The full text of the Understanding Walking and Cycling report, produced by academics from the Universities of Lancaster and Oxford Brookes, has finally appeared, following an interim report that was summarized in the Guardian.
Despite the conclusions of this report being – to me, at least – screamingly obvious, it has, for some reason, proved a little controversial.
In what follows, I do quote a lot from the report itself, but that is quite deliberate, because I want to make plain what the report actually says. I will not go, particularly, into the details of what the report says about walking – but focus instead on its recommendations for cycling.
The Report’s aim is, explicitly, to examine the factors that influence everyday travel decisions, and thence to propose a series of policy measures designed to boost walking and cycling levels for short trips in urban areas. It notes that
Despite recent policies to promote more sustainable travel (for example, Cycle Demonstration Towns, Smarter Choices and Travel Planning), British society remains heavily car dependent with many short urban trips being undertaken by car. (page 1)
Implicitly – current policies are not working. Further
It is often assumed that short trips could easily be made by bicycle or on foot (e.g., DfT, 2011, pg 5), and the statistics suggest that there are many short trips that could be converted. According to the National Travel Survey (2010) 36.1% of trips under 2 miles and 53.0% of journeys under 5 miles undertaken by car, with walking accounting for 23.4% of all trips and cycling only 1.5% of all journeys. When compared to other European countries, whilst levels of walking are broadly similar, cycling in Britain is substantially less common than elsewhere. For instance in Sweden and Finland 9% of all trips are by bicycle, in Germany 10%, in Denmark 18% and in the Netherlands 26%. The research reported here suggests that assuming trips (in the UK) could be undertaken by bike or foot just because they are short is a rather simplistic approach that fails to fully understand the nature of the problem. A purely distance based understanding of the problem ignores difficulties caused by the physical environment, complex household interactions and a perception that walking and cycling are not normal. (Pages 1-2)
Indeed. The idea that people can simply be ‘encouraged’ to take short trips is the kind of evidence-free, wishful thinking that unfortunately predominates in much official cycle promotion, and local authority thinking. Like the report says, it fails to address the reasons why people don’t cycle for short trips, which it identifies as falling into these three categories –
- the environment
- complex household interactions
- a perception of ‘abnormality.’
The Report focused on four English towns, using questionnaires, interviews, and household enthnographies to probe the reasons influencing people’s travel decisions.
On attitudes towards cycling –
There were a number of negative associations with cycling, including the need to negotiate difficult road junctions, cycling being a bad experience using existing roads and desire for more cycle lanes to feel safer, which together indicate notable safety concerns. Indeed poor safety was one of the key reasons for not cycling expressed by approximately 80% of respondents…. Results were generally consistent across all four study areas. (pages 5-6)
This, of course, mirrors almost exactly the results of nearly every single survey taken to address why people don’t cycle – the Manchester Cycle survey being merely the most recent.
What I found particularly interesting is the data that emerges from the interviews conducted by the report. Using the responses, the authors were able to classify interviewees into a number of groups. 42% of respondents fell into three groups – ‘cycling sanctifiers’, ‘pedestrian prioritizers’ and ‘automobile adherents’. The ‘cycling sanctifiers’ (17% of the variance)
are confident cycling in traffic and are reluctant to see the implementation of segregated cycle infrastructure if this leads to the erosion of cyclists’ right to use the road. (page 7).
Motoring adherents – or what I would call the ‘Mr. Toad’ group –
This discourse is most satisfied with the present car system and is underpinned by the belief that people have a choice how to travel around and it is up to them to exercise it. Walking is regarded as a leisure activity and cycling practised by enthusiasts or by committed environmentalists. People who subscribe to this discourse are against any measures that infringe their liberty to drive such as traffic calming even if this could improve conditions for walking and cycling. Indeed, this discourse suggests that walkers and cyclists should take more responsibility for their own safety when moving around the city. (page 7)
In other words, classic Top Gear attitudes, that simultaneously suggest that other ways of getting around town are only ‘leisure’ activities, and that people who do choose to engage in these ‘leisure’ activities should quite rightly look out for their themselves in the face of people using ‘proper’ modes of transport – i.e. the car.
