Sunday 2 March 2014

Identifying true mass cycling and achieving true mass cycling

How can we tell if we have true mass cycling ?
If sports clubs used by children after school look like this:

If extra temporary bicycle parking has been constructed but it's still difficult to find anywhere to park your bike when there is a large (non-cycling) event in town:

If thousands of others have already ridden their bicycle to the beach before you get there:

If bicycle ferries sometimes have a long queue on nice summer days:

If school cycle parking is full every day including winter, if railway stations struggle to build extra parking spaces quickly enough to cater for ever increasing bicycle usage, this crisis is reported in newspapers which are critical of more cycle parking not being built more quickly, and if city centres also have this same problem then perhaps you really do have true mass cycling.

One of the first photos of the centre of Assen which I took just after we moved here. It's a normal day and there are hundreds of bikes everywhere. Cycle parking in the centre of the city has been expanded and improved twice in the last six years, as have many things around the city.
If you have all these problems then you have true mass cycling. Assen certainly does have this problem.

Other Dutch cities have all the same problems because similar policies have led to similar results right across the Netherlands. Everyone cycles. Children, students, commuters, older people, slow or fast, women and men, people with disabilities, immigrantsEveryone. That's why cycle-parking is particularly an issue.

Cyclist in London. Wearing a reflective
vest but squashed between a bus and a
pole. Not everyone would do this.
How can we tell if we don't have true mass cycling ?
Cyclists are the coal mine canaries of our towns. If cyclists are few and far between, frequently dress in canary yellow, wear helmets, face masks and other protective equipment, are largely of an identifiable cultural group (often male 20-45 years of age), they're viewed as an out-group, openly hated or picked on by the local press and if you simply don't see bicycles being used in the numbers that you see them in the videos above then you do not yet have true mass cycling.

How can we create true mass cycling ?
If you want mass cycling where you live, you must first identify where future cyclists can come from.

Campaigns aimed at "cyclists" or for "cycling" are unlikely to work because in this case you are campaigning specifically for the hated out-group so this creates limited sympathy amongst the public at large. Those people who already find conditions on your streets to be acceptable for cycling already ride bikes. We can't reach more

There are three sources for more cyclists:
  1. Children
  2. Non-cycling adults who don't drive
  3. Non-cycling adults who do drive.
Children ride their own bikes in the
centre of Assen and they hunt for their
own cycle parking spaces. They would
not be here if this was still a busy
traffic light junction with many cars
Children don't get much choice about how they travel as their choices are made for them by their parents. This applies equally to those children who are allowed to walk, cycle or take public transport independently as it does to those who are not. Every parent cares for their children and every parent tries to do what they see as the best, safest, most convenient, thing. Campaigning for the right of children to be able to make independent journeys by bicycle in safety could benefit a lot of people. We know that there is widespread concern about safety and about health and we know that cycling offers a solution to these problems. We also know that cycle training on its own does not lead to more cycling. Cycling only becomes attractive if it is made safe and convenient.

UNICEF rates Dutch children as having the best well-being in the world and this comes in large part because they have freedom to make their own journeys by bicycle. Shouldn't all children be so lucky ?

People who are dependent on public transport often complain about the problems that they have with their transport. It's expensive. It's indirect. It's time consuming and there are delays. Public transport is not seen as aspirational and is often viewed as second best to owning and driving one's own car. It's difficult to make people choose public transport unless forced by being unable to afford their own transport. Public transport usage is highest in countries where it is more difficult to own and use cars and lowest in countries where cars are most affordable. However, users of public transport can be offered another alternative: the bike. In wealthy countries where cycling has been made accessible and convenient, public transport usage remains at much the same low level expected due to wealth but that bicycles offer a positive choice that people will take instead of using cars.

A cyclist in London. Cyclists wear
these clothes to cycle because even
they don't feel safe
 in this situation.
Most people would rather drive here.
Non cycling adults who drive are actually in a very similar situation to those non-cycling adults who do not drive. They don't want to take public transport for the reasons listed above and cycling is simply not seen an option for most people in most countries so they are taking what for them is the easiest, safest option. Driving doesn't have to be the only option: wealthy countries which have made cycling accessible and convenient find that while their public transport usage remains at much the same low level expected due to wealth, people will make a positive choice to cycle rather than to drive.

Free parking !

Parking is inexpensive or free in many
places in the Netherlands. It's not
necessary to punish people out of cars

 if the bicycle offers a truly attractive
There is an odd idea even amongst cycling campaigners that drivers will only give up driving if it is made too expensive or too inconvenient. This has always struck me as an odd position to take for someone who chooses cycling for him/herself because even that person is making an assumption that driving is a preferable option for anyone who can afford it. The Netherlands does not demonstrate this to be true at all.

