Monday 8 April 2013

'Cycling networks' don't work here

In 1973, the first mobile phone was launched onto the market. It weighed 1.1kg, and measured 23cm x 4.5cm x 13cm. Talk time was just 30 minutes, and the battery took 10 hours to re-charge.

In the same year, as the number of children being killed on Dutch roads became a cause for increasing alarm (450  in 1973), the Stop de Kindermoord campaign (Stop the child murder) launched in the Netherlands.

As Freewheeler from Crap Waltham Forest blog explains: "From 1950-1975 cycling was excluded from the government’s transport planning. Car ownership increased from half a million cars in 1960 to 4.6 million in 1981. Cycling vanished from city centre streets. Bike lanes became filled with parked cars. Proposals to put dedicated cycle lights at major junctions were resisted on the grounds of cost and that they would slow down drivers. Car use was believed to be of major economic importance. One study revealed a situation in which 83 per cent of households owned a bicycle but only one in six ever used them for utility cycling. There was a 70% modal share drop in cycling between 1950-1970. 

"Sound familiar? But this is a description of the Netherlands ..."

The first efforts at developing a more coherent and more comprehensive cycling infrastructure in Holland are now regarded as ‘crap’, not to be copied. There is an argument which says something along the lines of the following: If we wanted to develop a new mobile phone now, we wouldn’t use ‘outdated’  technology (of the sort which was only available back in 1973). For the same reason, therefore, if we wanted to develop a new cycling environment now, we wouldn’t use ‘outdated’ Dutch thinking. As David Hembrow, the author of the influential blog A view from the cycle path, explains: “There is no need to learn from the past mistakes of the Netherlands by repeating them. You can leapfrog over them and copy what really works. Use the best examples. Ignore less good examples.”

David Hembrow writes: “In the past, Assen had cycle-lanes in the
middle of the road.They're gone now. Not a good idea. Don't copy this.”
On the face of it this line of reasoning seems quite persuasive. After all, what is the sense in campaigning for something which isn't actually very good?  Holland is the most successful cycling nation by far and is, therefore, in David’s view, the single best place to look for inspiration. “But when looking here,” he cautions, “you need to seek out the best examples. Don't aim low because by doing so you guarantee not to achieve a high cycling modal share.”

The problem with this way of thinking is that actually it overlooks one significant detail. People have long been aware of what constitutes a decent cycling environment. The first segregated cycle track to be developed in Denmark , for example, was installed in 1909. (The problem which segregated cycle tracks needed to solve back then was not one of safety, but of comfort. At that time, most of the roads, if they were treated at all, were cobbled.)

Certainly by the 1930s, the authorities here in the UK were well aware of what constituted a good cycling environment, as this photo shows.

Chertsey Road, Twickenham (Picture via Carlton Reid)
The problems which had to be overcome in order to make mobile phones more user-friendly were ‘technological’ in nature. It seems reasonable to suppose that engineers working in this field were not entirely grappling around in the dark, but to a large extent, I imagine, there would have been lots of trial and error.

This was far from the same situation that Dutch cycling engineers faced in the early days. The difficulties they had to overcome back then were mainly ‘political’ in nature. Infrastructure-wise, they had a very good idea of what needed to be done. Some of the finer details were still to be worked out, it is true, but nothing the Dutch have done subsequently could be regarded as representing a step-change in their thinking.

When Dutch engineers set about rebuilding their cycle infrastructure in the mid-1970s, they realised that ‘not everything’ could be done to a high standard all in one go. However, they didn’t regard this as a reason why ‘not anything’ should be done instead. Crucially, such works as were done to begin with, though fairly modest by today’s standards, were carried out within the framework provided by a functioning network, and not in isolation. That is to say, these works were “introduced” as part of a bigger plan.

Dutch engineers would certainly have understood that the design process often involves many iterations or cycles before people can be happy with the final result. They were not, therefore, overly concerned to ‘get it right’ first time around. And nor should we be. As Churchill has noted: “The maxim, ‘Nothing but perfection’, may be spelled paralysis.”

The first mobile phones were big and clunky and impractical, but so what? The telephone engineers had to start somewhere. Since their introduction, of course, mobile phone technology has come on in leaps and bounds. This has happened directly as a result of sustained investment.

As David himself acknowledges, what is really needed is “to make genuine political and financial commitments which will last for decades.” If these commitments are in place, there is simply no need to concern ourselves with trying to “catch up as quickly as possible.”

In the race against the hare, the essential thing was to take that first step, as the tortoise was only too well aware. Having taken that first step, the tortoise knew enough just to keep on plodding along, gently and purposefully and patiently and resolutely. We must do the same, with a meaningful programme of investment which is sustained over time.


