Why we must say YES to getting Britain cycling

Today sees the start of the first ever parliamentary inquiry in to the state of cycling in the United Kingdom, and will hear from expert witnesses as to what needs to be done to "Get Britain Cycling".  Many fine words will be said during the evidence sessions in the Houses of Parliament over the next six weeks, but the real answers lay not in a debating chamber, but in the streets outside.

That bikes are a good thing is surely a universally recognised thing; cycling champions have been quick to point out that they're a silver bullet that will seemingly solve the obesity crisis, air pollution concerns and fragmented communities single-handedly.  But the reasons for why most people don't currently ride a bike are more complex than "I like my car" or "There are no showers at work" or even "I need more bicycle training".

"Broadly speaking, children, older people, most women, people from ethnic minorities and people with more limited ability do not cycle in the UK."  Photos from a recent trip to the Netherlands.

The Times newspaper, with their excellent and dogged pursuit of the cycle safe agenda with their ongoing "Cities Fit For Cycling" campaign have probably gotten closest to the crux of the matter.  Of a poll of their readers, when asked "What will make you cycle more" the thing that was asked for the most were high quality separated cycleways.  Now, we can argue the detail of how best to keep bicycles and motorised traffic apart - and bicycles do fair best when they are apart from traffic - whether that's using curbed cycle lanes or creating "cycle corridors" by shutting down entire streets to through-traffic, but the end result is the same; that is to say a space is created in which a much broader cross-section of the population can feel safe riding a bike on an everyday basis.

I myself will be giving evidence at the inquiry's 6th February session looking at planning and urban design and my key point will be this; if the United Kingdom wishes to see many more people riding bikes (say 20% or even 30%) then the make up of cyclists in this country will have to change.  Not only does Britain currently enjoy a pitifully low modal share for journeys by bike (around 2%), the vast majority of these journeys are taken by young(ish) white males.  Broadly speaking, children, older people, most women, people from ethnic minorities and people with more limited ability do not cycle in the UK.  You could argue that it is the dominant traffic environment that puts them off, or the expectation that they should learn to cycle at 30km/h to deal with such an environment to stay safe in the first place (the basic premise of John Franklin's Cyclecraft, no less), but put off they clearly are.  Even with the best will in the world, well-meaning promotional campaigns, increased levels of subsidised bicycle training, personalised journey planning (and other such interventions so beloved by cycling campaigns) will only ever be able to reach a small proportion of the population.  If we want to see mass cycling rates in this country - and I'm assuming here that we all do - then a large and much more diverse proportion of people are going to have to arrive at the decision by themselves that the roads outside are somewhere they can feel safe cycling themselves.  Politicians looking out of the windows of the Palace of Westminster across Parliament Square won't have to search far to see that much needs to be done to make the space between buildings a much more accommodating place for people on bikes and not just motor cars.

Over Westminster Bridge
Energy for change on the streets has come from the streets - the cyclesafe ride on Parliament in Feb 2012.

That an inquiry is even taking place in to the state of cycling in the United Kingdom is in itself nothing short of a small miracle.  You can chart a line through the past few years through the energy of the Blackfriars flashrides, through the determination of The Times' cyclesafe campaign, through the "Go Dutch" big ride to today's inquiry launch.  Before all of this began if you had asked any cycling campaigner whether they thought it would be possible that in 2013 parliament would be holding an inquiry in to bicycle use they'd have laughed in your face.  All of the energy, passion and commitment swept up in those protest rides, debates and campaigns all called for the same thing that the inquiry will call for; firm action and resolve from the Government to allow many more people to feel enabled to ride.

Labour MP Ian Austin, who is co-chairman of the inquiry, said: “We’re launching this to build on the momentum created by The Times’s brilliant campaign, which has given cycling safety a higher priority than ever before. The time has come for the Government to commit to real change in the way Britain’s transport system is run to make cycling safer and get more people on their bikes.

People - voters - across the country will be watching intently to insist that all of these good words turn in to action and that our cities truly start to become fit for cycling for everyone.  We must work together to ask 'the other 98%' - those who don't cycle - why they don't, and ensure that we listen to what they tell us.

The All Party Cycling Group will be live-tweeting coverage of the inquiry using their Twitter handle @AllPartyCycling and you can hear what people are saying and contribute yourself using the GetBritainCycling hash tag (or indeed you can attend Parliament to watch in person if you wish).  I'm giving evidence on planning and urban design for cyclists on the 6th February - what do you think I should tell the Government?

Share |


Nick said...

We completely agree. Cycling benefits everyone, even motorists (and even if they don't recognize it!). How much congestion/petrol consumption is down to cyclists?! We need some lessons from Europe

Anonymous said...

Mark I know your agenda is segregation and I agree with you. Still I would like you to not go into the inquiry and ask for just segregation. Although it is true that "the thing that was asked for the most were high quality separated cycleways" that misrepresents the results of the Times survey. Almost the same number asked for safer junctions, and a large number asked for 20mph speed limits. I would ask for all of the above plus proper signage. And I would rather have shared paths now in rural areas than no cycle facilities for 5 years till segregation is installed.



ibikelondon said...

Hi Chris

Don't worry, it won't just be side path cycle tracks that I'll be talking about, nor will it be the only thing I ask for. Indeed, I think "segregation" is an unhelpful phrase (for the obvious reasons to start with!) when in fact what is more desirable is "separation"; creating Cul de Sacs, cycle streets, greenways and all the rest of it can help reduce exposure to traffic and seperate modes. The key on the main roads is of course seperated cycleways, and these will be discussed, but have no fear - there's more than one trick to this pony!

christhebull said...

