Episode 65: Where are the Bike Lanes In Lego City?
Doug Gordon: What do you like about playing with Lego?
Galit Gordon: You can do whatever you want, and you can—like, whatever comes to mind, you can make.
Doug: So what are you building?
Zeb Gordon: I’m building a boat that can go on water, and that can also go on snow. Some with two pieces and some with four pieces. I kinda just like when you can build whatever you want to build, or I just kind of like to build, like, whatever comes to my mind.
Doug: Hello. I’m Doug Gordon, and welcome to The War on Cars. Those voices you heard at the top, those were my kids. My son is 8 years old, my daughter is 11, and both of them are in that sweet spot for playing with Lego. Toys, especially creative construction-based toys like Lego, are a kind of mirror of the world around our kids. They help shape the way they see and understand their environment, and they enable kids to build imaginary places of their own. In fact, those kids sitting on the floor sifting through a bin full of Lego bricks, well someday they might be in charge of planning, designing or even running a city.
Doug: So what happens when one of the best-selling toys in modern culture doesn’t offer children—and some very passionate adults—an easy way to build a world where it’s possible to get around without a car? Well, that’s what we’re gonna find out.
Doug: In 2016, Marcel Steeman, a regional councillor in the Netherlands, was playing with his kids, assembling some Lego sets his four year old had received as birthday gifts. One of the gifts was a train station, complete with all the things you might expect at a real one, including arrival and departure screens, a snack bar, a yellow taxi and even a bike rack with a little blue Lego bicycle. The other gifts were Lego road plates—thin gray plastic squares with road markings printed on them. Imagine something about as thin as an old vinyl record album and a little smaller than the cover it might come in. And while Marcel and his kids were playing, his son noticed something.
Marcel Steeman: And he was playing with a little bicycle and with the road plates, and he was looking at it, and I was looking at it with him, and he was just surprised that there was no bike path.
Doug: For decades, Lego City—that’s the current brand name for Lego’s city-themed sets—was built around versions of these road plates. You might say that what the commissioners plan of 1811 is to the Manhattan street grid, road plates are to Lego City. Over the years, they’ve come in many variations, and the kind Marcel’s son received for his birthday were part of a line featuring different street designs—from straight roads and curves, to four-way intersections and T junctions, with sewer grates, white center lines and even crosswalks. But no bike lanes. And to people like Marcel and his kids, that seemed strange.
Marcel Steeman: It’s such a part of our life here in Holland that when you are on a bike, you are on a protected bike lane. There is room for bikes everywhere. But the Lego bike lanes were not there, and the road plates didn’t leave any room for bikes. So that was a bit of a surprise. So that was the part where I started thinking about bike lanes and Lego.
Doug: Marcel decided to see if he could make bike lanes fit into Lego City, and he used Photoshop to create a modified version of the classic road plate.
Marcel Steeman: I just took the space for cars and, because I live in Holland, bike lanes are red here, I just added big bike lanes in red on the sides. So there was space, I guess, for one car, but for a lot of bikes, e-bikes, Bakfiets, so cargo bikes, et cetera on the bike lanes. And I even added the right markings and the right zebras and everything as it should be.
Doug: Marcel put his mock-up on Twitter with the question, “Dear Lego, where are the bike lanes in Lego City?” And little did he know that his question would reverberate around one of the most vocal groups on the Internet.
Marcel Steeman: That was when I understood there were a lot of bike advocates all around the world who are very, very passionate about bike lanes.
Doug: A lot of the replies Marcel received about his idea to put bike lanes in Lego City mirrored the responses bike advocates have when a transportation department decides to install bike lanes in a real one.
Marcel Steeman: There’s not enough room for the cars. It’s not safe. And you need to put bollards between the bike lane and the road for cars because that’s more protected, and you need to make space between the bike lane and the cars so it’s more safe. So everybody had something to say about the right way to add bike lanes to Lego. And I thought it’s Lego, it’s plastic. They don’t actually exist. [laughs] But I let it go because I didn’t get any response from Lego at all, so I just put it aside as a silly idea.
Doug: Then in late 2019, Marcel had an opportunity that he hoped would get Lego on the record about the lack of bike lanes in its sets.
