Barriers to cycling mean doing more, not less

One of the most commonly heard myths about cycling and the Netherlands is that of ‘flatness’. Namely, that the reason cycling level are so high there – and so dismally low in Britain – is because the Netherlands is a flat country.

There are many reasons why this isn’t a very good explanation. In particular, it can’t account for why flat parts of Britain, areas just as flat as the Netherlands, have next to no cycling. Nor can it account for why hillier parts of the Netherlands have cycling levels far in excess of anywhere in Britain.

My bike and a hill, Wageningen, NL

My bike and a hill, Wageningen, NL

Both these problems of explanation point to the fact that ‘hilliness’ and ‘flatness’ are not important factors behind why cycling is so regular, everyday and ordinary in the Netherlands, and so rare and exceptional in many parts of Britain.

What really matters – and what really explains the difference – is the quality of the cycling environment. The Netherlands has a dense cycling network, of nearly universal high quality, that allows everyone to make journeys from to A to B in safety, in comfort, and with ease, almost entirely free of interactions with motor traffic. Most of Great Britain has nothing like this; it therefore has very little cycling.

It might be flat, but you won't see people cycling here.

It might be flat, but you won’t see people cycling here.

There is, however, a crucial distinction to make here. In pointing out that ‘hills’ really aren’t the reason that cycling levels differ so wildly between the Netherlands and Britain, I am not arguing that hills make no difference at all. Hills are, of course, hard to cycle up. Cycling up a slope is more onerous than cycling on the flat.

So hills are a barrier, of a sort, to cycling. This is indisputable. They just aren’t a very important barrier, relative to the difference in the quality of the overall cycling environment between the Netherlands and Britain.

And much the same is true for other kinds of barriers to cycling. There are, undeniably, cultural barriers to cycling. Immigrants to the Netherlands cycle less than born there; they will often come from countries where cycling is much less normal, or even possible. It naturally takes time to adapt, to start using an unfamiliar mode of transport. Even so, immigrants to the Netherlands cycle a lot more than people from their countries of origin, and far more than people in Britain. (For instance, the cycling mode share for Moroccan immigrants to the Netherlands is 11%). So, again, it seems that this barrier isn’t particularly important, relative to the quality of the cycling environment.

Curiously, these issues are often approached from completely the wrong perspective, in that barriers to cycling are presented as reasons to do nothing. For instance, I’m sure we’ve all heard the argument that, because it’s too hilly in x town or city, people won’t cycle, and there’s therefore no point building any cycling infrastructure. Or, it’s too wet here. Or too hot. Or too cold. Some other people present different levels of cycling between ethnic groups as an argument against building cycling infrastructure – that because white people cycling more than those of ethnic minorities, cycling infrastructure cannot be that important.

By contrast, to my mind, these kinds of barriers mean we should do more, not less. In hilly areas, for instance, we should make sure that the cycling environment is even better; we should provide every assistance to people who want to cycle. If ‘hilliness’ is a problem, then it should be balanced out by a cycling environment of even higher quality.

Likewise, if there are cultural barriers to cycling, then we should strive for much higher quality cycling infrastructure in areas where these barriers exist. Painted lanes (or nothing at all) will be much less persuasive at encouraging ethnic minorities to cycle than comfortable, safe and attractive cycling environments.

Enabling cycling in Utrecht

Enabling cycling in Utrecht

When confronted with issues like underrepresentation of women in politics, or the way in which places at top universities are still disproportionately taken up by people from wealthier backgrounds, we don’t shrug our shoulders about alleged ‘cultural barriers’, and suggest that these ‘barriers’ are reasons in and of themselves to reduce the amount of action required. We should do everything we can to break down those barriers.

Precisely the same is true of barriers like weather, culture, and hilliness. If we think more cycling is desirable, but there are obstacles to participation, then those obstacles themselves should not be seized upon as reasons for inaction. On the contrary; they should compel us to adopt even higher standards, to make cycling as comfortable, safe and desirable a mode of transport as possible.

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19 Responses to Barriers to cycling mean doing more, not less

  1. If you have to commute regularly up a hill or two, the climbs you soon become adjusted and the ascents are less demanding than cycling any real distance head on into a fierce wind on the Dutch ‘platteland’ ( the word for ‘countryside’ which literally means ‘flat-land’).

