Friday 1 May 2015

The Grid. The most important enabler of mass cycling, but a cycling concept which is often misunderstood.

The need for a very fine grid of high quality, safe and efficient cycling routes is something I've been writing about for many years. Since 2008 on this blog, for instance. It may seem simple and obvious, but this concept is often misinterpreted and very often watered down.

Does your city have an airport ? If not, pretend that it does for a moment. Think of a truly amazing airport with a dozen modern terminal buildings, three long runways which can accommodate the largest and fastest passenger jets, huge hangers for maintenance. But then imagine that your city has the only airport in the world. How useful is it now ? How many passengers use it ? Where do they go to ? Without linking to other places, your airport can never reach its potential. You may have a few flights for joy riders, a few enthusiastic air enthusiasts may fly off and land in fields, but flying as mass transport will never happen. To reach its potential, your airport must link to places where people want to go to.

Just as with our hypothetical airport, an individual cycle-path is only as useful as the rest of the grid of routes to which it connects. Even exceptional pieces of bicycle infrastructure are almost entirely useless on their own. They only reach their potential when they are part of a very finely spaced grid of routes which connects to all destinations. To be suitable for all people, this must provide a high quality level of service to all of those destinations. The average quality of service experienced by cyclists dictates how many people will cycle.

Example of a real, successful, cycling grid

Primary (red) and secondary (blue) bicycle routes in Assen. Grey lines are mainly residential streets almost completely free of motor traffic, green are recreational routes. Primary routes are never more than 750 m apart, but note that all the space between them is also available by bike. There are no real gaps in this grid and it leads right from villages outside the city to the city centre. Total map width approximately 6.5 km.
Part of Assen's primary cycling grid.
There are lots of cycle-paths like this.
Assen's bicycle route grid as shown in the map above deserves some explanation. The city has well over 100 km of cycle-path completely separate from the road. These paths are built to an extremely high standard. Most of the red and blue lines on the map show this type of cycle-path, though some high quality cycle-paths are not counted as either primary or secondary routes so are not shown as such.

Four metres wide smooth concrete but
this is merely a green recreational path
Recreational routes shown in green are also usually separate cycle-paths but because these are intended for recreational use they can be of lower quality. That shouldn't be taken to imply that these are of lower quality.

Many recreational paths are of equivalent quality to main routes.

Residential street in the Netherlands. Re-built so that it is
unusable as a through route by motor vehicle.
Most cycling in Assen takes place on the blue or red lines because these are the route segments which provide useful direct routes for everyone to take to their destinations. However the cycling grid really also includes all those grey lines as well and their total length greatly outnumbers the length of cycle-paths.

The grey lines on the map show every street which lies between main roads and main cycle-routes. These are perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most misunderstood part of the grid. Many of the grey lines are residential streets or shopping streets. Almost all these grey streets have 30 km/h speed limits, but the importance of the low speed limits is very often over-emphasized. These streets are civilized to an extent by low speeds, but what really makes a difference is that there are almost no cars moving at any speeds. While these grey streets offer many through routes by bicycle, they do not offer through routes by car and therefore cyclists rarely have to concern themselves with cars when riding on those streets. Drivers are directed around residential streets so almost none have any motorized traffic on them at all and any cars which you might meet are most likely to be driven by residents accessing their own street.

To summarise: Assen's cycling grid goes everywhere, it has many high quality cycle-paths, but no "sharrows" and very few routes marked by relatively in-effective painted on-road cycle-lanes. Inferior junction designs such as advanced stop lines (aka bike boxes), central cycle-lanes and multi stage turns have been eliminated, while good roundabout and traffic light junction designs are common. Many one-way restrictions help to prevent drivers from using residential streets as through routes, but none of them apply to cyclists. Note that average speeds for cyclists are relatively high because stops are infrequent. Due to cyclists being unravelled from motorists they are often directed around large and time consuming junctions because they are needed only on motor routes.

