Thursday 12 June 2014

The myth of the "tipping point" and the fragility of cycling.

Birmingham once had much bicycle production
and use. However, like the rest of the UK
this city's cycling declined from the 1950s
It has become popular to make statements about cycling somehow taking on a life of its own and growing without further investment once a particular modal share has been reached. A fairly recent example of this sort of thinking appeared in a grant application document from Birmingham City Council:

"Birmingham is working towards the ‘tipping point’, a common pattern within cities, where a modest rise in cycling levels suddenly gathers pace. We want to accelerate the pace of growth further, creating a visible ‘step-change’ in levels of cycling within our city being part of everyday life and mass participation a reality. Our aim is to achieve a cycling modal share of all journeys of at least 5% by 2023, which research undertaken by the European Platform on Mobility Management (EPOMM) has shown is sufficient to generate the critical mass required to make it an attractive mode of travel. By 2033 we want this to rise to levels of comparable European cities such as Munich and Copenhagen at over 10%."

As is so often the case, they're aiming far too low. A target of just 5% of trips at a point in time ten years in the future ? Attempting to achieve such a slow rate of improvement makes it difficult to measure whether there has been any success at all year on year. It's also a good way of ending up making no progress at all. Nevertheless, this is described as a "step-change".

It is also odd that their aim over 20 years is to emulate countries which have achieved less than the Netherlands, and also that they define "comparable" with Munich and Copenhagen as a cycling rate of 10% of journeys when both those cities are currently at roughly double that level.

But the biggest error is the reliance on a "tipping point". Where is the evidence for the existence of this "tipping point" ? Actually, history shows us that without continuous substantial investment to support it, cycling declines even from a very high modal share.

Examples of decline from a high level
Before 1962, the British made more journeys by bicycle than the Dutch do
now (as a proportion of all distance travelled)
In the Netherlands, 27% of journeys are currently made by bicycle. Because it is mostly shorter journeys that are cycled, that translates to bicycles being used for around 10% of the total distance travelled.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, British people used bicycles for around a third of the total distance that they travelled. This declined steadily and it took until 1962 before the UK dropped to the present day Dutch level with about 10% of distance travelled being by bicycle. Since then, the UK has declined and stagnated.

What happened in the UK to make people switch away from bicycles was a huge programme of investment in infrastructure for motor vehicles while bicycles were mostly not catered for at all. Cycling became less safe compared with other modes of transport as well as subjectively unsafe due to the proximity of an overwhelming number of motor vehicles. Cycling became less desirable as a mode of transport and has become marginalized.

New Towns in the UK provide an example in miniature. Stevenage, for instance, had a higher cycling modal share in the past than it does now. When it was first built, there was (for the UK) a relatively good grid of cycle facilities and these led to most locations. Decades of under-investment, lack of maintenance and not bothering to integrate cycling into newer parts of the town have resulted in cycling having no advantage in Stevenage and that town now having roughly an average cycling modal share for the UK.

The top line shows cycling in the Netherlands by year
The second line shows Denmark. Cycling has been
in decline in Denmark for 20 years
Denmark provides another example. In the 1980s, Denmark had a cycling modal share which was slightly behind, but similar to that of the Netherlands. Both countries were investing similarly and growing cycling at a similar rate.

It was believed that the Danish culture would result in them always cycling. In fact, cycling comes through investment in making cycling into the most attractive option.

Unfortunately, because investment in and prioritization in planning for cycling were not maintained at an adequate rate and the result has been a steady twenty year decline in cycling in Denmark.

Davis in California, which calls itself the "Most bicycle friendly town in the world", is a small city with a size population to Assen (though it's much more densely populated than Assen). The top cycling city in the USA, Davis hosts a large university for its size as well as other educational facilities. A high student population always make it easier to achieve a high rate of cycling and Davis has a high student population even compared with other university cities. While one quarter of Groningen's population are students, and the population of Cambridge in the UK consists of one third students, more than a third of Davis' population are students and a large proportion of the rest of the population are associated with education.

Davis once described itself as "home to 15000 bicycles", but that was when the population of the city was smaller and even more focused around the university. Some people estimate that as many as a quarter of all trips were by bike in Davis in the 1950s but there has since been a well documented decline in cycling to the point where the cycling modal share is somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of what it was, with even students cycling less than they once did.

