When cycling becomes mainstream, everyone’s safer

November 17, 2017

Part Two of a Response to How Cycling Can Save the World by Peter Walker

The Cultural Trail, Indianapolis

Peter Walker advocates that cities develop facilities for “mass cycling, the sort where, say 20 percent or even 30 percent of all trips . . . are made by bike [which] only happens when cycling becomes mainstream” (xi-xii). He writes with specific places as examples, including London where he lives, works, and rides his bike.

Lower Thames Street in downtown London is an ancient thoroughfare which in the 1960s was widened and made into “the sort of double-lane urban freeway so popular in that era, when the dominance of the car appeared absolute and forever” (viii). After the rebuild, only the most daring bike riders dared use it. Even Walker who had been a bike messenger in earlier years and continued to be “a reasonably confident rider” avoided Lower Thames Road after the rebuild.

Then came the decision to build two Dutch-style “Cycle Superhighways,” one of them on Lower Thames Road. Many Londoners scoffed at the idea, but when these two routes were opened in May 2015, they were deluged with cyclists. Now on these separated lanes, Walker writes, “I regularly wait at traffic lights amid a massed pack of two dozen or more cyclists.” Most of them are ordinary people, “older, younger, slower” than “the speedy young men riding rapid bikes” who used to be the main group of cyclists on the streets.

Although I have never seen a bicycle superhighway, I have no reason to doubt that they work the way that Walker reports. I see a little evidence while looking down from my apartment window and watching people riding the Cultural Trail in downtown Indianapolis. Not a superhighway, it is more like a super-sidewalk running alongside ordinary city streets, yet ordinary people on all kinds of bicycles use it for all kinds of trips—commuting to the office, buying groceries, shopping along Mass Ave, easy-going recreational rides, some with small children on trikes and bikes with training wheels.

Walker has persuaded me that creating networks of good cycle ways like the one on Lower Thames Road (and those in other cities he describes) would bring large numbers of people out on their bikes. I would probably use them, too—when they go to the places I want to go. I fantasize on how much better downtown Indianapolis would be if the Mile Square, with its geometrical grid, diagonal streets, and rich array of business and eating opportunities, would be redesigned in favor of ordinary people walking, riding bikes, and taking the bus.

For cycling to go mainstream, however, major challenges have to be met.

Designing bicycle-friendly streets: Walker writes that the foundational ideal is sustainable safety, which is definitively discussed in a 388-page guidebook written by Dutch traffic engineers. It has five principles. (1) Roads come in three types, high volume through routes, local streets, and connector routes. (2) Street systems should be homogenous, with big differences in size and speed eliminated as much as possible.” (3) Roads should be designed “so that people instantly know what sort they’re traveling on.” (4) “People are fallible. . .and the road environment should be as forgiving as possible.” (5) People should be educated on “how to remain safe” (119).

Even in bike-friendly cities like Portland and Seattle, streets currently fall short of meeting these criteria.

Educating the public: Cyclists certainly need to be educated. One way is with bike safety classes in schools where children and young people learn good cycling skills and traffic-wise patterns. Similar training can be offered in programs (I think of one in Portland) that help low-income adults get bikes for transportation. And most adults would benefit from training in attitude adjustment and learning better skills for cycling.

Of course, drivers need serious re-education to help them overcome what seems to be an instinctive determination to bully their way wherever they drive: jack-rabbit starts and stops, lane crowding, sudden and reckless twists and turns, cell phone and coffee cup distractions, and the unwillingness to give pedestrians common courtesy and rights to cross streets, especially at crosswalks.

Revising public policy: All of this requires significant shifts in public policy: city government, law enforcement, taxing authorities, business organizations, retail merchants. It sounds impossible, but Walker gives examples from places all over the world where it is happening. So maybe it can happen right here—wherever that is—and Walker believes that we’ll all be the better for it.

And so do I.

Even so, we have to save room for the  “Velcro-clad street warriors” of whatever age, whom Walker dismisses disdainfully. More on that next time.

