Saturday, 10 March 2012

Who do we campaign for ?

Road sign in Assen designed by child.
"I'd rather cycle". Many children and
adults elsewhere feel the same way
Three years ago, I posed the rhetorical question "Do the British love their children too?" This week, I received an answer in the form of a note which said "For my children in Bristol. Thank you for your work."

In the 1970s, the Dutch reacted to increased danger on the streets by calling for change to make their children safer while preserving their ability to make independent journeys.

In other nations, children have in large part been removed from the streets. They no longer make journeys in an independent manner. For instance, in Britain, newspapers report such things as that a teenage boy can't make a journey of 11 km on his own while in the Netherlands this sort of distance, and much longer distances, are quite routinely ridden by many teenagers every day to get to school, even in winter.

A peloton of teenagers heading home
after school.
A retrospective glance shows that the Dutch did something extraordinary in the 1970s. With mass support, the future of the country was changed. If this had not happened then the Netherlands could be a very different place now.

This was pure luck. The Dutch care for their children, of course, but they do not care for them any more than parents in other nations do. What happened in the Netherlands was that the right people supported the right campaign at the right time. With the right support for the right campaign, similar things could just as easily happen in other countries.

The power and compassion of parents is significant. Cycling campaigners sometimes scoff at ill-conceived "safety" campaigns to force children to wear fluorescent clothing and helmets, however such safety campaigns represent a lot of passion. They come from parents who are not happy with the conditions under which their children live. Change is wanted, and these parents are active in fighting for it. The effort is often misdirected into ineffective campaigns, and far too much seems to benefit the producers of fluorescent clothing and helmets rather than actually changing things. Meanwhile, the rate of walking and cycling amongst children continues to drop in the UK.

Confident youngsters in Assen city
centre. On average, Dutch children
travel independently from 8.6 years
If this energy could be redirected into a campaign to really make conditions on the streets better, then the UK, and other nations, could very easily achieve what the Dutch have achieved, and quite possibly much more. By including parents and children in a campaign, it can achieve mass support which goes well beyond a campaign focussed on "cyclists".

Unfortunately, many adult cycling campaigners continue to treat child cyclists as something different to themselves. It has become common in the UK to call for a two speed approach with a double network. Campaigners want on-road facilities for themselves (the "fast cyclists") while also asking for off-road infrastructure to cater for "slow cyclists". This approach is wrong. For a start, it loses the support of many people because it sounds rather like "cyclists" are greedy. It sounds like a request from a greedy person who wants both to have their cake and also to eat it. However, its the biggest problem is that it is doomed to failure by the low expectations embedded right into the demands being made: Off-road infrastructure is expected to be inconvenient for experienced cyclists, while on-road infrastructure is expected to be unsafe for the inexperienced.

There is no logic behind this strange dichotomous approach. Infrastructure which isn't convenient enough for experienced "fast" cyclists also isn't convenient for "slow" cyclists. Infrastructure which isn't safe enough for inexperienced cyclists also isn't pleasant for the experienced. The two speed approach introduces a divide between two groups of people who need not be divided. It gives no clear route for progression from one set of infrastructure to the other, nor a clear reason why there should be a progression and it helps to keep "cyclists" as an out-group separated from the rest of society.

Cycle-racers, parents and children, all
on one cycle-path in Assen
It is possible to design infrastructure which works equally well for everyone. That is the gold standard. It is what the Dutch did and this blog is filled with examples (see links on the right). Don't ask for less.

For real progress in cycling, campaigners need to start to "think of the children". However, children should be thought of not as small people to be condescending towards, but as the rightful heirs of our future transport network. Today's child cyclists are tomorrow's adult cyclists. It is by working with today's concerned parents, by understanding that their concerns are valid and need to be addressed, that tomorrow's adult and child cyclists will best be catered for.

Not only do other countries have a chance of improving conditions for cyclists, but by the same means they could also improve their own positions in the UNICEF index of child well-being. Is this not something that every country should aspire to ?