Marcel Steeman: There was a Q&A with Matthew Ashton. He is the Lego master from the English program Lego Masters, where they competitively build Lego on television.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Lego Masters: With over a million bricks to choose from.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Lego Masters: We’ve died and we’ve gone to heaven.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Lego Masters: Eight teams fight it out for the title of Lego Masters.]
Marcel Steeman: And he did a Twitter Q&A. And I thought, well, that’s the one question I have: Where are the bike lanes in Lego City?
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Lego Masters: Lego Masters—a brand new series. Thursday at eight on Channel Four.]
Marcel Steeman: So I asked him that question with my Photoshop added to it, and he answered with some vague answer. “There is something happening, and maybe there will be something like that in Lego City in the near future.
Doug: That same year, Marcel Steeman’s idea to put bike lanes in Lego City got a boost from an associate professor at the University of Amsterdam known by his Twitter handle @fietsprofessor, that’s F-I-E-T-S, or “Cycling professor.”
Marco te Brömmelstroet: Yeah, I’m Marco te Brömmelstroet, which is also unpronounceable for Dutch people, so don’t worry.
Doug: In his own tweet and on LinkedIn, Marco encouraged Lego to embrace Marcel’s idea, and asked the company why Lego City was so car-centric.
Marco te Brömmelstroet: I chose to become his amplifier or his megaphone, because this is a topic similar to the questions we ask about our streets, right? In the rest of the world. So why are there no bike lanes here?
Doug: Given the interests of the cycling professor’s followers, pictures of Lego road plates with red Dutch-style bike lanes on them went viral—again.
Marco te Brömmelstroet: And it was amazing. Like, the response was, I think it went over a million views within a day. And many people indeed were asking, “Hey, Lego, why is this—why isn’t this the case?”
Doug: Riding this new wave of support, Marcel Steeman decided to try his luck at an official Lego site called Lego Ideas.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Have you ever had an idea for a new Lego set? On Lego Ideas, you can check out proposals for new Lego sets created by fans just like you. If a project gets 10,000 votes, it enters the Lego review phase.]
Marcel Steeman: So I made a better mock-up, because that first Photoshop was scrutinized because it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t really protected, bike lane markings were all wrong, et cetera, et cetera.
Doug: Marcel even talked to a city planner in his hometown to make sure his design was up to Dutch standards. But Lego has its own set of standards, as could be expected for a toy company that caters to people of all ages.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: If you have a great project idea and want it to be published on Lego Ideas, please avoid these topics: politics, political symbols, campaigns or movements, religious references including symbols, buildings or people, sex, drugs or smoking, alcohol in any present day situation, but rum on a pirate ship is okay. Arrr! Swearing, death, killing, blood, terrorism or torture, first-person shooter video games, warfare or war vehicles in any modern or present-day situation or national war memorials. And lastly, racism, bullying or cruelty to people, characters or animals.
Doug: Marcel assumes something as anodyne as bike lanes wouldn’t run afoul of Lego’s guidelines. He was wrong. And we’ll find out why after the break.
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Doug: In January, 2020, four years since his son noticed the lack of bike lanes in Lego products, Marcel Steeman submitted a proposal for new road plates featuring red, Dutch-style bike lanes to the Lego Ideas site.
Marcel Steeman: And it was rejected right away without an explanation. So I altered it a bit, added it again to Lego Ideas, and then it was—it was rejected, I guess, five times. One of those times was, “You cannot have a political statement in Lego.”
Doug: Sorry. What do you think that political statement was? What were they responding to? What did they find political about it?
Marcel Steeman: It is somewhat political, I guess. I never had an explanation for that one.
Doug: Okay, so of all the toy companies in the world, why would Lego think that adding bike lanes to its sets is a political statement? I mean, forget that kids love riding bikes or that you can find bicycles in a lot of Lego sets already. The thing that strikes me as really weird here is that the Lego group is based in Denmark—one of the most bike-friendly nations on Earth. Lego’s corporate headquarters are in the Danish city of Billund. And Marcel Steeman, who knows a thing or two about living in a place where cycling is essentially the default mode of transportation, well, he couldn’t make sense of it.
Marcel Steeman: It’s always a bit of a competition between Holland and Denmark, who is the most bike-friendly country, so it’s especially surprising that a company like Lego situated in Billund—and I’ve been on Street View in Billund around the head offices of Lego, and there are bike lanes there, blue bike lanes around head offices of Lego. So the people working there are used to bike lanes, and they are not—they were not represented in Lego.