You may wonder how this could have happened. An interesting reply to the last link about Davis points out that they have experienced demographic change which works against cycling (fewer students as a percentage of the total) and many other changes including the retirement of a key city figure with the result that "the city lacks any upper level administrators who are anywhere near as dedicated" to cycling.

Davis is now trying to boost cycling by restricting student car ownership in a similar way to Cambridge - something which cannot be applied generally to all cities, and which won't help much when recent growth to the city's population has largely been due to non-students.

More recently, there's the much documented fall of cycling in China. The term "critical mass" was coined by the film-maker Ted White after he saw Chinese cyclists form into a mass at the side of the road and force themselves across the traffic. This is something which required an enormous number of people on bicycles to achieve. Bicycles were enormous in China, but there has been an enormous decline and that country is now famous for its massive traffic jams.

Cycling declined in both the UK and the Netherlands until
the late 1970s. The Netherlands (top line) reversed the
trend while the UK did not.
Finally, the Netherlands also provides a good example of decline from a high base.

Just like the UK, the Netherlands also saw declining cycling from the 1950s until the mid 1970s as roads were redesigned to accommodate more and more motor vehicles at the expense of cyclists. The UK and the Netherlands followed a very similar decline from the 1950s through to the 1970s (though the decline in the UK reached a deeper point).

Though the Netherlands now has the highest cycling modal share in the world, this country has actually still not grown all the way back out of that enormous decline.

Growing cycling is a slow process, even here. It required an enormous amount of work over many years to achieve a relatively small rise from the dip of the 1970s. The trend to higher cycling levels only came after a second revolution took place on the streets of the Netherlands. Despite a high level of investment, further progress has been slow for the last 20 years.

Just as growth is a slow progress, decline also takes time. The slow rate at which declines occur can hide serious issues of under-investment and bad planning for many years, especially if other factors (e.g. growth due to demographics (students / older people) hides the decline. The Netherlands needs to learn from its own past and take the warning from Denmark (see above) seriously. Cycling is no more "in the blood" of the Dutch than it is of the Danes and cycling will just as easily go into decline here if cycling conditions are made steadily worse. In some places this has already happened due to such things as shared space scaring people off their bikes and other similar mistakes.

If subjective safety is no longer taken seriously enough in the Netherlands then people will stop cycling, the decline which began in the 1950s will continue, and the period between 1970 and 2010 will appear as a difficult to explain plateau on a future version of the graph above.

Assen in the 1970s. Many streets in other countries still look this. If Assen still looked like this then there would not be so many people cycling as there are now. Watch a video of how this street looks now. The traffic lights were removed long ago, but the through traffic went first. Unfortunately, such lessons have been forgotten, leading to new examples poorly designed infrastructure.
So what happened to the "tipping point" ?
From the above examples we can see quite easily that merely having a high cycling modal share is not enough to ensure that cycling continues to grow. Many examples exist of places which have or had a much higher cycling modal share than Birmingham's target of 5% of journeys by bike, but which which have since gone into decline and continued to decline for long periods of time.

All that is required to cause cycling to drop is for conditions conducive to cycling to disappear.

When cycling becomes less safe, less pleasant, less convenient than it used to be, people will switch to other modes of transport.

A bicycle tunnel under the railway
in Assen was constructed in the
1970s with a 5% incline. This is
now considered to be too steep.
The Dutch population is ageing
and requires an ever improving
quality of cycling infrastructure
merely for cycling to stand still
Without improvements, the city's
cycling modal share could drop.
How can we stop this from happening ? Constant new investment and ever improving conditions for cycling. Cycling must be safe, attractive, pleasant and efficient as a means of transport to all locations. Conditions must be such that everyone wants to cycle, not just a small section of the population, because if cycling is only for a brave few then the modal share can only mirror the small segment of the population who cycles.

Because there is no low level of cycling which will grow automatically, asking for little and expecting to achieve much makes no sense at all. Real world results are proportional to countries' expenditures.