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Whatever problems may appear to stand in the way, the Dutch forty year head-start which should always serve as a reference.

The note which prompted this post was attached to a donation which we were sent by a blog reader who is a concerned parent from Bristol. Bristol is Britain's first Cycling City. It received extra funding for a short period of time, at nowhere near the level of Dutch funding. There was much speculation about how the money was spent, and the programme unfortunately failed to meet its targets. To this day, Bristol is still failing to provide safe conditions for child, and adult, cyclists. What happened in the Netherlands in the 1970s was almost unique, but similar things did also occur in Denmark.

20 comments:

Michel from Norway said...

This note is a master-piece for all the bicycles campaigners from anywhere David!
And the post from last week about asking for enough is in the same category!
Your point is just 100% true and right.
Thanks!
Looking forward to the tour next week.

christhebull said...

Hmm... In some places in Bristol you can see the "dual network" in action on individual streets, where a road will have cycle lanes and ASLs *and* also shared use pavements and toucan crossings at junctions.

This is stupid because both types of facility have inherent flaws - the ASL will have a left hand filter lane in the blind spot of HGVs, and the toucan crossing will be too narrow to share comfortably with pedestrians.

Thinking about this from an architectural perspective, this would be like having three steps at the entrance of a building as well as a vertical platform lift next to it (offering the less mobile a choice of a difficult ascent or a painfully slow one) when you could probably fit a ramp in if you were more thoughtful about the layout.

Likewise, I could go on about how the minimum dimensions for access in building regulations should be viewed as "absolute minima for constrained locations", not "standards to work from to maximise developer profits", the latter of which seems to be the UK attitude to cycle infrastructure.

Severin said...

We've been dividing cyclists into categories for decades here in the US. I've been looking at the AASHTO bike design manual from 1999 and cyclists are divided there. I looked at an other documents suggesting facilities based on street conditions (NEVER ONCE was anything recommended beyond a wide curb lane to be shared with motorists) and cyclists again were divided.

Bicyclists are almost always divided into "A,B, or C" (Advanced, Basic, Child) and then B and C are clumped together thereafter. I think cities like San Francisco are going the right direction in campaigning for 8-80 facilities and targeting children with safe routes to school and bike safety classes, the momentum there is pretty exciting with many separated facilities underway and a growing constituency.

Koen said...

I agree David, cycle campaigners and urban planners need to be BOLD in implementing new infrastructure. Why not stick your neck out and make a pilot project somewhere? As you and Mark Wagenbuur pointed out, good infrastructure pays for itself and is cheaper to build than not to build. Who rises to the occasion?

Vocus Dwabe said...

Right on target, David: in UK conditions a dual cycling network would inevitably end up as two thoroughly sub-standard antisystems, whereas forcing the planners to concentrate their minds on a single segregated network might, just might, produce something worth having.

On the hopeful side, after four years of assiduously following the cycling news I do detect a distinct shift in thinking these past few weeks, since the Times began its campaign. The helmets-and-hi-viz enthusiasts have hardly been heard at all, while the whole "Vehicular Cycling" lobby has looked increasingly on the back foot. There seems to have been a collective epiphany in which many people who hadn't done so previously now realise that bicycles and heavy, fast motor traffic simply don't mix, and that no amount of plastic hats or sympathetic magic are going to make them do so.

What we particularly need to keep hammering away at is that in car-besotted Britain, selling the idea of decent cycle provision to the motoring lobby is going to be hugely difficult. The only way to do it is going to be by pointing out to motorists that they too stand to benefit by (i) no longer having cyclists mixed in with arterial traffic flows and (ii) having less road congestion through more short journeys being done by bicycle. If you can't persuade them on that, then abandon any hope of things ever being much better than they are now.

Anyway, keep hammering away. There are signs that the message is beginning to be heard at last.

Anonymous said...

David, I can't help but wonder if you are wrong. Mainly on the point, 'we do not need to reinvent the wheel'.

