Saturday, 25 May 2013

What if you build it and they don't come?

I got a bit depressed a little while ago. I was reading a superbly well-researched article about a town north of London called Stevenage. The article was about its network of off-road bicycle routes and the fact that not many people really uses them. There is also a shorter but just as good article on the European Cyclists' Federation website.

Borrowed from the article, which is written by Carlton Reid.

A couple of lessons come from the article. The first is that this was a different time. The paths were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Car ownership was expanding quickly and there was nothing like the congestion we experience now - especially the UK. At the same time, car use was not curtailed at all. The bike paths were there but it was just as easy, in fact easier, to get everywhere by car. The network has not been updated or expanded on since the 1970s. Since then, new shopping centres have been built further out of town that are not reached by the current network. Finally, it was never updated. It's effectively frozen in the 1970s. Compare that to the Dutch who have continuously improved their system since then.

A further lesson is that building infrastructure is just one of a number of things that are required to change transport practices. It is not just about bikes but rather about a coordinated package of planning and urban design policies that lead to a democratic choice of ways of getting around.

The great difficulty for Adelaide is that not only is it one of the most carcentric cities around, it feels like it has always been that way. It is as if alternatives simply cannot be contemplated. They have to be though because what we have now is unsustainable and it disempowers a large segment of the population, including all children, the elderly and anyone without their own car.

Re-engineering the entire built environment is not really politically realistic. Not overnight anyway. What needs to happen is that a network begins in the CBD and expands outwards. Utility cycling practically does not exist in Australia but more and more people are commuting by bicycle. Whatever changes are made first must be highly visible and be seen to be working. Aiming at those commuter cyclists first of all and the motorists who sit in stationary traffic alongside them is probably the most effective way to make your point to start with.

It is for that reason that I think the Danish style of bike path would work best in Adelaide at first. It is sometimes criticised but by comparison to Adelaide, it is light years ahead.

You only have to speak to anyone in Adelaide who has spent their life getting around by car to realise that they do not get it. Cycling friendly nations around the world may as well be on Mars. Any form of transport that is not a car is so far off their radar that you may as well be speaking to a fridge. For any changes to be made, there has to be some public support. At the moment, there isn't because there is very little misunderstanding.

Adelaide has wide streets with plenty of space for the road to be rearranged but without any obvious impact on motorised traffic. Lanes can be narrowed or, as happened very successfully in Grenfell Street, lanes can be reallocated to public transport. Or bicycles.

A series of wide raised lanes that do not disappear at intersections would be a visible reminder that taking the bicycle is a genuine alternative. The width of course must be sufficient for passing and talking side by side. You can in a car, on foot or on a bus. Why not on the bike lane?

Here is a view from Google Streetview where you can see a lane halfway through being built:

Here are a couple more borrowed from Hamburgize:

And the finished product:

There are also good views on two posts on Copenhagenize. Indeed, at first, it need not necessarily involve raised lanes of that style. Separation can be achieved in other ways too.

But it is why I think adopting the Danish style of bike path at first will make such a dramatic change at modest cost. It is something that is easily achievable and highly visible.

And it's not about arrogance or forcing people to adopt a particular way of getting around. It is about giving everyone the choice - something that is lacking at the moment. In fact, I could not put it better than this comment:

... just sensible and economic: a very effective way of increasing mobility while reducing congestion and using available city space better, at low cost.

The fact is, there is a direct correlation between modal share and quality of infrastructure that can be seen between countries and within them. That means the right treatment depending on the designation of the road so that there is a continuous network that is useable for everyone.

Another English town that experimented with segregated infrastructure is Milton Keynes (also north of London but you have to catch the train from Euston rather than Kings Cross). Its paths became known as Redways and, like those in Stevenage, had mixed results. A good balanced article about them is on the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain website.

For a recent thorough and well-written description of the Danish system, see Voleospeed.


  1. Hi Edward. Nice article. One thing I wonder how we are ever going to unravel in Australia is the the phenomena of middle class families driving their kids to school long distances. This is a political minefield as the Gonski reforms show! It generates an enormous amount of traffic as anyone who commutes notices when the schools are in versus the schools are out. It's also a shame as kids riding to school would be a great place to start.

  2. Totally agree. I just cannot for the life of me work out where to start though. That is, what are the first politically palatable steps to take? We have seen what opposition sounds like and how loud it can be in that ridiculous WSJ video:

  3. Great post Edward. Hope you are running for prime minister :-)