I wrote a first draft of this post some months ago but it got left on the shelf. I was worried it was too anecdotal, too long, too angry (or perhaps all three). Following a very constructive LCC-Living Streets seminar on Designing Well for Both Walking and Cycling, I thought it might be time to put it out there and invite comment and criticism.
There’s been a lot of discussion on the blogosphere about the demerits of the term ‘cyclist’. It’s interesting to note that the term ‘pedestrian’ has some related problems – every now and then an acquaintance or colleague will use ‘pedestrian’ as a pejorative term. Even though most of us are regular pedestrians, I suspect very few people are likely to say ‘I am a pedestrian’ in everyday conversation. Living Streets changed its name from the ‘Pedestrians Association’ in 2001 presumably partly on these grounds.
I noted recently that in this country, ‘hostility to cyclists is often expressed from a pedestrian perspective‘. Perhaps, part of the problem is indeed these terms – and that’s why, for the ‘Designing Well’ seminar, we said ‘for walking and cycling’, not ‘for pedestrians and cyclists’. As a ‘cyclist’ I might be annoyed by ‘pedestrians’ and vice versa. As a person I am sometimes on foot and sometimes on a bike, and I want both facilitated. But I think there’s a stronger cultural hostility towards ‘cyclists’ than there is towards ‘pedestrians’: the associations of ‘pedestrian’ are bad enough, but being a ‘cyclist’ is worse.
Conditions for cycling are, I would say, worse in much of the UK than are conditions for walking. Obviously, there are problems with walking environments. But let’s use anecdote to illustrate the difference. I am a London cyclist. But there are many parts of London where I’ll simply avoid cycling, because I don’t feel safe, such as the Marylebone Road, right in front of where I work. To get to King’s Cross by bike, I have to travel along three sides of a rectangle and experience a substantial time penalty. This wouldn’t happen if we had Dutch-quality cycle infrastructure along Euston Road. It reduces the trips that I make: if I could cycle safely to the Wellcome Gallery or the British Library along Euston Road, it’d take me less than ten minutes and I’d be much more likely to nip over at lunchtime; as it is, I haven’t been for ages.
I’d say most of us who currently cycle in London could cite many places like this. Although we disproportionately come from risk-tolerant demographics, we still have our no-go areas. These won’t necessarily be the same places, because subjective safety is complex: but that doesn’t mean our fears aren’t important.
Conversely, as a healthy, able-bodied, thirty-something woman, who’s often travelling alone or with those in a similar demographic, there’s pretty much nowhere I wouldn’t walk in Central or Inner London for fear of road danger. While I ride to work every day, I’ll choose to walk quite a few other trips, rather than cycle. For example, local high streets don’t feel great for cycling. This puts me off riding to them – instead I accept a small time penalty and walk.
I’ll walk to go out in the evening when I envisage drinking more than a pint or so, because I know I won’t feel safe cycling on London streets without my ‘wits about me’. But I’m usually happy to walk home after a couple of pints without fearing road injury. (Clearly ‘social safety’, or fear of personal assault, also affect many women in particular when it comes to walking and cycling: I’m only talking here about road danger).
Probably, if I lived somewhere that cycling felt safer, I’d cycle many of those short and ‘evening out’ trips. I noticed this in Cambridge, which has Dutch cycling levels, when I was doing research for the Cycling Cultures project. People would tell me about riding half a mile to the train station or shops. I’d think ‘But it’d almost be as quick to walk!’ And then I’d realise, I was thinking of my trade-off in London, where cycling comfort levels are lower relative to walking, so the time trade-off looks different. And Cambridge people I spoke to almost all cited cycling home from the pub as a major benefit of the mode. I remember being a bit shocked at the time, but in retrospect, I recognise this as a sign of the relatively high subjective safety in Cambridge compared to London.
Of course, Cambridge is still a UK context and so subjective safety is limited compared to The Netherlands. While there’s quite a lot of child cycling in Cambridge, unlike in Dutch contexts it’s mostly on the pavement. In London, where conditions feel less safe, you’ll see much less child cycling in the first place.
