"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 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 a relatively good grid of cycle facilities which went 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 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
Unfortunately, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 back out of that decline.
Growing cycling is a slow process, even here. It required an enormous amount of work. The trend to higher cycling levels only came after a second revolution took place on the streets of the Netherlands.
|Assen in the 1970s. If the city 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.|
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.
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 regarding 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.
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.