  2. People from weather backgrounds? Do we have too many people taking meteorology in university?

  3. jeldering says:

    I’m currently living in a city (in Brazil) where my daily commute is short, but contains a steep uphill climb. Cycling conditions are better here than in other places I’ve lived (London, Rio), but if I could choose between a flat commute or with decent cycle paths, the choice would obviously be cycle paths! And that’s a Dutch person speaking who’s never lived more than 50m above sea level before.

  4. Bmblbzzz says:

    The basic argument that barriers to attaining worthwhile goals need to be overcome is sound and evident – though your choice of photo for a Dutch “hill” unfortunately undermines the point that hills are not that important (because it isn’t really a hill, so leaves a door for people to shout about the fantastic flatness) – but perhaps the real problem is that in Britain (and far too many other places) we do not in fact truly hold that cycling is a worthwhile goal? Still, we seem to be slowly working our way towards holding it worthwhile.

  5. Jasper says:

    These two roads with seperated bike paths leading into Maastricht get a good amount of bike traffic, including lots of children cycling to schools.

    • Mark Williams says:

      A 3% gradient is not considered a real hill in the UK—it wouldn’t even get a warning sign, let alone the escape lanes or wordy orders to `TEST YOUR BRAKES NOW’ which you might find on a proper one. But, as the author of the post says; the vast majority of the UK highways do not have any significant slope, either.

      Whenever non-cyclists cite any of these `barriers’ as a reason for inaction (or to oppose [proposed] action), it is usually a proxy for `I have no intention of “sharing” carriageways with large numbers of dangerously driven motor vehicles (including my own) and pedal cycles’ and, by implication, that no-one should put any effort into modal shift from motoring to cycling. If there are separated cycle paths, these excuses rapidly diminish into a perspective where they can be dealt with on their genuine merits, e.g. downhill cycle paths need to have higher design speeds whereas uphill ones need to allow more wobbling.

  6. adam says:

    Of course riding a bike in a hilly area is 50% uphill but also 50% downhill!

    My previous house atop a hill in hilly Wellington NZ gifted me a gloriously easy and fun downhill glide to work every morning.

  7. Mark Williams says:

    The same could be said about excluding Northern Ireland from the name of Cycling Embassy of Great Britain—where, due to even higher barriers, they could do with more inclusion, not less!

  8. JB says:

    While I totally agree that the inadequate provision of quality cycling infrastructure is the single most significant barrier to increasing modal share, I also think we need to consider a lack of fundamental basic cycling technique and maintenance knowledge in the UK. To illustrate the point, most of the casual cyclists I see are generally on poorly maintained machines, invariably pedalling very laboured cadences (40-50rpm). It’s no wonder when you see people struggling so hard to propel their bikes that most people give up cycling in this country as far too much hard work, whereas with a little additional knowledge they could find it as easy and pleasant a way to travel as there is!

  9. JB says:

    Am I the only one who wonders who and what constitutes the “cycling lobby”? How come we never hear from the likes of the big retailers – the Wiggles; Halfords, Evans’ etc? Or the bike manufacturers? Surely, it’s in all of their collective interests to promote better provision of cycling infrastructure in this country? Do none of them ever look at the turnover and profits generated in the Netherlands and upscale that to give them an idea of how much extra revenue could be made in the UK if we had similar levels of cycling take up?

    Maybe I’ve got this wrong but it appears to be left to committed individuals and small pressure groups to lobby against the far better resourced motoring lobbyists.

    • MJ Ray says:

      Retailers which are part of the Association of Cycle Traders (and maybe some others but not Half-odds) contribute to the Bike Hub which funds some campaigning projects. We can argue whether that’s enough resources, whether it’s going to the wrong places and whether more should get involved directly (which may be a mixed blessing with how much money they think they make from sports bikes and pseudo-protective equipment), but some of them are doing something.