Assen's grid is successful. More than 40% of all trips are made by bicycle here.

An effective grid must go everywhere

Living or working near to a cycle-path is not enough. Building a cycle-path only in a new suburb, or next to a school or through a recreational area is not enough. True mass cycling requires that people be given the option of making all their journeys by bicycle with a high degree of subjective safety.

Where children can ride no-hands and
unaccompanied to and through city centre
, that's real safety.
For a truly high level of cycling, the grid of cycling infrastructure needs to go everywhere. For instance, the grid must reach:
  1. all homes
  2. all schools
  3. all workplaces
  4. all shops
  5. all sport facilities
  6. all religous buildings
Feel free to add on any other category of destination that you can think of. Everything needs to be on the grid. It is only when the grid goes everywhere and to everything that it has a chance of serving for the entire population to make a proportion of all their journeys by bicycle. It is only by making cycling available to the entire population that it is possible for a high share of all journeys, for all purposes, to be made by bicycle.

Planning of a grid must be undertaken on a grid scale. No single road, street, cycle-path or road junction stands by itself. If streets are considered individually then it is almost impossible to achieve a good result because it is impossible to emphasize different usages if the usage is expected to remain the same. Attempts to change streets while leaving them with exactly the same usage as before are a common reason why people think they have "not enough space" to change.

Good conditions for cycling are created primarily not by moving cyclists away from where the traffic is, but by moving traffic away from where the cyclists are.

It's essential that it's possible to cycle to all locations. The high quality grid of infrastructure for cycling must go everywhere and it does no harm to allow cyclists to have through routes very nearly everywhere. On the other hand, while drivers also need to be able to access everywhere, through routes by motor vehicle need to be controlled because through motor traffic does cause harm. i.e. it is the routes for motor vehicles which need to be moved to places where they cause least harm.

Fake grids (half a grid isn't a grid)

The Netherlands achieved a level of cycling nearly double that of the second place nation by providing a high degree of both safety and convenience for anyone who cycles on every journey that they choose to make by bike. This requires a high density grid as shown above, which exists not just within particular cities but which goes absolutely everywhere. It is only by providing this level of service that cycling is made accessible and acceptable to all segments of society. Children can ride their own bicycles to Dutch city centres in safety because of the continuous high quality infrastructure.

The term "grid" has been adopted in many places, but it's quite often the case that the ambition is at a far lower level than is required for success.

London's "grid"
This proposal for London looks superficially similar to the grid
of cycle-routes in Assen, but it is not similar. The purple lines
are in most cases not even comparible with the grey on the
Assen map. Even these "include main roads". Only the blue
lines are "superhighways" and the quality of those is suspect.
For example, London's proposed grid of cycle routes is shown on the left. This looks superficially similar to the map of Assen above but there are several very important differences.

The area covered by the London map is approximately 4x as large as Assen, yet there are fewer cycle routes indicated by differently coloured lines. Note that even these lines are deceiving:

Only the blue lines on the map are "Cycle Superhighways". The grand name unfortunately hides that many of these routes are of surprisingly low quality.

The purple lines shown on the map are merely "quietways".

Update 2016: I was too generous to London. It turns out
that the dark lines show the true extent of the grid in
London in 2016, save for one cycle-path.
Unfortunately, the importance of unravelling modes has still not been fully understood in London and so even these "quietways" are not comparable with normal streets in Assen (grey lines on map above) because these will largely remain busy through roads. What's more, using these quietways won't result in cyclists being able to make direct journeys because they have in large part been selected as the routes to put cyclists onto in order to achieve minimum disruption to other modes, rather than because they are where cyclists need to go. As a result, these "quietways" mostly appear on back streets which don't lead to many destinations.

Further reading: Quietways have been criticized elsewhere for not being providing particularly quiet or direct routes for cyclists and being meaningless due to poor junction designs.

