Friday 31 August 2012

The importance of the mundane, why the mundane must go everywhere and why "mundane" must be very good.

Chatting in safety on "just average" Dutch cycle-path. It's
4 m wide and widely separated from the road. There are
Excellent junction designs along here.
Occasionally we've covered exceptional examples of cycling infrastructure on this blog. It is not only this blog, or only the Netherlands that produces such infrastructure. Such projects, big and impressive, often large bridges, tunnels or cycle-parking facilities, are photogenic and prestigious. They can also be the subject of press releases from the city in which they are built, or the designers and they're very popular amongst bloggers, on facebook and twitter. However, an emphasis on such things paints a false image.

Riding to school. No hands required on the sort of mundane
infrastructure you can expect to see everywhere. 3.5 m
wide and widely separated from the road with
good junction designs
It can be a pleasure to use exceptional pieces of infrastructure, but I'm uneasy about the amount of attention which such things achieve. The whole world doesn't look like the exceptions, not even to a cyclist in the Netherlands. After all, the very word exceptional means "deviating widely from a norm". By definition, almost all infrastructure is not exceptional but is actually just average and most journeys will be made for the most part on that average infrastructure.

Boringly average infrastructure. Four metres wide, great
junction design and kept clear of ice in winter.
Prestige projects are very popular with politicians who want to make a name for themselves, and they can be great to have as an extra. However, it is the quality of design of the everyday, mundane infrastructure which forms the largest part of most peoples' journeys which is most important to encourage a high cycling modal share. This is what most people will use for most of their journeys.

Similarly, some places make quite a lot of noise about having a few good cycle paths, or a network which covers part of a city. Nice photos can be taken on those cycle paths and they seem good so long as we gloss over the problems which occur at junctions and that they don't take people to all their destinations. Giving too much credit to a place which has an inadequate network also misses the point. A proper finely spaced grid of high quality routes which cover everyone's journeys is a prerequisite for a high cycling modal share. Exceptional pieces of infrastructure spread spread thinly across the country are only useful to a minority for some of their journeys and if the "good" cycle-paths are exceptional enough to be noteworthy, they're in the same category.

Not a "superhighway", just a cycle-path 3.5 metres wide
providing a direct route between city centre and suburb. It
is very important that cyclists get to use direct routes.
Good quality is far more important than a flashy name.
So let's hear it for mundane, common, ordinary, unexceptional and boring infrastructure. Forget the the idea of exceptional stuff, it is the mundane which needs to be good and it's that mundane yet really extraordinarily good infrastructure which needs to go everywhere.

How much extremely good infrastructure do you need ? That depends on how much cycling you want to see. It should be no surprise that expenditure on cycling is proportional to modal share.

The truly exceptional thing about Dutch cycling infrastructure is that in this country, "mundane" infrastructure is of extremely high quality, is excellently maintained and is absolutely ubiquitous. This mundane infrastructure in the Netherlands is what makes the high modal share possible because it keeps cyclists away from cars and trucks for all of every journey. This very high quality infrastructure is available to everyone so that they can make a large proportion of their journeys by bicycle without any nasty surprises, ever. This extremely high quality grid of cycling routes is kept open even during road works or when there has been snow. Anyone who wants to cycle is enabled to do so as much as they wish to. This maximises the modal share for cycling, whatever the demographic mix of any particular area. Old, young, rich, poor, locally born people and immigrants all cycle in the Netherlands.

High quality routes can also be roads if cars are removed from
by unravelling motor and bicycle routes. Read more
and watch a video about this particular bicycle road.
The importance of having a tight grid of high quality routes to encourage the use of bicycles was a lesson learnt way back in the late 1970s and early 1980s and still just as valid today. Don't let your city get away with offering just a few prestige projects or just a few particularly good routes. Don't let them get away with offering indirect routes which don't go to all destinations efficiently. Such proposals may sound good, they're great for boasting about, they're great for photo shoots and publicity purposes and politicians love to have their names associated with big projects. However, a few pieces of exceptional infrastructure cannot cause an appreciable change because for most people making most journeys in other parts of the same city, the experience of cycling will remain the same as it was before they were built.

One of thousands of small bridges
for cyclists doing what it needs to do
Average Dutch infrastructure is what is featured most on this blog. It's also what we demonstrate most on our Study Tours to show how the infrastructure works and why it enables cycling so much. We take the routes that normal people take to destinations that normal people go to. We use the infrastructure that normal people use. There is no point in cherry picking a few particularly good pieces of infrastructure as this only creates a false image. It wouldn't show how people actually cycle on a daily basis and what is important to make this high rate of cycling normal.

