Don’t build it and they can’t come

You need to have pavements before you can even consider addressing other reasons people don’t choose to walk. Why do people think cycling is any different?

Infrastructure is not sufficient, but it *is* necessary

What lesson should we really draw from Stevenage?

Hang around cycling blogs for any length of time and you will inevitably come across a variation of the argumentum ad Stevenage.

This “dull grey 1950s new town” (waronthemotorist) is a fantastic place to drive: dual carriageways combined with high volume roundabouts make it pretty effortless to motor from A to B (a more local equivalent would be Livingston – it’s hard to believe Stevenage could either be more drab, have bigger dual carriageways or have a lower cycling modal share).

Central Livingston. The bridge is a segregated cycle facility, but who would feel the need to use it?

Stevenage also has a relatively extensive network of segregated cycling infrastructure – and a dismal proportion of journeys being made by bike.

It’s this combination that has led to Stevenage enjoying (along with Milton Keynes) the dubious honour of becoming the go-to argument against infrastructure provision. Literally “we built it and they didn’t come”; the reader is invited to draw the conclusion that infrastructure has at most a small contribution to make to cycling uptake and potentially none at all – it’s just an expensive distraction.

There are all sorts of debates to be had about exactly why Stevenage (or any given piece of infrastructure) may, after construction, not enjoy the level of modal share that we might wish.

The reason people drive is simply that they prefer to drive. The proportion of people who prefer to drive is driven by diverse factors – how troublesome it is to drive, how troublesome it is to cycle, questions of fitness, weather, clothing, personal safety, money, all in a giant melting pot.

There’s not much point picking just one of these things to squabble over.

It should be obvious to everyone that building cycle infrastructure will not necessarily cause a large proportion of people to give up driving and take to two wheels instead. However, it’s critical that all campaigners (and campaign groups like the CTC) understand that insufficiency does not speak to necessity.

There’s nothing more discouraging to me than someone who argues against (or downplays) hard segregated infrastructure for one simple reason:

segregated infrastructure is as necessary for widespread cycling as rails are for railways

Rather than pointing to Stevenage (or Milton Keynes, or wherever) as places that have infrastructure but no cyclists, I’d love to see just one example of a place with widespread cycling uptake but no infrastructure.

Such places simply don’t exist.

It’s tempting to be fooled by recent London surveys pointing to modal shares of 50% or more on particular streets, but that is not comparing apples with apples, since it doesn’t include the huge proportion of journeys Londoners make on the tube, for example, and only a small proportion of roads.

It’s not even clear to me whether the figures count the movement of people or merely the movement of vehicles. (Any argument which relies on giving one chap on a Boris Bike equal weighting with eighty people on a double decker is immediately suspicious).

Regardless, the fact that transport provision in some of our inner cities is so horrendous that people are compelled to cycle despite the risks is no recipe for success anywhere else (“London is not Britain” – in fact, innermost London is not even “London” – the English capital’s modal share is still dismal overall).

“If you build it they may not come” is a true (and trivial) statement. There are lots of reasons not to let your kids cycle to school, besides the risk of being ground to a pulp. But even if you overcame all other issues, if your kids may well be mown down by a dangerous driver, that’s the ultimate blocker.

I’m not sure I would let my kids cycle to school in Stevenage either. However, without segregated infrastructure there would be no chance whatsoever.

Retrofit is not new build

In Stevenage and the other new towns, bike infrastructure was built alongside fast and convenient main roads and, although necessary for cycle use (imagine cycling to school on one of these de-facto motorways) it has not proven sufficient for a high modal share – there is no demand for travel any other way.

In contrast, almost anywhere that cycle infrastructure is retrofitted in 21st century Britain, significant latent demand for cycle use exists, thanks to the terrible experience that is travelling by car (or public transport) in most other places.

The reason that explosive growth on Edinburgh’s segregated facilities hasn’t translated into a high overall modal share is correctly understood as a simple lack of segregated facilities (which can be highly utilised only where they exist) and not that Edinburgh residents have the choice of riding off road but simply choose to drive regardless.

It takes me 30-40 minutes to cycle to work versus an hour in the car and up to 90 minutes by public transport. No smooth-flowing dual carriageways here.

A better analogy of segregated cyclepaths is pavements. It’s easy to point to a town or city with lots of pavements but a low modal share of journeys on foot, but few would try to convince themselves that pavements are anything other than a necessity for any significant level of perambulation. You need to have pavements before you can even consider addressing the other issues around people not choosing to walk.

Build it, and they can come if they want to. But if you don’t build it, they can’t.

This, at least, is straightforward.

7 thoughts on “Don’t build it and they can’t come”

  1. Great article Dave. Very well put.

    Richard: segregated infrastructure alongside roads is essential if the speed, volume or type of traffic on that road is intimidating. I’d say whatever is colloquially described as a “main” road requires a physically protected cycle path. The article you linked to reads like something from 20 years ago, full of excuses for not doing things properly.

  2. I’m tickled that while I couldn’t agree more with the executive summary above (“What is necessary is that most roads should be cycle-friendly”) yet the content of the article doesn’t really suggest making roads cycle-friendly at all.

    Relying on paint and other soft mechanisms to manage risk is the approach that has been failing the British public for decades, directly causes deaths like this, and is the reason thousands are taking to the streets flashmobbing in London.

    They aren’t calling for more paint. Paint is not infrastructure.

  3. You can add Gothenburg to Stevenage and Milton Keynes. 450 km of separated bike paths with 150 km added in the past 15 years. Cycling modal share is absolutely flat since 1990, at 5-10% depending on how you measure. The planners have exactly the mentality you promote. They think cyclists will derail if there is no special bike path.