Covered car parking places to hire in
Assen city centre. €28 per month, all
in. It's not the price of parking that
makes people cycle here. The price is
so low because demand is low, even
for free parking. Mass cycling brings
benefits for drivers.
Amsterdam is an easier place to drive in than many other large cities. In most places, car parking is neither difficult to find nor expensive. Running costs and fuel are about the same as elsewhere in Europe. Dutch people who have a choice of cycling or driving make a positive choice to cycle because it fits their needs. Cycling is often the easiest option in the Netherlands not because driving is particularly bad but because cycling is particularly good.

I think it's very important to remember that present day drivers in other countries are in exactly the same situation as everyone else. They are taking what appears to them to be the easiest safe option. The main reason why people drive is that because for them this is the least bad way of getting about. We know already that Londoners make the same journeys by car as Dutch people make by bike, but it's not only the distances and purposes which are the same. The motivation to drive in London is exactly the same as the motivation to cycle in the Netherlands. Whether the choice is made to cycle or to drive, that choice is based mostly on what feels safe and is convenient. If cycling was easier than driving and just so safe then this would attract current day drivers to ride bikes instead.

If cycling campaigners as a small out-group confront drivers as if they are the enemy, this can only be counter-productive. It is also completely unnecessary. The Netherlands has achieved the highest cycling modal share in the world without being harsh on drivers. The carrot is stronger than the stick.

The carrot
So what does attract people to cycling ? That's easy to answer - a comprehensive network of very high quality cycling infrastructure which offers shorter faster journeys, fewer stops and on which people feel very safe to cycle. This is what makes cycling attractive and makes cycling into a positive option rather than something which it is a struggle to convince people to do.

This is also exactly what the Netherlands has built. This country has achieved a greater level of success than anywhere else and that is why it makes sense to learn from this Dutch success.

This photo illustrates a "problem"
which keen Dutch cyclists sometimes
complain about. Children riding 20 km
to school
, riding in a group and taking
up the entire cycle-path as they do it.
Note that I had to go back to 2009 to
find a photo which showed this.
Apart from a lack of cycle parking, what else do people complain about where there is true mass cycling ?
I went on a recreational ride with some local cyclists this morning and the conversation in a cafe turned to a familiar topic: School children slowing them down.

To me, this is a very nice problem to have. It's a problem which only exists because school children actually do cycle in the Netherlands.

Other common complaints are from older cyclists complaining that sport cyclists go too fast and don't use bells and from sport cyclists complaining that older people riding together go too slowly and don't hear bells when they're rung. There are occasionally small conflicts but these are all minor issues in reality.

We rode 50 km this morning, mostly
quite quickly. At one point we were
held up very briefly by this couple
riding side by side with their dog
in a basket. I'm absolutely not going
to complain about this. Drivers get
stuck in traffic jams far more often
than I have to slow for other people
when cycling.
The one topic almost guaranteed to trigger a response amongst Dutch cyclists is mopeds. In this country, moped riders are an identifiable minority. Mopeds are ridden for a similar small proportion of total journeys as are bicycles in countries such as the UK or USA. Moped riders are an out-group in the Netherlands just as cyclists are an out-group in other nations and many of the same prejudices which are applied to cyclists in other nations are applied to moped riders here. In particular, Dutch people often think that mopeds are exceedingly dangerous when in fact they are not nearly so dangerous as they are commonly thought to be.

Complaints about cycling in the Netherlands can be seen as an examples of "First World Problems". Dutch cyclists have relatively little to complain about in comparison with their counterparts in other countries. If we had to ride with trucks passing centimetres away and deal with cycling infrastructure design which was as poor and inconvenient to use as is often the case in other countries and if society as a whole seemed to be against them as is the case for cyclists elsewhere then these concerns would be of greater importance here than the relatively minor concerns that people see as a problem.

A word about "bike culture"
In the past, I might have tagged a piece like this "bike culture" and thought not too much of it. Unfortunately, I think the term is being misinterpreted.

The Dutch do not cycle simply because they "have cycling in their culture". The "cycling culture" of the Netherlands is the direct result of infrastructure which makes cycling pleasant, convenient and safe.

When Dutch people leave this country and go to live in a place without good cycling infrastructure, they give up on cycling. When people migrate to the Netherlands from places without cycling infrastructure, they start cycling.

The Dutch respond to their built environment much as does anyone else, wherever they were born.


dr2chase said...

