Recent UK research concludes most people are unlikely to take up city cycling unless conditions improve dramatically. For anyone interested in seeing many more people on bikes and our towns and cities transformed, this begs the question: how do we best promote urban cycling?
There are two schools of thought. They’re often seen as incompatible, even opposed, though we’ll see here how that’s not true. First, ‘integrationists’ argue for cycling’s place in the existing road network. For them, cycling is best promoted by teaching people to ride effectively and safely on the roads, and by making those roads more hospitable through, for example, slowing down motorised traffic. Second, ‘segregationists’ argue cycling be separated from other modes. For them cycling is best promoted by giving it infrastructure of its own, separate from motorised vehicles on the one hand, and pedestrians on the other.
Britain is finally taking the bicycle seriously as an ordinary mode of urban transport. Cycling’s profile is rising fast, and it’s finding advocates in some unlikely places; The Times newspaper, for example, is running an ambitious ‘Cities fit for cycling’ campaign. Cycling’s urban revival is bringing the segregation v integration debate to the boil. Following a vote of its 11,000 members, London Cycling Campaign recently launched a ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign. One aim is clear space, Dutch-style, for cycling along major roads across London. With city cycling in the spotlight, and people questioning the way ahead, which route should UK cycling take? Will more people ride if we improve the on-road environment, or if we build separate infrastructure for cycling?
Recent attention centres on London, where cycling is growing especially fast, but also where concerns about its safety are most pronounced. We’ll look elsewhere, but with the Olympic Games so close and all eyes on England’s capital, and with what’s happening there likely to impact on other places, let’s start there.
David Dansky is Head of Training & Development at Cycle Training UK, an independent provider of on-road cycle training. ‘London’, he says, ‘is a model of good integration. Cycling has doubled in the last decade, and more than 8% of inner-London’s commuting journeys are now made by bike; all with little if any segregation.’
London has actively promoted the sharing of its limited road space and encouraged people to ride through measures such as training and marketing: ‘The more people on bikes the safer the streets become, and the easier it is to get still more people cycling – it’s a virtuous circle’, says Dansky. He says there’s more work to be done, especially around driver education, but still sees the capital as providing a model for other cities: ‘What’s been achieved here can be achieved elsewhere.’
If cycling is doing so well, why has the London Cycling Campaign launched its ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ initiative? Chief Executive Ashok Sinha says ‘many people are now cycling, but cycling levels remain far below their potential. Conditions remain intimidating, and we believe far more people will ride when they’re improved. Concern about sharing road space with congested or fast-moving motor traffic is the number one reason why Londoners don’t take up cycling or cycle more often. Our ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign is a response to the deep worries that existing and potential cyclists have about safety, and calls for a radical new approach to street design, as well as for greater priority in general to be given to the safer movement of cyclists and pedestrians.’
If segregating cycling is the key to getting people on bikes, haven’t we been here before, and failed? Look at Milton Keynes – a comprehensive network of segregated cycle routes, but very little cycling. Dr Tim Jones is an expert in urban planning and sustainable mobility at Oxford Brookes University, and a keen cyclist. When it comes to segregation, he says Milton Keynes is a red herring. ‘It appears to provide for cycling, but was designed for cars, not bikes’, says Jones. ‘Driving in Milton Keynes is quicker, easier and more convenient than cycling which is consigned to paths through areas devoid of life – a relic of a zoning system where activities are separated and spread out. Segregating cycling only works if at the same time it’s hard wired into the existing street network where you typically find activities and people, and of course, it’s made easier and more convenient than driving.’
Milton Keynes has given segregation a bad name. So too have the sorts of ‘facility’ you probably know all too well, the ridiculous bits of so-called ‘cycling infrastructure’ you can see on Warrington Cycle Campaign’s ‘facility of the month’ webpages, and which inspired a book fittingly titled ‘Crap Cycle Lanes’. You know the kind of thing – truly rubbish bits of cycle lane which might be hilarious, were we not expected to ride on them. Cycle paths which suddenly disappear or stop at every junction aren’t just inconvenient, they’re dangerous too. Bad segregation makes cycling more difficult. It hinders cycling, both our own and that of others. It certainly doesn’t help people who want to cycle actually do so. Segregation done badly is something we definitely don’t want.
If we know what we don’t want, how do we get what we do?
Newcastle Cycling Campaign last year ran a ‘Loopy Lanes’ campaign, highlighting the awful quality of cycling provision across the city. Unlike London, there’s no sign yet of a ‘cycling revolution’ taking place here. Campaign Chair Katja Leyendecker is an advocate of cycling for all, and this, she says, requires a transformation in existing conditions. ‘I don’t see how cycling will grow in the absence of segregated cycling on big, busy main roads.’ Have there, I ask her, been attempts to segregate cycling in the city?
