The connection between walkability and high cycle use

Figures for cycling in Bruges are a little hard to come by, but from this Fietsberaad document [pdf], cycling in the city seems to form between 15-20% of all trips.

It’s certainly the most ‘Dutch’ place I’ve visited outside of the Netherlands, in terms of the amount of cycling, and the types of people riding bikes – broadly, a representative cross-section of the population at large.DSCN0327 DSCN0297It’s also a very walkable city. It feels safe and comfortable, and easy to get about on foot.


I think this connection between walkability and high cycling levels is more general. I found Strasbourg to be a very pleasant city to walk around – this is a city that has some of the highest levels of cycle use in France.

DSCN0067And of course Dutch towns and cities – with their high cycling levels – are almost always a joy to walk around, compared to their UK equivalents.

DSC_0373I don’t necessarily think there’s any causal connection here, but certainly there are reasons why having a high cycling modal share makes it easier to walk around cities.

Principally, it means that fewer trips are being made by car, which has several obvious advantages for those walking. It’s just easier to cross the road when there are fewer cars and more bikes. Bikes are far smaller, they travel more slowly, and the person on them has an interest in avoiding you.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 12.10.00

A street with a high volume of people cycling. If these people were travelling by car, the street would be practically impossible to cross without traffic controls

Similarly, with high levels of cycling use, and low levels of motor vehicle use, the need for traffic control at junctions becomes unnecessary. That means no push buttons to cross roads, or multiple staggered crossings. Junctions are easy to walk across. The level of signalisation in Dutch towns and cities is far, far lower than in Britain, even in places with high levels of ‘traffic’.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 12.40.53Less directly, towns and cities with high levels of cycling are safer for pedestrians (there are simply fewer motor vehicles which have the potential to harm you), and they are also more attractive, and quieter.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 12.46.46

We need to move beyond the notion that cycling is something antagonistic to walking – something ‘extra’ that needs to be accommodated in the streetscape alongside walking and driving – and realise that it is a crucial way of improving the experience of walking itself.

This entry was posted in Car dependence, Infrastructure, Strasbourg, Subjective safety, Sustainable Safety, The Netherlands, Walking. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The connection between walkability and high cycle use

  1. movementsci says:

    My views are similar – though I disagree where you say that there’s no causal link. If you make somewhere more Cycleable, then you reduce car usage which pretty much by definition makes somewhere more walkable – for the reasons you lay out above.

    Therefore, if you make somewhere more cycleable, you cause it to be more walkable. No?

    Certainly in data I’ve seen from schools where there’s been an increase in cycling (using soft measures in this case), there has also been a dramatic increase in walking, which I always put down to it creating a more pleasant environment to walk in outside the school.

    • andreengels says:

      Whether that’s real causility, I dare to doubt. It’s not cycleability causing walkability, it is general infrastructural choices causing both. That Dutch cities are good at both, is mostly caused by an infrastructure with a strict division between arterial and residential roads, large to-not-through areas and reduced rat runs. Most of that has not been put into place for cycleability reasons, more for liveability – which I guess is closer to walkability. Of course, when you do them and you are pro-cycling you do USE it for cycleability.

  2. geoffrone says:

    As a pedestrian who rides a bike, my primary concern is always cars not bikes or other pedestrians. I wonder if I would feel different if I were a motorist who occasionally walked, how would my opinion of cycling on “pedestrianised” areas differ (if at all)? I suspect we all know the answer and “here’s the rub”. Acceptance of cycling in shared space is one of the benefits of living in a country with a higher modal share not only the much vaunted safety in numbers.

  3. Nearly 20 years ago some good friends of mine spent a couple of years living in Hasselt. Although smaller than Bruges it was a similar story here. People did own and use cars, but for the most part used bikes for trips to the shops, cafes etc. On all my visits, it was either 2 wheels or 2 feet for getting around.

  4. Paul M says:

    You talk about “with high levels of cycling use, and low levels of motor vehicle use” which poses for me an interesting question about the Netherlands, which is: is their use of cars actually any lower than ours?

    We know that the annual average in the UK has been falling consistently over the last 5 years or so after almost a decade of flat-lining, while car ownership has apparently held up, so people are using cars less if not necessarily getting rid of them. However I haven’t had much luck in finding statistics on overall car mileage in the Netherlands, so I haven’t been able to compare average annual miles per driver/car/passenger, or their trends, between the two countries.

    What I have been able to find is information on ownership which tells us that a Dutchman is about equally likely to own a car as a Brit – there are about 400 cars per thousand of population in each country – and that a British car is likely to be kept very slightly longer than a Dutch one, with average ages of around 6 years and 5.9 years respectively.

    I also know, courtesy of whichever government department wants us to buy electric cars, that the average UK car trip is a mere 7 miles (so stop worrying about “range anxiety” and learn to love nuclear fission). I know that about half of all UK car trips are under five miles, and about half of all UK urban car trips are under 3 miles. I know, from a chart someone tweeted recently, that for trips under 7.5 km (about 5 miles) the Dutch use bikes anything from about 20% to over 45% and they use cars for less than around a third, but of course the proportion of X-mile trips done by car is not the same as the number of car trips which are under X miles. It does stick in my mind though that half works both for the proportion of UK trips under 5 miles made by car as well as the number of car trips which are under five miles – surely a mere co-incidence.

