Why put cycling last?

I was prompted to write this post by Mark Treasure’s recent piece about the West End Project. Why, asked Mark, do cycle campaigners sometimes seem to put other demands on urban space first, ahead of advocating for cycling? Why are we happy to accept that cycle infrastructure is not possible because of other – often also worthy – demands, whether bus provision, wider pavements, public space, trees, heritage and so on? (Of course, often behind a ‘good’ need lurks an unquestioned assumption that we provide for private car use …)

Over the past six months, the LCC Policy Forum has been working on a position paper on buses and bikes. Following final amendments agreed at last week’s meeting, I’ll soon be uploading and sharing our paper, and putting in a related motion to LCC’s 2014 AGM. Getting the paper together has been challenging for us at times, even though much of it re-states existing policy, albeit specifically in relation to buses. But talking ‘bikes and buses’ often seems hard. Like walking, bus use is something cycle advocates are generally keen on. But what happens when conflicts arise? What should advocates ask for? What kinds of compromises are acceptable? And how do we expect planners to deal with competing priorities?

These questions are often controversial. For example, in Camden’s West End Project, substantial improvements are being made for bus travel alongside some ambitious public realm changes. Limited improvements for cycling are likely mainly to benefit existing cyclists. Like others, I hesitated to criticise the project because I didn’t want to sound like I was shouting for cyclists at the expense of bus users. This even though pretty much all the scheme’s cycling critics (including me) have suggested ideas that would also improve the area for walking and bus travel (and some suggestions are better for pedestrians than Camden’s scheme, in my view).

Rather than discuss policy specifics here, I wanted to write a personal reflection about two reasons why even cycle campaigners sometimes seem to put cycling last. One’s a good reason, and one’s a bad reason. I think that the good reason requires more scrutiny, because things are often more complicated than they first appear. The bad reason – well, we’re all going to have to keep struggling with it.

The good reason – not disadvantaging other sustainable modes

Many of us are proud to live in a public transport oriented city. When I moved to London I didn’t cycle. I never considered getting a car, though. This wasn’t really for environmental or social reasons. Living for three years on a relatively low income, without allocated parking, a car seemed like a hassle and an unnecessary cost. And a combination of buses, trains, Tubes and walking could generally get me where I wanted to go day or night.

While I’ve been living here, the city has seen modal shift away from the car, primarily towards buses, but also towards other public transport modes, walking and cycling. The growth in bus trips has been instructive and cycling can perhaps learn from it. A mode associated in much of this country with poverty and lack of choice, in long-term decline in many places (not all – Oxford and Nottingham have also had successes) has been effectively rescued in the capital to become a mode for most people. The importance of this is immediately obvious to me when I visit family in the North-West. On most bus routes there (with a few specific exceptions) I’m pretty much the only passenger paying full fare and in my demographic. It’s very different to trains or indeed to buses in London.

Political leadership and decisive action, especially the reallocation of scarce road space and time, have made buses a mode of choice for many Londoners. And when you have a service used by the majority, that service has a much stronger foundation – it’s always easier to cut or marginalise residual or minority services, facilities or modes.

Thanks partly to space reallocation, partly to our high public transport use, Londoners also walk quite a lot. The current mode split of London residents looks pretty good from a climate change point of view, primarily because we don’t drive much.

Against this picture – and ongoing struggles over road space – advocates worry about taking trips or resources from other sustainable modes. Sometimes I get the impression that the only good cycle trips are those that directly replace car trips. This is mirrored by a reluctance by planners to think about trips being transferred from bus to bike. Yet in London, I suspect that many trips currently made by bus would more ‘naturally’ be cycled, given time trade-offs and other benefits, if conditions were good enough to enable mass cycling. This could then free up capacity elsewhere in the system, for trips that cannot so easily be cycled.

As with many transport issues, a more holistic approach helps. In Seville, the major investment in cycling was associated with a measurable mode shift, both towards cycling and towards public transport. When you look at where bike trips immediately came from though, two-thirds came from buses or walking, only a quarter from the car. But because other people shifted from car use to buses, overall the figures show gains for both cycling and bus travel, and a decline in car trips. Viewed narrowly, the shifts in Seville might have looked like the bike was taking custom from the bus; but this would be to miss cycling’s place in a broader societal shift towards sustainable modes.

In a multi-modal city like London, mass cycling will not just be a replacement, it’ll be an additional choice. So if some of our (hoped-for) new riders start riding by shifting trips from walking to cycling, for example, that gives them an expanded menu of mobility options. They won’t have stopped walking, but their choices will now include cycling: so maybe, assuming they keep cycling, they’ll decide against getting a car (or second car) further down the line, with knock-on implications for travelling.

