Saturday 13 November 2010

Of Cycle Paths - or why being realistic won't see a cycling revolution

There has been a somewhat spirited debate on various blogs concerning campaigning for better cycling infrastructure and strict liability laws.

It seemed to start with the excellent ibikelondon blog here, and moved onto Carlton Reid's blog here, with notable inputs from other blogs including freewheelers crap waltham forest blog and  the lofidelity bicycle club.

The essence of the debate is how the cycling establishment such as CTC and LCC go about trying to get decent infrastructure. Most of the blogs want these organisations to be agressively advovating Dutch or Danish like infrastructure whilst Carlton Reid feels we should be realistic on what may be achieved and how to go about it. His view is that "In such a car-centric society as the UK it is politically naive to believe meaningful space will be taken away from cars".

What I find dispiriting about the debate is that implementation of pretty much anything above a very local level (opening up a closed road here and there) is probably unachievable. "Strict liability" seems to be favoured as a way of taming the car culture by the cycling establishment - yet even this has no realistic chance of being implemented in the current climate. Even on a local level the cycling infrastructure "victories" such as opening up some one way streets to two way cycle traffic are normally more than offset by road changes which makes things more hostile to cyclists.

At the moment we are losing the battle, and by how much is utterly depressing.

The  LCC say that cycling in London has increased by 80%, but starting from such a low base, 80% is hardly a success. Modal share is still at less than 2%, and has barely shifted in 10 years. Modal share of even 15% is an utter pipe dream with things as they are. To indicate the scale of cycling's decline, I found that the stats linked to on Carlton Reid's Blog very telling. Despite his blog being optimistic about the slight increase in recent years, the numbers don't seem to indicate that cycling is undergoing a revival, or even really reached any kind of inflection point. To illustrate this, I have taken the data linked to here  and drawn some simple graphs

The data is Billion vehicle km, and goes from 1949 to 2008. Apologies for the image quality, but I think it is clear what it shows. Car use has rocketed, whilst cycling has slumped. The "upturn" that is so talked about looks like a slight increase from the absolute bottom of 4 bn km in 1998 travelled to 4.7 bn km in 2008. 10 years before the bottom, in 1988, the number of kms travelled was actually 5.2 - so the cycling revolution hasn't even turned the clock back to 1988, less still before the 1970's.

This is the product of years of tempering cyclists' needs with realism. It is years of accepting the ecofluff from councils as something positive for cycling when in actual fact it just lets them off the hook of actually doing something positive. It is years of everyone fooling themselves that cycling can significantly increase in popularity as a mode of transport without investing anything in it. 

The only proven way to get cycling modal share up to Dutch or Danish levels is to do what they did. Which is provide segregated, convenient cycle paths on major roads - facilities which give cyclists at least level priority with motor vehicles, and on minor roads for design to be such as to tame the motor car by blocking off rat-runs and keeping speeds low. What is required for cycling to increase are exactly the facilities in the video on Carlton Reid's blog.

Carlton Reid, and the LCC and CTC believe that one can increase cycling by not implementing these types of measures, and that cycling is increasing without resorting to these more expensive facilities. But as shown by the data on Carlton's blog, the increase is so small as to be barely able to be registered. It is not true that large numbers of people are taking up cycling without these facilities, the vast majority of people don't cycle, and have no intention of doing so. And universally the reason that is stated is that cycling in traffic on roads with no consideration for cyclists is too dangerous. 

Instead of implementing infrastructure that allows novice cyclists to go where they need to go in safety, the best that currently seems to be suggested for "newbies" is what Carlton Reid says on his blog - stick to minor roads with less traffic. This is the advice given out by cycling organisations and councils. Except that the traffic on these roads are normally rat-running, the roads are narrower so close passes are more frequent, minor roads often don't go where you need to go, and anyway they intersect major roads at which point the "newbie" cyclist is left stranded. All of this means that many "newbie" cyclists will simply give up and leave the bicycle rusting in the shed.