This kind of stuff would be quite depressing, except for the fact that only 9% of variance is made up by this particular ‘discourse’, and that a full 58% of the responses do not fall into any of these self-defined groups. That is – the majority of interviewees do not identify themselves as ‘motorists’, ‘pedestrians’ or ‘cyclists’. This rather flies in the face of the seemingly ubiquitous identification of ‘motorist’ with ‘everyone’, prevalent in the media and indeed in government attitudes to road policy. The report notes that we need to focus on this group, so as to
understand the factors that influence the travel decisions of people who are not currently committed to a particular form of travel, and who thus may be more open to changing their travel behaviour than those with a strong mobility identity. (Page 7)
How do we change this travel behaviour? The environment – of which the report notes two potential key aspects, connectivity and permeability, and safety, but emphasises that the latter appears to be far more important.
…the connectivity of the street network and the availability of everyday activities within walking and cycling distance of the home are insufficient on their own to encourage walking and (particularly) cycling. This is not to suggest that they are unimportant, but that others factors may militate against their use as we discuss below. There is clear evidence from the qualitative research that perceptions of risk were a major factor influencing everyday travel decisions… Cyclists were most concerned about dangers from motorised traffic. (Page 9)
It is clear that traffic is a major deterrent for all but the most committed of cyclists. Potential cyclists, recreational (off-road) cyclists and occasional cyclists are discouraged from using their bicycles for everyday urban journeys because of their fear of cars and heavy goods vehicles. (Page 10).
This is the first impediment that the report identifies – perceptions of safety.
The report also identifies ‘household and family factors’ that influence levels of walking and cycling. Notice, in the survey responses in Table 4, that 40% of respondents are often, or sometimes, unable to make a journey by bike because they need to give a lift to a child. Evidently they feel they cannot make that journey with a child by bike.
The third and final impediment to greater cycling numbers is the perception of abnormality.
In Britain, travelling by car is the default position for most people (over 60% of alltrips are by car) and car ownership and use is seen as normal… A few respondents expressed quite strong views that if you did not own and use a car you were not perceived to be ‘normal’, but more commonly the feelings expressed centred more on the fact that using a car for short everyday travel was what most people did, and to do anything different was, on most occasions, just too difficult. The combination of travelling in a way that was different from most people, of wearing what might be viewed as odd clothes, or of arriving slightly dishevelled from a walk or cycle ride were all too difficult to negotiate and deal with for many people. (page 16)
So there we have it. Three different reasons why only 1.5% of trips in the U.K. are made by bicycle.
But are they so separate? To me, the last two difficulties flow directly from the first. It is because it is perceived as hazardous to cycle around our towns by bicycle that families have become dependent upon using their cars to ferry their children around – they daren’t let their children cycle around by themselves. The ‘complex household interactions’ are at least partly a product of a street environment that is unsafe for children. Make it safe to cycle with your children, or for them to cycle alone, and this difficulty disappears. The report, in fact, draws the same conclusion –
Perceptions of risk, as outlined above, also interact with family and household factors as risk may be perceived to affect particular family members differentially. (Page 12).
In cities designed and built for cars much more than for cycling and walking, car use has for many households become both normal and easy, while walking and cycling are not… a simple journey with three small children can take a considerable amount of organization and negotiation. For many parents this is just too much trouble and putting the children in the car for even a very short journey becomes the easier option. (page 12).
This begs the question of why it is difficult to make short journeys by bicycle with children. It’s not a problem in the Netherlands. And again, we find the report drawing the right conclusions –
For [sustainable travel-minded] families, switching trips from cars to walking and cycling is less about changing attitudes and much more about making walking and cycling easier to accomplish in the context of busy everyday lives. (page 12).
