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Where are the bike lanes in Lego world?

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The popular toy is under fire for reinforcing car culture

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Thuringia model building fair Photo by Martin Schutt/picture alliance via Getty Images

Marcel Steeman, a regional councilor in the Netherlands, was playing Lego with his kids a few months ago when he noticed something strange.

“There were Lego cyclists, but I wondered where they had to cycle,” he told DutchNews.nl. “If you are Dutch you are used to having cycling lanes.”

The streets in Lego’s city sets had space for cars, trains, even tiny storm drains but no designated space for zero-emission, human-powered vehicles like bikes. Even worse, it appeared that Lego’s streets were becoming more hostile toward pedestrians over time. As compared to Lego sets from years ago, the cars seem to have grown larger — evolving from four- to six-studs wide — and the roads appeared to be getting wider, while the sidewalks were getting more and more narrow.

Steeman said he believed that Lego’s cities should reflect street life that prioritizes all road users, especially ones not powered by internal combustion engines. As a toy that can directly affect a child’s understanding of the built environment, Lego is in the unique position of being able to forcefully advocate for streets that are safer and more environmentally friendly than the ones we have in the real world.

With the help of Marco te Brommelstroet, an associate professor in urban planning at the University of Amsterdam who tweets under the name Cycling Professor, Steeman submitted two designs to Lego’s “Ideas” project, in which fans are encouraged to submit proposals for new Lego sets. His proposal was simple: more bike lanes.

Unfortunately, Steeman’s ideas were rejected for apparently not falling within the toy manufacturer’s conditions. “The problem is that Lego is a worldwide company and traffic rules are not the same,” Steeman told DutchNews.nl. “You can draw a red Dutch path, but it doesn’t work in the US or Australia, or even Denmark, which has blue cycling lanes.”

He even reached out to Matthew Ashton, a producer of the Lego movies, during a Twitter Q&A, but got a fairly anodyne answer.

But the idea has been gaining steam on Twitter where te Brommelstroet has been collecting more submissions from other Lego fans about ways to redesign the streets of Lego world.

“Marcel submitted a full idea, but they refused because of some bureaucratic reasons (‘no full new set’),” te Brommelstroet told The Verge in a direct message. “But [Lego] also stated that they don’t make political statements. Apparently, the current streets are not.”

Te Brommelstroet also noted that Lego has been sponsored by Shell, though the toymaker ended its partnership with the oil and gas giant several years ago under pressure from environmental advocates. A spokesperson for the Denmark-based Lego did not respond to a request for comment.

Te Brommelstroet said he hopes Lego will eventually come around to the idea if enough people sign on to it. He feels it’s important to influence the way people think about how their streets are designed.

“It is on one hand a metaphor about how we don’t think about our own streets and how they then become a radical monopoly,” he said. “On the other hand they limit the creativity of future generations; these [street] plates are where you make your first adventures and where you start thinking about the city!”