I frequently ponder how much different cycling in the west would look if it was not dominated by racing bicycles, mountian bicycles, or BMX bikes. Proper Bikes (sit up style, dutch bikes) offer such a different perspective on how bicycles can be used. I'm convinced that if more people get to ride (and own!) a proper bike that their whole attitude to bicycle infrastructure will change. Once the attitude starts to change, push will come. But we will not be able to do it divided. motordom was able to conquor our roads by joining forces with each other and pushing common goals: make it easier to drive so we can sell more cars. we

Christoph Moder said...

In all your great articles you have shown me that a superb bike infrastructure is not only possible, but affordable.

But there is one thing where I constantly disagree: Separated cycle paths are only good if they are done like in the Netherlands; in other countries, they are too narrow, too short, too unclear ... and every time they build a cycle path, the situation becomes worse for the cyclists: more hills, less right of way, lower speed, dirty surface, even barriers and other obstacles. In my experience, it is a chicken/egg problem; good cycle paths are only built where many people are cycling. Probably the planners must be cyclists in order to be able to design a decent infrastructure.

So it is in many areas more important to prevent the authorities from doing something wrong than asking for more bike paths. In Germany, I prefer the bike strip on the road because they cannot make them as crappy as the average German bike paths. Sad but true. I think such simple, cheap and especially foolproof methods are needed to improve the bike infrastructure at first; only after more people have started cycling, there is enough awareness of how it is done right. We do not need more 100 m long unconnected pieces of bike paths distributed over the country and even on quiet secondary roads, but uninterrupted and wide bike paths connecting the towns.

I see the need to do something for the scared beginners and not only for the experienced and fast cyclists. However, what we currently have fits rather the motorists who decide to ride a bike on a sunny summer weekend four times a year, but not the everyday cyclists who need efficiency, speed and safety. A two-class society? At least, those should be preferred who actually cycle regularly.

(And I really don't understand why the planners keep on making the same mistakes all over again. It would be so easy to look to the NL how things are done right ... thank you for pointing this out again and again!)

Anonymous said...

The sign is actually relatively hard to translate, but it's an imperative rather than a first person singular. It tells the reader that they should prefer cycling.

David Hembrow said...

Anonymous: I think the bikes play a role too. It's why I wrote a blog post describing the features of such bikes and why we sell components to make bikes more practical. However, the bike plays only a small role. The main reason that people don't cycle is a lack of subjective safety. This is not addressed by changing the bikes. However, once it is addressed, and you have mass cycling, the bikes will come.

Christoph: I don't think we disagree as much as you think. I agree that segregated cycle paths only work properly if well designed. This is true of on-road infrastructure as well. Bad design is bad design, and I don't approve of it wherever it is.

I often point out the problems with bad design, such as very many times in London and the UK in general, but also in the USA, Canada, Denmark and in Germany.

Indeed, I also point out where it's not good in the Netherlands.

Bad infrastructure helps no-one.

Clark in Vancouver said...

The evolution of public discourse, media manipulation, and government action is interesting. It's changed a lot the past few years and overall for the better.
Here in Vancouver, Canada things are getting better all the time. We're now (hopefully) past the backlash stage and are moving to where the average person understands the need for cycling infrastructure. They're now aware that there are those that commute by bike as they may have associated cycling only with recreation before. In some areas like East Vancouver, and with young people it's just normal and not a fringe activity at all.
The current civic government claims to be progressive and forward thinking and have put in a couple separated bike lanes downtown that are very high quality and well designed. These were high profile items that caused a lot of attention and political opponents tried to make people be against them in the last election but failed to do so.
In addition to these two lanes there are many smaller things all over the place. There's been a network of quieted streets for many years now. Every year one or two new ones are opened. They're very cheap to make. I also see tiny improvements appearing that make life nicer for cycling. Ramps added and lanes tweaked.
One thing that is a factor is that the mayor cycles to work himself. Also every council person (at least claims) to be "a cyclist". The political opposition tends to be from the suburbs but they don't have any say in what happens in the city. (Unlike, say, Metro Toronto.)
Another factor is the advisory committee. A group of volunteers that give suggestions to the city. It's been replaced recently with a new committee for "active transportation" which includes walking, rollerblading, skateboarding as well.