Note also the second map added in 2016. For all the noise made by London with regard to cycling, it's sobering to see what the true extent of decent quality cycling provision in the city actually looks like. These paths do represent progress over what was there before but far too few decent cycle-paths exist for them to make any real difference to the modal share of the city. Compare with the map at the top of this piece which shows the extent of the network over the whole area of a small Dutch city.

Toronto's #minimumgrid
Another currently popular theme is the idea of the "minimum grid". I'm not a fan. I don't see the point in talking about building anything down to a "minimum", especially when we know that minimum is not enough. It seems to be a popular meme at the moment and many places have discussed the minimum grid idea, but this still makes no sense for any of the places where I've seen it discussed.

Toronto's current cycling infra map. This is a very long way
from being continuous and covering the whole city.
#minimumgrid means not nearly adequate to effect change.
Toronto is a huge city of 2.6 million people where the minimum grid idea seems to have taken hold. There is currently very little cycling infrastructure and the quality of what exists now in Toronto is the subject of many complaints. Nevertheless, the call here is for a mere 100 km of cycle-path. That's less than we have in Assen but to serve a population 40 times as large.

This is not even close to enough cycling infrastructure. Why is the aim so low ? I also have to wonder what the quality will be. Two years have passed since I criticized the Ontario Bicycle Facilities manual and it doesn't seem like much has changed. The solutions on offer remain both primitive and old-fashioned and there are proposals to adopt such inconvenient and proven dangerous ideas as mixing zones, two stage turns and bike boxes. Scope for improvement is limited to only a few streets and to a low quality standard so this again can't come close to enabling cycling for everyone.

There is very much which can be learnt from the Netherlands with regard to building better infrastructure for cycling so I was rather disappointed to find that one of the most prominent references to Dutch practice on a Toronto website about a new design was about nothing more than a possible pattern of tiles on a street. The big picture has somehow been missed. The important messages ignored.

Campaign for #maximumgrid!
There is no low minimum standard which is worth campaigning for. We know this because city scale Dutch research in the 1970s already demonstrated what is required to encourage cycling. Very high quality but sparsely built cycle-paths did not lead to significantly more cycling. For a grid of routes to enable cycling it must be high density and go everywhere. This has been known for 40 years so why are people still fighting for less ?

Forget the "minimum grid" and campaign for a "maximum grid". i.e. a grid which goes everywhere, for everyone. This is proven to work.

Less is never more for cycling. Cycling never suffers from infrastructure which is too well designed, nor does it suffer from a grid of routes which offers people too many safe choices, or from people being able to make all of their journey in safety instead of just some of it. There is only a problem where infrastructure is poor or non-existent and when people are given attractive places to cycle.

Plan a little and you'll only build a little, build a little and you'll achieve only a little. To achieve great things you need great plans. The more infrastructure that you have and the better the quality of that infrastructure, the better the result will be.

There is no tipping point
There is no minimum level of cycling infrastructure above which cycling will definitely grow. There is no tipping point, no avalanche effect where by reaching a particular level of cycling, growth becomes inevitable. There is simply no evidence at all to support these ideas. However, there is plenty of historical evidence from all countries in the world that a decline is possible from any level if cycling conditions decline.

There was more cycling almost everywhere worldwide 60 years ago than there is now. That includes the Netherlands. The Netherlands has more cycling now than any other country in the world but has been hard to achieve this position. The Dutch are no more tolerant of unpleasant cycling conditions than people of any other nation. The high modal share here relies on there being very good conditions for cycling. Cycling declined precipitously in the Netherlands between 1950 and 1975 when planners were most interested in motor vehicles and though there have been steady increases since the 1970s, cycling is still less popular here now than it was in the 1950s. This country now has the best infrastructure in the world and this makes it possible for anyone in the Netherlands to cycle as much as they wish to with a fewer problems than occur elsewhere. But it's still not perfect, still not at a level which causes no problems at all to anyone.