David Hembrow suggests that I seem to have set up a straw man who doesn't quite represent his views. What David actually wrote was as follows: "The worst thing for campaigners to do is to hamper their own efforts by not setting a high enough standard for themselves and for the community that they live in. If you were planning a mission to the moon, would you go to NASA for advice, or would you prefer to take notice of what the Ugandan space programme had achieved on the grounds that it looks more affordable than NASA ?"

David Arditti has recently written: "Andrew Gilligan, the Mayor's Cycling Commissioner, was keen to [emphasise] at the launch of the strategy [...] that the case for an east-west cycle link (the "Crossrail for the Bike") was economic: it could take the equivalent of three extra trains per hour on the Central Line, at vastly less cost than any kind of tube upgrade. That's the point of view that it's always been my impression the Dutch principally had in developing their cycle networks; it wasn't about "being green", or doing anything for pollution or health, it was just sensible and economic: a very effective way of increasing mobility while reducing congestion and using available city space better, at low cost. It seems TfL have 'got it' at last. Hooray."

In any case, if you are going to spend a lot of money, nobody is suggesting that you shouldn't do it properly, or that you shouldn't be inspired by the best. We're talking about where to begin.

This is from Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities:

"The network can be introduced on the basis of an overall plan (preliminary plan). Ideally, such a plan ought to be based specifically on cycle routes that have been studied; it could also be based on the existing hierarchy of roadways and corrections introduced. If it is not possible to systematically remodel the entire network to better meet the needs of cyclists, specific action can be taken on each occasion that works need to be done. Most of the time, the additional expenditure needed to meet the requirements of cyclists is comparatively minimal."

The idea with "introducing" a network on the basis of a preliminary plan is not simply just to save money, but more importantly, to save time. Which leads us onto David Hembrow's next point, in which he says that I have “mis-represented the lesson which the Dutch learnt from Stop de Kindermoord. They didn't have a period of slow progress but learnt very quickly and acted very quickly. That is how they turned around their infrastructure in such a short period of time. Much was achieved in just eight years, rather fewer than the currently popularly quoted "forty years". Policy changed very quickly and funds were made available very quickly. The best possible changes that they knew how to make were made as quickly as it was possible to make them. Different things were tried in different places and what was proven to be successful was copied elsewhere. These initial attempts were in some ways flawed but these flaws were themselves corrected over time.”

Reading back over what I have written, the only relevant passage I can find is as follows: “Such works as were done to begin with, though fairly modest by today’s standards, were carried out within the framework provided by a functioning network, and not in isolation.”

I didn’t ever suggest that the Dutch had a period of slow progress. I am talking about getting the network up and running. This definitely should be done quickly. What happened in the Netherlands thereafter is impressive. But the point remains, that although they got into fifth gear within very little time – reinforcing survey results which show that the public are in fact amenable to quality of life arguments, by the way – they still pulled away in first.

David also writes how a comprehensive network is absolutely vital to encourage cycling. “That this is vital,” he continues, “was one of the most important results of Dutch research following their attempts at promoting cycling in the 1970s, and I've never seen a reason to disagree.”

He also makes the point that developing isolated bits of infrastructure and then hoping some time later to joint them up has never worked, and that's why he has never advocated this approach. Indeed, he argues against putting an emphasis on exceptional pieces of infrastructure – particularly as they tend to stand in isolation – and points out that a dense and comprehensive network "which goes everywhere and which everyone uses every-day for all their journeys" is nothing less than what is needed.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with all you have to say. But two extremely simple, inexpensive, yet essential components are missing from virtually every bicycle network worldwide including the one in the Netherlands. Those two components are: a common vocabulary/terminology and a platform.
    I am planning a four month bike trail tour of Europe. The transportation system and lodging availability in Europe are incredible. But trying to figure out a trail biking itinerary has been nearly impossible. The terms trail, bike lane, road, protected bike lane, highway, trail, bike path, route and path are used completely interchangeably. One of the worst examples is a particular "bike path" that sounded awesome... until I found out that 90% of it was on roads/highways/streets. In their description of the route, they called it a trail, a bike path, a route and a path. Anything that involves more than 15% road (or highway or street - even if said road has a bike lane) is a route, not a path or trail.
    Secondly, we need one source for finding all bike trails/paths worldwide. I've been trying to interest other trail enthusiasts to begin sharing their favorite bike trails on, but so far not a lot of interest. Most of the ride-mapping sites are mostly for road bikers. Some of them include a category for mountain bike trails. But none of them have categories just for bike paths. Trails are great for exercise, recreation, safety and transportation. Yet there seems to be little unity among trail enthusiasts and supporters.