Cycling: Why Bother?

There’s high-level support, even some serious money for improving conditions for cycling. But if cycling isn’t really your city’s thing, you might well be wondering whether it’s worth all the fuss.

Let’s step back, and start with the idea that excessive reliance on the car is bad for cities. Providing for cars takes a lot of space, and makes for an unattractive city. It’s almost impossible to make it work, so we just end up with congestion. The space that’s devoted to car parks, roundabouts and flyovers could be put to better use. There’s popular support for change, as long as it’s done gradually. But is the solution bikes, or buses, or walking, or trams?

Clearly some people think cycling is the solution. Many people report how wonderful it is to cycle in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. And then they start talking about how the streets need to be completely rebuilt. They talk about making busy roads fit for cyclists from age 8 to 80. It’s certainly an attractive idea, but it hardly commands majority support, not yet, maybe not ever. It’s not just the cost; rebuilding streets is highly contentious. No wonder politicians are doubtful.

Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just persuade people to use public transport? We’ve got a lot of buses, and fairly good train services in the larger cities. Do we really need to make space for bikes as well? How much space is really needed? And where?

The answer partly depends on the size of the city. Bigger cities rely more on public transport, because there are substantial numbers of decently-long commuting and shopping trips into the city centre. However, public transport suffers from overcrowding in the peak, and poor loads off-peak. And if the buses get stuck in peak traffic, the service will be barely commercial. It would work better if cities were denser, so everyone could walk to a convenient, high-frequency bus or tram stop, with a short ride to the city centre, but British cities aren’t built like that.

Public transport can’t do the job on its own. It struggles to provide for peak loads, and it can’t provide a comprehensive service for shorter journeys in the suburbs: they’re just too dispersed. In some ways, short journeys in the suburbs could be provided by driving: suburban car-use is less of a problem. But it’s still enough of a problem that main road junctions are oversized, that too much land is lost to parking, that the road environment is noisy and unpleasant, and that anyone who can’t drive is marginalised. So one of the main roles of cycling is to make suburbs more pleasant: to cater for local journeys to school, to the shops, visiting friends, and to the station.

The other potential main role for cycling is to take some of the peak load for journeys into the city centre. This works better in smaller cities, but helps in bigger cities too. Primarily this works for shorter journeys up to a couple of miles (eg Hackney to the City), and will mostly appeal to younger adults. It can also be about longer journeys, but this will tend to be the preserve of a smaller number of keen and fast cyclists. London’s Superhighways are attempting to provide for this market, but it’s not easy: there are some very large roads, and nasty junctions.

One of the key differences between British cities and the likes of Amsterdam and Copenhagen is the scale of existing public transport services. In Britain, we’re used to buses coming right into the city centre. By contrast, public transport services scarcely get into the tight-knit streets of central Amsterdam or Copenhagen: if you want to get that close, you have to cycle. While there are disadvantages with having buses in amongst the shops, it’s highly effective, so we’re not likely to switch wholesale to cycling.

So there does seem to be a role for bikes in reducing our reliance on cars, but it’s probably not the same as in the Netherlands. The biggest role for the bike is probably in the suburbs, and a lot can be achieved by making local roads 20mph and generally taming the traffic. One of the key markets is teenagers: giving them freedom to get about without relying on being driven everywhere. That’s not just about getting to school – it’s also important that access to the local town centre is possible. That means taming the local main roads, but probably using low-cost techniques, like cycle lanes and zebra crossings – as part of a general treatment to make them more pleasant for walking as well. Junctions can be tricky, but there’s usually a viable solution for straight-ahead moves that teenagers will find manageable. It’s not usually possible to make the main roads comfortable for family cycling, so to develop a full cycling culture, there need to be quiet routes as well, making a dual network.

The other main role for the bike is for commuting trips into the city centre, so as to reduce the pressure on public transport. For smaller cities, this is much the same as getting teenagers to the shops. As cities get larger and roads get busier, it becomes progressively more complicated. It may be possible to make routes on less-busy main roads, or provide segregated routes alongside multi-lane roads (though this is usually harder). A certain amount of traffic management may be required to concentrate traffic on the bigger roads, and make more space on the less-busy main roads. Junctions are critical, especially roundabouts and gyratories, because the straight-ahead move doesn’t have priority. Traffic lights are generally preferred, though issues with left-turning traffic will need to be addressed. In the largest cities, on the busiest roads, it can be almost impossible to find an acceptable solution. So the best approach is to concentrate efforts on the most-viable corridors, perhaps focusing on routes where there’s a reasonable population of young professionals, since these are the most likely to start cycling.

Is cycling worth the bother? Yes. It’s essential to moving away from reliance on the car. We have allowed the car to take over our cities, and it isn’t attractive. The easiest, but perhaps not the most obvious place to start is in the suburbs. Cycling is also valuable to support public transport for peak commuting journeys. This is harder to achieve, but can be done, by concentrating on appropriate routes, and bringing them up to sufficient standard.