Cycling and walking infrastructure that works: what are the next steps?

2222Our sister publication Local Transport Today recently published a viewpoint from Gary Cummins, a transport planner at JMP Consultants Ltd, and previously an activist for the London Cycling Campaign in east London.

We thought it was worth sharing, and if you think so too, join us at Cycling and walking infrastructure that works on November 13 in London, where we will hear what the deciosion-makers, from Highways Agency to DfT and TfL, have to tell us…

Compared to those of our North European neighbours, conditions for cyclists in the UK are far from perfect, or arguably even good. Nevertheless, cycling is rising up the political agenda and usage is increasing. There is a press advertising campaign currently running for the Fat Face clothing company. It depicts four good-looking twenty-somethings dressed in the casual chic style of that clothing brand, all riding traditional-style sit-up-and-beg bicycles in an idealised English country lane. When the ad men start using bikes as a reference marker to indicate the aspirations of their target audience, you know it’s the thing to be doing.

Around four years ago, I wrote an article on the success that the London Borough of Hackney was experiencing in promoting cycling (LTT 16 Jan 09); a borough where the number of residents cycling to work far exceeds those of other comparable areas. This success was recently highlighted in a study by Anna Goodman. Her work made headline news across television and print media with the BBC lauding the huge (for the UK) cycle to work figure of 15% of Hackney’s population. Other London boroughs, even those with similar local conditions and demographics, have around 7-8%.

There are a variety of reasons for the increasing popularity of cycling in this inner London borough. Among these is the way that cyclists from the local advocacy group, the London Cycling Campaign in Hackney, engage with council officers and elected representatives. Together these people have created an urban environment that avoids the piecemeal, ineffective and sometimes dangerous cycle facilities that can be found in too many places across the UK. Their solutions have helped encourage cycling as a daily travel option in the borough.

Even the way Hackney residents dress for cycling has more in common with continental commuters in Denmark or the Netherlands than with other parts of the UK.

Across the rest of the UK (other than in untypical locations such as Oxford and Cambridge, York, Edinburgh and a select few others) the figures are nowhere near as high, although positive trends can be observed.

But, clearly, there is a demand to cycle. People want to get on a bike and many do in spite of less than ideal conditions.

Government policy across all parts of the UK supports cycling as a transport mode to be encouraged, for a number of reasons. The All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s (APPCG) inquiry report Get Britain Cycling was published in April this year and set out 18 points that it believes are required to bring about a substantial increase in the numbers of people who use bikes as a mode of transport. Within a day of returning to the House of Commons after this summer’s recess, the APPCG managed to schedule a four-hour debate on cycling issues. Over 100 MPs attended this discussion and constantly questioned the quality of provision for cycling in the UK. Several MPs named their own local and colourfully titled cycle advocacy groups for their contribution and guidance towards promoting an uptake in cycling.

A surprising number of these MPs were recent converts to cycling and several who had been to the Netherlands were asking why the UK could not replicate the conditions there. MPs puzzled over why British cyclists were frequently required to cycle on little more than re-signed footways or painted sections of existing roadway. Others were shocked at the way design guidance is interpreted and seems to often require cyclists, as the more vulnerable road user, to give way or dismount at any form of junction or conflict point.

The cycling success stories that do exist in the UK show that we can deliver the right conditions, but for so many reasons we often don’t. The debate around cycling has now come of age, most of us pretty much agree on what needs to be done. What we do not need are more of the piecemeal solutions that can be shoehorned in where budgets allow and which have come to epitomise the British solution to cycle provision.

As professionals we should not be helping create the conditions that result in questions such as those being asked in the House. Politically, the time has never been better for tackling many of the traditional barriers that are in the way of creating ideal conditions for cyclists, such as the space given to motor vehicles and car parking.

There is a demand for the promotion of cycling in the UK now and it comes from the very top. While it’s superb that this situation has emerged, it highlights that often the UK has been creating too much of the wrong cycling product and not enough of the right one, while too few of those with influence have been listening to the actual needs and desires of cyclists.

We seem to be at a point where a consensus of sorts has been reached. This gives all of us passionate about sustainable travel the opportunity to start saying we want no more of the wrong solutions and begin delivering all of the right solutions all of the time.

Thanks, Gary!


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