Doug: I reached out to Lego for an answer, but didn’t receive an official response. So I posed the question to Thalia Verkade, a reporter for the Dutch news site, The Correspondent, and the co-author with Marco te Brömmelstroet of a book about cities and mobility. And she sees a lot of similarities between Lego cities and real ones.
Thalia Verkade: I think in the Lego world and in most of the real world, it’s the change of the status quo. But then it’s a very interesting question, of course, is not having a bike bicycle lane, isn’t that also a political statement? It was a political choice to have the kind of streets we have, to put the car as central. It’s what we’re doing now, but we don’t see this as a political choice anymore because it has become so technical, and it has also become so universal. What always is the argument? We want to be neutral. And I think for Lego it could also be like this. We want to be for everybody. We want to be neutral. But nobody is neutral, and everybody’s always making choices, but most of them are happening, I think, unconsciously. And I think what is very valuable is to make it more conscious. So that’s what I really, really like about Marcel’s project is that it now makes conscious that it is a choice to have a Lego city which revolves around highways. Isn’t that strange?
Doug: And Marco, the cycling professor? He thought Lego’s response was great. In a way, it was almost better than if the company had said nothing at all.
Marco te Brömmelstroet: And indeed, the response by Lego, they put oil on the fire by saying, “Yeah, there are no bike lanes on the road plates because we are not an ideological company.” Which of course was ideal, right? Because, okay, so bike lanes are an ideology, and not having bike lanes is what? Status quo? Or is it also an ideology? So it was sort of showing the question that we ask about our regular streets, but now in Lego. And in that sense, I think that’s also the whole fun of this, is that life imitates game and game imitates life.
Doug: Momentum for Marcel Steeman’s Lego bike lane idea kept building. Print and online journalists called him for interviews. TV crews sat down with him and his kids as they played with a pile of Lego bricks.
Marcel Steeman: That gave a lot of buzz and a lot of traction. And still no answer from Lego at all.
Doug: So by now you’re probably asking a big question: why was this all so important to a bunch of adults? After being rejected by Lego Ideas five times, why couldn’t Marcel and his amplifier, the Fiets Professor, just let it go? It’s not like there’s anything preventing kids from building bike-friendly cities out of Lego pieces in their storage bin at home. You don’t have to put cars on Lego roads. Some Lego fans even pride themselves on creating their own base plates and roads with all kinds of unique designs, which obviously could include bike lanes if you wanted. But for Marco te Brömmelstroet, the lack of official off-the-shelf Lego road plates with bike lanes printed on them is a proxy for the way we talk about streets in real cities. And he thinks it’s a discussion worth having.
Marco te Brömmelstroet: Lego prides themselves on saying, “With Lego, you can make everything.” Well, not if you actually want to make different types of streets. That’s not possible. And it also says a lot about how people now respond to the quest for bicycle lanes in Lego, and then some people say, “Oh, it’s this ideological push and you should leave children alone. Children—it’s just a game, and these adults are trying to destroy it again. What’s next, Monopoly?” Blah, blah, blah. But you can also say, well, that’s a typical response that we again also see in practice, right? Is that, in reality, where people say the street is what it is. Leave it alone. And it’s now playing out perfectly around this children’s game. So for me, the whole point of this entire endeavor is to show people and teach children that streets can be anything.
Doug: The business that would eventually become Lego was started in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter who began by making wooden toys. The company’s name would soon follow when Christiansen combined two Danish words meaning “play well.” Plastic bricks were added to the product line in 1949, but the interlocking form we know today? Those were patented in 1958.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, commercial: Lego is here! Hey kids, look! A whole new world to build because Lego is here!]
Doug: And the beauty of Lego, and why it’s endured as a favorite toy for generations is that it works as a system. The bricks I had as a kid fit with bricks my kids get brand new today—something that’s played for laughs in 2014’s The Lego Movie, in which we learned that the story is all taking place inside a massive Lego collection owned by a rather controlling father played by Will Ferrell.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Will Ferrell: You know the rules. This isn’t a toy.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, child: It kind of is.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Will Ferrell: No. Actually, it’s a highly sophisticated, interlocking brick system.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, child: But we bought it at the toy store.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Will Ferrell: We did. But the way I’m using it makes it an adult thing.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, child: The box for this one said ages eight to 14.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Will Ferrell: That’s a suggestion. They have to put that on there.]