 

 

 


A new kind of city—for bicycle riders and everyone else

November 13, 2017

Peter Walker’s title, “How Cycling Can Save the World,” catches the eye but overstates his intention. A sentence in the introduction is better: “This book is ultimately about everyday riders, and the astonishing and varied ways in which they can transform the urban environment and way of living for the better.”

The cyclists whom Walker eulogizes are personified by a woman he saw cycling on a London street: “peddling an ancient folding machine at a sedate, regal cadence,” she was “probably in her sixties, wearing red trousers and bright blue visor to shield her eyes from the glare.”

Walker hopes that his book, which is filled with reports of research studies, will encourage an ever-increasing number of people to think of bikes as “nothing more than a convenient, quick, cheap way of getting about, with the unintended bonus being the fact that you can get some exercise in the process.” He imagines a time when 20 to 30% of daily trips will be on two wheels.

How can this save the world? Rather, how can this kind of cycling transform life in the cities of the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States? In four ways, Walker declares.

A healthier world: “Study after study has shown that people who cycle regularly are less prone to obesity, diabetes, strokes, heart disease, and various cancers. Cyclists don’t just get extra life years, they’re more likely to remain mobile and independent into old age” (9). Cycling (instead of driving) as one’s normal way of getting around works because it is “incidental exercise,” something built into the ordinary activities of daily life, rather than add-on actions, like going to the gym, that are shoehorned into a schedule that’s already too full.

A safer world: We have normalized “a complacent, entitled, careless, driving culture, where millions of people who would see themselves as moral, kind, and careful people nonetheless get into a motor vehicle and routinely, unthinkingly, put others’ lives in peril” (39). Walker argues that “creating streets that are more welcoming for cyclists has a wider safety dividend for other road users, particularly pedestrians” (54). Drivers slow down a little, pay more attention to their driving, and are likely to make fewer trips.

A more equal world: Walker argues that “cycling can make societies fairer. It comes down to the fact that the bike is arguably the most equal and democratic form of transport in existence, at least in an urban setting. It is nearly as cheap as walking, and in some ways is arguably more inclusive, not least because. . . a bike can greatly expand your physical and social boundaries” (61). Bicycling offers mobility to people who otherwise are “travel-deprived,” including children, older people, women, and people with disabilities. Cycling is a less expensive way of getting around.

A happier, more prosperous world: Not only does cycling instead of driving improve the environment, but it has economic advantages, too. Walker claims that building better bike infrastructure is being “billed as a new model for competitive cities—that they are these days judged less on busy roads than on people-friendly streets lined with pavement cafes. . . [T]his philosophy aims to bring about a happier, healthier, more human-scale city” (88–9).

Networks of protected bicycle lanes: What has to happen to bring about this dramatic increase in the number of ordinary people who use their bikes for ordinary trips? Walker’s answer is stated in the title of chapter 5, right in the middle of the book: “Build It, and They Will Come.” A hasty reading of the chapter suggests that the key to changing cities is “fully segregated cycleways,” in which cyclists and motorists are completely separated. One example is a new network of these roadways in Seville, Spain, that was completed in 2006. Within a couple of years, the number of trips starting by bicycle increased from 0.5 percent to 6 percent.

Later in the chapter, Walker makes it clear that building protected cycle ways is only part of the strategy for change. “And for all the occasional opaque discussions about curb heights, lane barriers, and traffic light phases, this is about something more fundamental. Bike infrastructure is, at its heart, about a changed vision for the place occupied by human beings in the modern urban world” (112).

In forthcoming blogs, I plan to  continue my discussion of Walker’s book. Coming next: Walker’s recommendations for how to transform cities like Indianapolis where I live. In the third blog of the series I intend to speak on behalf of cyclists (like me) whom Walker disparages—the “Lycra-clad warriors” ready to hold our own in streams of traffic on city streets.

[How Cycling Can Save the World, by Peter Walker (New York: TarcherPerigee, 2017)]