A few days ago I came across a very interesting 44 year old film about the problems caused by mass motoring. Participants in the film talked about planning to avoid future problems. The film was made in Wellington, New Zealand so this blog post is in large part about Wellington. But actually, the film could have been made almost anywhere because the problems which it presents and the suggested solutions are common to almost anywhere. This film could even have been made in a Dutch city at that time as Dutch cities faced very similar problems.
But first of all, let's remind ourselves of what many cities around the world look like now:
Wellington New Zealand - February 2015
Now lets look at the 44 year old film which shows what many cities in the world looked like in the early 1970s. I recommend watching it all eventually, but it is quite long. Perhaps watch the first minute now and then return after reading the blog post:
Wellington New Zealand - 1971
|Traffic jam in 1971. What's changed ?|
|Planner trying to work out how to|
resolve traffic problems between
Wellington, Hutt Valley and Porirua
I suspect that many Wellingtonians believe, just like people all across the world, that their city is not one in which bicycles could be practical. There will be people who think that Wellington's hills, wind and rain make cycling impractical. These are common myths. However cycling in Wellington most certainly is possible for average people for at least some of their journeys and the film provides evidence that this is true: While no-one ever talks about bicycles in this film, and the focus of the film is certainly not to demonstrate that cycling is possible in Wellington, the film-makers couldn't help but include bicycles ridden by Wellingtonians in their film.
|People rode practical everyday bicycles in Wellington in 1971. Upright position, three speed hub gearing, mudguards, carrier.|
|Some politicians in New Zealand may not remember that cycling was once relatively normal, but I do.|
|This shot of a supermarket showed cyclists, pedestrians and drivers as visiting for their shopping. Of course, if you plan only for motor vehicles, motor vehicles are what you will end up with.|
|When the camera showed busy roads like this, hostile to cycling, no bicycles were caught on film. As roads become busier, most people will cycle less or stop cycling altogether.|
|An aspirational picture of a new suburb includes a bicycle, but it is not spoken about.|
|In a real suburb of Wellington there is no comfortable cycling infrastructure. This leads to cyclists being under pressure. Cycling on the pavement is a symptom of that pressure|
|Pedestrianization: Streets which once accommodated all traffic are transformed so that they don't accommodate any. This can result in making good conditions for people who visit by motor vehicle and use the supplied car parking, at the expense of making the destination awkward to use for those who cycle. Pedestrianized areas can be designed to allow and encourage cycling.|
|New Zealand's cycling decline may have started before|
that of the UK but there will have been a time when New-
Zealanders too cycled more than the Dutch do now.
Cycling was once a popular means of transport in New Zealand: "Cycling became a popular mode of transport in many parts of New Zealand for half a century," but "in the 1950s and 60s government transport funding and policies favouring motor vehicles as the transport of the future". The same decline was seen worldwide, including here in the Netherlands. It is only by similar government action to that which made cycling decline that cycling can be made attractive once again.
Unfortunately, cycling was not valued sufficiently in 1971 even to be mentioned by planners in the film.
There is an interesting quote at the beginning of the film: "It is an indication of the influence of the motor vehicle, that it makes us take stock of things, even to the extent of asking what sort of lives we want to lead." A choice needed to be made. The film-maker realised that many futures could be planned depending on how people wanted to live.
While the problems caused by mass motoring were already highly visible 44 years ago, a choice was made in most places to continue to favour the motor vehicle. That has not changed over the last four decades, and the problems caused by making that choice are still evident.
In the 1970s, the same policies were being followed everywhere. The Netherlands is no exception. These photos from Assen in the Netherlands in the 1970s are very similar to the photos of Wellington. Assen looks different now because a different decision was made. The result is that the city centre has been transformed so that even small children can ride their bicycles in from the suburbs and enjoy a great degree of freedom when they arrive. The links underneath each photo following show how these places have changed in the last 40 years:
|A Dutch supermarket in the 1970s. The car-park is more than full, conditions for cycling were not particularly pleasant. Take a look at how this location has been transformed.|
|Dutch city centre street in the 1970s. No space was allocated for comfortable cycling and pedestrians had little space. See how this street looks now.|
|1970s Assen street. Cyclist in the middle of the road waiting for a second transport revolution which would result in a very different street scene.|
|Assen early 1970s: An aspiration shown to encourage bikes in the picture above was reality in this location. This cyclist is entering a newly built suburb using a tunnel which avoids a large traffic light junction. It still exists and is very useful today. Note how this cyclist looks just like those in the old film from Wellington. In the Netherlands, these people continued riding. But there's one important difference. This new suburb, built between 1970 and 1975 and very much part of the solution to the problem, was planned like most Dutch suburbs to be pleasant to live in, low-rise and very spread out compared with the high density type of housing under consideration by participants in the Wellington film.|
|Routes followed by commuters in Wellington now|
are exactly as discussed in the 1971 film
(source, licence: wikipedia)
Wellington has a mild climate. Neither summers nor winters reach the temperature extremes of Dutch cities. So we can't blame the weather for the low rate of cycling
Hills are also not an issue in for city centre cyclists. Indeed, the route out to the Hutt Valley is also quite flat, and where there were hills on the way to Porirua a reasonably flat route has been hewn out of rock for the motorway.