    • Mark Williams says:

      Not really. It is probably much more profitable to continually sell millions of crap toy bikes, usually sourced from the far East, knowing that they spend most of their lives rusting away in a shed. If people started riding them in any serious way for transport, awkward questions might be asked. To that end, retailers are far more likely to push for SUSTRANS-style counter-provision, etc. Note that Halfords did at one time open branches in the Netherlands…

      Instead of putting our future in the hands of lobbyists—be it the USA’s `all-powerful bicycling lobby’ or any other—wouldn’t it be nice if our wise and beneficent (not to mention thoroughly competent) government just got on and did what was necessary to get the levels of cycling they claim to want, for the good of the nation on many fronts? Unless, of course, they are totally lying about that!

      The benefit-to-cost ratio of dedicated cycling infrastructure is already so embarrassingly high that it makes one wonder whether they’ve been fiddling the calculation method for some other ideological reason all these decades ;-).

  10. In response to JB, the Bicycle Association puts money into campaigns like Space For Cycling but does it via other organisations such as Cycling UK. In response to the article, you’re right that we need to do more to get people cycling in hilly places but we also need to do different. Things like integration with public transport to help people over the initial hurdle of cycling with hills become more important than they are in the Netherlands.

    • MJ Ray says:

      Not a great example there! I feel most campaigners on the ground delivering the Space For Cycling campaign didn’t see much from the money Cycling UK took to fund a worker and a rather poor website.

  11. I always felt this sort of attitude was, maybe not unique, but endemic to North America. It’s even more prevalent in the midwest, whether you’re talking about cycling or just urban development in general. There’s very much an attitude of “if things are bad then it’s ok to let it get worse” rather than “we should work that much harder to improve it.” This leads to nearly everything being of poor quality, since under such a regime it’s next to impossible to get the critical mass (of whatever sort) necessary to inflect something from unworthy to worthy of caring about. It’s a sad and very un-civic attitude.

    I do see where it comes from though. In a strict cost/benefit calculation, tackling the harder problems are going to cost more and could very well yield less, while also diverting resources away from other things that could provide more benefit. A good comparison would be to look at school children. It’s unfair to put all the resources into the smartest kids with advanced courses, well-funded labs, extra curricular programs, tutors and the like, while leaving nothing for the slower or mentally handicapped ones. At the same time, it’s also unfair to pour heroic amounts of staff, money, and equipment at the special ed students to bring them from way below average to merely not-quite-so-ridiculously-far below average, while starving the smart kids the things that could help them really shine. The reality of the situation is somewhere in the middle, but determining what proportion of resources should to go whom (not forgetting the very large pool of average students), is where the debates should be had, not all for one and none for the rest, and vice versa.

    The same goes for cycling infrastructure in this context. Improving infrastructure to compensate for some sort of hardship or barrier needs to take into account the utility of that route. Building a new winding bike path up a hill to make the grades easier is probably not a good use of funds if there’s no actual destination at the top of said hill. A foot lift makes sense in a dense neighborhood, but not out in the country, even if that hill in the country is steeper. Of course, you also don’t want to let the difficulty fixing a barrier get in the way of making a very useful improvement either. If there’s a narrow right-of-way or a hill or a highway or something else blocking a lot of pent-up demand for cycling, then it just has to be dealt with. They found ways to get the highways and railroads and power lines through, they can find ways to get the cycling routes through too.

  12. Andy Stow says:

    Hills definitely call for infrastructure more than anything else. For instance, this is the first road I cross as I leave the residential streets of my neighborhood:

    I visit many destinations at the top of this hill, but have only ridden up it once on the road, and never will again in its current state. I either go around, adding about a half mile (up a steeper hill, but on a residential street) or I ride on the sidewalk.

    I do, however, ride down this hill on the road. Same configuration, but in 40-45 MPH traffic, I can go 30+ MPH down the hill for less than a minute, versus 10 MPH up the hill for several long minutes.

    A lot of roads in town would be much improved with having bicycle infrastructure on the uphill side only. 80% of the improvement for 50% of the cost.

  13. Jean says:

    I would agree that some minor hills under 6%, if they are long and on quieter roads are ok. But truly in dense urban areas, a separated bike lane is helpful.

  14. Pingback: Folk don’t cycle because it’s too hilly – Sheffield DPH

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