I think it’s fair to say that for people like me, walking in Inner or Central London mostly feels relatively unproblematic in terms of traffic safety. The figures do show some cause for concern, but for most people, the idea of walking for everyday trips is fundamentally not a scary one in the same way that cycling is. That said, it does often feel inconvenient or unpleasant. Traffic lights on one of my local high streets were re-phased to aid (motor) traffic flow not that long ago. They used to change quickly and people on foot would almost always wait; now, the more able-bodied and fit among us have started crossing against the lights. I resent this as a theft of time and space from people on foot, which takes far more from them than it gives to motorists.
However, most people in my demographic don’t feel safe enough to cycle in Central and Inner London. The facts back them up; women in their thirties experience risks around seven times greater per kilometre cycling in London than in The Netherlands. There is a fundamental difference between walking and cycling in terms of risk perception, reflecting the greater impact of the hostile road environment on cyclists’ perception of safety.
Walking and cycling are both of course sustainable modes that we need to support, and where space for cycling is needed, I’d want to take it from private motor vehicles. But I feel space for cycling is particularly important in Inner London, because the walking environment, while problematic for many, is not currently excluding the majority of current users – as demonstrated by comparing the statistics on walking and cycling levels.
And here we see a paradox. We may indeed all be pedestrians (broadly defined), and walking is certainly a good thing for many reasons. But some pedestrian trips are ‘enforced choices’ in relation to cycling, in the sense that the cycling option is unavailable. Similarly, in rural areas, we see people purchasing a ‘forced car’ that they cannot really afford, because the bus services are so poor; or, in London, older people’s bus trips (again, a ‘good thing’ in sustainability terms) might be ‘enforced’ if they feel the Tube is inaccessible to them.
For someone like me, the fact that I end up walking some trips is not a big problem. I enjoy walking – and the ability to experience my local environment in a different way – and it’s variety for me. The big problem is for those people who are excluded from cycling altogether. Which includes a large number of people of my age and ability, of course, but in terms of proportions, it’s older people, disabled people, and children (and women) who are excluded.
Many older and disabled people would find cycling easier than walking, because it’s not weight-bearing – but under current conditions, they do not feel able to cycle, meaning they are then limited by their (lower) walking ability. And of course, for these people the walking environment is more problematic than it is for me. Their walking environment may well look like the cycling environment looks to someone like me; with no-go areas due to road danger, trips they would like to make on foot, but don’t. That’s bad enough, but for these people, not only is the walking environment very problematic, but the cycling environment is likely to appear completely impassable. In terms of active travel, one choice is a poor choice, and the other is a non-choice.
Neither is inevitable. It’s important to recognise that, given a different context, we could ‘all be cyclists’, just like we can ‘all be pedestrians’. There is nothing about walking that makes it inherently easier and more popular than cycling. I and my colleague Kat (on the Cycling Cultures project) have spoken to a number of people in Cambridge and in Hull (both having relatively high proportions of older people cycling) who found walking hard and cycling relatively easy. One man in Hull could not walk to his local post box, but could ride there on his electric bicycle. One woman in Cambridge could not walk to her local shop, but could ride there on her tricycle. Another Cambridge woman had been too ill to do even gentle weight bearing exercise like walking, but had been able to ride a bike. I’m pretty sure few of these people would have been ‘cyclists’ in London or indeed most other parts of the UK.
So this makes me worry about the assumption sometimes made that ‘we are all pedestrians’ but cyclists are doomed to remain a tiny minority. Last year, Living Streets CEO Tony Armstrong wrote in a letter to the Evening Standard (25th June 2013) that ‘For people who are older, have sight impairment or mobility issues, cycling is not an option and they are forced to use narrow, cluttered and often poorly maintained pavements. Investment in London’s public realm is welcome but a holistic approach is required taking into account the needs of all road users.’
I would argue that cycling is only ‘not an option’ for many of these people because of the poor quality of the cycling environment. Let’s take Jean, in her eighties, who uses a tricycle in Cambridge as a mobility aid, as an example:
‘[The] reason I bought a tricycle was because I had had my hips replaced […] I can walk a little bit but I walk with two sticks if there’s any distance to walk and I get tired very quickly.’
She feels that she has been excluded from shopping at her two local malls, however:
‘I am not allowed to cycle through there, in fact, nobody is allowed to cycle through there. Well, it’s understandable but I’m not even allowed to push my tricycle through there […] I can’t go there, because I can’t walk far enough.’