Some of the suburbs of Wellington are hilly - comparable with those of Trondheim, where of course the weather is genuinely a challenge in winter yet the aim is to achieve 15% of journeys by bike by 2025.
|Read: population density and cycling|
The population density of urban Wellington is slightly higher than that of Assen (890 vs. 780 people per square kilometre) while the metropolitan area density is very much higher than that of Trondheim (290 vs. 37 people per square kilometre).
None of these popular justifications for a low cycling modal share would appear to apply to Wellington (nor to many other places) so what is real reason why so few people cycle in the city these days ?
You get what you plan for
Here's my hypothesis about why it is that cycling is still so unpopular in and around Wellington: The city and the surrounding area are treating cycling no more seriously now than they were in 1971.
The same could of course be applied to very many cities around the world. Here are some examples of Wellington cycling infrastructure. The absolute minimum has been done. Would you enjoy cycling in these locations ? Would you encourage your children or your partner, your parents or anyone else that you cared about to cycle in these conditions ?
|Near the city centre. Hills are not a problem, but look at the road. It's five lanes wide road with a three lane wide advanced stop box. Only the bravest of cyclists will be able to make use of this to turn right.|
|On a commuting route: Five lanes for cars and trucks + a pavement for walking on, which you can also cycle on, but watch out for the parked (and parking) cars and the lamp-posts. Not an attractive environment for cycling. The distance from Lower Hutt to Wellington is less than 17 km. It's not at all unusual for Dutch school children to cycle up to 20 km to get to school. Would you want your children to cycle this route ? See it on Google Maps.|
|Another commuting route: On the right, a cyclist. Fantastic brave human-being riding between a six lane motorway and rock face on a narrow strip of bumpy asphalt. Bigger view here.|
|Another view, another brave person. Note that the path is not only narrow but it has posts on it which cyclists have to swerve around. This does not make for pleasant or safe cycling.|
Many people have uploaded videos of traffic jams in Wellington to Youtube. No-one likes being stuck in a traffic jam, but when planners have concentrated only on driving and provided no real alternative for most people, it doesn't really matter how terrible the experience of driving becomes, people will still find driving to be their least terrible option and so they will still drive.
|Still from a video of a 13 km long commute by bike in Wellington. This is a shorter distance than many Dutch children cycle to get to school, but the video maker describes it as "intimidating even for confident bicyclists A 100 km/h multi-lane road with a painted stripe for cycling on the wrong side of the crash barrier is not nearly good enough to enable mass cycling. Please do watch this video and compare it with the conditions faced by drivers. By car it's slow and annoying, but it clearly doesn't feel so dangerous as cycling.|
|Google Maps suggestions for a similar journey, Wellington to Lower Hutt.|
By car: Start now, takes 19 minutes
By bus: One bus every 60 minutes, takes 35 minutes
This blog post has concentrated on Wellington in New Zealand, but because the problems faced by Wellington are exactly the same as those faced by many other cities, the same applies to almost Anytown in almost Anycountry. Policy's just the same.
Until a genuine choice is made to favour something other than the automobile, more and more dependency on motor vehicles is the only likely outcome. Cycling is a very fragile mode of transport. Cyclists are very obviously exposed to danger when they ride on busy roads or on inadequate paths next to roads, and this is why cycling is extremely sensitive to subjective safety issues. It's not realistic to expect that people will take to cycling in any appreciable numbers when the experience of cycling is akin to that of taking part in an extreme sport.
Cycling was once popular in almost every country. Motor vehicle use rose not only due to cars being attractive in and of themselves, but also due to motoring being subsidized by government. This pushed cyclists aside both in plans and literally on the streets leaving those who still cycled in an increasingly precarious position. It took billions in investment and a lot of time for cycling to decline to the point it has reached now. For cycling to recover will also require considerable investment from government as well as time. There is no easily reached "tipping point" beyond which cycling will automatically increase. If such a thing existed then cycling would never have decreased past that point.
In recent years, the Netherlands has led the world in cycling investment. Even here, the government has never spent more than a fraction of the amount on cycling that they spend on roads for cars, but this has been adequate to stem the flow of people away from cycling and to lead to a modest increase, In the Netherlands, the majority of trips and the vast majority of kilometres travelled are by motor vehicle. It would take a lot more than the Dutch have done to change that. However, at least in the Netherlands cycling has been made both accessible to everyone and very safe. No helmets required.
Cycle-helmet zealotry in New Zealand has no doubt done harm to cycling by making an already unpopular activity even less attractive. Much of the damage had already been done, in that cycling was already at a low ebb. However, helmets will make it more difficult even to grow cycling again and for that reason I oppose the mandatory wearing of helmets. In any case, any emphasis on helmets is in the wrong place. Successful campaigns to improve safety, especially of children, do not rely on secondary devices such as helmets to mitigate the results of crashes, but remove the source of danger so that crashes do not occur.
|A grid of high quality go-everywhere cycle-paths is what keeps these children safe, not helmets. If New Zealand had done the same thing then Aaron Oaten's crash and resultant injury would almost certainly never have happened. Preventing collisions is far more effective than allowing them to occur and trying to prevent the worst injuries with safety equipment.|
|Effect of New Zealand bicycle helmet law. ""Of particular concern are children and adolescents who have experienced the greatest increase in the risk of cycling injuries despite a substantial decline in the amount of cycling over the past two decades"|
|Effect of Dutch policy to make roads safer and build cycle-paths, especially concentrating on child safety. Between 1972 and 2013, fatalities on the roads dropped dramatically. Child road fatalities dropped by 98%.|