A physical environment which might be quite acceptable to a single person without responsibility for others, may be perceived as unacceptably risky to a parent who may be concerned not only for the welfare of their child but also for their own safety and the impact of an accident on their dependents. Many respondents expressed concerns about the safety of children cycling… the testimony of Brian is particularly telling as although he is himself a keen cyclist he questions the value of the cycle training provided for children as he is not comfortable with them cycling in current road conditions. (page 15)
Much the same can be said for the problem of ‘abnormality’ – it is largely contingent upon the fact that it is unpleasant, and objectively unsafe, to cycle around our towns and cities. Because it is seen as unpleasant, only a small ‘abnormal’ minority of people cycle, and because being safe while cycling currently tends to involves cycling as fast as one can, ‘sportier’ clothing is often required, alongside safety equipment, both of which are conspicuous by their absence in countries with a genuine cycling culture. Make it safe and attractive to ride a bicycle, and the ‘abnormality’ problem will simply evaporate. Again, this is something the report recognizes directly –
There is clearly need to move towards a virtuous circle where the physical environment is made as welcoming as possible, and walking and cycling are made as easy as possible so that more people engage in sustainable travel, thus making walking and cycling seem normal. (page 17)
From all of this research, therefore, we have the ‘open goal’ conclusion about how to boost the number of trips made by bicycle –
First, it is essential that the urban environment is made safe for cyclists and pedestrians. This requires the provision of fully segregated routes on all arterial and other busy roads in urban areas. It is clear from the research that most non-cyclists and recreational cyclists will only consider cycling regularly if they are segregated from traffic, and that pedestrians are hostile to pavement cyclists.
This is not, of course, a catch-all solution, but one that goes hand-in-hand with recommendation three -
there need to be effective restrictions on traffic speeds, parking and access on all residential roads and other routes without segregated cycle and pedestrian paths so that both cyclists and pedestrians feel that they have a safe and convenient environment in which to travel. This could include 20mph speed limits and resident-only access by car in some areas.
The report also recommends that ‘strict liability’ is adopted and that there are changes to the way in which our urban environments are organized – with more neighbourhood shopping centres easily accessible on bike and foot. It also asserts the need to change the perception of cycling as abnormal – but while pointing out that campaigns should not be dominated by super-fit or unusually committed specialists, recognizes that this will be consequential upon the other changes.
In summary, it really is a no-brainer – Go Dutch.
Unfortunately the bracing good sense of this report has rather been lost in some controversy stemming from unfortunate wording in the closing paragraphs, namely a passage that runs
do not base policies about walking and cycling on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists and pedestrians. These are a minority who have, against all the odds, successfully negotiated a hostile urban environment to incorporate walking and cycling into their everyday routines. It is necessary to talk – as we have done – to non-walkers and non-cyclists, potential cyclists and walkers, former cyclists and walkers, recreational cyclists and occasional walkers to determine what would encourage them to make more use of these transport modes. (page 19)
Now, to me, it is rather obvious that if you want to boost cycling from its current rather low levels, you should ask the people who don’t currently cycle (yet have in the past, or don’t yet, but might want to) why they aren’t doing it, and base your strategy around their responses. If you have a policy that aims to increase cycling levels, these are the views that policy should be based on – not the views of the people who do currently cycle – because the former are the people you need to convince.
That is all this paragraph is saying.
Yet this report has now been interpreted, rather hysterically, as
Professor wants segregated routes for bikes and urges policy makers to ignore existing cyclists when designing bicycle infrastructure.
For a start, this report has no remit about the design of bicycle infrastructure. If there is any ‘ignoring’ of current cyclists being proposed – and I’m not sure there is – it certainly isn’t about the infrastructure design. Rather, it is about the broad policy strategy. As it happens, I can’t find anything in the report suggesting that any old crap should be put in, and the howls of protest from existing cyclists should be ignored. It only proposes that segregated tracks should be built alongside arterial urban roads – but this is a policy recommendation, and says nothing about their design. So this –
‘Cyclists dismount’ signs; narrow paths shared with pedestrians; bike tracks with priority given to motorists entering from side roads; short, pointless cycle lanes strewn with obstacles. This the sort of woeful cycle infrastructure put in place by local authorities who fail to consult with cyclists or who go ahead ignoring user advice.
is, in fact, a complete red herring, the only aim of which, as far as I can tell, is to subliminally associate the recommendations of the report with the kind of substandard infrastructure that existing cyclists get – quite rightly – angry about. The idea that the report is proposing that current cyclists should not be consulted about what kind of infrastructure gets built is now up and running, however, even though the report says absolutely nothing of the kind.