Doug: Lego introduced wheels in 1962, making it possible for kids to build cars and other things that move. There were some bicycles in Lego sets in the 1950s and 1960s, but they looked like something you might find in model train displays, with little figurines on bikes in a single plastic mold. Lego bikes with wheels that spin and that work with the minifigures people know and love today, those didn’t show up until the 1980s. And according to Sean Kenney, a Lego artist and the author of Cool City, a book of city-themed Lego creations, there’s probably a simple explanation for their late arrival and historically minimal presence in the Danish company’s product line.
Sean Kenney: The owner of the Lego company, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, he’s the grandson of the founder. If you go back to a lot of the old Lego sets from the ’60s and the ’70s, and there’s a little cute kid on the front of the box, that’s him. And he now owns the company. He’s the guy that introduced Lego minifigures and play themes and all these other things that we associate with the Lego toys that we play with today. He’s also a massive car guy. Like, he loves cars. And not in a bad way, not in an urban design and infrastructure way. Like, he has a Ferrari collection, you know? I mean, he’s a rich guy, right? And there’s pictures of him when he was 12 years old, building these huge roadsters out of Lego bricks—you know, he had the world’s largest collection. [laughs] And so I can only surmise that that informed a lot of what they were doing. When you think about some of the first play themes that were introduced to Lego back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was city, it was space. And it’s probably because that’s what he and therefore a lot of the company were into. And city to them, and city to him was cars and buildings.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, commercial: The new Legoland fire station. You build it for action. You can raise the door, push the truck, pretend that there’s a fire. To get the crew up closer, you can raise the ladder higher. Or how about Legoland Main Street? You can drive up a truck, crank the crane and raise a heavy load, or open the door, man the car and steer it down the road. The action’s up to you. The Legoland Main Street, from the Legoland Town Collection. Legoland fire station sold separately. From Lego Systems!]
Sean Kenney: And so Lego City became about building a car, building a fire truck, building an ambulance, those kinds of things. And not necessarily about cycling. Like, why would it be about cycling? That’s how you go to the grocery store.
Doug: To build things in a real city, engineers, planners and architects work in feet or meters. To build something in Lego City, all you need to understand are studs. Imagine a typical Lego piece. You might have in your mind, a red, blue or yellow rectangular brick with eight small cylindrical bumps on top arranged in two rows of four. Those little bumps are called studs. Not every Lego part has studs—some pieces are flat and smooth, for example. But pretty much everything in Lego is measured in them—including roads and cars.
Sean Kenney: Lego cars actually started out two studs wide. The wheels protruded out from the outside, and they were just these little, you know, six piece constructions. And you’d stand a little minifigure next to it. And minifigures at the time were barely even people. They were mostly a cylinder for a head and no movable arms. So as the minifigures became basically tiny action figures for kids to play with, the cars got bigger. And the cars in the ’80s became four studs wide from two studs wide. And as the cars started getting larger, they became six studs wide. And it’s not necessarily been consistent, but there was a slow and gradual change to it. You wanted trucks to be bigger than cars, so the trucks started becoming six studs wide while the cars were four. And then suddenly the cars were six studs wide, so the trucks had to be eight. You know, that kind of thing.
Doug: The real vehicles that dominate our streets today are big because of things like cheap gas and profit structures that encourage automakers to market light trucks and SUVs to regular commuters. Lego cars and trucks are big for a fairly simple reason: big cars are fun to build, and they’re fun to play with.
Sean Kenney: And the more space you have, the more detail you can add. Lego doesn’t shrink. You can’t add detail that’s smaller than the size of a Lego piece. So if you want more detail, you’ve got to make the thing bigger. What does that have to do with, you know, urbanism? Nothing. Is it an unfortunate coincidence that the bloat of vehicles is paralleling what’s happening in real life? Yeah, unfortunately. [laughs]
Doug: As Lego cars and trucks got bigger, so did the space given to them on Lego road plates. I still have the plates my parents bought for me in the early 1980s. A single plate is 32 studs by 32 studs square with a smooth road down the middle that’s 14 studs wide. The newer road plates I bought for my kids, they’re still 32 studs by 32 studs, but the smooth road down the middle is now 20 studs wide. That extra space came at the expense of what you might call the Lego sidewalks on either side of the road. Those went from nine studs wide to just six.
