The big infrastructure bunfight #2

… continued

So, there we were, and are, with perversely designed and dangerous ‘cycle lanes’ – the apt term used by the cycling bloggerati is ‘cycling farcilities’. There’s even a webpage devoted to documenting particularly laughable examples. Better off without them. If even a wimp like me could learn to use even the existing roads then surely anyone could.

I belonged at the time to the e-list of the Camden cycling campaign, and various online spats about cycle lanes finally resulted in the outbreak, in 2007, of a lengthy e-tussle about the use of segregated cycle lanes – i.e ones with actual physical separation between cars and traffic. Statistics and research papers, arguments, sneers and accusations of stupidity were flung about all over the place.

The thing is, it was really difficult for an outsider like myself to make any sense at all of this. As it gradually started to come into focus in my own mind, the following seemed to be going on:

1) There are people who are very strongly in favour of segregated cycle lanes.

2) They are not stupid.

3) This argument runs deep – it had been going on for years and had by now developed its own emotional momentum which had propelled it beyond reasoned discussion. There seems to be a whole back history which has nothing to do with most people who ride bikes, and which, quite frankly, does not matter.

To an outsider like myself (and I have to keep saying that, because I feel that when I publish this post I can’t quite claim to be an outsider any longer), each side seemed to be wilfully misunderstanding the other.

Look, I’m bored with this already, I’ll cut straight to the chase.

The chase

The most enlightening thing I’ve read about cycling infrastrcutre is David Hembrow’s blog a view from the cycle path. If you haven’t seen it then I recommend reading a few of the very earliest posts. David Hembrow is a lifelong cycling buff who comes from the west country and has lived in Cambridge. Even the best cycling town in the UK wasn’t good enough and he emigrated to the Netherlands, which has by far the highest rate of cycling in the developed world, and his blog is about why this is and how it came about. Hembrow has credibility, as far as I’m concerned, because it is evident from his writing that he is intelligent, knows what he is talking about, is placed to make decent personal observations and uses statistical argument appropriately. As the blog ran full-tilt for quite a few years, it is also very thorough, in that it manages to clear up all of the obvious misunderstanding and objections.

(A mention should also be given, I understand, to Paul Gannon of, guess who, the Camden cycling campaign. He also lived in the Netherlands for a while. Also an intelligent man who uses statistics appropriately*. But in my experience of his postings to the CCC e-list his voice had been distored by the infighting on this issue. It could happen to any of us).

Finally, there has been a ‘painful’ change of mind on the part of the academic Dave Horton, as a result of a qualitative research project.

… and so …

This is more than enough for me, so I’m convinced – but what am I convinced of? Well basically that the experience of the Netherlands should be the starting point. That the Netherlands is not so different from the UK that their experience can be discarded. That an important part of how it’s been done over there involves good segregated infrastructure. (though if you read a view from the cycle path you’ll see that there is a lot more to it than that, including encouragement and training). That the experience of people who find the current road situation too horrid to contemplate cycling or walking should be taken seriously.

That we’ll never just be able to persuade more people to cycle on the roads as they exist, that if we change the built environment in the right way more people will walk and cycle and the virtuous circle could be helped to start.

Nobody is in favour of ‘farcilities’. I think the most important (implicit) point made by the “cycle on the roads” camp is that we can’t entirely trust the authorities to get it right, or right first time, or to not to do it on the cheap. A campaigning message that crudely says “we want segregated cycle infrastructure” is a bad message, (a) because a completely segregated cycle network does not even exist in the Netherlands and more importantly (b) because with the wretched lack of political will in the UK, can we trust the powers that be not to create a load of lousy bike lanes and then force us to use them?

Well, keeping a sceptical eye on the powers that be is just the task for local campaign groups, which brings us nicely back to the cyclenation conference …

* why do I keep mentioning statistics? Because statistics are life, dammit!


One thought on “The big infrastructure bunfight #2

  1. I agree with David Hembrow that we should push for the very best separate infrastructure, as in the Netherlands. However, I have also read the Magic Bullet (Dutch Cycling) blog, which argues that there are unique historic, geographic, political and societal reasons why cycling is so successful in that country. They are different from us. Perhaps there are cities such as York or Cambridge which are similar enough to Utrecht or Groningen for local pressure groups to force the local authorities to build Dutch-style infrastructure. That appears to have happened in some German cities such as Bremen. But the very nature of British cycling means that it is a pastime for a small, fit, dedicated elite. It is not a mass movement. Last Sunday I was out walking with my local Ramblers group. I mentioned to one of our members that I had been cycling on a Sustrans railway path. This was like lighting the blue touch-paper. He told me he had never been on a cycle path and never worn a helmet in his life. But he had cycled over 10,000 miles a year on the roads on his racing bike since he was a young man. I guess he is in his late 60s. I certainly did not suggest to him that we should have Dutch-style infrastructure in Britain, as I wanted to get home in one piece.

    So even if it is possible to influence politicians at local level, how are we going to get the cyclists to agree a common policy?

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