay Area? Just send a short email to partner@publicbikes.com with your proposal or concept.

Lord Norman Foster Elevates Cycling in London

Friday, January 10th, 2014

London SkyCycle Bike Highway Concept

Lord Norman FosterThe recent proposal of a 130+ mile bicycle highway network around London got many of us buzzing. Elevated bike highways are an exciting concept with a long history: in a previous PUBLIC OPINION piece we commented on a bike highway planned for Pasadena all the way back in the 19th century. The NY Times has a great video report on a bicycle superhighway system that opened in Copenhagen in 2012. But the London SkyCycle concept is backed by the firm of world-renowed architect (and avid cyclist) Lord Norman Foster. Foster has been awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize and just about every other award in his field. When such a high profile designer proposes a major bicycle project, you can bet that others will be paying attention.

One of the anomalies (tragedies really) in the 20th century modern design movement is that while this period will go down as the golden age for most areas of design – product, industrial, graphic, automotive, architectural – it will also probably go down as the worst period ever for city design. The last century was the golden age for suburban sprawl, especially in the US. Many of our cities were gutted, dissected by freeways, and filled up with surface parking lots. People and businesses were given many incentives to relocate out of the cities.

NYT Video: Copenhagen Bike SuperhighwayThankfully, much of the 21st century will be dedicated to moving people back to the city and we see this happening abroad and at home. The obsession with individual mobility, speed, and the automobile is being replaced by a love affair with connectivity and community, virtual and physical. In San Francisco, tech companies like Twitter and Adobe are bucking the Silicon Valley trend by locating on main bike corridors in the city center as opposed to industrial parks down the peninsula.

Revitalizing urban space is the vision that inspired PUBLIC and we applaud Foster + Partners and the other firms behind SkyCycle for working to reimagine the existing systems and infrastructure in our cities, and putting their weight behind such a major bike project. Check out the Guardian article here.

SkyCycle concept video by Room60 for Exterior Architecture

2014 Wish: More Public Space for People

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Public Space in Rome

I had the good fortune to spend time in Rome this year. Rome is a remarkable city for a number of reasons.  One reason is the extraordinary public spaces that are peppered throughout the city, and filled with locals and tourists alike. It is almost as if the city is an amalgamation of public spaces that are held together by walkways and roads.  And even along many streets the space is shared quite elegantly between cars and pedestrians.  This overall design creates a friendly, democratic and inspirational atmosphere, and is such a contrast to many modern cities where streets and parking areas often take up most of the public space.
What does this have to do with bikes and PUBLIC and a year-end message? Everything. The mission of PUBLIC is to encourage us to think more carefully about our urban environments and spaces, and to help people connect with them more personally. Bikes are a good way to do this. It’s all about making our cities more livable and more loveable.
Santa Cruz Parking Lot / Millennium Park, ChicagoI took this shot of a parking lot in Santa Cruz, California, just after returning from Rome. The parking lot is adjacent to the main beach in Santa Cruz and next to a beautiful stretch of coastline. It is one of the most desirable pieces of community space in the city. But like so many parking lots across America, (and we have many in San Francisco) it sits vacant, lonely and depressed for most of its life. It was a mistake to put it there.  
Here is to a new year of undoing mistakes and getting more people, smiles and spirit in our public spaces and in our private lives. There truly is so much good news about this occurring in the US and around the world. We often cite the Highline in New York, Millennium Park in Chicago, and Ferry Plaza in San Francisco, but there are many lower profile developments all across the US that undo suburban sprawl and revitalize our cities.
My favorite recent development in this regard came the other day from the NY Times. Ex-Mayor Bloomberg is taking his smarter city show on the road:
“Michael R. Bloomberg, determined to parlay his government experience and vast fortune into a kind of global mayoralty, is creating a high-powered consulting group to help him reshape cities around the world long after he leaves office.” Read the full article here.
Like any big city Mayor, you can find policies enacted by former Mayor Bloomberg to critique, but there is no denying that he left an indelible stamp on New York City’s urban landscape, including rolling out bike share and increasing bike lanes. Like the Medici’s Popes and political power brokers of ancient Rome, this guy is really committed to making better cities the focus of his life’s work.  Lucky for us, he just won’t go away.
Here at PUBLIC we don’t plan on going away either. Thanks to all of you we’ll be rolling ahead in 2014.

Better Late Than Never: Woman Named CEO of GM

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Mary BarraWe don’t usually write in praise of the US auto industry, but we’re making an exception this week. The recent appointment of Mary Barra to the CEO position at General Motors is a sign of welcome change. We might go so far as to reassert that oft-quoted quip from 50’s Secretary of Defense and ex-CEO of GM Charles Wilson: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” *

We have often felt that the US car industry would adapt for the better if more women assumed leadership roles. Even in our own bicycle industry, we recognize many women who are leading the way.

And there is another aspect of this appointment that seems especially noteworthy: Ms. Barra is an engineer and a product person, before being a finance person, and this bodes well.

“After a long run of CEOs with financial backgrounds and orientations, the company is once again choosing an engineer for its top role,” Bill Visnic, an analyst at Edmunds.com, said in an e-mail. “It could be interpreted as a signal that GM believes it’s as much a car-making company as a money-making company.”

Read this Bloomberg summary and muse over the implications of this appointment and the history of GM. If you want to entertain yourself, read this article about the ten cars that helped ruin GM, and recall names like Corvair, Hummer, Vega, and the unfortunate EV1 electric car fiasco.

We don’t know Ms. Barra well enough to comment on her personal values and vision, and we cannot expect any one person to turn GM into a company that produces cars that will regain the respect of us designers and be more sensitive to our environment and culture. But her appointment is a bold step in the right direction and makes us believe that change is possible.

For myself, and given that Ms. Barra is an alumni of my alma mater, my pipe dream for 2014 is that I find a way to have a conversation with her about using the extra factory space and resources in Detroit to collaborate on a line of US-made bicycles. Why not?