Zeb Gordon: The old one’s streets is a little bit skinnier than the new one’s street. And then the sidewalk on the old one is a little bigger than the one on the new one because the streets are a little bit different.
Doug: My son wasn’t the only one who noticed the difference. Here’s Marco, the cycling professor.
Marco te Brömmelstroet: People went into their—after the tweets, they went into their attics. They went into their old Lego plates, and they were sort of amazed. They were uploading, like, “Look at this. It changed. I wasn’t even aware of it.” And that’s, I think, indeed, quite a strong symbolic message about the same thing that happened to our streets. It also took a hundred years. It started in the 1920s, and slowly but steadily, our streets changed. And that showed us all that there was a pattern, there was a trend. That indeed in the road plates—I have them here from the ’80s, the roads are relatively small, and increasingly became bigger. Of course, the Lego plates were still the same. So somebody’s losing, right? So what is losing at first were the pedestrians.
Doug: Remember how in that 2019 Twitter Q&A, the Lego designer Matthew Ashton gave Marcel Steeman a vague answer about something happening in Lego City in the near future? Well, in late 2020, Lego made an announcement that would have a huge impact on its products, and on adult fans of Lego—or AFOLs for short. Here’s a clip from a YouTube user known as Bricksie about the news.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: Hey, what’s going on, everybody? Welcome back. Jordan here. Today, we are going to be discussing Lego road plates, but we’re not actually here to discuss the current and existing road base plates. We’re here to talk about the new ones that are going to be coming out in 2021, and they’ll be the newest addition to the Lego city lineup.]
Doug: After decades of basing sets around its old road plates, Lego announced the impending release of a new line of road plates that would be modular, and could be configured to have different widths and interlock with each other in multiple arrangements. You could put in little tiles to represent a crosswalk, or even tiny speed bumps. And they would be a lot thicker than the plastic plates of my youth and of so many others.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: Now what you can see here is that these roads are completely different than the ones that we’re currently working with. These are sort of like a build your own road plate.]
Doug: The reaction from AFOLs like Bricksie? It was mixed.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: So for AFOLs such as myself, this change is gonna be very hard to navigate in the Lego cities. So I’m not sure how I feel about these road plates, because if I wanted to convert my entire Lego city to the new Lego City road plates and do it correctly, the cost would be absolutely tremendous. I don’t even want to start doing the math.]
Doug: Think about it. You’re in your 30s, your 40s or 50s. You’ve been collecting and building with Lego ever since you were a kid. Maybe you have an entire room in your house dedicated to the Lego city you’ve built, and it’s all constructed around the old thin plates. Suddenly, Lego comes around and says it’s going to change everything, from the size and thickness of the road plates, to how they connect with other parts of your Lego city. To learn more about how diehard Lego fans felt, I spoke with Linda Dallas, a member of the New England Lego Users Group and a self-described AFOL. She said the response to the new road plates ran the gamut.
Linda Dallas: There was the kind of predictable reaction from the club, which was some people were like, “Ooh, something new and shiny. What’s this? Can we use it?” And others going, “Eh, is it really an improvement?” You know? And others going, “Well, they’re kind of neat, but if we wanted to switch over to that, how much would it cost?” And that just reminds me so much of any infrastructure change in a real city, which is, does this mean my tax dollars are going up? And what do I get for that? [laughs] That’s exactly what you would expect.
Doug: It’s important to note that the AFOL community was very sensitive. They are well aware they’re collecting and playing with something meant for kids.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: If you’re just getting into Lego or if your kids are getting into Lego, these are gonna integrate beautifully with other Lego City sets. So there is some positive things to take away from this.]
Doug: But among the video reactions I saw, there were definitely small notes of disappointment or even resistance to what was—to be fair to them—a massive change. And to me, that seemed really similar to how people react to changes in their own communities.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: So once again, these are gonna be the new road plates coming out in the Lego City lineup sometime in 2021. It’s 60304 is the set number. And I am a little bit disturbed by it.]
Doug: At around the same time Lego dropped this big news, it also released images of the first sets to feature the new road plates. One set was a shopping street featuring a pretzel bakery, a sporting goods store, a fancy sports car, a utility truck and glow in the dark street lights. And to Marcel Steeman’s surprise, there was also a minifigure riding a cargo bike on a thin blue bike lane.