    I honestly believe this paradigm is a mistake and often point to Copenhagen to make my point. *In Cph they only have bike paths if it makes it makes cycling nicer.* Otherwise they let cyclists mix with cars, such as in the giant intersections where blue paint is the only protection for cyclists. In Gothenburg, they try to protect cyclists with maximum separation and 90-degree turns every time they need to cross a “car road”, even if it’s a traffic-calmed road with speed bumps. They believe cyclists “come from nowhere” and need to slow down at least as much as cars do.

    Here’s a before and after map, where they put in a cycle path along the quiet, meandering side street because the main, straight street was considered too dangerous. Result: The quiet street now has a mandatory bike path with squiggly crossings at every junction. That’s the result of thinking that cyclists need special protection every single metre along their route.

    So in Gothenburg they’re not putting in bike paths to make cycling nicer, they’re doing it because they believe that cyclists will fall over the minute there is no special bike path.

    At some point you need to step back and think about what the danger to cyclists is. Is it the lack of “rails”, or is it being run over by a motorist? They are two different things. Motorists can be calmed by using speed bumps, roundabouts and so on. Cyclists should be allowed to continue straight on through intersections without being diverted on special “infrastructure”.

    So sure, promote separated bike paths like in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. But don’t say that cyclists need rails or that cycling is dangerous. You’re just shooting yourself in the foot.

  4. Hi Erik,

    Thanks for a thoughtful comment.

    It’s interesting that you refer to roundabouts as a safety measure; in the UK a large proportion of cyclist deaths happen on roundabouts, and we try to have them taken out! Cultural differences (and I suspect, design differences)?

    With regards to Gothenburg, I suppose my question would be this: if all cycle infrastructure was removed, leaving just a few bits of paint maximum 1m width for cyclists (which are also used for parking cars), a la UK style, do you think the 5-10% modal share would go up?

    Or, is it the case that most people in Gothenburg don’t want to cycle, even if there is good infrastructure – which doesn’t make it any less necessary?

    In your specific example of a bike path which is less convenient than the road, this is almost a universal truth (how can we make a bike path more convenient than the road? Even if it is grade-separated with bridges at junctions, you have to share it with dog walkers and slower cyclists, unlike on the road). But convenience is not so much the point, when nobody is willing to cycle on the “convenient” street, as in the UK.

    Has the number of people cycling on this route fallen since it was built, versus the street?

  5. Hi Dave,
    Weirdly, I’ve been thinking about this very topic in the context of Livingston for a while. I know that bridge well. It connects my old estate to Houston industrial estate.

    I lived in Livingston for 40 years, know both the off, and on road infrastructure pretty intimately. Unfortunately, I do think Livingston is a perfect example of ‘build it, and it will never be used’, at least in a cycling respect. The paths which are extensive, well connected, and hidden from the road network, are well used by pedestrians, always have been, but never by cyclists.

    My thoughts go back to the 70s, car ownership was low (still is in large parts of Livingston), buses take forever, and are unreliable, and no one cycles? I know we never cycled anywhere when I was young, we either walked, or if we needed to go outside of Livingston, got the bus.

    I think the main difference between Livingston and Stevenage, is that in Livingston the walking/cycling infrastructure is embedded within the entire town, and for the most part hidden from the road network. It is quite possible to cycle from one corner of Livingston, to another without having to go anywhere near a road. It is unfortunate that it was never utilised to it’s full potential, especially when car ownership was/is so low.

  6. Dave,
    I always find it very interesting when a seasoned, long distance cyclist such as yourself, someone who is used to sharing the road with motor-traffic, indeed someone who one might think would support ‘vehicular’ cycling by default–declares their interest in segregation. If anything this adds more weight to the argument in favour of dedicated infrastructure.
    I used to be opposed to segregation. Like all vehicular cyclists I reckoned that cycle training would solve our problems since it would also introduce safer conditions by teaching cyclists to ride effectively as part of “the traffic”. I enjoyed pretending to be a little car, but I also thought that segregated facilities would introduce danger. Even now I accept that segregated paths can increase risks to cyclists at junctions though the overall risk may not change due to safer conditions on links. As a cycling officer (Kingston) I am promoting and seeking funding for Danish style segregation which accepts that within a mainly segregated environment, the judicious use of “merge in turn” at signalised junctions combined with filtered permeability to reduce the number of priority junctions and some pre-signalling will reduce dangerous conflicts whilst creating a highly acceptable cycling environment that can be developed within constrained sites. The same such infrastructure in Copenhagen has, together with heavy promotion and an aggressive policy of charging the earth for city centre parking, meant that now 40% of journeys are cycled. Of course, where space permits, Dutch style infrastructure should be achieved.
    But infrastructure should not be delivered in isolation from other considerations. A pleasant environment should be created, routes should feel safe–not just in relation to traffic; routes should follow general, traffic corridors, they should be well lit and benefit from good natural, surveillance from neighbouring buildings. They should lead to and through destinations, such as town centres, popular parks and street markets. Cycle routes should not go up and down unnecessarily; the use of subways is better than bridges, but not as good as at-grade crossings. All of these points are important but in the case of recent comments about Stevenage and Livingston, the generally poor environment, fear of danger from strangers on remote tracks and the motor-centric, low density scale of the new towns have not been sufficiently discussed as contributory reasons why people don’t cycle there.
    Cycle infrastructure should not be delivered in isolation. In the English cycling demonstration towns it was found that towns that only focused on marketing, or only focused on infrastructure were not successful. It was only when the two were combined that cycling grew. When the money ran out, so too did the two essential strands, and cycling levels have fallen back.

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