Tuesday 19 July 2011

The cycle paths to happy cycling - digging deeper

With the launch of our new website, our work now turns to exploring the political, social and economic constraints on cycling. We recently published an article in the new magazine Cycling Mobility, which explored the influence of habitus on cycling policies in the UK and Germany. This set us thinking about the many hours of material that were never used in the final production, and how there are many other stories that could be told by these young women. We featured short portraits of Darlington girls Sofija, Kate and Lauren during their visit to Bremen in 2009, but the Bremen girls, and their perspectives on cycling, are just as interesting. They reveal how there is much more to what David Hembrow calls "subjective safety" than has so far been written. And how our understanding of cycling can be so different.

Ricarda, one of the Beauty and the Bike girls from Bremen, spoke of "cycling" in the UK not being what she understood as "cycling" at all. We later queried her about this, and she talked a lot about cycling on roads with motorised traffic, whether in a lane or without, as being completely alien to her. There was an interesting aside about this when we were filming the two groups of girls in Bremen. Ricarda asks Harri what she thought of cycling along a mandatory cycle lane that had recently been developed on Hamburger Strasse. Harri responds by saying how safe she felt. But Ricarda later stated that she prefers to cycle "on the pavement" - this mandatory cycle lane just wasn't up to the standard that she wanted from cycling infrastructure.

Of course Ricarda didn't actually mean that she preferred to use the pedestrian space we call the pavement or sidewalk. What she was saying was that her idea of cycling was very much divorced from roads designed for motorised traffic. Living in Bremen, it was possible to get around most places without actually using a busy road. Yet here was a bit of new infrastructure that contradicted this vision. The road engineer who worked on this project also hinted that it was a "little bit different" for Bremen to be developing cycling infrastructure on the road - historically, Bremen's cycle paths have been built, as Ricarda says, on pavements.

From an infrastructure point of view, Hamburger Strasse is deemed an advance for cycling. Considerable space was taken away from motorised traffic to create the cycle lanes, and in fact they are often on the pavement as well. Bremen's older on-pavement cycle paths are often painfully narrow. But from a cycling culture point of view, it seems like a bit of a backward step to be putting cyclists on a road - albeit with some sense of safety provided by the nature of the mandatory lane.

Ricarda's vision of cycling as having nothing whatever to do with on-road activity has some pretty interesting cultural repercussions. If cycling is less like vehicular traffic and more like walking, well we can chat and take our time, can't we? We can use umbrellas, stop and window-gaze at every little shop,

play at look no hands as we cycle along, the possibilities are endless. And a long way away from the health and safety oriented vision of cycling in countries like the UK and the USA. Yet these contrasting ideas about cycling are shaping how cycling develops culturally. 

I would suggest this is a bit like pedestrians and pavements. In most countries with little or no infrastructure, roads/dirt tracks are shared by all. In most western societies, pavements have developed in urban areas for pedestrians. As pedestrians, we would find it alien to have to share all urban roads with motorised traffic.

Bicycling is a different mode of transport, with its own needs, speed, age ranges, that logically does not tally with the very different needs of motorised traffic. Yet certain countries deem it acceptable to continue to insist on cyclists doing just that. Perhaps for consistency, we should begin to rip up our pavements and insist that pedestrians also share road space. After all, some American cities organise their streets in exactly this way.

How to best integrate different transport modes requires a clear understanding of the nature of each. To take an obvious example, speed. On urban roads with a 30mph (48km/h) speed limit, average free flowing traffic speeds are in fact just that - 30mph (2009).  The average free-flow urban cycling speed in cities with dedicated infrastructure lies between 6.2 mph (10 km/h) and 17.4mph (28 km/h) with a majority of the reported speeds in the literature being between 7.5mph (12 km/h) and 12.4 mph (20 km/h). Average walking speed is about 4mph (6.5km/h).

Clearly, any decision to combine two or three of these modes requires careful consideration about the impact one mode might have on others. Thus mixed cycling and walking space is typically designed primarily around the needs of (slower) walkers, with cyclists treated as invited guests.  Similarly, mixed walking, cycling and motoring space such as Home Zones are designed to make motorists feel that they are a guest in the street, and must make it difficult for them to travel at speeds of more than 10 mph. In both these cases, priority is given to slower, more vulnerable traffic member.

Applying the same principle to mixing cyclists and motorists also makes absolute sense. Thus in countries with a more developed planning approach to cycling, facilities like Cycle Streets are designed as cyclist-priority streets with access for motorised traffic.

Cycle Street in Bremen, Germany
Similarly, the aim of the 20's Plenty Campaign is to establish a speed limit norm of 20mph (30km/h) in residential areas, as a means of moving towards streets that again can be used by residents and their children. What is particularly interesting is what happens in residential streets when such speed limits are combined with a strong cycling culture - the subject of our next post. But undoubtedly the great exception to these principles is the mixing of cyclists and motorists on busy 30mph roads. The illogic of this is only sustained as long as the number of cyclists is kept to a minimum, or in  some cases legally eliminated altogether. In the vast majority of towns and cities where this is the norm, cycling numbers remain stubbornly low. Dutch style infrastructure, as currently being considered by London Cycling Campaign, and advocated by both Darlington and Newcastle Cycling Campaigns, as well as a host of other online commentators, means good quality cycle paths alongside busy arterial roads.

Without this key strategic understanding, all the well-funded work going on around 20mph speed limits, cycle training, the marketing of cycling as healthy, and so on will have little effect on the levels of cycling in countries like the UK. "Cycling", as understood by Ricarda in our film, will continue to be a pipe dream.