Organisations such as the LCC and CTC do a good job in trying to make the most of the scant money that is available, to lobby disinterested councils to think about cyclists on their roads and to try to protect the interests of current cyclists. But none of this is going to persuade people who don't already cycle to get on their bike and to do so in the numbers needed for a "cycling revolution" which increases modal share to even 10% less still the 20%+ in some European cities.

For that to happen we need the infrastructure that Carlton Reid believes is pie-in-the-sky. And if it is pie-in-the-sky (which, I agree is probably is) then talk by TfL and local councils about encouraging cycling and a cycling revolution is just bullshit, and all the strategy documents, adverts and marketing initiatives isn't going to change that. 

Dutch or Danish style cycle infrastructure may be a naive pipe-dream, but in that case so is any aspiration to bring about a significant change in cycle modal share. Talking about significantly increasing modal share whilst not grasping the thorny issue of giving space back to cyclists on our roads is the thing that is actually pie-in-the-sky.


  1. I agree with the view that a major increase in take-up will only occur with Dutch or Danish style infrastructure developments - which by the way are not entirely about segregated paths, as even the Netherlands has only 10-20% as much cycle path Kilometrage as it has roads. However to quote the old chestnut, "the longest journey starts with a single step".

    An increase in modal share of a mere 0.1% is an improvement on no increase at all.

    There are many small things, relatively easy wins, which could improve the conditions for existing bike users and encourage small numbers more to start, even if they don't achieve the step change. They don't have to cost much, or take space from cars, or be controversial: many more decent parking facilities; cycle contraflows on one-way streets wherever possible; more ASLs, permitted - cautionary -cycle left turns on red lights; extension and expansion of the Boris Bike scheme (in my view the most material enhancement to the London cycling environment in my memory, greater even than the 7/7 effect) and replication in other cities which don't yet have one.

    Many of these demand local activism (don't they say all politics is local?) which any of us can have a go at. I can't help feeling that our elected representtaives would take a more sympathetic and positive view of cycling if they saw less of CTC/LCC and the (probably unfair) image of men in lycra, and more of grumps like you and me, men in suits, women on Pashleys with wicker baskets on the front.

    How can we move this forward from being just a rant, to being more proactive?

  2. Small improvements are good. Small improvements help the lot of those cycling now - the one way street with a contra-flow, the placement of cycle parking. I am not against thinking local and small when it comes to this stuff - as you say it is the small stuff that is more likely to get done.

    The problem is that the small stuff is all that can realistically be achieved and yet councils and TfL seem to believe that we are on the cusp of a cycling revolution on the back of it. We are not. We are not even really starting to reverse the damage done in the last few decades.

    You are right that segregated cycle lanes don't solve everything and cycling on road in Holland is still very much a requirement. But segregation on busy major roads is required to be able to hook up those on-road cycling parts to enable everyone to feel safe cycling. And on road cycling needs to be on roads which have low-speed traffic and are designed with on-road cycling in mind. This is the big picture, absolutely missing even as an aspiration.

    The Boris Bikes have been a great success, but it probably cannot be replicated outside central London (too big an area, too complex to administer) but at least the scheme gets people thinking about cycling as an option.

    What can be done? Well, I started this blog as a rant, principally because it took me months to get nowhere on reporting that a set of cycle lights were out on a busy junction, and the whole experience was at complete odds to the ecofluff the council seems to be able to churn out in huge volumes. I believe ranting in the face of this intransigence is good for the soul! If the council really wanted to do something, Freewheeler has been blogging about poor facilities for years, and is known by the councillors. Yet I don't see much change.

    Maybe to get things done, it needs people like us to pester our councillors, our MP, to phone into TfL, to write to Boris. To make it more difficult for councils to do nothing than something. This is not easy, and probably requires local cyclists to concentrate on some key local issues (ie. focus on the "small stuff"). I am a fan of Charlton Athletic and they formed a single issue party in Greenwich when the local council was refusing planning permission at their ground. They contested nearly all the seats and got 11% of the vote - enough to make local politicians very nervous. They ended up getting planning permission and local councillors falling over themselves to be aligned with the club. So maybe the way to get things done is to organise and challenge local politicians' well developed sense of self-preservation.