In my opinion, laying low and politely asking for crumbs hasn't worked at all. Standing up and demanding and insisting is the only thing that gets attention. Like any "movement", if you continue to be there they'll eventually realize that you're not going away and will start listening to you.
Also it's important to have all political parties be into cycling. They'll differ in how it should be of course but that's okay.

OldGreyBeard said...

The other problem is that building two networks, neither of which is very good, splits the funding. My solution in the UK would be to get Dutch traffic engineers in as consultants.

Some of the designs proposed for where I live continue with all the same old stuff such as giving way at junctions but who is there with the authority and experience to tell our traffic engineers that there is another way?

As for the vehicular cycling advocats, odd that Mr Franklin has been so silent.

My daughter is getting her Bikebility Level 2 training today but judging from the behaviour of drivers towards me on my cycle home from school today in a 20mph zone she won't be allowed to cycle to school.

MiddleAgeCyclist said...

I have recently got into a bit of a heated debate. I have dared to suggest some good quality (i.e. not UK), segregated, cycle paths in certain areas in the UK would go a long way towards encouraging some potential cyclists.

You should read the reasons/excuses why this should be resisted. The trouble is the people arguing against are cyclists! If we as a group can't agree on what is needed how on Earth are we supposed to convince the wider UK population and politicians? I despair sometimes!

David Hembrow said...

MiddleAgedCyclist: I've been there before. Arguing with zealots is rarely productive.

Luckily, they are 1% of the population.

MiddleAgeCyclist said...

1% maybe but with a voice on cycling forums etc they can shout quite loudly!

Anonymous said...

David,
Just realised your blog is again operational, for which I'm eternally grateful, it being the best bike blog by far.
Thanks!
The donate button is a good idea - far too many think the only model is buy/sell.
All the best for the future.

OldGreyBeard said...

MiddleAgeCyclist:
They didn't mention Nazis did they? All these arguments seem to end in the bogus claim that the Nazis introduced cycle paths to make more room for Panzers

David Hembrow said...

OldGreyBeard: That's one of my favourites too. It's truly amazing that people come up with such Godwin inducing statements, but they do. Like the other myths, this one is also untrue. Hitler wasn't born until four years after the creation of the first cycle path in the Netherlands.

Franzeen said...

Cycle pants were invented by Nazis? Okay, that's when you know they're losing an argument if they have to pull Nazis out of the deck.

Recently somewhere I read someone sarcastically wrote: "Everytime you cycle, Jesus kills a kitten." It should be a T-shirt.

christhebull said...

@OldGreyBeard - I agree with you that a dual network as found in the UK is likely to be a waste of money. Any "dual network" should be on the basis of distance or destination importance, not skill level. (ie there would be major cycle routes linking small towns or major districts of larger towns over longer distances, and minor routes within them)

Rex Burkholder said...

fantastic! have re-posted numerous times.

From Portland, Oregon. Separate and unequal doesn't work. Current fad of "bike boulevards" ends up with substandard facilities--fragmented with unprotected intersections, forcing out of direction travel, and end up too often used by cars to rat run around congestion. Not for kids despite the hype. But, not as much political opposition is generated. which leads to a great comment by Clark in Vancouver:

"In my opinion, laying low and politely asking for crumbs hasn't worked at all. Standing up and demanding and insisting is the only thing that gets attention. Like any "movement", if you continue to be there they'll eventually realize that you're not going away and will start listening to you."

Thanks for a great blog.

PS Our regional government is beginning work on our first standalone Active Transportation Plan and I will use this to help frame the work to be done.

Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder
Portland, Oregon