An Embarrassment of Bicycles

For all of 2012 and most of 2013, I could look out the window of my office on the west side of Bartlett Hall, on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and watch the new residential campus of our Commonwealth Honors College going up across Hicks Way. The pace of construction was astounding – in a year and a half, the six-building, $186 million, 500,000 square foot complex was complete – and yet from day to day the progress was slow enough that I could sit by my window for long stretches of time and watch a wall of bricks rise bit by infinitesimal bit. It reminded me of a time years ago, on a very different campus, when I was trying to get somewhere with Carmen, then in a stroller, and she wouldn’t let us leave a construction site where some building was slowly rising, a process she found riveting.

The new Honors campus here at UMass has been controversial. Many of my faculty and staff colleagues, and not a few of our students, have been concerned about the expansion of an Honors College in this very public university with its very democratic, land-grant mission, a mission that has had to be constantly defended over the past 150 years in a state better known for, and sometimes more inclined to support, private higher education.  The new campus seemed like the worst kind of academic tracking – the “best” students getting the best facilities, and the rest having to make do as best they could.

For many people here, there was something disturbing, therefore, about the ambitious physical plan for the new campus, with its 1,500 beds for Honors students (in dormitory-style rooms, suites, and apartments), its faculty and staff apartments, its classrooms, offices, conference center, and café, all beautifully designed with state-of-the art, energy-efficient materials, and sited in one of the most central and desirable locations on campus. It was as if we were creating an elite, private college in the midst of a financially-strapped public university, whose mandate was to serve the whole Commonwealth, not just the part with the highest SAT scores.

And yet much of the planning and fundraising for the new campus had occurred at a moment of crisis for this University: the years before, during, and after the Great Recession of 2008-09, when campus leaders were desperate to keep the University on a hard-won path of growth despite the tough times – increasing enrollment, procuring more research dollars, raising the school’s academic reputation, and, perhaps most controversial of all, making UMass Amherst more attractive to out-of-state students, from places like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, who were on the lookout for high quality undergraduate education at a relative bargain.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn any case, the new campus is now built, and there seems no good reason to avoid or shun it, especially since it’s right across the street from my office (and they serve good coffee 24 hours a day!). Whatever I might think about the place institutionally or ideologically, it’s an undeniably attractive, inviting, and dynamic public space on a campus in sore need of attractive, inviting, and dynamic public spaces. I love its density, the multi-story buildings nearly touching one another and yet gracefully separated by lovely little courtyards and green spaces, the integration of the different buildings symbolizing, in a sense, the integration of residential and academic life in today’s university.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd yet the first day I walked through the new Honors campus, just before the fall 2013 semester began, what struck me most was all the bicycles! A long rack outside one of the new dorms was completely full, and smaller racks nearby were also overflowing.  In addition, there were bicycles in all kinds of places where they probably shouldn’t have been. In the following weeks, as I began walking down with some regularity to the Honors College café for coffee, I noted bicycles chained to stairwells, locked to light posts, leaning against benches – all over the new campus – as if an embarrassment of bicycles had afflicted the university, and no one knew quite what to do about it.

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Seeing all these bicycles in this new space, I was both excited about what this profusion of human-powered transportation might mean for the future of a less automobile-dependent world and somewhat surprised that the University had planned so poorly for this aspect of the new Honors College. Did campus administrators not know that bicycle use was on the rise nearly everywhere in the U.S., and cars on the downslide? Or did they just not care? And why is there no covered storage for students’ bicycles at Commonwealth Honors College? This is New England after all! (I’ve since learned that there is some indoor storage for bicycles in the new dorms – but clearly there’s not enough.)

To be fair, the University has recently built covered bicycle storage racks at the Student Union; in addition, new and improved bike racks have been installed in many locations around campus, and there’s even a new bike share program for students, faculty, and staff. And yet I wonder: is the school doing enough, not just to provide good facilities for students’ transportation needs, but to make transportation and other aspects of sustainable community planning part of higher education itself? Are we using well this moment, and this space, to prepare our students for the world to come?

As it turns out, the University’s most recent Master Plan, published in April, 2012, makes bicycles a key part of the school’s future. That plan is all about building a true “community of learners” here, a place for students, faculty, staff and visitors “to meet, work, learn and generate knowledge for future generations.” The goal for the future of campus, in other words, is not just to upgrade badly neglected facilities (though that is certainly included in the plan) but to make UMass Amherst a destination of choice for the best students, faculty, and staff in the world. And that means creating an “attractive, logical, and sustainable physical campus environment.” Three of the common themes of the new plan, in fact, are to “Build a beautiful, pedestrian friendly campus,” “Develop a mixed use campus 24/7/12,” and “Demonstrate New England Sustainability.”

A sense of the ambition and scope of the new plan can be seen in the final chapter of the document, titled simply “The Future.” It opens with a quotation from Sir Peter Shepheard, a British architect who was Dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s:

If a campus has an image in the mind as a place to be loved and admired, it is likely to be formed not so much by the buildings as by the spaces in between.  When people say that Venice is a beautiful city, they speak not so much of the interiors of its buildings – which few of them see – as of the squares and streets and the life that goes on there . . .  A University is a kind of small city, where people gather for a common educational purpose, but where much of the value and pleasure of being there comes from the daily life of the place.  The plan of a university, like that of a city, should be a mechanism for enabling things to happen, for the enhancement of life.”