Marcel Steeman: So when I saw that, I immediately sent a message to Marco te Brömmelstroet, like “We’ve won. They’ve added bike lanes. But this is not enough.”
Doug: People who think about cycling like Marcel and Marco zeroed in on the fact that the bike lane appeared to be just two studs wide. The cargo bike? Five studs wide.
Marcel Steeman: When you look at the box art on that set, the cargo bike doesn’t even fit on the little bike lane. It’s so narrow it doesn’t even fit. And on the box itself, there is a truck parked on the bike lane. So it’s not safe at all. And I thought, well, they’ve put some effort in it, they have added bike lanes in one set, only one set. But this is not enough. And they clearly didn’t understand what my problem was.
Marco te Brömmelstroet: It resembles things that we see in practice, right? It’s the shallows are the very narrow spaces that people get in all kinds of context. And then the traffic engineer says, “Okay, stop complaining. You now have your separated bicycle infrastructure. There’s a line, there’s paint, there’s at least half a meter, so now you should be happy.” But also on the package itself, I think the cycle path is also blocked by a van. It’s almost cynical, almost. Like Lego is sort of saying, “Look, this is how it goes in the real world. That’s also how we are going to do it.”
Doug: Even Linda Dallas and her fellow AFOLs had to laugh about the narrow bike lane.
Linda Dallas: I’m not entirely surprised that they didn’t make the bike lane wide enough either. That’s another thing that seems to mesh in the real world, that the bike lanes really aren’t wide enough in a lot of places.
Doug: Here’s Sean Kenney’s take on it.
Sean Kenney: Clearly, the designers at Lego were interested in adding complete streets to their product line by the mere fact that they added a bike lane to one of their new sets. The ironic fact that it’s so narrow it doesn’t fit the very cargo bike that comes in that same set is not lost on me as someone who used to drive a three-wheeled cargo bike around the streets of Brooklyn. Hitting every single pothole, by the way. You can’t avoid them. You either straddle them with the front wheels and hit it with the back or vice versa. But I digress. Simply the fact that they did that shows they’re thinking about that and that they’re interested in that, and that they recognize the importance of that. And actually, for that matter, the education involved in having a kid see that. There’s probably a lot of kids that have never seen a bicycle lane that live in suburban households.
Doug: Then again, I can think of one kid in an urban household who has some strong opinions.
Zeb Gordon: While we built it, I kind of just noticed that that would be the bike lane. And I was like, “What? That doesn’t look like a bike lane.” The bike lane is, like, tiny and the street is a little bigger. The bike is, like, two times the size of it.
Doug: So what would make it look like a bike lane?
Zeb Gordon: To make it a little bigger, like the size of a bike. At least as big as a bike lane should be, except a Lego bike lane.
Doug: Regardless of these minor critiques, Marcel Steeman realized this big development in Lego City gave him an opportunity to breathe new life into his idea, or as he puts it, an obligation.
Marcel Steeman: Immediately I thought, “Well, this is the start. Now I have to make an idea that actually is a safe bike lane in Lego City.” Because, well, it’s been six years, and now I am enthusiastic about it. Now it has to become a reality.
Doug: Marcel rendered a proposal for a new set that included wide bike lanes, complete with a minifigure on a bike with a baby in a child seat. On the side was another minifigure using a little Lego pump to fix a flat, and a set of bike racks with bicycles parked at them. And for the bike lanes themselves, Marcel swapped Dutch red bike lanes for a new color.
Marcel Steeman: I made them blue because on the shopping street the bike lanes are blue. So that was an easy choice. Not the Dutch red, not the international more standard green, but blue as they are in Denmark, and as they are in Billund around the Lego headquarters.
Doug: In January 2021, Marcel put his new design up on Lego Ideas, and after five previous rejections, he was ready for a sixth.
Marcel Steeman: I put it on, prepared to be disappointed, and I went to bed. And the morning after that, it already was open for votes on the Lego website. So I really was surprised. So that was exciting to see that my idea was put through.