    I have never seen an analysis which shows the distribution of the total UK car mileage by trip length, so I don’t know what proportion of total annual car mileage, or average per head, is made up of short trips. Obviously, a few long trips will outweigh a fair number of short ones, but how much so? Presumably a similar Dutch analysis would show that the annual average is more skewed towards longer trips, and there is no question that the Dutch don’t drive distances – I have run the gauntlet of their autowegs often enough to attest to that.

    I suppose what I would expect to find is that their non-use of cars for short trips, and our extensive use, are both quite marginal in terms of the overall use we each make of private cars, but evidently quite significant in terms of urban road congestion, pollution, road danger and quality of pedestrian experience. The Dutch, and Dutch roads policy, are NOT anti-car. They are just pro-bike.

    • paulc says:

      I turn heads when I cycle to and from my local big supermarket for my big shop with my trailer behind me…

      Mind you, some motorists are still seriously angry at being held up by a cyclist and can’t wait to push past me even though I’m in primary and can’t filter due to the width of my trailer… even with me doing 20 in a 20 zone as well…

  5. Paul says:

    The Bruges case certainly disproves the “our streets are too narrow ” anti-cycling meme.

    • Dan B says:

      The ‘not enough space’ argument is weird, and something we need to start asking in response is “how much physical space (in metres) would you consider ‘enough’ for protected cycle infrastructure”? This is never asked, and allows the ‘no room’ argument to be used everywhere, from country lanes to 6+ lane roads.

    • Har Davids says:

      If a street is considered too narrow for bicycles, it’s obviously too narrow for cars as well.

    • Tim says:

      Watched this video from the excellent Streetfilms the other day. At 2:30 (is) they explain that the space is limited in Groningen. The roads are small. And that’s why they don’t allow cars. Simple.

  6. USbike says:

    The noise aspect, or lack-of, is someone that hardly ever gets any attention, if at all. Having spent a few years getting around primarily by foot or bike, it’s very obvious to me and on larger, busier roads, it’s quite uncomfortable. But most people I know are “used” the noise since most of them hardly ever get around on foot or 2 wheels. I haven’t read any studies myself about the effects of noise pollution on stress and well-being, but I have no doubt that it has a negative impact even when people become oblivious to it.

  7. rdrf says:

    Paul M asks for info about Dutch use of cars. Put crudely, the big Dutch cycling modal share replaces the bus share in the UK when all shares are looked at (of course buses may be sued for different journeys than cycling – as I say it is put crudely). They are better than the UK in terms of car use, but if we had their cycling share while retaining our current bus share we would have far less car use than they do.

    There are two related points that come from this:, with regard to what Paul M correctly describes as the Netherlands not being “anti-car”.

    1. Take a look at the academic report discussed here: It shows that you can have countries which are far better than the UK in terms of cycling share, but not that much better (the Netherlands) or worse (Germany) than the UK in terms of the “external costs” of motorised transport in general and cars in particular. So without restriction on car use at a greater level, sustainability goals (such as CO2 emissions) are unlikely to be met just by being pro-bicycle.

    2. When it comes to the UK, even if we want to be just “pro-bike”, there are a whole range of issues: finding funding from the general transport budgets, taking road space away from cars, reducing car parking spaces, enforcement of (probably toughened up) highway law etc. which many motorists will find unacceptable or threatening. So there will be a need here to do things perceived as “anti-car”.

    Either way, moving to a less car dependent society seems to me to involve doing things which lots of motorists won’t be happy with.

    • Dan B says:

      I’m a ‘motorist’ – I own, park and drive a car anyway, and that’s what I assume it means. I’d be overjoyed with reduced parking, appropriated road space and much stronger laws.

      We need to be pro-people, not machine.

  8. paulc says:

    sadly in the UK, pedestrianised areas are usually gaurded at all entrances by no cycling signs or if you’re lucky, you get allowed to cycle there after 5 pm and have to stop at 10 am ike here in the center of Gloucester

    That no cycling restriction is ridiculous when you consider how wide those streets are and the existing layout with a clearly demarked zone that cycles can keep to…

    Oh and the entirity of the inner area of Gloucester (inside what is clearly an inner ring road) can easily be turned into a 20 mph quiet zone with motorised vehicles only permitted for access, just needs loads of bollards to block most of the through routes leaving just the bus access to the central stops and car access to the existing multi-storey car parks

    Starting top and going clockwise: Priory Road, Gouda Way, Black Dog Way, Bruton Way, Trier Way, Southgate Street, The Quays, Westgate Street, St. Oswalds Road and back to Priory Road could all become a giant quiet zone with added pedestrianisation as well:

  9. rdrf says:

    Dan B, I think it is very important that you say what you just have.

    If doing these things (less parking, stronger laws etc.) is acceptable to at least a significant proportion of motorists, then we can show how the argument is not pie in the sky and asking for something hat human beings can’t cope with. The voice of the more civilised person who is a “motorist” needs to be heard.

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