I would suggest that parking is free because the Dutch have chosen their bottlenecks wisely. As I understand it, roads in cities are designed to deny (or perhaps, to not supply) the most direct routes to automobiles, reserving those instead for bicycles and pedestrians. It's sort of a rule that the capacity of a transport route is determined by its narrowest bottleneck; in quite a few American cities that is parking, so that a driver gets an comfortable ride to their destination, only to spend time and money searching for a place to leave their car.

One way (and I think, a sensible way) to deal with this is to push the bottleneck a little closer to the source of the trip, so that a potential driver is not enticed into a smooth trip to an endpoint bottleneck.

David Hembrow said...

dr2chase: Streets in the centre of the city have been transformed to be far more useful for cycling, but there is absolutely nothing at all which stops anyone from driving there if they want to.

Similarly, the very easy to access and huge free of charge car park 500 m from the centre is never half full and the free of charge underground car parking at the new suburb built near us is also never half full.

It's not about bottlenecks, it's not about restricting choices. What has been done is to reduce the desire to drive by offering a genuinely better alternative which people make a positive choice for instead of driving.

Easy said...

vvDrivers in the U.S. & Canada would consider any unravelling of streets, where some are made non-through streets to make them better for biking, to be restricting their choice. They would protest the removal of car parking or a travel lane to add a cycletrack as harsh treatment against them.

David Hembrow said...

Easy: what makes you imagine that Dutch drivers wouldn't react in the same way ? Do you then there were no words spoken against the huge second transformation made to Dutch streets during the 20th century ?

That's what this blog post is about and I'm afraid you've missed the point. You won't get anywhere trying to improve conditions "for biking" at the expense of current users of those streets. Rather, you need to present advantages for everyone. That is what happened here. No-one is now asking for the Netherlands to return to looking like it once did - i.e. as most other countries still look.

The Dutch managed to do this without an example to work towards. Your job is easier because you can refer to the Netherlands.

Unknown said...

It's that thing where the usual health and safety here that we can't question, when it comes to cars, has been questioned and overridden. At the expense of all the things we know to be wrong with transportation in most of the western world. It's like transportationally we have open sewers and live wires all around us.
The Dutch said, this is what we need to do and did it. People complained, they still do, there are petrol heads there too. There are people who refuse to cycle or rather refuse to do anything but drive, but they are the outcasts, not like here where a non-driver, especially an upwardly mobile, well off, well educated person is seen as an outcast. I couldn't drive when my friends were learning because I had epilepsy, now I choose not to drive because there are no shortage of drivers and if I need to get somewhere, I ride my bike and if I can't, there's usually a train or someone already going by car who will be glad to share the petrol money.
We need to stop being dominated by car centric conservatives and motoring organisations, just do what's best for future generations, like the Dutch decided to do back in the 70's. It shouldn't be up for debate, the evidence, research and way to go forward is already been laid out.

Edas said...

David, when talking about parking policy you are completely wrong.
Even in such a small town as Assen parking is either far away from entrance to the destination (means inconvenient), or it is restricted in maximum parking time, so it is not occupied by commuters, it is used only by shoppers.
Here everyone can look at official pricing and compare all the places at the garages with the number of city residents.
3440 available parking places for 70000 citizens. All other parking places are for residents with permits only.
In this light good cycle infrastructure looks more preferable option for everyday commutes ;)

David Hembrow said...

Edas: Very clever finding the local government website, though it's not hidden, you know. However, if you somehow think that telling me how few spaces for car parking there are proves I'm "wrong" then you've very much missed the point.

I live here, I've seen what's going on, and I can tell you how it actually is.

There are indeed not so many parking spaces listed by the website you pointed to in the city centre but note two things:

1. That website lists only car parking spaces provided by the local government so it's not a complete list.

2. While the number of spaces may seem small for a town this size, that doesn't mean there are not enough spaces for Assen.

In fact, because people cycle more than they drive in Assen, this city needs fewer car parking spaces than would an equivalent size city in another country.

I've never seen any of the parking garages near full, and that's despite the price of parking being low by Dutch standards and even free in many locations.

The free car park (Veemarktterrein) just 500 m from the city centre never fills up. Don't believe me ? Here it is on Google Maps. Less than half full.

Similarly, the car parks right next to supermarkets at which you nominally have to pay, but at which you are given a free pass if you visit the adjoined supermarket also never seem to fill up. Here's the unpopular top floor of one of them. Note that it's certainly not full because no-one has used the top floor at all even though it's free of charge for people who've been to the supermarket.

Many shops have their own parking and there are a lot of other places to park which are not associated with the local government (shops etc.). Those don't fill up either.

