Geneva Health Forum Archive

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FitNation/SémioFormation: signs of bikes for public health.

Author(s) Rick Bell1, Gwenaëlle de Kerret2
Affiliation(s) 1American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, Center for Architecture, New York, United States, 2Harris Interactive, Paris, Sorbonne, Paris, France.
Country - ies of focus United States
Relevant to the conference tracks Advocacy and Communication
Summary The FitNation exhibition at the Center for Architecture presents 33 case studies of design interventions which prevent chronic diseases including obesity. Projects in 18 cities are analyzed, including transportation changes that lead to changes in how people navigate a city. In Paris with Vélib’, and more recently in New York City with CitiBike, patterns of movement, commutation and exercise have changed. Our proposal integrates design analysis with key information about Vélib’ and CitiBike. Along with chronology, public-private economics and user demographics, we decipher and explain to what extent health is at stake in the communication and dissemination of shared-bike services.
What challenges does your project address and why is it of importance? Shared bike programs, including Vélib’ in Paris and CitiBike in New York City represent a current trend of cities across the world providing a new kind of public transportation. Such infrastructure initiatives are focused on individual use rather than mass transit in the traditional sense of multi-passenger conveyors. Vélib’ and CitiBike permit the reconciliation of two ideals of public service: the facilitation of travel throughout the urban space of major cities and the improvement of people's health. Jan Gehl in Copenhagen and Dick Jackson, MD, MPH in Los Angeles have been keynote speakers at the Center for Architecture where the FitNation exhibition is currently on display. In the FitCity and FitNation conferences at the Center for Architecture, other speakers, including Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan of the NYC Department of Transportation has outlined the challenges of shared bike systems. These challenges are how to create the perception that bicycling represents a safe, convenient and dependable way of people commuting to work, thereby getting much-needed exercise on an everyday basis. In a sedentary society where most places of employment diminish rather than enhance physical activity, walking, bicycling and climbing stairs represent methods of adding mobility to daily life.
How have you addressed these challenges? Do you see a solution? The FitNation program and exhibition addresses the challenges of public awareness by assembling 33 projects from 18 cities all of which are replicable in other places. The general applicability of the physical solutions designed by architects, landscape architects, urban designers and city planners is part of the solution posited by FitNation.But beyond such concrete – or more verdant – actions undertaken by governmental entities, private corporations and community activists, communication with the public is at stake. Indeed, biking services can be considered as a relevant topic to emphasize how design, institutional messages and advertising are key dimensions of a successful public health project. Hypothetically, the fitness benefit should be clear in its communication to be understood and promoted by the users. The question arises: how is the health benefit conveyed to the public? To what extent are the institutional identity of such services as Vélib’ and CityBike mixing convenience and fitness?That is why we suggest a socio-semiotic approach on how Vélib’ and CitiBike communicates, which focuses on what individual and collective values are conveyed and to what extent the ideal of health is included in the communication mechanism. Such an approach will directly involve responsible officials in the Mairie de Paris and at the New York City Department of Transportation. The presentation at the Geneva Health Forum will integrate analysis to be conducted on the various aspects of Vélib’ and CitiBike communications: system websites, advertisements and banners, along with docking stations (design, POS, way-finding maps, etc.). The focus will be on the written components (using a sémio-linguistic approach), but also on the design and iconic dimension. Do the docking stations and the ergonomics of the bicycles themselves convey an idea of personal health? Is the ideal of a healthy body present in the representations of the user? In addition, an informal inquiry on how the public consider this new transportation service can be described - is bettering one's health considered as part of the personal benefit of riding a bicycle? If so how has behavior changed accordingly? This quantitative approach should permit us to draw a parallel between the institutional message and its reception by the public and to evaluate how signs are assimilated by CityBike and Vélib’ users.
How do you know whether you have made a difference? Considering the nature of a shared bike system’s service delivery and mechanism to enhance urban mobility, our proposed presentation brings together a mirrored approach between the FitNation initiative using a design-language case study analysis of architecture and urbanism with a semiotic approach of communications and design that centers on signs and their interpretation. Comparing two cities, Paris and New York, cuts across these design and semiotic issues and starts with basic key facts of shared bike use. The integration of different approaches to address a complex problem can be measured by relatively simple statistical tools: number of riders, number of bicycles, number of trips for each bicycle on any given day, number and length of dedicated bike lanes, number of docking station locations, number of peak-time commuting trips by people going to or returning from work, and number of one-day only visitor or tourist usage. While user statistics have been analyzed previously, how do the numbers relate to the user perception that the concept of shared bike use is a public health initiative, integrated with a redesign of urban transit