The Netherlands spends €30 per person per year on cycling infrastructure even after 40 years of effort in building the required comprehensive network of routes because there is no choice but to do this, because the alternative is to watch cycling decline. However it's important to note that this higher level of expenditure than any other nation doesn't really cost anything. While badly designed and constructed cycling infrastructure costs money and gives few benefits, the benefits due to good cycling infrastructure are greater than the cost.

Remember that even the Netherlands has not yet grown back out of the decline between the 1950s and the 1970s. Denmark's troubles with cycling should be seen as a particularly strong warning to this country. If the Netherlands copies from Denmark then it could very easily suffer the same decline as has Denmark.

But while the Netherlands has no choice but to go it alone and continue to try to maintain the lead, other nations do have a very clear example to follow. The Netherlands is the most successful nation in cycling and it is therefore where the best solutions are likely to come from. However, mistakes have been made even here and it sis important to take inspiration from the very best examples. On this blog we try to help by providing examples of what works and examples of what not to do. We also run regular study tours on which these concepts are demonstrated.

A note about demographics
Locations with universities generally have more cycling than other similar locations. Areas which become the new trendy place for young single people to live (i.e. where a process of "gentrification" or an influx of "hipsters" has been seen) will often see an upturn in cycling. Neither of these things is due to the infrastructure, they are due to the average member of the population being easier to attract to cycling because these demographics are less likely to be put off by those things which would put off other people from cycling.

Demographic factors are always important. Not only infrastructure but also the people that are served by it as well as other factors such as the geography make a difference to the potential of any given location.

The best infrastructure allows any location to fulfill its full potential, whatever that potential might be. Groningen currently has three times as much cycling as Cambridge. However if Cambridge had the infrastructure of Groningen then it might well achieve a higher cycling modal share due to the helpful combination of more favourable demographics, local by-laws banning student cars and milder weather.

At present, Groningen is making far better use of its potential for cycling given other factors, while Cambridge is not.

Update July 2014
I've been writing about the decline in cycling in Denmark for six years and after years of denial, it seems that at last some people in Denmark have started to talk about it as well. This is very good news for Denmark. It is only by recognizing a problem that it can be fixed. Publicity alone does not grow cycling. Pretty pictures don't do it, and nor does international marketing. It takes infrastructural change to encourage people onto bikes. Journeys by bike need to be made safe and convenient.

Update 2015
Read a new blog post about how when it was already in decline in New Zealand, planners ignored cycling and allowed it to wither.

This post was started some months ago but I finished it today after reading an excellent post on aseasyasridingabike which makes a very similar point about the idea of a "critical mass". Also interesting this week is ibikelondon's piece about the decline of cycling in China. Also read a Crap Cycling and Walking in Waltham Forest blog post from 2011 on a similar subject.


Unknown said...

"What happened in the UK to make people switch away from bicycles was a huge programme of investment in infrastructure for motor vehicles"

No, what happenned was what's happening right now in the far east where more and more people can afford a car and are ditching their bikes as the car is seen as a sign of having made it...

Back in the 40's and 50's very few people could afford one, most had a bicycle and/or motorbike. Sidecars were very popular back then... My dad put a sidecar on the side of his Aerial Square Four just before I was born... we didn't have a car until 1965 when we were able to afford a secondhand ford popular

David Hembrow said...

Paul: Fair comment. Yes, that too.

The exact same thing was also going on at the same time in the Netherlands and it had the same result. But for cycles to start to claw back against motor domination required the measures that were taken here and not in the UK and other countries.

I hope the Chinese learn sooner than we did that what they're loosing is worth saving.

Andy R said...

I know this post is about other things, but I have to defend Birmingham CC (and the other bidders for CCAG money). The fact is HM government made bidders enter a beauty contest for a total of about £40m of funding for improving cycling facilities. Before and during the bidding process there was no indication of how this money was to be allocated (one successful bidder taking all, or 40 'successful' bidders getting a whole £1m apiece). In addition, this funding has a time limit. It must be spent, that is construction completed on all improvements, by April 2015 - one single year - or the remaining funding can/will be removed.

Anyone who knows how infrastructure construction works in the UK knows the often glacial timescales the process can take.

So, the bidders are put in a position of coming up with reasonably viable schemes in order to put in a realistic bid that might get them considered (without, in these straitened times, doing too much 'wasted' work). If successful they then have to work up the detailed designs of these schemes, go to public consultation, and then construct cycling infrastructure in the knowledge the clock's always ticking and the money could be taken away...just like that (though even Tommy Cooper would struggle to make that situation humorous).