Just as in other countries, people will cycle on the pavement
in the Netherlands if conditions are not conducive to safety
This harms cycling even in the world's leading cycling city.

Where does unsafe infrastructure fit in ?

Just as in any other place, unsafe infrastructure in the Netherlands damages the grid by creating a gap which will put people off cycling if it creates too much danger or too much inconvenience. A high cycling modal share is a very fragile thing. Everyday cycling should never feel akin to taking part in an extreme sport. If people are put off due to danger and they stop cycling then it can be difficult to convince them ever to start again. While the Netherlands has a more comprehensive grid of cycling infrastructure than anywhere else, this country is certainly not perfect and we find that where there is bad infrastructure, the Dutch react in much the same way as people anywhere else: They either cycle in such a way that they avoid the problem (e.g. by dismounting and walking or riding on the pavement) or they don't cycle at all for journeys which take them through problem areas.

If areas where people feel unsafe and under pressure are small and while they are easily avoidable, their total effect on cycling modal share is small because working around the problems isn't too difficult. However if problematic infrastructure is widespread and there is no way to avoid dangerous areas then the obstacles becomes insurmountable for most people by bike and a reduction in cycling modal share is assured. This is a difference between a proper grid and the fake grids referred to above.

Recent mistakes in Assen led to increased pavement cycling.
on a few streets where cycling is not as safe as it should be.
The city of Groningen features on our study tours in large part because it allows us to demonstrate how cycling has a particular demographic in this student oriented city more than it does in other Dutch cities. Unattractive and unsafe infrastructure particularly affects how often vulnerable people cycle, though the high rate of cycling by the student population masks this effect. We have seen similar localized increases in pavement cycling here in Assen too where recent mistakes have been made in this city.

What works to make cycling more popular ?

I write quite often about problems in the Netherlands but just as with the infrastructure highlights, the problems need to be put in context. Bad infrastructure here causes the same problems as it would elsewhere however it should always be remembered that the worst of the problem infrastructure in the Netherlands covers a very small part of the total area of the country while the grid of good to excellent infrastructure covers the whole country. Examples of dangerous infrastructure have relatively little effect on the excellent Dutch cycling safety record because they are rare.

Discover what works to make cycling attractive to and safe for everyone. Book a study tour to have this all put in context. The next open study tour takes place in June 2015.

Assen on Monday afternoon. When there's a big event in the city, thousands of bicycles are parked everywhere. Note the very small child cycling to the city centre on his own bike. We would like all children to have this degree of freedom.

Related issues

While writing this piece, two related issues came up which I think require a little more explanation.

I've a collection of cycling route maps
from places I've been. I worked on the
Cambridge map and I believe the short
recreational routes that I wrote up are
still part of the latest edition. Cycling
specific maps are not necessary in
places with a proper grid for cycling.
Cycling route maps
Most Dutch cities do not have cycling route maps. This may seem surprising when all Dutch cities have high levels of cycling compared with other nations. Cycling route maps are actually a symptom of a problem. One of the things which becomes unnecessary when there is a proper high density grid for cyclists is consideration of where people should cycle in order to maximize their safety.

Note that I am not saying that there's anything wrong with cycling route maps. They can be a very useful tool for people who live in an area where cycling doesn't necessarily feel safe for people riding anywhere where they want to go. They can be useful for advising people about where they can cycle in safety. These maps can also be a useful campaigning tool if they are used to help to point out to officials where there are problems.

However when you can cycle safely everywhere and take the most direct routes to all locations by bicycle, there is simply no more need for advice about the best detours around direct routes to avoid dangerous areas and obtain a degree of safety unavailable on the direct route. When this has been achieved, cycling route maps simply are not needed any more.

Residential streets
There's often chalk on the street where
we live. Children at play.
Directing motor vehicles around residential streets rather than through them doesn't only provide benefits when cycling.