[In any case, the report is not even suggesting that current cyclists should be ignored when it comes to the overall policy of increasing cycling levels (which, to stress again, is the what the report is talking about). The words it uses – to reiterate – are ‘do not base policies on [their] views and experiences’. This is not the same as ‘ignoring’. I ‘do not base’ my cooking repertoire on chips, but this does not mean they are absent from my meals. ‘Basing’ a policy of increasing cycling levels on the views and experiences of those who are currently put off from cycling does not preclude the input of those who do cycle.]
We finally find the CTC’s Roger Geffen offering his opinion –
we believe it is extremely damaging to be advising policy makers to ignore the views of existing cyclists and pedestrians. Professor Pooley implies – without any research conclusions to support his claim – that the current ‘hostile urban environment’ is what those individuals have sought or campaigned for.
I’m not sure Professor Pooley implies any such thing, although I will be grateful if anyone can point me to his words that suggest otherwise. He then tells us what the ‘real debate’ should be –
The real debate we need to have is how to galvanise the political will to reduce traffic volumes and speeds, so as to create space for quality cycle provision, whether segregated or otherwise. That political support is what is so seriously lacking in the UK.
This is a new one to me. Why do traffic volumes and speeds need to be reduced, before we can consider putting in infrastructure? Can the two not go hand in hand? Geffen makes the argument again, in a later statement –
There’s a genuinely interesting debate to be had about segregation. Moreover, it’s not about the wonderfulness of Dutch and Danish cycle facilities – that bit is mostly pretty obvious. The real question is, what does it take to ensure that segregation is done really well in the UK context, where our traffic laws and driver behaviour are very different, and where our streets that are far more traffic-dominated than Holland and Denmark were back in the 1970s. In that respect, the recent experiences of New York and Seville are much more interesting. It seems that, for segregation to work well, there has to be a really strong political commitment to create space for quality cycling provision, by reducing traffic volumes and speeds, and reallocating roadspace and junction capacity. Otherwise, any attempt to introduce segregation will merely end up marginalising cyclists.
I think Roger Geffen is blurring together two entirely separate recommendations of the report. The ‘traffic volume’ and ‘speed reduction’ suggestions apply, quite specifically, to non-arterial roads, while the suggestion for separated paths and tracks is along those arterial routes.
It is not at all clear to me why a policy that aims to construct those paths along our arterial networks should have to wait for, in Geffen’s words, ‘space to be created’ by lowering traffic speeds and volumes. You simply take that space away by building the paths in the first place. I’m not saying this is easy to implement politically, but it is surely no easier to ‘reduce traffic volume.’ Indeed, without the construction of the paths, it is equally unclear to me how you reduce traffic volume on arterial roads – this is something that exponents of this ‘strategy’ simply talk about, and then wish away, in much the same way that traffic volume is ‘disappeared’ when it comes to discussions of motor traffic volume in ‘shared spaces‘.
(I find it rather amusing, in fact, that proponents of the construction of cycle tracks on arterial roads are often labelled as unrealistic dreamers by the very same people who think the best way forward is to simply get rid of traffic on urban arterial roads. If we are whistling in the wind, then they must be whispering into a hurricane).
If I were being cynical, I would note that reductions in traffic volume and speed are the policies that the CTC are most interested in, topping their hierarchy of provision, and the construction of segregated paths is a policy they historically show a complete lack of interest in, not to say hostility towards (try typing ‘the Netherlands’ into a search on the CTC website, and see how much information you can find about paths and tracks there).
It couldn’t possibly be that they’ve come up with a convenient new argument that the construction of decent, separated infrastructure is contingent upon their two favoured strategies being implemented first?