All this, and based on less funding per person for one single year than the Dutch get every year. Hopefully so that they can increase cycling sufficiently to get funding in subsequent years. Of course, we're also due for a general election in a year, in which case we can presume funding for 'large' civils projects will undergo it's traditional post-election 'review', i.e. stop. That is until the economy shows signs of going backwards, at which point it's not just the tap that's turned on but the whole Niagara Falls.

I'm afraid I'm not what you'd call an activist, nor have I even been an advocate of cycling - and I can only imagine how many times you felt like you were banging your head against a brick wall talking to Local Authorities in the UK. But as an engineer wanting to provide decent, safe, infrastructure for cycling I would say there is a wish to change and do better. The problem is even when the political will is there, it's hamstrung from the very start by our system (and level) of funding.

David Hembrow said...

Andy: Thanks for that. I was not aware of the "beauty contest" aspect of this bid for funding.

So far as it goes, I can only wish Birmingham the best in spending as much money as it can on something as well engineered as possible before the deadline is reached !

Of course by telling me this you've also provided yet another useful illustration of one of the other big problems with cycling in the UK: Funding.

Cycling needs to be normal enough that it is funded continuously and at a proper level.

Ian Perry (Cardiff, UK) said...

This is another example of the lack of basic knowledge of those tasked with improving our streets and the way we move about them.

I must remember to come back and comment here again in the autumn... Work in progress...

Andy R said...

As a late-comer to the debate on the provision of cycling infrastructure it seems to me that it's the funding and political will that will always determine the outcome. I know engineers get a bad name, and obviously I am going to defend my profession, but if you said to a British engineer "design and build us the best cycle infrastructure in the World - and don't worry about the budget" the last thing you would get would be some white lines next to the gutter. Of course it's that little word 'budget' that makes the difference.

(As for the 'not invented here' canard, I've said elsewhere British engineers and consultancies work all over the World. Our forgotten export success. They don't get to do that by plonking a full set of DMRB volumes in front of the Client and saying "now then (racial epithet) this is how civilised countries build things". They do it by being adaptable and willing to learn. If the Client wants 'the best' - and most importantly is willing to pay the price for 'the best' and face down the objectors, then they'll get it whether it be modelled after the Dutch, Danes, or whomever).

The pity for cycling infrastructure at the moment seems to be that where there's a will there's no money - and where there's finally some money there're also conditions attached to it that make getting the best out of it almost impossible.

Anonymous said...

This is great - even better than average for your blog - and this point of tipping seems similar in a way to the numbers of safety mostly-myth you have before-mentioned

However, while I cannot name specific examples there are a few cities in China where the local leadership has recognized that moving away from bikes is a serious problem and so they've built some serious high-capacity separated infra. so that cycling gets supported. This "separation" decision seems similar to what happened in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Cars still get lots of space but bikes don't to share it as much -- I am not sure about the specific quality of new infra. in China in regards to e.g. cyclist-priority and crossroads-design.

And while cycling infrastructure does not cause gentrification - this is real term, so it should be set off in quotes! - directly, it is definitely part of the marketing of market-priced housing and developers like being friendly with groups that support cycling in cities. While younger, richer people are more likely to cycle than others, bike infra. is still promoted as a amenity in new market-rate developments. Well.. I actually do seem to be saying that it increases property value -- bike infra. is appreciated by people of all income levels, but in U.S. cities it also tends to be developed in richer parts of town where the municipal leadership wants to create attractions... I don't think it is accurate to say that there is no relationship.

Jitensha Oni said...

In order to tip something past a tipping point you have to know what process to apply. I'm not sure that UK authorities have demonstrated they have a clue about that. Otherwise I'm mostly replying to AndyR

Yes, it does seem like running a maze with no actual exits. On the other hand, I gather that TfL, City Hall and their partners in London have buckets of cash to splash on cycling infrastructure with relatively few strings attached, yet annual spend has declined for the past few years. Plans are made, campaigners say they are rubbish. A couple of miles of rubbish gets built (in the time 50 miles of less rubbish gets built in New York, and heaven knows how many excellent miles in the Netherlands). Boris says he's going to rip out gyratories, the Cycling Commissioner says they're not going to do anything until they have "got it right", a phrase which remains wonderfully undefined (and without a cycle infrastructure design manual backed by DfT regulations defining minimum quality how can it not be). Even implementing temporary fixes at danger spots, as the Stop Killing Cyclists group have asked for at Elephant & Castle, seems to meet with an unwillingness or inability to do anything.

