Sunday, 17 February 2013

Civil cycling courage for cycle paths

It's amazing. I have been in Braunschweig, Germany, my hometown for four days. And after several daily miles on my bike, I've had no beef with peeps in cars. Why? How is that even possible? The starkest difference to the UK is space division: most notable cycle paths on every busy road. And not just because the space was there (WW2 - don't mention the war). Pro-bike planning decisions were actively taken, decades ago.

In the UK the nature vs nurture debate would start here. Why a meagre 2% of all journeys are made by bike in the UK? I believe the answer entirely lies in nature... the nature of our roads, the way the space is divvied up and carefully designed. People react to their surroundings, and get (subliminal) messages of what the coded practice is. It is NOT a cultural thing, it's a inherently human thing.

In my hometown, space is so much clearer to read. It's inevitable. You feel you must use it. And others do, so you "follow".

Cycle path
Wolfenbüttel - typical cycle path, grade-separated

Cycle path
Wolfenbüttel - cycle path on high street

Besides the cycle paths on busy roads, as above examples for Wolfenbüttel (home of Jägermeister), my hometown's one-way streets are fitted with cycle-contraflows. Neighbourhoods are just that: places for people and you know it: parking space is broken up by trees and green build-outs, not every inch is eeked out for car parking akin to a boring and predictable production line in a factory. There are still plenty of cars (of course, Autostadt Braunschweig is nearly "owned" by Volkswagen). But the machine has been tamed by providing space for other ways of getting around too. It is a car city, not afraid of transport diversity. There are Fahrrad-Straßen too. And their network is expanding year on year.

But there are no cyclists in the UK! So transition is the key question.

You don't want to be the odd one out, you do as others do. Herd instinct. Again, people react to the surroundings. Who are we building these "new-fangled and innovative" paths for? It's people not yet currently cycling. People who now say "Too much traffic, too aggressive, there is no space for cycling". Because there's another difference: in my hometown granny and grandad cycle; kids bike to school together; and so many more women use the bicycle here for transport. People feel safe. You see very few helmets, an indicator for the little worry people have about their personal safety.

Elephant's feet
Grandad taking kiddo for a ride

So. Others have done it before. Cycle paths on busy roads opens up cycling to the whole population. I estimate it's a maximum of 30% of roads that are accompanied by cycle paths in my hometown. The others are dealt with by traffic calming and informal 'community enforcement' - where people live and play and they will feel a sense of belonging towards their street. Cycle paths in combination with bike-friendly junctions is important, as these follow the main arteries and primary routes, they are direct and don't send you 'round the houses.

The driver-turning-left concern. I can report there are no problems apart from that by its sheer nature it is a conflict point. Every junction is a danger spot, as routes are crossing. Again, it's clearly in the design. Corner build-outs for slower turning speeds, a clearly marked cycle path across the sidestreet and possibly combined with a speed bump. And I won't lecture you on appropriate junction design and traffic light phasing.

Some civil cycling courage is needed for the transition in the UK.

Fast cyclists (a minority in a cycling country, probably a majorty in the UK) may like to stick to the road. So listen up, CTC. One thing that Germany did get wrong was the "Radwegebenutzungspflicht". Let's learn from that too and not repeat it here. This is not to say cycle paths aren't required for the not-so-super-fast cyclist (ie the majority in a cycling country).

So, how are we hatching this chicken's egg in the UK? And don't say it's too wet for chicks.

Intuitive paving design
Braunschweig - side street with clearly marked cycle path

Elephant's feet
Braunschweig - crossing with clearly marked cycle path (elephant's feet)

Elephant's feet and colour marking
Wolfenbüttel - crossing with clearly marked cycle path


  1. It’s great to see a report back from another cycling country, and it would be great to see more. To be honest, I get a little tired of reading about Dutch cycling. It’s not that I don’t admire what they have done there – I do, and it remains, so far, the gold standard – but too much focus on the Netherlands could easily mislead people into thinking that they are just a bunch of harmless eccentrics, a land of tulips and little boys with their fingers in a dyke and mice with clogs on, gaily sailing around on their bicycles like those fictional characters in England’s TV murder capital, the Midsomers. There is also a tendency in some quarters to proselytise about the Netherlands like true zealots, looking down their noses at the world’s second most successful cycling nation, Denmark, like it was some form of heretical schism from the one true church.

