Will making driving routes longer persuade anyone to cycle?

There is a form of discussion in cycling campaigning circles on the types of policy required to enable cycling in Britain. This discussion ranges along a continuum from (at one end) a belief in what I would call ‘motoring-hostile’ measures, and at the other end, ‘cycling-focused’ measures.

Motoring-hostile measures include things like congestion charging, increasing parking charges, removing parking spaces, and so on; policies that, in and of themselves, don’t do anything to make cycling more attractive, but (it is argued) may force people to consider other modes of transport, including cycling. Meanwhile cycling-focused measures involve ensuring that cycling is a safe and attractive mode of transport, from door-to-door.

I don’t think it’s any great secret that I tend to lie towards the ‘cycling-focused measures’ end of the continuum. I don’t think making driving more difficult will increase cycling to any great extent, principally because –

  • it doesn’t do anything to address the main barrier to cycling; unpleasant, unsafe and subjectively hostile cycling environments.
  • driving is already a difficult, frustrating and unattractive mode of transport in Britain, particularly in urban areas.

In this post I’m going to look at just one aspect of this debate; namely, whether making journeys for drivers more inconvenient (allegedly, like those journeys might be in the Netherlands) would have any effect on cycling levels.

Back in January I plotted a Dutch network onto a British town (and wrote a blog post about it!). To my slight surprise, it turned out that a very large proportion of the road network of Horsham is composed of access-only roads – roads that are cul-de-sacs for motor traffic, or that make no sense to drive on unless you are a resident, or visiting a property on that street.

All the roads in green are cul-de-sacs, or genuine access roads

All the roads in light or dark green are cul-de-sacs, or genuine access roads

Why is this important? Well, it means that the town of Horsham already has what I would describe as a Dutch-style motoring network.

The way drivers will move about the town is very similar to the way they would move about an equivalent Dutch town. They will not be using residential or access roads to make journeys, because it is impossible to use them (they are dead ends!) or because it makes no sense to use them (there is a ‘main road’ route that is quicker, or less circuitous). Their journeys will not be direct. Here’s just one example – driving from a residential street, to join a main road to the north.


A substantial part of the town has this kind of road network. Like many other towns across Britain, it has expanded rapidly since the mid-twentieth century, and is consequently largely composed of a dendritic highway pattern, designed to create safe, quiet streets in the age of the motor car.

Exactly the same kind of road network for drivers that you will find in the Netherlands.

Residential street pattern in Horsham (left) versus residential street pattern in Assen, NL (right)

Residential street pattern in Horsham (left) versus residential street pattern in Assen, NL (right)

Driving in Horsham will involve the similar kinds of journey patterns (and journey lengths) to equivalent trips in Assen.

Now, the cycling mode share in Horsham is, at best, something like 2% of all trips (cycle to work share in the 2011 census was 1.6%), while in Assen it is around 40%. So, given this intrinsic similarity in driving patterns, how do we account for the large difference in cycling mode share between the two settlements?

There are no stunning geographical differences between Horsham and an equivalent Dutch town; it is flat and reasonably compact – no barriers to cycling in this regard. So if driving in Horsham is just as circuitous, arduous and difficult as it is in Assen (if not more so), then what is the principle reason for the difference?

My view is that it has to be that cycling is too difficult and unpleasant, rather than driving being too easy.

  • Principally, we have a hostile (main) road network that the vast majority of the people in the town will not dare to go anywhere near on a bike.
  • Secondarily, we have a ‘permeability’ problem. In many places, what could be short trips by bike are converted into very long ones (just as long as the circuitous driving trip) because of an absence of short connections between roads and streets.
A typical main road in Horsham - a substantial barrier to cycling

A typical main road in Horsham – a substantial barrier to cycling

Neither of these barriers will be tackled by making driving more circuitous; indeed, it is hard to see how driving could be made substantially more difficult in this regard, given that the town is already largely composed of a dendritic highway pattern for drivers.

The obvious conclusion – if we are interested in increasing cycling levels – is that sensible policy should focus on creating safe and attractive conditions for cycling, and on opening up (or improving) connections for cycling between currently different parts of the town, rather than expecting drivers to be prised out of their cars by making their routes longer – we’ve already done this in Horsham (albeit through historical accident) and we have negligible cycling levels.

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19 Responses to Will making driving routes longer persuade anyone to cycle?

  1. Pete says:

    There are a lot of social examples of Britain being all about the stick and not much carrot!