Furthermore, there's a lot of infrastructure around me in, and adjacent to, Outer London which has intermittently been added to over the years. I know it is poor by Western European, Japanese and North American standards but for me the greater problem is it doesn't connect up over any useful distance. The lack of connections almost all occur at junctions, the most dangerous places for any road user. The Dutch have solved that issue. But it seems that can't be done in the UK because it would compromise traffic flows according to some model or other.

Over the past few years (again in my area - I don't know about in general) utility cyclists have increasingly been solving these problems for themselves by using the footway, especially round junctions. In parallel, the main campaigning organizations and councils seem to be keen to make this the de facto model through shared use and toucan crossings. Except that these pitiful efforts never connect up, even on their own terms, and nor do 20 mph zones.

So it's not just the budget/timing procedures and the lack of desire of politicians to embrace cycling that are stopping progress, though obviously they contribute. There are loads of other substantial blockages; not understanding the reasons for the blockages seems fairly high up on the list of contributory causes to me. However I don't think highway engineers (as a professional group) can totally abdicate responsibilty for what we have in the UK, or be proud of the overall quality. How else can we account for "Cycle Facility of the Month" and hundreds of similar cases not shown on the website; and stuff like ponding water on parts of the new segregated "superhighway" in London. Who for example, was proud to sign off this (or the whole sorry roundabout infra it links to):,-0.397139&spn=0.021514,0.030169&t=m&z=15&layer=c&cbll=51.368703,-0.396942&panoid=LJAfkwEN__Ke1AkTLKyQJQ&cbp=12,349.5,,0,22.79

Is that everybody insulted? OK. Later.

David Hembrow said...

deepstreets: It's true that some places in China have noticed the problem. We've had Chinese students here on study tours who have spoken about this. From what I can make out, they've a long way to go.

The relationship between gentrification and cycling rates is indeed complicated, but what you're saying doesn't disagree with my point. Even without change to the infrastructure, an influx of young, rich, confident adults people can be expected to lead to an increase in cycling. That these same people demand better infrastructure is of course marvelous, but everyone needs it, not just them.

Jitensha: Steady on now. Insulting everyone is my job...

I agree about connectivity. In fact, it's one of the things I always go on about as the need for everything to be joined up was one of the most important results of Dutch research in the 1970s.

Piecemeal infrastructure, even if it's of a very high quality, simply doesn't allow people to make their their entire journeys with an adequate degree of safety and comfort.

The junction at the link which you included does indeed show the sort of bad design which is all too common in the UK. To get rid of it all will take years of coherent policy and proper funding.

I have every faith in Andy R and his colleagues doing a good job if they're given a chance to do so. This means proper guidelines (i.e. somewhat better than those which I sometimes review or that which London came out with a few days ago) as well as adequate funding and prioritisation of their work.

We're can help by >demonstrating what they need to achieve.

Andy R said...

