Paying a price for a mass cycling culture

June 13, 2011 at 21:00 | Posted in bicycles | 2 Comments
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There is a great article here from by Dave Horton, a sociologist (and committed cyclist) who has been studying the barriers to cycling adoption in the UK.

One of the most interesting points in it for me was that Horton used to be a staunch believer that cyclists should be on the roads, but he changed that view whilst undertaking the research, although he acknowledges that this means giving up some of the things he enjoys about riding a bicycle:

‘We need to move cycling out from its still marginal status as an urban mode of mobility. We need to make cycling ‘normal’, or ‘mainstream’, or ‘irresistible’.

In order to to this we need to build a cycling system to replace the car system which is today dominant. Those of us who currently love cycling must recognise that cycling will change as a result. It’s therefore probably unrealistic to expect us all to embrace the necessary changes enthusiastically.

For example, I love having those high quality cycle routes which currently exist (and we have some good ones in and around my hometown of Lancaster) more-or-less to myself, and I love, too, mixing it with fast-moving motorised traffic when that’s the best means of getting where I want to go. But under a culture of mass cycling, in which almost everyone will feel able to get where they want or need to go by bike, I’ll probably lose both of these experiences’

I think this points to some of the problems with much (although not all) of the bicycle advocacy in Australia. The primary goal of many advocates is to get more people cycling like they do it, rather than recognising that there are actually very few people like them (me!), and that creating a mass cycling culture requires cycling to change.

Some time ago I remember reading a blog by an English guy who had moved to Holland; I think he may have been a bicycle messenger. He found Holland a frustrating place to cycle; too many bikes travelling too slowly on busy cycleways.

When I ride the Radish to work, loaded up with stuff, I love Clover’s cycleways. They are perfect for that slightly ponderous ride, usually with me dressed in jeans. But when I ride the fixie, I often eschew the cycleways, taking a longer way around Hickson Road in order to enjoy getting the legs flying, keeping up with the traffic and working up a sweat.

I guess it’s an interesting question. How would you feel if you had to ride predominantly on cycle-specific infrastructure and were held up by lots of slow cyclists? Is that a price you would be prepared to pay to get 25% of people onto bikes?




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  1. Your point is a bit strange. Why do you think that cycle specific infrastructure would result in your being “held up” any more than car specific infrastructure does now ? Properly built cycling infrastructure would not do any such thing, because encouraging cycling requires that it becomes a convenient as well as safe means of transport.

    Here in the Netherlands, where cycle specific infrastructure is the real thing and not a mere pastiche of what it ought to be, urban cyclists stop less often than drivers because they take the most direct routes and stop at fewer traffic lights. On inter-urban journeys there are long distance paths for commuters which result in extremely quick travel times.

    My own commute, a 60 km round trip, happens at a considerably higher average speed here in the Netherlands on cycle paths than I ever managed in the UK on roads.

    On average, across the entire country and for all cyclists, cycling is quicker than driving for journeys up to 2.5 km. However, as that stat includes children, pensioners and the disabled, all of whom make a considerable portion of their journeys by bike in the Netherlands, bikes are actually quicker over a much longer distance for most riders.

    In Groningen, the average speed of cars is 9.6 km/h while the average speed for cyclists is 14.2 km/h. If you want to get somewhere quickly, you cycle as this allows you to make direct journeys and avoid reasons to stop.

    • Thanks for the comment, David, and you make some interesting points.

      So let me try to clarify what I was getting at.

      I have no doubt that if there were high-quality bicycle infrastructure in Sydney, my ride to work would take less time than it does now, for all the reasons you outline.

      However, my point was that my peak speed would probably be lower. Such infrastructure would allow me to cruise to work very efficiently, but would give me less opportunity to experience the endorphins that come from blasting along, keeping up with 40kph traffic on a busy street (and then, yes, waiting for ages at the traffic lights).

      I actually enjoy that experience of riding in the traffic, when I am in the mood for it. The manic stop-start sprinting between the lights, the satisfaction of overtaking slower moving cars using only legpower, and of keeping up with faster moving traffic. It’s fun, in a kind of masochistic way.

      However, I am confident that very few people would feel the same way. Indeed, I’m sure most people reading the above would consider me a weirdo with a death wish.

      However, people like me are not uncommon in cycling advocacy circles in Australia. And perhaps one of the reasons that they can be ambivalent towards good quality separated infrastructure is because it might actually take away some of the things they enjoy about riding today, notwithstanding the fact that it is the only thing that will get non-cyclists onto bikes.

      In a way, I’ve been on the same journey as the author of the above article, which is perhaps why it resonates so much with me. I’ve come to realise that building infrastructure that suits me (a lycra-clad, clip-in shoes-wearing, fixie-riding, helmetless scofflaw who likes blasting up ridiculous hills as fast as possible) is hardly going to appeal to many people.

      So to answer my own question, yes, I would be prepared to give it up, in order to live in a city with safer streets, a more social atmosphere, less pollution and a human dimension that puts people on the streets, rather than cars, and allows people to get about efficiently by bike without working up a sweat.

      I cross posted the above post here, and you might find it interesting to read the various responses of Sydney cyclists:

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