Because they are so quiet, both in terms of traffic and noise levels, Dutch residential streets almost always meet the requirements for socially connected living and children use them as playgrounds.

On the first edition of the Cambridge cycling route map we missed out some of the council's preferred routes on purpose to make a point about how we thought much of the infrastructure was not good enough. For later editions, our work on the map was handed to the council (who could afford to print them). They put the substandard infrastructure back on the map, but they didn't fix the infrastructure...


Kevin Love said...

I believe that this is a bit harsh on Toronto. Minimum grid is not the end goal for Cycle Toronto, but the first step that can be accomplished during the current term of City Council.

And there is at least one blogger in the GTHA (Greater Toronto & Hamilton Area) that supports Dutch infrastructure. And not just for a pattern of street tiles! See:

Given the level of political will for cycle infrastructure, Toronto-area cycle campaigners will quite often endorse third-class infra because it is better than the "nothing" which we would otherwise get.

That third-class infra is not going to enable mass cycling. But there is a lot of research that has validated the four classes of transportation cyclists in the Portland Model. See:

For a lot of places, crappy third-class infra will enable their cycle mode share to grow from the current 1% of "Strong & Fearless" cyclists who will cycle with no infra. The third-class infra will also attract the 7% of "Enthused & Confident" cyclists.

This is not mass cycling, but it is a big step up that will provide a much large base of cyclists to generate the political will to keep moving forward.

An example is a local campaign that I am involved with because it involves the street on which I live. Yes, I endorsed crappy third-class New York style car parking protected cycle lanes. While pointing out what first and second class looks like. See the first article here:

Let's not let "the best" be the enemy of "better." I would love to simply copy/paste Dutch bicycle traffic design engineering standards into my city. But we do not have the political will to do that.

What we can do is get third-class infra to build mode share to 8%. And then use all these new cyclists to generate the political pressure to get proper Dutch infra.

David Hembrow said...

Kevin, I appreciate your comment. I also appreciate the good work you do in Toronto.

However, the Voltaire quote is out of place here. The situation is quite the reverse of "best" being the enemy of "better".

In reality, what has happened all around the world with regard to cycling is that "better" has been the enemy of "the best" for a very long time. For more than 40 years the same excuses have been used about it being a bit too difficult to emulate what the Dutch have done and to make similar moves towards real mass cycling.

Note that the Netherlands is by no means perfect. They did not wait for perfect before starting, but they did start on a large scale and keep moving. This is what doesn't happen elsewhere.

Small steps made in a few places, not quite joining up, and never providing an adequate level of service, never add up to be equivalent to large steps.

Portland is not a great example because notwithstanding the enormous amount of noise made in that city, cycling there has stagnated for years. They have reached the maximum point which can be achieved with poor infrastructure. There is no tipping point mechanism which leads to automatic growth.

There is now a petition to sign which asks for Portland's "platinum" status to be revoked, and quite right too.

Being in possession of an award which says they've already achieved great things is a far bigger deterrent to real growth than someone writing to point out what they really should be doing.

Kevin Love said...

In my opinion, "lack of political will" is not an excuse in my neighbourhood but a real constraint.

For example, I live in the Durand neighbourhood in Hamilton. This is part of the Greater Toronto & Hamilton Area (GTHA), Canada's largest conurbation.

Since 1976, the Durand Neighbourhood Association has been consistently fighting to stop rat-running and close the rat-runs in our neighbourhood. See:

Unfortunately, the rats have greater political clout with Hamilton City Council than we do.

How do we change that? How can we change the attitude so accurately described in only one minute by Groucho Marx in this video:

Our current strategy is to push for the wins we can get and then use the new cyclists that result to generate the political will for a virtuous circle of improvement.

Yes, this is settling for third-class in the short term. Yes, this third-class infrastructure will only allow cycling mode share to increase from its current pathetic 2.6% to a slightly less pathetic 8%. And yes, there is no Dutch city with a cycling mode share that low.