If we just look at individual trip substitution, ignoring longer-term decisions and household scheduling, we can miss these broader links between lifestyles, people, and modes. Similarly with children cycling to school. We might decide not to bother about it on the grounds that many children walk or use the bus, but actually, if kids are unable to cycle to school, this affects their parents’ options, with knock-on effects again (more on this below).

Remembering how multi-modal people are also suggests we should not think narrowly about, for example, delays to bus services (which don’t always materialise, precisely because the system often doesn’t quite behave like the models). Removing buses from Hackney’s Narroway didn’t cause bus chaos; delays in one direction were balanced by shorter journeys in the other direction, and bus passengers are of course also pedestrians who benefit from more pleasant shopping environments, less road danger and pollution.

Other interventions may not be zero-sum either. Providing segregated tracks on bus routes may benefit bus passengers and cyclists alike. As people pointed out at last week’s LCC Policy Forum meeting, buses and bikes slow each other down at high volumes, so separation may benefit both (as well as creating the conditions for mass cycling). Rather than taking space, it can mean a more efficient use of space for both modes. An area where more research is needed, but where we don’t need to wait till it’s done to start making changes.

Finally, I’d say we need to make more use of level of service indicators for all modes. Footway width in itself, for example, doesn’t tell you much. You also need to look at indicators like Pedestrian Comfort Levels, which give you an idea of how adequate the pavement is compared to the number of pedestrians. Of course, suppressed demand needs to be considered, but we need to think about what levels of service we are aiming at in different contexts, to be able to more explicitly consider the impacts of different alternatives. We might find conflicts are less of a problem than we initially think.

The bad reason – the legacy of ‘providing for cyclists’

At the start of this piece I mentioned ‘advocating for cycling’. I deliberately didn’t say ‘advocating for cyclists’. Instead, I’d say that the tradition of speaking for cyclists is part of our problem here. In a sense, our perceived selfishness (we feel embarrassed arguing for ourselves, as such a small and unrepresentative minority) flips over into a self-denying ordinance.

The problem is, it’s still really hard to imagine inclusive cycling, in a way that would be second nature if we lived in a high-cycling context. And that shapes and limits our activism. Despite the ‘good example’ of buses (and indeed walking – the reallocation of space to pedestrians having gone alongside bus priority measures in the early 2000s), even those of us dedicated enough to campaign for cycling still at heart doubt that cycling, like buses or walking, could become a mode pretty much for everyone in our city.

I know I sometimes do, when I’m feeling pessimistic. And I’ve heard advocates, engineers and policy-makers query whether we should even aim for children to be able to cycle in London, particularly more central areas. One person recently tweeted to the effect that children have so many other options for getting around London that it doesn’t matter if they can cycle or not. Imagine if we questioned whether children should be able to use other sustainable modes. Imagine if we said, well, we don’t expect children to walk in Central London, sorry, we have other priorities, more important walking journeys to facilitate. Or perhaps, we don’t expect children to use scarce bus space, adults’ journeys come first.

I would argue that getting children cycling is good in itself; moreover, child-friendly infrastructure should mean universal design that works well for everyone. But thinking about connectedness, if we care about adults cycling, we have to care about children cycling. Otherwise, we are limiting cycling for adults to those journeys they make without children. And this has equalities implications. Given unequal childcare responsibilities, we are then restricting women more than men. Single parents, overwhelmingly women, are disproportionately affected. Need to drop your children off at the workplace nursery, or at a school on your way to work? Sorry, the infrastructure wasn’t built for you to do that, we’ve been planning for our ideal commuter, and he doesn’t have any childcare or shopping responsibilities (or any other messy non-work life which spills over into his work trips).

Thinking longer-term, building for adults-only trips risks losing people from our cycling cohort, if they have kids. Will they come back? Who knows. (Again, more research would be interesting here). But it’s not as if London has so many cyclists we can afford to lose many of them for a while, and hope they come back, once they’ve sorted out travel alternatives for their children.

We do need to know more about how best to build child-friendly infrastructure. Are armadillos good enough? Planters? Lanes on the inside of car parking? I’m doing some work on this to try and quantify child-friendliness of different infrastructure options (from the point of view of parents, who ultimately make the decision). Still we know enough to be going on with. We can be reasonably confident that most parents are unlikely to want their children sharing space with a hundred buses an hour, and that lanes or tracks 1.5m wide don’t allow for safe and comfortable overtaking of children (or indeed of slower adults), let alone overtaking sociable riders.

The LCC buses and bikes policy paper has taken a while to say something not perhaps very controversial: that because people prefer to cycle away from motor vehicles (particularly currently under-represented groups), sharing with buses is generally not going to be the way to facilitate mass cycling, although it may be ok at slow speeds and low volumes. The concerns are not ‘just’ around subjective safety and comfort. Although buses kill a lot fewer cyclists than do HGVs in London, the serious injury toll is pretty similar. That’s a lot of people with potentially life-changing injuries, even at cycling’s currently low modal share. If we’re planning for mass cycling, it can’t be based on expecting people of all ages and abilities to share with large numbers of motor vehicles, even if these are buses rather than HGVs or cars.