Doug: Lego Ideas gives projects two years to reach 10,000 votes. Marcel’s hit that total in just over three months. But even with that kind of enthusiasm, don’t count on seeing a Lego bike lane set at your local toy shop anytime soon. There have been tens of thousands of projects submitted to Lego Ideas, and lots of them have reached the threshold that gets them reviewed by Lego designers. But since the program began in 2008, fewer than 50 have become actual Lego sets. Still, even if his idea doesn’t make it over the finish line, Marcel sees immense value in having made it this far.
Marcel Steeman: That review stage is something I am looking forward to because I heard you get to talk to the Lego design team. So that’s—I will feel it as a big win to actually talk about bike lanes in Lego sets with someone from the Lego design team. That will be such a big win. So I’m just hoping that my idea is simple enough to get them to think, “Well, this is a good addition to our road plate system. This is a good addition to Lego City.”
Doug: Speaking as someone who will absolutely buy Marcel’s bike lane set if it is released, I can’t help but notice the huge overlap between people like him and me who are obsessed with Lego, and who also love reimagining our streets. And in thinking about why that is, I recalled Lego’s initial response to Marcel’s idea, that it was too political. And I realized that, even though we’ve talked about the similarities between Lego City and the real city where I live or where you do, there’s one key difference: despite what Lego was originally worried about, there aren’t any politics on a Lego street—at least not on one of your own creation. When you play with Lego, there’s no zoning, there’s no bureaucracy, no real estate developers, no community meetings, no nimbys and no arguing about parking spaces. There’s only your imagination. Here’s Sean Kenney.
Sean Kenney: I myself, I love architecture. I always thought that I might become an architect someday. And I guess somehow I got cornered into the kiddie play version of that, but, you know, Lego allows me to be an architect on my own terms, and envision, you know, a city that I want to live in. And then I can build it. It allows you to be an idealist in that way, an idealist urbanist. You can make your street the way you want to make it. You can build your city and everything else. And so I think that there’s just something about that. We can just play, we can experiment. You can’t just play with the real city.
Doug: If Marcel Steeman’s idea for Lego bike lanes becomes a reality, that Lego philosophy of play, where you can build anything you want, will hopefully be a philosophy that kids bring with them into the real world as they become, not just adult fans of Lego, but adult fans of cities.
Marcel Steeman: I’m convinced that if you let children play with bikes, and show them just in a very, very simple way that a safe bike lane is easy to add when they play with Lego, and we’ll maybe get them to think, “Why is my bike safe in Lego city but not in the real life?”
Zeb Gordon: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars.
Galit Gordon: Special thanks to Marcel Steeman, Marco te Brömmelstroet, Thalia Verkade, Sean Kenney and Linda Dallas. To learn about Marcel’s Lego Ideas Bike Lane project, or get a copy of Sean Kenney’s book, Cool City, check out the show notes for links.
Zeb Gordon: If you like what we do at The War on Cars, please become a Patreon supporter. Visit thewaroncars.org, click “Support” and join today.
Galit Gordon: As thanks, we’ll send you stickers. Plus, you’ll get access to exclusive content.
Zeb Gordon: We’re even going to release some behind the scenes stuff related to this episode.
Galit Gordon: A big shout-out to our top Patreon supporters: the law office of Vaccaro & White in New York, Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Drew Raines and Virginia Baker.
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Galit Gordon: And don’t forget, our friends at Cleverhood are offering listeners of The War on Cars 20 percent off the purchase of stylish rain gear for walking and cycling. Go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars and enter code, “waroncars” at check-out.
Zeb Gordon: This episode of The War on Cars was produced, recorded and edited by my dad, Doug Gordon, who still loves to play with Lego.
Galit Gordon: Music is by Stationary Sign and National Anthem Works courtesy of Epidemic Sound.
Zeb Gordon: Our theme is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Designs.
Galit Gordon: I’m Galit Gordon.
Zeb Gordon: I’m Zeb Gordon.
Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. And on behalf of my co-hosts Sarah Goodyear and Aaron Naparstek, this is The War on Cars.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, commercial: New Legoland Main Street!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, commercial: Wow! A pick-up! A body shop!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, commercial: And a crane! I’m building a hotel!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, commercial: This set builds new Main Street. There’s also a new gas station set, a new snorkel pumper and more. The Legoland town collection, 15 sets in all, plus road plates. Each sold separately. You can build them, collect them, even connect them. New Main Street, part of the Legoland town collection. Other sets and accessories sold separately from Lego systems.]