Here's free parking at a supermarket. Here's free employee's parking at a local company.

You've also seemingly not identified that parking is free of charge in many places in the evenings, but it doesn't fill up then either because people go to restaurants, cinema, pub etc. by bike.

In the blog post above you'll note that one private company which has excess car parking spaces in the centre of the city has reduced the price of parking to just €28 for a month. The price has become so low because it's not easy to sell car parking spaces even at such a low cost and in such a convenient location for commuters to the city centre.

The price of parking is simply not an issue. The convenience of finding a space is not an issue, there are always free spaces.

On this issue, I'm not the one who is "wrong".

Easy said...

David: Sorry if I'm missing the point, I am trying hard. :-) In a built-up city adding the infrastructure for subjectively safe cycling necessarily means taking away lanes or parking or connectedness from automobiles. What are the advantages that one presents to people who don't currently bike? That once the infrastructure goes in they will feel comfortable biking? Or that even if they don't start biking other people will, and there will be less car congestion? Or that better infrastructure will take the existing people who bicycle out of their way?

David Hembrow said...

Easy: If you ask anyone of any nationality, including Dutch, whether they like the idea of "taking away lanes or parking or connectedness from automobiles" then you will find they offer you very little support. No-one wants to lose anything.

On the other hand you can offer them town centres which are more pleasant places to visit, which are quiet and have clean air, in which it is safer to take your children and in which shop keepers can expect more customers. Suddenly you will find you do have support because these are things that people do want to gain.

That's how to achieve change. Don't emphasize what people may see as negative because this message isn't actually negative at all, but is about change which is positive for everyone.

When people choose to shop in car free covered malls or take holidays in places where their children can ride bikes in safety, it is in part because those destinations offer a glimpse of the same thing as do the streets of Dutch cities.

And yes all of the advantages you list are certainly true. More cycling leads to less congestion and as you'll see from my examples in comments above, there will also be easier availability of car parking spaces for those who need to drive.

David said...

I alternate between hope and despair when reading your blog! My hope comes from the possibility that building safe, enticing bicycle infrastructure will dramatically raise the bicycle modal share (and conincidentally decrease the automobile modal share).

However, I do think you underestimate the interplay between culture and infrastructure, and the inertia that this creates. As a non-automobile owner in Sunnyvale, CA, I am treated as an unintelligible curiosity. This tends to radicalise people to make them want to push back hard against the dominant culture.

Suggestions recommended to the city, such as pedestrianising a very short restaurant-intensive street in the downtown area, were met with criticisms that it would lead to a decrease in patronisation of these shops! There appears to be no realization that a widespread change in transportation infrastructure and decisions is needed to alleviate many of the quality of life issues present here.

And so the despair creeps in...!

Keep up the great work though - I am feeding through information I glean here to the City in the hopes that it will find a receptive mind at some point.

David said...

Just to prove I'm not complaining about nothing, here's an example of a response from the City of Sunnyvale:

Dear David Moore,

Thank you very much for contacting the City with your ideas regarding Murphy Street. By "pedestrianization", I assume you mean closure of the street to motor vehicles. The City Council formally considered the idea of partial or full closure of the street several years ago and elected not to pursue closure beyond closing the street for special events. That is the City's approach at this time. Downtown businesses were very concerned with loss of business if the street was closed, as this has been their experience even during special event closures. Please contact me with any further questions or comments at (408 )730-7415.

Thank you,
Jack Witthaus
Public Works

David Hembrow said...

David: It's difficult to be one person fighting against everyone and I understand your frustration.

However, businesses being scare of losing revenue if cars are restricted is not something which is limited to Sunnyvale. As you might imagine, there were similar worries expressed when the Dutch made radical changes to their cities. Even now, after the reduction of traffic has been accepted for decades, this has not completely stopped. Just last year there was a story on our local TV about shops in the centre of Assen which were concerned about the result of losing just three parking spaces in the city centre.

Chris Bonner said...

David, I appreciate that positive campaigning is generally the most effective way to approach infrastructure change, but even a well-executed positive campaign can fail in the face of the strong opposition we often face (USA in my case.)

It's not just hostile attitudes that are a challenge, but in some cases organized obstruction and negative campaigns. Some people will steadfastly oppose anything that could be deemed "liberal," and the emphasis on the positive aspects of the change is often interpreted as dishonesty or underhandedness.

My local chamber of commerce funded a series of political advertisements which misrepresented the tax increase that would be caused by a transportation measure in a local election a few years ago, and I'm sure that had some influence on the measure's narrow defeat, which has led to a severe cutbacks in public transport in my county.