Over the recent bank holiday weekend I went out for a brief ride up and down the Downs Link in Sussex. This is the old railway line that used to run between Guildford and Shoreham, and now – like so many other lines removed in the late 1960s – a ‘rail trail’, a combined walking and cycling leisure route.
I was struck not just by the numbers of people out on bikes in the Bank Holiday weather, but by the demographics – the young, the elderly, families, couples cycling with dogs. I even saw a boy on a unicycle.
These are precisely the same kinds of people you would encounter on similar leisure rides in the Netherlands; Dutch riders might not be on mountain bikes, or wearing as many helmets, but the resemblance was striking.
The pub car parks along the Downs Link served to demonstrate vividly the demand for this kind of cycling.
The thesis that Britons just don’t like to ride bikes, or don’t like the idea of cycling, doesn’t strike me as being particularly plausible. Not only are there periods in our history when the bicycle was used to an incredible extent – in 1949 more miles were travelled by bicycle in Britain than by car – but there’s plenty of current evidence to suggest that, if conditions are right, there’s nothing stopping people from riding bikes. Skyrides up and down the country prove to be incredibly popular.
The high turnout at Skyrides can not be explained by fantastic advertising alone: the advertising merely alerts people to the existence of an event for which there is already vast but stifled demand. A day of conspicuously safe, quiet, unintimidating and unpolluted car-free streets almost advertises itself.
Rail trails, and seafront paths, are the everyday equivalent of Skyrides; places where people can ride bikes in comfort, away from traffic. Demand is high for these routes, even if their quality is sometimes dubious.
People like riding bikes; they just need the right conditions, and at present, very few places in Britain provide those conditions.
The pavement is, of course, a place where people can cycle away from motor traffic, and we should not be surprised that people opt for it in such great numbers. In one of the villages along the Downs Link route, I saw this scene -
A family of four had just exited a pub on the left, heading back towards the old railway line. The father is happy to cycle on the road through the village, but the mother and the two children went straight across onto the pavement, going out of their way to access it. Longer, slower, and more inconvenient, but – unlike the father – they just didn’t want to ride on the road.
Even on roads largely free of motor traffic, we still saw families opting for the pavement, because they didn’t feel comfortable cycling with it. In this example, it was the pinchpoint that seemed to push the child onto the pavement -
We have mountains of evidence, beyond this kind of anecdote, to demonstrate that people do not like cycling with motor traffic. If we are to build mass cycling in this country, to achieve a situation where cycling is the norm for short urban trips, and not the exception, we have to start recognising this evidence, and building policy around it.
Yet there is a strange and persistent attitude in cycle campaigning that ‘sharing’ and ‘integration’ remains the way forward; that we just need to tame and reduce traffic, and people will be happy to cycle with it. Guidance for cycle provision, encapsulated in the Hierarchy of Provision, epitomises this inverted thinking, that somehow it is better to integrate than to separate. This ignores both the reasons people repeatedly give for their refusal to ride bicycles, and also the behaviour of people when they do ride bikes, as we can see in the photographs above. Reduced and tamed traffic is not enough to convince people to ‘share’.
This preference for cycling in isolation from motor traffic is confirmed not just by the people who only ride on rail trails, or on seafront paths, but even by the behaviour of the ‘hardened’ cyclist like me, who will always seek out a quieter, traffic-free route in preference to a busier one, if it is not too compromised on either directness or time grounds.
I attended a lecture two weeks ago given by Philip Darnton (the former chair of Cycling England) as part of the excellent Cycling for Transport lecture series. Some of his slides were slightly worrying, to me, because they seemed to demonstrate the same willingness to ignore how people behave, and what they prefer. The slide pictured below went so far as to suggest that ‘sharing the road’ is an ‘ideal solution’.
I’m at a loss to ascertain how sharing the road can possibly be ‘ideal’ when nobody wants to share; when children coming out of a pub car park will head straight across the road onto a pavement; when the greatest demand for cycling is on traffic-free routes; when on a bus-only road, a family will still opt for the pavement, in preference to the road; when countries which have the highest levels of cycling have the least amount of sharing.
The following slide was also presented for discussion -
Darnton went on to say that, obviously, we can’t possibly build segregated lanes everywhere; we can’t build a path directly from your home, to your bank, he said, so what people really mean when they say they won’t cycle without cycle paths is that they don’t really want to cycle at all.
I didn’t get a chance to respond to this argument after the lecture – there were lots of questions, and I didn’t get a go – but I think it is misguided. When people say they don’t want to cycle because it is dangerous, or because it feels dangerous, or because they’re scared of traffic, they really mean it. They’re not coming up with excuses, and I wish we would stop disparaging them, and actually start listening to them.
Now of course we can’t build cycle paths everywhere. But to use this fact (or canard) to suggest that people need to overcome their perceptions of danger about cycling with motor traffic demonstrates a failure to understand the totality of the Dutch cycling experience. The Dutch couldn’t build cycle paths everywhere – they only form a relatively small percentage of their overall road network – and yet the emphasis in Dutch cycle infrastructure planning is placed overwhelmingly on separation, not on sharing.
This road in Assen is ‘shared’ with motor traffic in a conventional sense – what motor traffic there is shares the same space as any cyclist – but the whole network is configured in such a way that there is practically no motor traffic on this road at all. It is a dead end, and serves only as an access road for the properties along it. By contrast, it is a direct, continuous route for bicycles out of the city. It is separation, not integration, that governs the design of this road, because separation is what cyclists prefer. Dutch planning for cycling starts, entirely sensibly, from the preferences of the end user. That’s precisely why it is so incredibly successful – it listens to the customer.
On the road on the other side of this canal, which carries substantially more motor traffic, there is separation of a more conventional kind.
Separation, not integration, is the key to Dutch success in fostering such high cycling levels. As Dutch human beings are in almost all probability very similar to British human beings, we should adopt precisely the same strategies if we wish to increase our cycling levels. We should use the evidence, not just from the Netherlands, but from the way we can see people in Britain behaving already. Focus on separation – however you wish to achieve it – not on integration.