Revolution may be afoot as governments plan to make more urban cycling havens, but cities can’t learn to love cycling superhighways. Or can they?
Falling in love and learning to love are two different but somehow oft-confused journeys. You fall in love without trying, despite flaws and complications; learning to love is coercion, a wilful act of categorising and laying siege to each tiny discrepancy until you can live with them.
People fall in love with bikes, cities are rarely so sure.
I live in London, where to watch mayor Boris Johnson waffling on his two wheels through the streets is a local pastime. People do cycle here and more people are cycling here every day, according to statistics and the visibly multiplying hordes of luminous-jacketed pedallers weaving a wonky path along the Embankment everyday. But the relationship is a deeply uneasy one.
Cycling along said Embankment not long ago, thinking about how beautiful the evening was and trying not to have my elbows grazed by passing motorbikes, I got a reminder of what other people see. A woman was halfway across a pedestrian crossing on a busy section of road where cars, taxis, motorbikes and cyclists, including me, revved and leaned impatiently, when she stopped and came back to address us cyclists. “You lot need to stop, I’ve had enough of you,” she said shaking her fist (actually!) before continuing back on her course. She may have been a victim, drunk, or simply brave enough to say what other pedestrians don’t, but she reminded me that the city doesn’t love a cyclist. We’re in the way.
More than that, for the bravura around unleashing a city of cyclists, there’s plenty to put off would-be cyclists: cities are dangerous, motorists don’t respect cyclists, cyclists don’t respect cyclists, roads are poorly planned, the rules on where you can and can’t cycle blur so much as to be useless. You can’t just plonk a load of cyclists in a space and expect everyone to get along.
For figureheads and politicians, it’s good to talk about making a city love cycling. Says Kulveer Ranger, the Mayor’s transport advisor and TfL board member “This is London’s year of cycling. The look and feel of the city, as well as our approach to cycling will radically change this summer through the delivery of the best cycle-hire scheme in the world and the first two cycle superhighways.”
Sound familiar? London is an interesting battleground as rhetoric and goodwill come up against the very fabric of the city. But it certainly isn’t the only place trying to learn its way into becoming a cycling city: Chicago, under the guidance of former transportation director to the White House, Gabe Klein, is a year into its Streets for Cycling 2020 plan, which calls for the installation of a whopping 100 miles of separated bike lanes over the next four years.
Bike lanes, however, might be a warm gesture from the city to the cyclist – but without conviction for change in individuals, from lawmakers to lorry drivers, being in a city with cyclists is like a crammed lift with a lycra-clad road warrior and his bike trying to wedge in the corner. If you’ve ever had to cross three lanes of traffic or been cut up at slip roads, you’ll know how drivers respond.
Across the UK, it’s definitely the case in many cities. A recent blog post by Owen Duffy for The Guardian argued that though Glasgow should be a cyclist’s paradise, it’s far from it. It will be home to the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome and, by Duffy’s description, its size and prominent green spaces should make cycling ideal. But the layout of the road structure and the culture of the city has only motor vehicles in mind. When a place is so determinedly not set up for cyclists, alterations can feel cosmetic and have little effect on the hostile ride to work. Glasgow riders may be able to ready to try and emulate Sir Chris, but they may not be able to get to the velodrome on two wheels.
Compare Glasgow or London with Cambridge, proclaimed as the UK’s most cycle-friendly city, and you get a glimpse of a more idyllic relationship between rider and driver.
Watch the bikes swarming through the rest of the traffic and note the lack of cycle lanes. Cambridge has a tradition of students cycling that goes way back and it is remarkably flat. But it’s not that the city has been built with cyclists in mind – it’s that the cyclists and the city get along.
When you take England as a whole, there’s a marked discrepancy between cities such as Cambridge, Oxford and York and, say, Bolton or Newcastle, in terms of frequency of cycling. In the former, the cycling community has political heft, ensuring that not only do more riders feel they’re able to commute, but also that they’re not unwelcome insects in a car-fuelled metropolis. When you have a community, you not only open up the cycling culture itself, you also make the concerns of cyclists something that the city cares about. In Cambridge, you’d be foolish to aggravate the cyclists – in London, a company like Addison Lee can openly declare war on them.