At one of the two malls, she would be allowed to use the Shopmobility service to borrow a mobility scooter or an electric or manual wheelchair (hence, defined as a ‘pedestrian’), but she’s not allowed to ride her tricycle (because then, she’s defined as a ‘cyclist’). It’s not immediately obvious to me why a disabled person’s mobility scooter would be ok, but not a disabled person’s tricycle: both are pretty similar sizes and speeds. This to me demonstrates the pervasive assumption – even in Cambridge, where the statistics show otherwise – that cycling is somehow naturally the preserve of the young, able-bodied and fit.
Similarly, I saw in Thetford town centre a pedestrianised area where cycles of all kinds are banned at all times of day, while mobility scooters are allowed and widely used.
We simply don’t recognise that many people who use mobility scooters, sticks, or wheelchairs to get about, could use a cycle of some kind to extend their mobility and improve their health. This from Neil, in his seventies, from Hull, who found it easier to use his electric bike to get places than to walk to the end of his road and get a bus:
‘What a blessing it is to have a cycle. Because you know for me to walk just to the end of the road along here to catch a bus, it is absolutely a struggle with a stick.’
Neil wouldn’t have been able to dismount and push from one end of Thetford to the other. Like many of the older people I saw shopping in Thetford, he’d perhaps have long since replaced cycling and walking trips with trips by mobility scooter, allowing him to travel through the pedestrianised zone but stopping him from getting healthy exercise in the process. Similarly, a wheelchair user I interviewed in Hull had given up using his handcycle on the street. Instead he now periodically drove to the park to ride it there for leisure, because he felt the roads had become too threatening. If he hadn’t had a car, he might well have given up the handcycle altogether. But if the roads were safer, he’d be able to choose whether to drive to the shops or cycle there.
Therefore, to see older and disabled people as only pedestrians is a big mistake. Yes, people need better walking environments; longer crossing times, cars and clutter off the pavement, lower speeds and fewer motor vehicles in residential streets. But those things won’t get them cycling, on their own. Older and disabled people are particularly put off by having to share roads with motor traffic: the greater the separation (however achieved), the more equal the conditions. In TfL’s Attitudes to Cycling 2012, 18% of adults said they cycled regularly or occasionally; among disabled people, it’s 6%, and among over-65s it’s 4%.
This is not a natural situation. Just as it’s not inevitable that 82% of adult Londoners never cycle, it not inevitable that 96% of Londoners over 65 never cycle. Many people like Jean across the UK could use a bike of some sort, for some of their journeys, if the cycling environment were friendlier. Providing Dutch-quality cycling infrastructure is in the interests of many who currently are seen only as pedestrians, because it will allow them to choose to cycle (or, indeed, to use mobility scooters on cycle tracks: the Dutch see mobility scooter users as ‘cyclists’, while we see them as ‘pedestrians’ and make them share space with often much slower-moving people on foot).
We shouldn’t compromise pedestrian comfort in order to provide this. At times, moving around by foot in The Netherlands, I have felt like a second class citizen. Staying in Enschede and walking to the University of Twente, I felt irritated by having to walk on the cycle track. It was much busier than in the Google picture, because I was travelling at peak times, so I was regularly having to jump out of the way of groups of students on bikes. Not great (although probably pretty ‘objectively’ safe, compared for example to walking in Westminster). I suppose in their defence, why on earth was I spending forty-five minutes walking several miles, when I could have ridden it in fifteen? I didn’t see any other people attempting the same route on foot. (And there was a pavement on the other side, albeit less convenient).
What’s there on that side of Hengelostraat is going to be safer than the UK equivalent on this kind of road, where the cycle track would be a pavement, and the cyclists made to use the road. But it’s not ideal, just like the UK situation isn’t. What is better here, with a university campus around the corner – and what The Netherlands would often provide here – is both a cycle track and a pavement. I’d like to see cycle advocates in Enschede asking for a pavement (they may be, I don’t know), to enable people to choose to walk without conflict with cycles. And I’d like to see walking advocates in the UK supporting the call for segregated cycle tracks on these kinds of roads, to ensure that everyone, particularly older and disabled people, has a choice to walk or cycle in subjective, and objective, safety. Let’s all call for the best for both worlds, so everyone can be a cyclist and a pedestrian.