@Jitensha Oni: "However I don't think highway engineers (as a professional group) can totally abdicate responsibilty for what we have in the UK, or be proud of the overall quality".
I would agree with you. In the dim and distance past I designed a cycle 'facility', which, in its final form, was/is embarrassingly poor (advisory lanes...yes, I know, sorry), albeit in my defence this was when 'the heirarchy of provision' dominated and the only 'net based advice revolved around John Forester and vehicular cycling.
If I could have one wish it would be for one of the UK consultancies to let cameras follow a transport project through from its first concept through to final construction (it doesn't have to be cycling related, simply a scheme in the UK). Whilst most of it would be uncomfortably close to 'The Office', it would, I think, provide an eye-opener to the hoops that schemes have to go through.
I suspect that the majority of schemes which end up on 'Cycling Facility of the Week' did not start out anything like they ended up. They (like most infrastructure we end up with) are the result of limited budget, public consultation, influential local councillors, pressure groups. In other words compromise on compromise.
This begs the question "Why build such flawed schemes?" But this assumes that those charged with the scheme design are either in positions of power that allow them to make those decisions (they aren't, no more than you, me, or Mr. Hembrow), or alternatively can just throw the drawings in a bin and say they want nothing to do with it. An admirable attitude, but no way to pay the bills.
What engineers can and should do, in the absence of high quality design guidance, is find out what 'best practice' in cycle infrastructure is (possibly easier for us much despised consultants, with our exposure to a plethora of design guides, than for LA engineers - who, it has to be said, can be quite parochial - sorry, Ranty Highwayman); and then incorporate that best practice at the start and defend it as best we can through the design and construction process.
(BTW, it's rare that the designer will be able to be the site engineer - if there is a site engineer, that is. They cost money to have on site. Even on multi-multi-million pound schemes having a designer on site seems something to be tolerated, not welcomed. They just cost so much money! This may or may not be why, on a new cycle scheme currently being constructed and which I pass through every day, the bollards which have been put in to tell peds and cyclists which side of the kerb-separated track they should use are the wrong way round, doh!).

Kevin Love said...

Andy R. wrote:

"What engineers can and should do, in the absence of high quality design guidance, is find out what 'best practice' in cycle infrastructure is..."

Kevin's comment:

That would be the CROW "Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic." Which has been conveniently translated into English and is available at:

Other people have tried to come up with their own standards (eg NACTO standard, Ontario MTO standard, etc). They are not only re-inventing the wheel, but they inevitably get key details wrong.

Robert said...

I have to split my response up as it's too long for Blogger. It's long because I'm involved in the Birmingham Cycle Revolution process, but as a representative of a stakeholder group, Push Bikes (the Birmingham cycle campaign group).

Whilst it is certainly true that Birmingham City Council (which is the largest local authority in Europe) faces the twin difficulties of wretched funding models and DfT regulations that are based on 1960's thinking, it is also true that the council routinely misses the easy wins, and continues to implement ideas that the Dutch have already shown don't work (and which don't work in Birmingham either).

My own experience of Germany tells me there are many cheap and easy things that can be done to make cycling on existing infrastructure easier. These start with techniques such as making all paths between housing areas shared use, installing flush kerbs, and erecting good cycling-specific signage. All these are perfectly legal under existing UK legislation. Most of the cycling is on-carriageway, but on roads that see little motorised traffic. The impact of these changes would be mainly on the 25% of car journeys that are under a mile, but in fact some of these potential local routes can be joined up to allow much longer journeys. Once you have a modal shift under way, it improves the road network capacity. So from there you can move on to techniques such as filtered permeability, cheaply opening up further roads to relatively car-free cycling. This is a snow-ball, not a see-saw with a tipping point. Push the snow-ball harder, and you make faster progress. The Germans have shown you can relatively easily achieve an urban 20% cycling rate in ten years, double Birmingham's ambition, and in half the time.

There has only been an extremely limited use of these methods in Birmingham (the Rea Valley Route being a notable example), but they've been found to work to the extent that on Cheddar Road cycle journeys now outnumber car journeys. Yet I have heard Birmingham City Council officers try to explain this phenomenon as being perhaps the result of the widely varying areas along the route attracting “natural cyclists”. Do they also say that the people who choose to live near the parallel A441 Pershore Road are attracted to this busy road because they are “natural motorists”? Of course not, so why do they talk down their achievements?

Robert said...