There’s even a push by the Cambridge Cycling Campaign (CCC) to try and get Dutch-style segregated paths, something London cyclists would sincerely welcome, as the Love London, Go Dutch campaign has proved.
Of course, the Dutch aren’t the only templates. Copenhagen is frequently cited as one of Europe’s, and the world’s, most cycling-friendly city. It isn’t just that the Copenhagenites love cycling – they have a city that loves cycling. The inhabitants pedal 1.21 million kilometres a day, collectively, 40% of children ride to school, while 55% say they cycle because its faster (stats courtesy of Sivellink). It makes sense to ride in Copenhagen and it’s part of life there.
Back to London and a recent meeting between TfL and the London Assembly, where TfL has seconded a Danish infrastructure expert to share expertise with street planners in London. Exciting plans afoot, but as London Cycling Campaign chief executive Ashok Sinha points out, plans to which the real barrier is political will.
A look at the divergent fortunes, from a cycling perspective, of Copenhagen and, say, Los Angeles, reveals that political willpower forced one city into change, while the other continued its affair with the motor car. Writing in the LA Times in 2008, Michael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize.com relates the story, “We started pedestrianising our city center and creating bicycle-friendly infrastructure. There were protests, sure, but the cries died out as soon as people realised that commerce increased and that the city was a lovelier place to be.”
“These sentiments can be just as well applied to bicycle culture and the bicycle as a feasible transport form. Imagination is required, as well as public and political will, but two out of three are an excellent start.”
Perhaps here is where the final clues lie to turning this doomed triste into something more dependable.
According to figures from TfL’s Cycling Revolution campaign (pdf here), of all the journeys in London that could be made by bike, 30% are in Inner London boroughs – it’s this battleground where motorists still dominate. Eyeing Copenhagen’s relationship with its cyclists jealously, London has firmly ingrained a culture around the motor vehicle and the problem is that simply getting more cyclists on the road won’t solve the problems that a dominant class of motorists are likely to cause. But they’re not the only worry…
It’s not you, it’s me
As The Economist picked up on recently, John Pucher, Ralph Buehler and Mark Seinen’s 2011 paper Bicycling renaissance in North America? An update and reappraisal of cycling trends and policies explains that almost all the growth in cycling in America has come from men aged 25-64. The growth as a sport doesn’t necessarily run parallel to growth as an accepted part of wider culture and that theme has made it across the Atlantic Ocean.
Getting behind ambitious change programmes to try and make cities’ infrastructure more capable of handling greater volumes of cyclists is an excellent cause, but what if its main effect is enabling one social strata of cyclists to cycle more? London’s cyclist community, like the growing clan of cyclists in North America, is still quite different from a city like Amsterdam’s and it’s a crucial contrast because the behaviour and perception of those cyclists that enjoy the crossover between commuting and weekend jaunts doesn’t necessarily help the cycling community’s cause in a city, nor can a swathe of society that’s interest is leaned towards the sporty side of the spectrum be relied on to raise a voice for what needs to be a much broader spread of active cyclists.
Perhaps there’s a lesson to be gained from the background of continental cycling cities, where cycling crossed over from a hippie pastime to common mode of transport when parents realised the roads weren’t safe for their children and demanded change. Not only is the will of that section of society much broader and stronger, the next generation of cyclists got involved. ‘Inspiring a generation’ is an agenda that cycling groups should share.
Cycling culture itself needs to change.
From cycling proficiency to council-led courses, from the availability of bike shops and facilities to the spread of community groups, cyclists in cities need to educate themselves and each other. Depending where you live, that process is happening, but its growth and success may have a greater impact than the ongoing battle over ideas like cycling superhighways.
Learning to love cycling means deeper shifts from both sides of the partnership; it means invoking deeper motives than protecting enthusiasts and it means persistant campaigning. No-one said it would be easy.
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