    I have the impression that Germany probably rates as the world’s third most successful. From what I hear its modal share is in double digits nationally which places it more than five times as high as the UK nationally, and presumably the numbers go much higher in some cities.

    All of this from what is probably the world’s second most successful (after the USA) car economy. German cars are still the benchmark of quality across Europe and despite their relatively high prices in the US, Americans covet a good Merc or Beamer as a sign of their success. Germany’s motor manufacturing industry is much stronger than the UK’s, and hasn’t suffered the periodic crises which have seen corporations like BMC and Leyland nationalised, re-privatised and ultimately liquidated. According to this website Germany ranks as second highest car ownership in the world, per thousand population. The UK is 16th, ironically slightly behind the Netherlands, and only marginally in front of Denmark.

    All of this suggests to me that in a world where it is naive to imagine that the car can be dismissed or eliminated from the picture – in the foreseeable future anyway – Germany, like the Netherlands and Denmark, have found a mature way to get benefit from the car without being entirely enslaved by it. I think of it as “we drive our cars, our cars don’t drive us”. Large numbers of people leave their cars at home when they are only making shorter journeys, or not expecting to carry heavy loads, because that is what makes practical sense and the emotional element has been suppressed.

    In the UK we are still a world away from having such a mature attitude. My missus gave me a real ear-bending the other day over my activism locally over controls on car parking (because uncontrolled parking blights the lives of people who live nearby, and brings more traffic which spoils the ambience and subjective safety of the town centre) because she finds it inconvenient to have to pay for an hour’s parking (60p) when all she wants to do is “pop in” to the cash machine or newsagents, things which could so easily be done without a car by anyone who lives, as we do, within a mile or two. She is by no means alone in thinking like that, and no amount of argument about environment or sustainability, health, or even business-school analysis of why charging for car parking has actually been found to be beneficial to the health of small town centres makes any difference.

    I don’t suppose you fancy taking a trip to, say, Sweden, and reporting back on how they do things there? Coming down the scale certainly, but we can learn a lot from the experience of all those European countries which are some distance ahead of us on cycling uptake, not just the Netherlands.

    1. I think I might be a member of the "One True Cycling Nation" church – but I'll try to defend my religion!

      I do really enjoy reading about transport infrastructure from all over the world, and I enjoyed reading this article. There's been a few articles about cycling in Japan recently too. It's interesting to see how different places cater for different travel modes, and there may well be things which the UK can learn from them.

      But there's a real and genuine danger that something second-rate will be presented as best practice. It's a worry that something so-so will be promoted as top notch. I was at a meeting recently when a person of influence in London cycling circles stated their admiration for the Danish practice of returning the bike lane to the main carriageway at junctions so that bike riders flow through the junction as part of the motor traffic.

      This is insane, as the design he was talking about is where the cycle path becomes the lane for right-turning motor traffic as it approaches the junction. This means that right-turning motor vehicles pulling in front of you. There's a video of this here. I've also heard the Danish method of putting the bike path between the bus stop and the carriageway (meaning that bike users have to stop whenever a bus does, rather than putting it behind the bus stop) suggested as best practice, when it's a far from ideal solution.

      Even bad ideas from the Netherlands will become hailed as the latest and greatest innovation by some (*coughsharedspacecough*). See LCC's bizarre spin on their design for a brick desert.

      The problem seems to be that many UK campaigners will leap on any cheap, second-rate imitation of proper infrastructure as the solution to all our problems. That's how we end up with rubbish like this which is a very poor facsimile of this.

      There's also the consideration that whatever we get will be a watered down version of what we ask for, so by asking for small improvements we will only get tiny ones. Obviously, Copenhagen is light years ahead of London, but why look to a city with poor junction design when there are places even nearer with much better? (Even central Amsterdam isn't great, though it's the only place in the Netherlands most people have heard of so it gets quoted a lot.)

      So it's not blind faith in whatever the Dutch do (there are some awful bits of infrastructure in the Netherlands, although they're conspicuous by their rarity) but wanting to promote what genuinely works, and not have the message diluted by hype about somewhere that's only so-so. (I'm not accusing Katya of this, by the way! I enjoyed the article and the photos!)

  2. There's no denying. We are a Developing Nation when it comes to liveable cities with commonplace pleasant walking and cycling conditions - yes, there will be mistakes we, DfT, LAs, everyone else will make in the transition phase... we just have to carefully monitor and LEARN from them!

    A bit of bravery. Getting off the f-ing fence.

    That's certainly a missing component altogether imo.

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