The techniques I've outlined are sufficiently cheap that they could be achieved simply by making a larger proportion of capital available for roads construction available to cycling, but up until now this hasn't happened. The Cycling Ambition Grant has at least encouraged the council to open its wallet. But what is the money being spent on? One tranche of money is being spent on 20mph limits. That's a good thing, but on its own it will make no difference to cycling rates. Another tranche of money is being spent on the canal tow-paths. These are a useful and popular resource, but they have all sorts of inbuilt difficulties. Worse still, the council has opted for spray-and-chip on these off-carriageway routes. I've yet to see this work well anywhere, and Sustrans now deprecate the technique (on the basis that it is simply too easy to end up with a mess), but the council promise me they will get it right this time. A third tranche of money is being spent on on-carriageway routes. These routes will include mandatory lanes and light segregation, and I'm really pleased to see Birmingham dedicating road space to cyclists. Unfortunately there are some really awful bits linking these sections, and no-one is going to cycle those unless they are willing to cycle in busy traffic (ie, almost no-one). A broken chain isn't very effective, and results in low cycling rates (pun intended). A fourth tranche of money is to be spent on free bikes for people who can't afford a bike. It's easy to buy a second-hand bike from a reputable source for well under £100. A one-way bus fare is around £2, so it doesn't take many bus journeys to make buying a bike worthwhile. Much as I admire Birmingham's social vision, cost isn't the reason why most people don't cycle. The proposed bikes wont have lights or mudguards, making them unusable for much of the year, despite the fact that in Germany you can by a reasonable bike with mudguards and dynamo lighting for less than the budget the council is aiming at for each bike. An unusable bike wont encourage cycling, even if it is free.

All of this is aimed at commuters (understandable, given the rush-hour congestion), but whilst some attempt is being made to improve links to the strategic routes, mainly people will have to ride on existing infrastructure as is, which they don't want to do. The fact that after learning to ride a bike the first thing you have to do is to make short journeys that build up your skills and strength has been somewhat forgotten (or at least people are expected to drive their bike to their nearest “leisure route”).

Note that I haven't mentioned signage. That's because it's terrible to non-existant. At the time of writing, the banner shows a typical new sign; a wooden finger post offering the cyclist the choice of a river or a canal, both an undefined distance away along a shared path. They are unreadable in poor light and when they get wet. After a few years, they are almost impossible to read no matter what the conditions. Is that the government's fault? I think not. Is it poor civil engineering? Yes.

Robert said...

There are some good people on Birmingham Cycle Revolution team, and they are working very hard to overcome the unnecessary challenges they face. They have done some impressive work, which is mostly not yet public. However, they don't seem to recognise that the Netherlands represents clever engineering, rather than just Copenhagen with brass knobs. The Birmingham cycle campaign group Push Bikes has organised a trip to Assen to attend one of David's Study Tours. I'm going at my own expense because as a campaigner (and engineer, though not a civil engineer) I want to better understand that clever engineering. Yes, some of that engineering requires legislation change, but not all of it, and if you know what does require change, you know what to ask for. Birmingham City Council officers have been invited, but none is joining us. Were they to attend, campaigners and officers could learn more about each other's viewpoint. The Birmingham highways engineers have also been invited, but they haven't even replied to the email. If engineers are not prepared to improve their own knowledge, so they don't continue to repeat mistakes, they shouldn't blame the government.

It really is important for someone from the UK to travel abroad to study the infrastructure, rather than to just read from a book or website, because when you return, whilst you will find there are a few things we do well in the UK, mostly the poor quality, hopelessly outdated designs we use will hit you like a sledgehammer. I had that experience returning from Germany (and I still have it each time I return from my regular trips there), and it fired me up to become a cycle campaigner in Birmingham. But I campaign for Dutch-style infrastructure, because it represents best practice. If we don't use best practice, we risk falling short of the modal shift required to resolve the many problems caused by over-reliance on motor vehicles.

Anonymous said...

The decline in cycling after WWII was due to people getting richer, the price of oil being deflated under Bretton-Woods, cheap cars and motor scooters from Asia and the growth of suburbs that resulted.

No one is ever going to get cycling back to those levels when bicycles were all many people could afford.

What Holland shows that in dense urban environments you can get a lot of short trips done on bicycles if you invest in safe cycling infrastructure.

David Hembrow said...

Pertinax: I agree with the general thrust of what you're saying. Dutch people like driving too and they find it convenient and affordable for much the same reasons as people elsewhere.

But don't get too hung up on density. There's no correlation between density and cycling modal share, Dutch cities are mostly far less dense than you think and longer journeys by bike are probably more common here than you think.

While 40% of trips in the US are under 3 km in length yet almost all of those are made by car, the Dutch cycle for 15% of trips with a distance between 7.5 km and 15 km.

The safe cycling infrastructure enables cycling everywhere, including within suburbs and between suburbs and towns (e.g. this one), and not just in dense urban environments