Well, one thing I would like to say is that the DMRB (Design Manual for Roads and Bridges) is inappropriate for any road which cyclists can use, or even for any road with adjacent facilities which cyclists may use. It's usual attitude is "if there might be cyclists, make a marginal concession to cyclists, otherwise, feel free to design so that there won't be cyclists". The problem is that almost any highways scheme that is not a "cycling" scheme (so most of them) will be designed along motor-centric guidelines, whether it's a new roundabout for a supermarket or a new bypass. This ought to be changed so that the nature of provision of cycle facilities is bound to the capacity and design speed of the new or improved road, with improved detail design for cycle tracks, cycle crossings and junctions. This is especially important to creating fast cycle tracks on rural roads.

And regarding new roads, British towns and cities are full of inner relief roads, realignments, dualled roads and bridges, and so on. Certain areas of Bristol are unrecognisable from 100, 60, or even 10 years ago as new roads and developments have been built. And yet the inadequate and slow progress to restricting motor traffic continues, such as the closure of the inner ring road across Queen Square.

The fact that most of the improvements to cycling have occurred since then, with various road closures and alterations throughout the city shows that the belief amongst certain CTC figures that the Netherlands was only able to make improvements to cycling because of significant road building and inner ring roads is nonsense. Of course, we have had significant road building in our towns and cities with widening, so it is entirely possible to claw this space along our major roads back for cycling. For example, both Bath Bridge and Bedminster Bridges are now one way, with newer adjacent bridges to carry traffic the other way. It would be entirely possible to take away a lane on one bridge for a cycle track and still have more motor vehicle capacity than in the original scenario.

The scenario should not be "We can't accommodate for cycling because of our urban form" but rather "Why has everywhere in the UK gone out of its way to accommodate the motor car to such an extent as to significantly change the urban form?"

There ought to be a presumption against any kind of dual provision along the same road. For example, some roads have ASLs and shared use pavements in the same place. There should be no false dichotomy between slow and awkward shared use pavements with staggered crossings; and ASLs with narrow feeder lanes, as exists in Bristol and other towns and cities.

Regarding the previous comment on shared paths, I understand that they are used in rural areas in the Netherlands on the basis that they are cycle tracks, often with lane markings, that pedestrians may also use in the absence of a pavement.

The Ranty Highwayman said...

DMRB is only mandatory on trunk roads and motorways - Highways Agency roads. It is technically commended to everyone else, but Manual for Streets and MfS2 are far more applicable, but cycle design guidance is probably 10 years out of date and I hope that is also picked up by the inquiry.

Anonymous said...

We agree that road design needs to provide protected space for cycling - but this will require a paradigm shift among transport planners and engineers. In my area the engineers use excuses about the Romans or 1930s builders to explain why our roads are too narrow for cycle lanes, and they don't build zebra crossings because there are simultaneously so many pedestrians that they will delay motorists and so few pedestrians that it isn't worthwhile. Even if politicians are keen for better cycling conditions, practically this has to be achieved through how the engineers choose to design the roads.

Traffic engineers should realise what huge influence they have on people's health and the way they live their lives. They need to have a culture of continuous education and improvement, and be guided by high-quality recommendations (e.g. a road design manual which incorporates optimal cycling and pedestrian design in all its examples).

I think the Government should take a leading role in establishing an institute of cycling excellence to build strong links with Holland and other European neighbours, rewrite the road design manual and send our traffic engineers on a Dutch study tour.


christhebull said...

@The Ranty Highwayman - Point taken regarding DMRB not being used as much as I thought it was, but those roads (with the obvious exception of motorways) are the most dangerous for cyclists and yet tend to form the most convenient routes between towns, and there are still lots of urban roads designed under what can be politely described as contextually inappropriate older guidelines. Of course, the other guidance ought to be revised as well...

Schrödinger's Cat said...

With regards to what Chris and The Ranty Highwayman said, whatever the book is called – DMRB, MfS, whatever – there does need to be a overhaul of it all.

It's not just about the funding. There has to be clear guidelines which anyone building a road must follow. After all, every give way marking, every double yellow line, every traffic light, they're all identical across the whole of the UK. That didn't happen by accident. A standard has been set somewhere, written down and printed up, and it's being followed when roads are installed and upgraded.

So there really has to be legislation and a manual which dictates the cycling infrastructure which must be installed. This would surely mean that a road being widened would gain cycle infrastructure and it would come out of the budget for that project, not some separate cycling infrastructure budget.

And it must be mandatory. If you're a local authority building a new ring road, it has to have separate cycle-paths, minimum 2m wide, etc.

So, in summary, it's not just about the money and vague commitments, it's about mandating a minimum level of infrastructure.

I think I've laboured this point enough now!

Anonymous said...

I know you've got making the street environment a pleasant place to ride covered - for all, including those who are less able - but it also needs stressing that people using trikes or handcycles are often physically barred from the cycle network.

When designing for cycling, catering for the size and handling characteristics of handcycles, trikes and tandems needs to be a non negotiable minimum requirement. We have an Equality Act but it isn't being applied to the design of cycle infrastructure.

The positive side to that is catering for the disabled benefits everyone - no more ridiculously narrow channels and tight turns.

The Ranty Highwayman is a little awry with his estimate of the age of cycle design guidance; LTN 2/08 Cycle Infrastructure Design is only four and a bit years old. Still needs a rewrite though, particularly with regard to equality...

And I agree with SC above, we need more than guidelines. Perhaps the Equality Act could help support that argument.