What we do with that is however up to us. We can accept – although I hope we won’t – that it’s too difficult to make the change, and instead try to tweak things for existing cyclists. And as one of those existing cyclists, I would certainly rather share with buses only than with all motor traffic, if that’s the choice. But we won’t get to mass cycling this way – and I doubt we’ll even get to 5% with business as usual (bus lanes, advisory lanes, ASLs etc.)

Or we can ask planners to be more explicit about where and when they will prioritise buses, deliveries, cars, cycling, walking and so on. The Roads Task Force attempted to start such a prioritisation process, and while I have misgivings about some of that work I think the basic idea is sound. I don’t expect cycling to be prioritised everywhere, but I do expect a usable network where cycling will be made safe and inviting for everyone, and for trade-offs and their costs to be acknowledged and made more explicit.

We have a long way to go. But some of the barriers are rooted in what we are able to imagine in a far from ideal present. If we really believe that cycling will, soon, be for everyone, and keep our eyes fixed on both the numbers and the diversity of people we’re planning for, I think some of the obstacles to prioritising cycling might recede.

Cycling is for everyone, not just for cyclists!

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3 Responses to Why put cycling last?

  1. Rachel, I go about this in a completely different way.

    The reason (some) cyclists don’t want to stand up for cycling is because they don’t want to question what motorists get up to. Or the amount of money going to motorist (or for that matter public transport) external costs. Once you call for some sort of parity, then you can easily demand certain things: support for secure and convenient residential cycle parking, subsidy for cheap/accessible bikes, accessories etc. on the basis that money should be spent on cycling. Also the right kind of law enforcement and sentencing.

    It is simply a question of talking about equality – but not in the way that you are, which is more roundabout.

  2. I’ve long suspected that it’s easier to make the shift from bus to bike than from car to bike. Bus (and other public transport) already involves some of the ‘sacrifices’ that drivers perceive cycling to require: limits on what can be carried; no air-conditioned comfort; the journey probably already involves some exposure to the weather through a walk at each end. Cycling already has some clear benefits for bus users, in that it’s cheap and usually has better journey time reliability.
    Leeds regularly sees changes to road and street layouts to maintain or increase private vehicle capacity, and city centre parking is cheap; the result is that driving is fast, cheap and convenient. Regardless of local and regional policy statements promoting sustainable modes, the result of authorities’ actions is encouragement of driving. It’s difficult to see where more utility cycling is going to come from, even if good infrastructure is provided, unless some politically unacceptable decisions are taken to demote the car from its position of supremacy.
    I agree on the issue of campaigning for ‘cyclists’. One of the key elected decision makers has been openly concerned that the effect of providing for cycling would be more ‘cyclists’ – assertive, maybe even aggressive, male, lycra clad racers harming the social atmosphere of the streets. He couldn’t see the connection between policies that make the streets hostile for cycling, and the cycling ‘community’ that results from that approach.
    I have a huge problem with the number of super-wide ASLs across junctions with 2, 3 or more lanes in each direction. With the standard driver behaviour at traffic lights (don’t even think about putting the handbrake on, you need to be foot-to-the-floor within half a second of red+amber) I genuinely don’t want to be in front of those vehicles, regardless of how much more visible I am. And I recently gave some frank feedback on a draft policy that dualled roads in the city should be laid out with a wider nearside lane so that cyclists can be passed more easily.
    Some of the people designing this provision are cyclists, but as far as I know none of them have wives or children that cycle in the city (yes, they are all men). One of my aims as a female cycle campaigner is to plant myself in their imagination: on my city bike, in my normal clothes, at my fairly relaxed pace. Next time they’re considering whether the scheme is OK for ‘cyclists’ maybe they’ll picture me and think twice.

  3. Nicholas Sanderson says:

    Rachel, an interesting post. I look forward to seeing the paper you’ve worked on regarding buses with LCC. We know from a lot of TfL’s own data that mode shift to cycling will come from the bus, and also that a lot of the ‘hold ups’ on quality infra will come from fears of bus ‘impact’ – however narrowly defined.

    Elizabeth Shove’s writing on practice really helped me word things regarding catering for ‘cyclsits’ (a stigmatised minority) dilemma. Infrastructure should ultimately cater for a practice rather than segment of the population. Dave Horton’s work in Understand W&C highlighted just that problem. In this country that vehicular hangover still lingers, at least in the language (of ‘older’ advocates) if not intent.

    With the Roads Task Force, I feel a particular problem is the timing. All this vision infra needs to be on the ground before election, while TfL/boroughs have yet to set out their long-term RTF based street-type strategies. Next Mayoral Elections will be fun ; )

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