Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Thinking in terms of a network

If we were to 'get started on building a network of high-quality segregated cycle tracks,' asks Vole O'Speed, 'where should we start'?

According to Camden Cyclists, 'David suggested that the LCC should campaign to raise the Cycling Superhighways to Dutch Standards'. For their part, Camden Cyclists 'felt that this was a good idea', but they 'also wanted something for Camden, based on the idea that the Mayor of London should be persuaded to fund one Go Dutch scheme in each borough.'

I'll come back to this, but whilst I was having a butcher's through the Camden Cyclists' report, my attention was directed towards a presentation that Jim Davis of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain gave in April, and which I had come across before, but not with the accompanying slides.

Once Jim had established that the streets here in the UK are very hazardous places, particularly for children - the most dangerous in Western Europe, believe it or not - he sought to ascertain what lessons could be learned from the experiences of the Dutch and the Danes. He noted that, in the post-war years, the rise in 'car culture' was not just limited to the English-speaking countries, and that during the period 1950-1975 the bicycle was pretty much excluded from any transport policy anywhere in Europe. But two things happened at the beginning of the '70s that triggered change. The first was a steep rise in the number of deaths on the roads, particularly in Holland, and the second was the OPEC oil crisis.

A total of 450 child deaths were recorded on Holland's roads in 1973, and this prompted the foundation of a new campaign organisation, Stop de Kindermoord. This group successfully petitioned the Dutch government to make the money available to pay for the development of some segregated cycle paths.

Also around this time, there emerged a grass-roots movement concerned to get away from oil dependence, as more and more people began to realise that fuel shortages could lead to further hikes in the price of petrol.

If you haven't already done so, would you please watch this video.

In 2004, the modal share of cycling in Copenhagen was approximately 36%, as we can see from this table. At roughly the same time, one of the interviewees, Soren Elle, was indicating that cycling numbers had doubled during the previous twenty years. Even by the mid-1980s, then, there was a considerable level of cycling in Copenhagen.

I believe that the traffic engineers and town planners in Copenhagen began by developing a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network to a minimum level of functioning. That was their first step. Inevitably they would have placed a heavy emphasis on those routes which were already safe and pleasant, although I think it is reasonable to assume that they would also have found it necessary to construct some segregated cycle tracks from place to place (as happened in Holland, following Stop de Kindermoord's successful campaign). By the mid-1980s, however, it became apparent that some of the back-street routes were not being used; rather, significant numbers of cyclists were heading down the main arterial routes into the centre of the city. And so, as Jim explained, if only a little uncharitably, 'they started building infrastructure, not where they thought cyclists should go, but actually where cyclists were going.'

After a couple of minutes of the Contested Streets video, we see Jan Gehl stood alongside one of those main arterial routes. He explained that it used to be a four-lane highway with traffic and noise and lorries and 'the whole hula-boo'. It has now been 'reconfigurated'. Interestingly, 'when everything is made up about this street, it has the same capacity as before'.

Roads such as this have their equivalents in London, of course, but at this early stage, how much bang would we get for our buck if these were developed to European standards? What would be left in the pot for other schemes once these works had been completed? How long would they take to deliver? Would schemes such as this form part of a 'realistic five-year programme', in the style of a glory project such as the LCN+?

In the mid-1980s, when the Danes started looking at major roads such as these, there was already a significant body of cyclists. I resolutely believe that we would be well-advised to follow Copenhagen's example and do as much as possible with whatever funds might be available, in the expectation that this would still result in a healthy increase in the number of cyclists, and in the hope that the Euston Road, say, would one day have segregated cycling.

It wouldn't much matter if, as in the case of Copenhagen, some of the formative routes fell by the wayside. The Darwinian bottom line - be good at it or make way for something better - should always come into play sooner or later. What does matter, however, is that a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network be established.

Darwin also showed us how something such as an eye evolved to its present level of complexity. He suggested that the earliest eyes would only have been able to distinguish light from dark. But from such rudimentary beginnings as this, of course, it was mainly a question of time as to what happened thereafter.

So anyway, let me just say that where the routes go is more important to me than what the routes look like. I am not at in any way qualified to speak on the subject of urban design, but I have spent a fuck of a long time drawing lines on a map.

And so, to get back to David's point, if we were to set about developing a network of high-quality segregated cycle tracks, where should we start?

Please click here to see a map which shows a proposed trial area.

Map Legend:

CS routes: black

London Cycling Network routes: colour coded (please fill in any gaps)

Local routes: not shown

I don't know about you, but having sat in front of this map for five minutes or so, I think I could convince myself of just about anything. Indeed, the only conclusion I did reach was to reaffirm my conviction that somebody else needs to have a bloody good look at this. As Cycling: the way ahead points out, 'Studying the feasibility of a network is of a similar importance to setting up a cycling unit.'

Before I go, I would like to point out that the Camden Cycling Campaign proposal for Tottenham Court Road is, in fact, a micro-measure, aimed at improving a specific situation. I concede, it makes a lot of sense to consider this section of route, particularly since Camden Council are also looking at it, but I also believe it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture, and so I wonder if it might be a better idea to plan the whole route from top to bottom, that is, from the junction of Lots Road and Cheyne Walk all the way up to Kentish Town Road and beyond (via Trafalgar Square).


Jan Gehl reminded us that Copenhagen was one of the first cities to take an interest in public spaces. And if he were to give advice to a city - it could be any city in the world - what would he say? He would say, Try to take the people more seriously, just as seriously as you've been trying to smooth the traffic flow.

All cities have their traffic departments, he explained, and they get all this data all the time about the traffic; they know everything there is to know about it. But when it comes to people in the city, he said, they know nothing.

Jim said, 'The movement for mass cycling has to come from the people, and not just cyclists.' He also said, 'For journeys under five miles, people should be able to consider cycling or walking.' And, 'The creation of a cycling culture is not that difficult to achieve - it just simply takes a consistent policy developed over years.'

This is from one of his recent blogs: 'If we don't do something to a decent standard, and think in terms of [a] coherent network instead of piecemeal 'solutions' that act like a Band-Aid on a laceration, then cyclists using the open road in the meantime will get continuing and unwarranted abuse as more junk gets built and the bicycle will continue not to be taken seriously as a mode of transport.'

This seems like a good place to bring this posting to a close.