For anyone who doesn’t know, New Town, or Stevenage, was planned as the future of English cities. Eric Claxton was the man behind the extensive network of segregated cycle tracks, easy pedestrian access, and efficient roadways for vehicles. This was a design that looked really, really good on paper.
It didn’t work. Not the way he intended it to, anyway.
Some argue, as Carton Reid does (Roads Were Not Built For Cars), that the mode share for cycling is so low because, as easy as it is to cycle, it’s even easier to drive. Therefore, to increase cycling’s mode share, we must make driving more difficult.
Cities without high cycle usage, but which want to gain the benefits that such usage brings individually and collectively, would need to restrict usage of cars.
Others argue, as Joe Dunkley does (At War With The Motorists), that it has nothing to do with how easy it is to drive. Many cities, the vast majority of those whose roadways were laid before the automobile took hold, do not present such an easy environment to drive in, and yet cycle mode share is no better. It’s no better because cycling is, or is at the very least perceived to be, difficult and dangerous. The answer to getting people out of cars is by providing them with a better option.
The problem for us is the lack of any alternatives to go to. In Stevenage the pull of the cycle path network has to compete with the much stronger pull of the road network. Supply of transport infrastructure far exceeds demand, so people opt for whatever’s most attractive. Everywhere else, the push of congested streets and insufficient public transport is met with the much stronger push of hostile cycling conditions. Here supply of transport infrastructure doesn’t meet demand, so people make do with whatever’s least painful.
Cycling or walking when driving is easier will only appeal to a very tiny percentage of people. Even if they value exercise and a healthy lifestyle, the car usually wins out (I get incredibly frustrated when people whinge about how hard it is to drive to and then find parking when driving to the gym – especially when the drive there and back takes longer than their actual “workout”). When you have a road network that is at or beyond capacity for cars or driving is difficult for any other reason, then by providing attractive alternative transportation options, you will get people using them. I can’t even get over how simple that is, and how much sense that makes.
So, in many cities there is enough congestion to make good use of quality cycling infrastructure. What do you do about cities where congestion just isn’t that bad? You could not bother, you could build cycling infrastructure and be satisfied with low mode share, or you could build it while creating conditions whereby cycling is more attractive than driving.
It’s happening. Congestion charges (ie. London), car free Sundays (Bogotá and elsewhere), pedestrian-only streets (more slowly popping up everywhere), and bold plans to convert entire cities (or at least inner cities) to car-free zones (Hamburg, Helsinki).
It seems as though we will have to wage at least some war on the motorist in order to promote a greater cycling mode share, even it we have to do so sheepishly. There are ways around declaring outright war, however. Natural selection could do it for us (run out of fuel). In the meantime, as that will take a while, we could simply do things like re-populate the inner city. Send in the Trojan horse: build attractive, affordable housing and get people living closer to where they work. It doesn’t smack of cycle-centric policy, not should it, but it would result in it. We need to remember that the universe doesn’t exist to fawn over bikes. The bike isn’t the point. I mean, they’re great and all, but we need to promote cycling as a popular method of transportation because it’s better for community. Better, in a lot of ways, for the economy. Better for the environment. Better for life.
Header image: themikebot/Flickr