Saturday 22 January 2011

Cycling: It's not as simple as 'going Dutch'

I was involved in a discussion in comments over at Cycalogical about whether cycling campaigners should be more ambitious in pushing for segregated cycle lanes instead of more minor 'reforms' such as 20mph zones, which have more support for the time being but would be likely to have a smaller impact on cycling rates. I said (perhaps a bit too robustly), that I found these kind of arguments a bit tedious, as the two are not necessarily opposed. In particular, I think we just don't have a large enough constituency of cyclists to be able to win arguments over large-scale re-allocation of road-space from motorists to ourselves. To win that argument we first have to increase the number of cyclists out there, which is where things like 20mph zones come in.

One thing the debate touched on is whether the example of the Netherlands, perennially cited by some as the only country worth emulating in its approach to cycling, is really that useful for the UK. I suggested it wasn't, as the Dutch have had extensive networks of off-road cycle paths as far back as the early 1900s and never saw cycling modal share fall as far as it did in the UK.

Apparently this isn't widely known, so for the sake of information here's a short video which shows that the Netherlands had a large network of segregated cycle paths even before motor cars became widely used. 

And for figures on relative rates of cycling in the 1950s, see Fig. 6 in this pdf, which shows the indexed trend in cycling rates in Netherlands and UK. You can work out the rate (in km cycled per person per day) in 1952 by taking the most recent figures from Fig. 2. The end result is it looks like in 1952 people on average cycled around four times as much in the Netherlands as in the UK. 

So cycling has always been more common in the Netherlands, in large part because they've had this great network of segregated paths for so long. Dutch campaigners have never had to operate from the position of cyclists in the UK, where we have an extensive road system in place designed almost entirely with cars in mind and cycling an afterthought at best. It's all very well saying that we should aspire to the same (and I agree!) but not if it ignores the pragmatic and political challenges involved in getting there.


  1. Wow, is this another reason why we will not get separate infrastructure in UK? I wish some people were as resourceful when it came to lobbying for it. Then we would beat NL in a year. We've seen it all - no space, too old, to new, no will... and so on.
    Seriously though - if you think that we won't get good infrastructure because we don't have enough people riding bikes then let's give up right now, because we will never get more people riding bikes without dedicated tracks. VC has reached it's capacity for encouraging cycling. The rest of the population aren't interested in risking anything if they can conveniently hop into a car and drive on a nice, extensive and prioritised network of segregated roads.

  2. "Wow, is this another reason why we will not get separate infrastructure in UK?"

    No, that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying, again, is that to have a good chance of winning what is an essentially political argument, we need to have a large constituency of support. Being 'right' clearly isn't enough, unfortunately. There are various non-revolutionary policies out there which will increase the number of cyclists, hopefully to the point where we can use the weight of numbers to win the argument for more separate infrastructure. These policies include things like 20mph zones, cycle training, contraflows, strict liability, etc - just the kind of thing which people like Freewheeler have been energetically attacking, which is what really prompted my original comment on Cycalogical's post.

    In general, I would encourage people to think about what I'm saying rather than jumping to conclusions based on pre-conceived 'us against them' campaign orthodoxy.

    "we will never get more people riding bikes without dedicated tracks"

    That's just not true, in fact in Central London we already have seen many more people riding bikes with zero provision of new dedicated tracks.

  3. One more thing. Don't assume that just because I support smaller-scale reforms I don't also support segregated cycle lanes. I've just sent a response to Camden's transport strategy arguing strongly in favour of both. It's this destructive idea that you have to be for one or the other which I'm against.

  4. Jim - I am very happy that you are not against dutch style infrastructure. I am also sure that hardly anyone (even freewheeler) is against 20mph zones, strict liability and so one. However all these "non revolutionary" solutions are a nice addition - not the solution. I think you see it too. The thing most people get worked up about is the fact is the either-or situation. Hierarchy of provisions for instance. Or the fact that we actually have to wait to ask for separated cycle tracks. Why not ask for everything at the same time. Start asking now. If no one asks we will never get it.
    Thanks for writing Camden council!

  5. I agree with ndru: "If no one asks we will never get it".

    If pedestrians didn't have dedicated space on our streets, then you'd probably see a lot less people walking too. I would never use that argument against building safe space for pedestrians, so I don't see why we should use that argument against building safe infrastructure for bicyclists.

    I'm glad you linked to that video too, because if anything, it tells me that things don't happen overnight. The Netherlands has been working on building their bicycling infrastructure for many decades, so it takes time. I say start with a small dedicated network (if politically feasible), and build on that.

    That's what we're trying to do here in Toronto - and we're dealing with a similar political landscape to the UK (I think).


  6. "I don't see why we should use that argument against building safe infrastructure for bicyclists"

    Great, neither do I.

    "I say start with a small dedicated network (if politically feasible), and build on that."

    Well yes, political feasibility is kind of what I was driving at.


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