patterns?Noting that one of the cities, Paris, has had the shared bike service in use for several years, and the other, New York, has only recently opened its system, which also allows for a more sophisticated analysis, across time, to see how start-up statistics, signs (communication) and perceptions relate to each other. How did the early days of Vélib’ anticipate the start-up problems and concurrent excitement of CitiBike? What lessons can the more mature system teach the new initiative about durability, maintenance, economics, ongoing systemic change and system growth? Through this all, we will know if the use of shared bike systems makes a difference if we see, over time, a related decline in obesity rates, a diminishment in the use of both public health systems for the diseases arising from a sedentary life style. While this is outside of the scope of our current research, the assumption is that more physical activity, in general, creates a longer, healthier and more fruitful lifestyle. The difference then, that FitNation suggests, is in promulgating opportunities such as shared bike systems provides interventions to occasion such activity. So, we will have made a difference if the FitNation exhibition, designed to travel to many cities concurrently, is picked up by municipalities with elevated obesity rates.
Have you or the project mobilized others and if so, who, why and how? The FitNation program and exhibition has mobilized many, here in New York, by bringing architects, designers, public health officials and activists to the Center for Architecture to view the show but also to attend three related programs. In addition, the FitNation concept has been the subject of two workshop conferences to date, one in New Orleans, the other in Washington, DC, where architects and public officials gathered to look at case studies in a design charrette workshop format. These conferences, bringing together people from ten cities selected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, benefited from financing not only from CDC but also from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.The FitNation exhibition itself has been designed to travel to at least twenty cities. With funding from our colleagues at the national headquarters of the American Institute of Architects in Washington, DC, the show will travel to at least five other small cities, including Birmingham (Alabama), Columbus (Ohio), Phoenix (Arizona), Fargo (North Dakota), and Tulsa (Oklahoma). In the United States it is expected that the exhibition will be on view in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC. The Miami opening date of 1/16/2014 will coincide with a FitNation conference in the new AIA Miami Center for Architecture, scheduled to open this October. At such conferences, and viewing such exhibitions, one finds the key decision makers in municipal government. Agency heads and senior staff from public health and public works agency meet their colleagues from departments focusing on parks, schools and transportation systems.
Bike share systems are but one part of the FitNation exhibition and one component of the larger picture. But seeing and comparing such systems posits the transmissibility of the psychological component. Why do people want to ride bicycles? Is the peer pressure of seeing relatively young, healthy and fit individuals using bikes for short trips a passing fad, or have systems of urban mobility been rethought in a way that cities are truly learning from each other? Our understanding starts with the presentation of the systems themselves – their design, graphics and iconography – and the comparison of how some cities have literally been mobilized by others, New York by Paris, for example, is described.
When your donor funding runs out how will your idea continue to live? Again, looking at these two levels of intervention integrated in the talk: FitNation as an education and advocacy mechanism along with bike share systems such as Vélib’ and CitiBike as expressions of public policy requires two distinct answers.Donor funding for the FitNation exhibition is limited, in the neighborhood of a grand total of $100,000. For any not-for-profit organization, such as the Center for Architecture, funding is inherently limited, transient and undependable. But keeping an exhibition frugal – and based on simple, photo-copy size methods of replication – allows for a potential income stream from the announced $2,500 use fee. Such funds allow for not only transmissibility but further development, complementing the multi-year grants from the Centers for Disease Control and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The exhibition also benefits from significant current sponsorship from AIA National and the newly-created Center for Active Design, based in New York City. FitCity efforts started in New York over eight years ago, and funding has been resilient.For bike share programs, of course, the economic issues are much more complex and much more worthy of discussion. How generic and localized advertising sponsorship compare: such as that of JC Decaux for Vélib’ in Paris and its correspondence to particular corporate branding of an entire bike system, such as that of CitiGroup for the CitiBike initiative in New York. Is one more dependable over the long term than another? Through all of this, how are the public health aspects reinforced and accentuated? Does the symbolism attendant to the system description, from website to docking station, reach the consciousness of those using the bicycles, or the pedestrians passing them by?How do we integrate the semiotic, design, economic and political factors – to what extent is communication as important in the whole process as the infrastructure development and the economic model? The ideas will continue to live if brought to discussion at such trans-sector convocations as the Geneva Health Forum. Perhaps, too, the FitNation exhibition itself could accompany the proposed talk, if accepted by the Review Committee. And perhaps, too, the shared bike location of GenèveRoule can be located adjacent to the Geneva Health Forum conference venue.

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