For anyone who knows UMass, this is a tall order. If the school was originally a small agricultural college located a few miles from the center of a little village in the rural, western part of the state – it grew so fast in the second half of the twentieth century that whatever “sense of place” the old “Mass Aggie” enjoyed was lost amid the excess of concrete and the steep rise in student numbers that came with the 1960s. More recently, proponents of a new era of growth are having to contend with at least two obstacles: a long backlog of poorly maintained and out-dated facilities and the continued budget constraints associated with an age of austerity.

Still, campus leaders have been ambitious about the future of UMass Amherst, committed to raising the stature of the school to one of the best research universities in the world. The vision includes hiring new tenure-track faculty, increasing undergraduate enrollment (including the number of out of state students), and attracting more research dollars and graduate students (including more international graduate students). To accomplish these goals, the University is planning aggressively for the kind of physical space that will invite and nurture a world-class “community of learners.” The space envisioned, detailed in the Master Plan and shown here in this drawing, is a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly campus with substantially expanded open space that artfully integrates academic and residential life in a 24/7/12 campus core.

This is a far cry from the current physical condition of the campus, which is too often confusing, unattractive, unsafe, and unplanned. Here’s a photograph of one corner of campus, coincidentally the same Hicks Way that runs right behind my own Bartlett Hall, and a rendering of that space in the future (both these images, as well as the two that follow, are courtesy of UMass Amherst Campus Planning):

And here’s one of the main arteries surrounding campus, dangerous Massachusetts Avenue, as it appears today and in the future:

The section of the Master Plan that deals with circulation is especially revealing. Students, faculty, and staff who think the only important design issue in campus and community planning today is parking will be sorely disappointed. In fact, the whole impetus of the Plan is to de-center the automobile in this space and imagine a truly human-centered “community of learners” here.  The five principles of transportation and parking for the UMass of the future are, in order:

  1. Think Pedestrian First
  2. Complete the Bicycle Network
  3. Enhance Transit Connections
  4. Complete the Streets
  5. Capitalize on existing parking supply

The section on bicycling was of particular interest to me – although I heartily endorse the Plan’s primary emphasis on pedestrians. (If there have been some conflicts lately between pedestrians and cyclists on campus, they are nothing like the appalling status of pedestrians on such automobile-privileged arteries around campus as Commonwealth Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue, and North Pleasant Street, all of them literally disasters waiting to happen.) The fact that “completing the bicycle network” ranks second in the Plan’s transportation vision for UMass, right after “think pedestrian first,” shows that campus leaders recognize the importance of non-automobile transit for the future of this physical space.

It also underscores the awful status of cyclists on campus today, especially on the streets surrounding and leading into campus. Again and again, in summarizing the condition of those streets, the Plan notes the deplorable inattention to the needs of cyclists. Regarding North Pleasant Street, the Plan complains that the thoroughfare “provides no accommodations for bicycles”; Massachusetts Avenue? it too “provides no accommodations for bicycles”; Commonwealth Avenue? “provides no accommodations for bicycles”; Eastman Lane? “provides no accommodations for bicycles”; Governors Drive? “provides no accommodations for bicycles.” The situation could not be more clearly stated.

As for the future, the Plan envisions not just a fine interlacement of bicycle lanes and paths within the campus but also better connection with the bicycle lanes and paths that carry students, faculty, and staff to and from other parts of the surrounding area: e.g., Amherst, Hadley, Sunderland, and Northampton.

This connection between campus and the surrounding area, not only by bicycle paths and lanes but also by the bus routes of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, is an important but neglected part of the University’s Master Plan – the goal should be not just to make our campus a sustainable, attractive, pedestrian-friendly space but to leverage the University’s role in the region to make the whole Pioneer Valley a more sustainable, attractive, pedestrian-friendly space. To do that, the University has got to find ways to get students, faculty, and staff here every day without relying on private automobiles. Better connecting the campus to area bicycle paths and lanes – and continuing to improve and expand those paths and lanes – is a step in the right direction.

And that brings me to my final point about this fascinating plan. Creating a sustainable, attractive, pedestrian-friendly physical space for the University is not just about creating a backdrop for learning – as if this were all a matter of setting the scene technically and then letting participants go about their work. Community planning should be a key part of higher education itself. Designing a place like UMass Amherst isn’t, in other words, just for the University’s architects and professional planners – it should be a central part of everything we do, including what we do in the classroom. The very act of paying attention to our environment, observing what happens there, studying the needs of its inhabitants, talking together about our dreams for the world around us, and working to make that world better – more attractive, more human, more healthy, more sociable, more sustainable – there is no more important learning that can take place on a residential campus like this one.

Polis andra didaskei,” wrote Simonides, the ancient Greek poet: “The city teaches us.” A good city is not just a backdrop for our lives – it is inseparable from that life itself. The kinds of people we want to be, the kinds of lives we want to lead – the design and organization of our cities enable and constrain such things. Fortunately, those environments are plastic, at least to some degree: we can remake them in the images we envision together. A good campus is the same thing: it is not just the background for our learning – it may be the most important lesson of all.


The 2012 Campus Master Plan for the University of Massachusetts Amherst can be found here.

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