  2. Gonçalo Peres says:

    But, for making cycling more attractive and safe, you have to redistribute the space, which often means replacing car parking spaces and car lanes with cycle lanes and converting two-way roads, to one-way (for cars, while still two-way for people on bikes).
    So we need a bit of both.

  3. marmotte27 says:

    The Dutch approach was exactly that, Limiting access to motor traffic along with reducing it’s speed, giving priority and the most direct routes to cycling, and only then in third or fourth place, building dedicated cycling infrastructure. If you’re not willing, as is the case in Britain and elswhere, to take away a significant amount of road space from motorized traffic and give it to other modes, nothing is going to change.

  4. Kevin says:

    There was an interesting piece in City Observatory recently about why, as easy as it is, we can’t just demonize cars. Worth checking out! http://cityobservatory.org/lets-not-demonize-driving/

  5. RP says:

    ” or because it makes no sense to use them (there is a ‘main road’ route that is quicker, or less circuitous)”

    It will make sense to use them if the main road is congested, which is the motivation behind a lot of rat-running.

    Speaking more generally, I somewhat disagree with the thrust of this piece.

    I am strongly in favour of more measures to encourage cycling, but at the same time, you need to ask what the ultimate goal of transport policy should be. I don’t think that it should be “increasing cycling.” I’d like to see that happen, but that’s a tool, not a final goal, and increasing cycling levels doesn’t actually solve that many problems in itself. For one thing, induced demand suggests that for every driver you get out of a car onto a bike, another driver/car is likely to come along and replace him or her. And someone cycling in and of itself (i.e. if it doesn’t reduce the net number of car journeys, which it may not if the driver is replaced by another, or it’s taking people off public transport) doesn’t reduce air pollution, doesn’t make streets pleasanter places, doesn’t free up street space for kids to play and so on; what achieves that is reducing car usage. To do that, you need to take measures to discourage car usage.

    At the same time, you should of course encourage bike use, because people need alternative ways to get around, and cycling is great exercise and great fun.

    But to improve people’s quality of life and the environment, you also need to directly discourage/reduce car use, and the main way to do that is to introduce “motoring-hostile” measures such as congestion charging and reducing road and parking capacity. The two should go hand-in-hand.

  6. paulc says:

    The Police don’t like ‘permeability’ as it means that people they are chasing can easily evade them unless they are also on foot or bicycle…

    • MJ Ray says:

      So put the police on bikes. It’ll be good for their public profile and their health, even e bikes. Some towns have police on bikes already.

  7. Matthew says:

    I think your distinction is a bit oversimplified.

    “Congestion charging” is not motoring-hostile, for one thing. It makes the experience of driving much more reliable by trading off “paying with your time” and “paying with your cash”.

    Road space reduction is not necessarily motoring-hostile either. There’s loads of examples where converting from 4-lanes to 3-lanes has improved conditions for driving, through better organisation that provides turning lanes and prevents unnecessary passing manoeuvres. The simple “more floor space” approach to driving provision has been long discredited, in favour of smarter approaches (that can still be improved upon).

    The real main point of your article is simply the importance of connections: the Horsham network is dendritic for all, whether walking, cycling or driving, but this heavily disadvantages walking and cycling far more than driving. Restoring connections, or building them from the start, is far more important to enable walking and cycling; for driving it just produces rat-running.

  8. Paul Luton says:

    A key word missing here is “relatively”. Cycling becomes more attractive when (comfortable) cycle routes are significantly shorter than driving routes. That will usually require BOTH creating short cuts for cycling and walking and blocking up rat-runs for the motor vehicles. The pre-existing road pattern of Horsham may mean that the second has to predominate. In areas built up around 1900 the second will be more important. Keeping out through motor traffic is simply needed in order to have space to allow relaxed cycling.

    • Mark Williams says:

      Exactly. I have never tried motoring in NL or analysing it on a map, but the route unravelling often seems to take the form of turn restrictions and one-way, etc., with cycling exceptions or separate cycle paths if motor volumes or speed are high. The result seems to be that for any local A–B journey cyclists have a choice of several routes close to as-the-crow-would-fly, whereas motorists have no more than one route option which is generally longer and likely differs from the return journey B–A. In the Horsham example, a significant proportion of motor journeys across town on the white roads would be diverted to the two-way A24 and A264. Unfortunately, the British approach is to start from the opposite assumption and do this by stealth, blame it on useless cycle ‘facilities’ and pay for it with the cycling budget.