‘Some attempts at making cycling safe on main roads have been made over the past 20 years or so, in dribs and drabs. But they still leave cyclists woefully exposed at junctions. There isn’t one example where cycling has priority over driving.’
Leyendecker says a new standard of segregation is essential if Britain is to get on its bike. ‘We must follow neither past nor current practice in the UK, but look elsewhere: to the Dutch, Danes and Germans. The UK has never built cycling facilities which actually advantage cycling over other modes, but if we want to get more people on bikes, hopefully women too this time, for an inclusive cycling revolution so to speak, that’s what we must do. Segregation’, she says, ‘is about integration, really, and inclusion.’ New improved segregation would make cycling continuous; giving the cyclist priority over drivers turning across her path. It also requires taking space from cars, both parked and moving.
The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is a new organisation inspired by Dutch cycling. It sees quality segregation as vital. Sally Hinchcliffe, its Secretary, says ‘it seems obvious that cycling won’t become mainstream until something’s done to make it feel safer. Clearly, we aren’t calling for separated tracks everywhere, but if you look at our main roads, they just look dangerous, especially if you don’t already cycle. Even sticking to back roads, there’s usually a nasty stretch of road that’s off-putting to all but a minority.’
‘Nobody’s going to let their children out on bikes where they have to negotiate heavy traffic or lorries, even slow-moving ones. Properly designed Dutch-style cycle tracks and networks make cycling easier as well as safer, allowing everyone to go at their own pace.’
For Tim Jones, greater separation of cycling from motorised traffic would enable a different culture of cycling to emerge:
‘Riding a bicycle shouldn’t require someone to become ‘a cyclist’. People shouldn’t have to wear specialist clothes and protective gear, or ride a sporty bike. Because segregated routes enable people to remain themselves whilst cycling, they allow a culture to flourish which is currently the preserve of the equipped – physically, mentally and materially speaking.’
A leap of faith’s required here. Because we’ve never done segregation well in the UK, we can’t predict precisely what its effects will be. What we can do is take seriously the consistently stated concerns of people who’d like to cycle but currently don’t, and respond accordingly – and that’s to build dedicated cycling routes on big, busy roads. We can also look to the higher levels of cycling wherever it is effectively segregated. And we can note how current integration, although it’s clearly substandard, simply isn’t making city cycling a normal thing to do.
London shows that some people will cycle without segregation. Other cities such as Cambridge and York have relatively healthy levels of cycling, achieved through integrating more than segregating it. Leicester and Sheffield have both won impressive recent gains without much segregation. Segregation isn’t everything. It’s not a cure-all. There’s more to building a broad, democratic cycling culture; for example, more effective integration via widespread 20 mph limits, and legislation and enforcement to promote greater respect and courtesy between cyclists and drivers. We need to work on two fronts: civilising our streets where we can; and separating cycling from flows of motorised traffic where we can’t, or at least not yet. The big challenge is to ensure any segregation is up to scratch – wide, well designed and maintained routes, with priority at junctions giving cycling an advantage over motorised modes. Quality segregation is not about getting cyclists out of the way; it’s about making cycling for everyone, viewing it as a more sensible way of making short urban journeys than the car. The struggle for safer integration must also continue alongside a push for more and better segregation, as part of efforts to get people cycling: cycle training results in more competent riding, irrespective of where that riding occurs; reduced speed limits and driver education encourage safer, more considerate driving and a more civil society.
Tim Jones says the way ahead requires quality segregation but as part of a broader package of measures: ‘Segregation’s a vital but insufficient ingredient. Underpinning the success northern European cities with higher rates of cycling are strong policies that promote compact urban form and a land use diversity such that a range of activities are accessible close to home, but importantly, all this is complemented by restrictions on private car use. This creates an environment where travel by car is exceptional and cycling unexceptional and obvious. Dedicated cycle systems embedded within this context (including segregation and separate junction signals for cycles) render cycling safe, civilised and easy whether you’re 8 or 80, travelling alone or together.’
Only quality segregation will do, and only alongside integration. Both approaches work together, boosting cycling towards the mainstream. Many campaigners agree. Dave du Feu of Spokes, the Lothian Cycle Campaign, says ‘a pragmatic approach which blends elements of segregation and integration is the way forward. This defines Spokes’ current strategy in its work in and around Edinburgh.’ There’s no conflict between segregation and integration; we need both, done well. So should we drop these terms, and talk instead of re-building our cities for cycling? Building ‘cities fit for cycling’ means being bold and ambitious for cycling, prioritising it over the car to build cities for everyone. Better segregation and better integration go hand-in-hand, promoting cycling and putting it at the heart of the twenty-first century sustainable city.