So what is this "grid", then ?
It's simple in concept. Within a few pedal strokes of home, everyone needs to be able to reach infrastructure on which they not only will be safe but on which they will feel safe. It must take the cyclist to every destination in a convenient manner and it must be contiguous. No stops and starts, no need to "take the lane" to cross large junctions.

Main cycle-routes should be separated from each other by no more than 500 metres. Secondary routes fill in between to get the spacing down to about 250 m and neighbourhood routes fill in the gaps where needed.

Conceptual version of "the grid". Cover
your whole country like this.
Red = main cycle routes 500 m apart,
green = secondary, blue = local links.
In practice, the grid is of course not arranged on strict North-South / East-West lines, but curves with the landscape, runs alongside canals and rivers with bridges to cross periodically, goes across the countryside and through the towns and cities that people live in.

However, the everyday experience is as if it were such a strict grid. For instance, from our home we have less than 200 metres to cycle in a quiet culdesac (30 km/h limit) to reach either of two high quality four metre wide cycle-paths which take us to every possible destination by bike. See the actual map of primary and secondary cycle-routes in Assen in a previous post about "the grid".


Anonymous said...

Even worse are press releases about "excellent" facilities which are barely better than nothing....

The Dani King Cycleway, will measure around 3500 metres in length which is slightly longer than the 3000m distance that the pursuit team rode to claim their gold medal at the London Olympics. The route will be marked by a series of new signs at each end and key points along the route.
Dani said "It would be an honour to have a cycle path named after me. When people ride along it I hope it will remind them of the legacy of the Olympics and inspire them to keep fit and enjoy sport".
Council Leader, Keith House said. “Dani is the first Olympic gold medallist from the Borough for eighty years - we want to recognise her great achievement and what better way than naming the excellent cycling facilities in her own home village after her.”

See those excellent facilities here:

I wonder whether this would even be considered ordinary/mundane in Holland.

Paul Martin said...

Well said, David.

Sadly this is the approach we see in Australia. The only infrastructure that we see is the exceptional - exceptional in the sense that it is ANY infrastructure and it is often well below acceptable standards. Everywhere else there is nothing.

The politicians - and worse - the bicycle advocacy organisations, just love having their photos taken & names quoted when they're officially opened. It makes me furious.

Such projects almost exclusively focus on the needs of the 'commuter' which makes up a minority of trips but it is a demographic that 1) is more likely to cycle anyway and 2) results in less road congestion at peak periods.

No thought is given to the other 90% of trips and I doubt that will change in my lifetime (unless there is a *serious* disruption to oil supplies to change bad driving habits)...


Ride2Wk said...

Great article David, very true and very timely given the comments in a few blogs about the Dutch elevated cycleway roundabout that cost 20M Euro.

I have to disagree with Paul's comment about Australian cycling infrastructure. There are a large number of "minor" cycleways being built all around Australia that are not opened with political fanfare and are not much different to the photos shown in this article. Many cycling advocates are pushing just as much, if not more, for those "minor" links. Many of us recognise that we need completed networks first to get numbers increased before we can justify the land & cost of bigger & better facilities.

Regards Ride2Wk

@BehoovingMoving said...

Oh David, you're so right, yet so flat. I spent some time on the rail trails of Burgundy a few months ago, that were ratty in places, plain safe in others, and punctuated by switchbacks, some crazy steep sections and a particularly memorable dark freezing tunnel. By contrast, such Cycling can leave you feeling brain-dead. Dependable, sure, but to actually LIVE there? I worry it might do my head in.

Mark S said...

Great post and it certainly rings very true with the first thing that sprang into my mind as I read it, the Cycle "Superhighways" we have in London.

The hype around them originally made most cyclists in the city rather excited however as is typical with TFL they just couldn't do a proper job of it as they wheren't willing to actually take some space away from the precious motorised road users or consider designs that in anyway might hold them up.

So we've been left with a load of blue paint splashed randomly at the side of the road, with a few boxes in the middle of the lane when it's blocked by something more important like parking or a bus stop. A handful of either lethal or dangerous junctions and that's with less then half of the planned highways actually being in place.

What they do offer though is a chance for Boris Johnson & TFL to pretend they are "promoting cycling" to the general public when the sad truth is we would frankly probably be better off without them as poorly implemented infrastructure is often worse then none at all, the [false] sense of security many new cyclists seem toi get from the blue paint results in some frankly shocking behaviour.

Nathan Townshend said...

Thanks for continuing to campaign. I have recently had the pleasure of cycling in the Netherlands for the first time, doing the North Sea Route, and I enjoyed looking out for features that I've seen in your posts. My account of a few of them is at Please have a look!

Clark in Vancouver said...

So true. I sometimes have to explain to non-cycling types that there's nothing magical about a cycle path. That they're boring practical mundane things that work well and some day won't be considered worthy of controversy.