But that 8% can be used to generate the political will that is lacking today. So that we can move from third class to first class.

Do you have an alternative strategy for this real-life example? We have put in a huge amount of work and effort since 1976 to eliminate the rat runs. The result: consistent failure.

One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing expecting a different result. So now we are trying something different.

If you have an alternative strategy we would be very interested to hear it.

Jon said...

Another category of destination would be Transport Hub; bus, train or plane.

David Hembrow said...

Kevin: This blog post isn't really about Toronto. I picked two examples of places where there were inadequate plans and Toronto happened to be one of them. However, there are dozens of places which now have targets to build "grids" for cycling which are nowhere near the required quality.

It's no doubt difficult in your situation, but I don't think it ever helps to have a target which is less than what is actually required.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a virtuous circle. Rather, there is evidence that declines are possible from far higher percentages than the 8% you're aiming for in Toronto, and from far higher percentages than the 27% which we currently have across the Netherlands. Even a 40% modal share as here in Assen hasn't stopped car centric designs from being built, with hardly any comment from anyone about the problems which they cause.

I am sorry that this response doesn't contain any easy solutions for your situation. My advice remains to aim high and to broaden the debate beyond cycling.

David Hembrow said...

Jonno: Good examples. Here are the Dutch equivalents:

Bus stations and bus stops.

Railway stations.


All these places are accessible by bicycle and provide ample cycle-parking, usually including secure cycle parking if they're used for long term storage of bikes.

Richard Layman said...

well, the real issue is building a system that supports cycling as a primary form of transportation in every way.

In countries like the US or Canada, we are attempting to grapple on support for cycling without changing anything else, be it gasoline excise taxes, the provision of high quality support facilities (parking, repair, air, etc.), or enforcement systems vis-a-vis motor vehicle related pedestrian or cycling accidents.

The difference in the Netherlands, and to some extent in Denmark is that the decision to make cycling a primary form of transportation has been carried out at all levels, so that if not all, at least most policies are congruent, building a complete system.

By contrast, in the US we have built a total and complete system for automobility, including a complete road network for short, intermediate, and long distance trips, parking at various trip stages, a system of gasoline stations, repair garages, and automobile dealerships, restaurants and hotels/motels for refreshment and rest, etc., map systems, signage, etc.

FWIW, your point about maps is only completely true for areas where you ride frequently and know well. If you are riding 10-15 miles to a meeting in an area you don't ride regularly, you do need maps and route information and good signage, etc.

In short, it's about scale. At the small area scale, maps aren't necessary probably, at larger scales, at least initially before people develop familiarity with new areas, maps are necessary.


David Hembrow said...

Richard: Congruent, consistent design is indeed key and you certainly have to change other things to make cycling desirable. It's not necessary to be anti-car, it's just necessary to achieve good conditions for cycling.

The complete system for automobility in the US which you described in your response is precisely the same thing as I propose above for cycling. The only difference is that you have it as motoring oriented infrastructure which is off-putting for cycling while in the Netherlands all this same infrastructure exists on both the driving grid and the cycling grid. People are offered a genuine choice.

My point about maps was not suggesting that no-one needs any maps ever (this would be rather a silly thing to say) but that cycling specific maps are not required in the Netherlands. Even if you are cycling to a place which you've never been to before, you'll find a perfectly good way to cycle there by following a normal map. Anything but a motorway only map will suffice for cycling in the Netherlands. There is no need to take special cycling routes to make an efficient and safe journey by bike. Having said that, finding some of the nice recreational routes may require either local knowledge or a map.

Greg said...

A good visualization of the disjointed, incomplete cycle routes in several US cities:

It's depressingly clear from these just how far we have to go to create a real, useful grid.

David Hembrow said...

Greg: Yes, there's an enormous way to go. Their maps indicate the problem very well. Doubly so when you realise that the "infrastructure" they've mapped consists largely of nothing more than painted lines and sharrows.