  9. Bmblbzzz says:

    “So, given this intrinsic similarity in driving patterns, how do we account for the large difference in cycling mode share between the two settlements?”
    But is driving modal share also similar, or only driving patterns?

    More generally, while “motoring-hostile measures” (many of which are becoming mainstream now, and not only in London) won’t increase cycling, that’s not their aim. Their purpose is to reduce congestion, pollution and RTAs, and to increase traffic flow, ie to have less traffic flowing more smoothly. With some reuse of ex-traffic space as a positive side effect. Sounds good to me. (Perhaps more importantly, smells good; but sounds are important.)

  10. David says:

    On permeability, the thing that is immediately apparent in your Dutch example is that many of the areas are built on a grid pattern, but with some of the links removed for motor vehicles while remaining open, and providing direct routes for foot/cycle traffic.

    The UK approach to a ‘dendritic’ road pattern is to make sure there’s no such thing as a straight road. This makes the lack of main road cycle infrastructure even worse because you can’t just ‘sidestep’ into a parallel residential street and still make progress in the right direction with minimal extra distance – and where you can, you’ll inevitably be dealing with cars trying to do the same.

    As I understand it, in the Netherlands, the local authority determines the street plan for a new development and then sells building plots either individually to self-builders or in bulk to housing developers. I imagine this is a big contributor to ending up with sensible local networks.

  11. Tim says:

    I don’t think this article makes the case well by starting out with an agenda (at least you’re honest) and then seeking to back it up.

    And I don’t agree that “[making driving more difficult] doesn’t do anything to address the main barrier to cycling; unpleasant, unsafe and subjectively hostile cycling environments.”. Put simply, if putting people off driving gets cars off the road surely that helps? Some journeys may simply be cancelled, and of course we can only judge the “pleasantness” of a journey by comparison with a different journey (or a different type of journey). You say driving is already “difficult, frustrating and unattractive”, but compared to what? These are not absolutes; it can always be either better or worse. Making driving harder is, by definition, making cycling easier, relative to that driven journey.

    I would agree that it’s better to focus on positives, and that in your example the streets of Horsham don’t seem to be particularly pleasant for cycling despite the road network. I think you’re bang on there, but instead of thinking about making driving more circuitous imagine what cycling would be like if the cut-throughs were opened up for drivers – driving were made easier?

    And as other commenters have said, often it’s a case of changing a lane or parking spaces into space for cycling, so it’s not either/or. The two go hand in hand.

    • Mark Williams says:

      Indeed, but it is tiresome when you have CEOGB supporters(?) falsely accusing pro-cycling types of being ‘anti-car’ for having the temerity to suggest promoting cycling relative to their own motoring, or at least toning down their evangelism for the latter. That's before even broaching the thorny issue of road space re-allocation.

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  13. pm says:

    The two things – making driving less convenient and making cycling safer and less stressful – are unavoidably entangled, it seems to me. To make cycling more pleasant you have to increase the roadspace available for it and reduce that available to drivers.

    I’m not entirely sure this is a real argument. Isn’t it all, really, just a question of how, in practice, to best manage the process of doing the above, so as to generate or maintain political support?

    Behind it all I feel there’s an element of natural justice, though. Things like congestion charging are both potentially economically efficient (avoiding wasteful use of resources) and also are just plain ‘fair’ – motorists need to pay for the substantial costs they impose on everyone else. At present they are hugely susbsidised.

    Which is both unjust and also encourages individuals to make choices that are inefficient, economically-speaking. For that reason in an ideal world I’d favour making driving inconvenient and more costly, regardless of what is done for cycling.

    But politically that is a non-starter, so it has to be done in lock-step with making cycling a more viable alternative.

  14. Edgeley says:

    I don’t think it is a coincidence that the rise in cycling in central London coincided with the introduction of the Congestion Charge, but preceded the newer cycle facilities.

    I agree with the author that better cycling facilities are good, but think he has drawn a very strange conclusion.

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  16. I think that the extent to which Dutch driving routes are longer than cycling routes can sometimes get exaggerated. Twice recently I have heard people say something like: “In Holland a journey that takes 5 minutes by bike takes three-quarters of an hour by car”. But looking at Mark Wagenbuur’s example in Houten, going by car takes 10 minutes, whereas by bike it takes 9 minutes. The distance by car is twice as long, but the times are similar.

    This also agrees with what my Dutch friends say. Driving in the very centre of towns and cities in the Netherlands is often a pain, due to one-way systems, trams, vast numbers of bikes etc. Outside of the very centre, driving is more pleasant and convenient than in the UK, in their experience.

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