Crossing these "clear" spaces means submitting yourself to a process of exposure. The building as destination on the other side becomes a sanctuary - the clear goal for our journey. In the case of ancient cathedrals across large city squares the building becomes a literal sanctuary following the trials of a pilgrimage; the traveller must endure the fear of exposure by crossing the space before being embraced by the safety of the building on the other side.
And these spaces make us feel vulnerable on a number of levels; there is the sense of exposure via differentiation, of 'standing out in the crowd', of being the only person on a bicycle in a street full of automobiles.
There's exposure of our ability, or inability; on a modern wide road traffic is invited and expected to move quickly. If the exposing space encourages this and the dominating force within the space (ie other traffic) reacts accordingly then the difference between your speed and everyone elses' is all the more apparent, and singles you out.
And of course there is exposure to danger; the lack of subjective safety is so apparent in such a space it need not be discussed.
Of course, the opposite can be true, and we need only start by dismantling one of these great exposing spaces to reverse the attrition of our cities. One of the keys to creating successful city spaces for all is to ensure they are unexposed places at a human scale; where people can cycle with dignity instead of feeling like an ant in a very large jungle. On very large roads or in wide streets this can be achieved by high quality means of separation to give cyclists a smaller, more accommodating space in which to work, whilst on lesser roads people and vehicular traffic can mix on a more equal footing by using a combination of speed limits, restricted access or shared space to achieve a finer balance. Reduced space for traffic and the storage of vehicles can create more space for trees to create shade and cover, or borders to give an edging effect to those wishing to pass through the larger outer space, as was the case in Times Square, Herald Square and Madison Avenue in New York and the work there of Jan Gehl.
The outcome is a city in which everyone is able to move more successfully and more people feel safer cycling; no more urban motorways and a people-orientated urban environment. For too long in the UK the onus on encouraging cycling has been on training people to cope with a road system not built around people's needs at a human scale. With limited influence and resources within advocacy circles this is understandable, however there must be a recognition that this is a coping mechanism only and no way to hold up a dam threatening to flood us all. The concept of "sad building syndrome" is widely acknowledged; by extension we can also have sad streets which make us feel exposed and unsafe and unwanted. There must be a joint recognition - by both those who campaign for more cycling, and by those charged with managing, designing and building our cities - that the urban form has a large part to play in creating conditions which will allow many more people to feel comfortable riding a bike.
See my previous post in the Successful city spaces series; Places for Play.