Getting Britain on its bike – can Copenhagen show us the way?

Last month I visited Copenhagen, in my capacity as member of the International Scientific Advisory Board of the Danish research project, Bike-ability. Whilst there, as well as talking to lots of people about cycling, I got to ride around the city. Ezra Goldman, who’s involved in the project’s research, asked me to blog on my experiences of and thoughts about cycling in Copenhagen.

Richard Lewis, a principal town and transport planner at the London Borough of Newham, crafted a wonderfully thoughtful response to my blogpost. As part of that post, Richard probed me on whether or not I saw Britain as best following Copenhagen’s example, when it comes to building a cycling culture. Here follows my (perhaps less thoughtful and less crafted, but I hope equally concerned and committed) response. It’s posted here, rather than as a comment, at Ezra’s suggestion, and in the hope that it continues debates as to how – across the globe – we best boost cycling.

Hi Richard
First off, thanks very much for such a thoughtful response to my observations of Copenhagen, and for so considered a set of questions. I ap0logise that it’s taken me so long to respond; in an ideal world, I would have done so immediately!
I will try to respond directly to your three specific questions.
1) Do I like Copenhagen’s cycling infrastructure?
Not really, no. But whether or not I like it seems slightly irrelevant. My main consideration is whether or not it transforms – or has the potential to transform – the city. And here my response is ambivalent. Currently I do not think Copenhagen’s cycling infrastructure is transformatory, and before talking to a range of experienced and knowledgeable people in Copenhagen I doubted the potential for the city’s approach to cycling infrastructure progressively to de-centre and displace the car. But now I am less sure of myself – precisely, I have more optimism that Copenhagen’s approach (the provision of segregated space for cycling, which means people are effectively pedalling down narrow urban corridors – in relative ‘safety’ but also in relative ‘confinement’) contains both the ambition and the capacity to move beyond the model of the corridor, and incrementally to re-colonise ever more urban space for people, and thus de-privatise it from the grip of parked and moving cars.
2) Would, in the UK context, dedicated cycling infrastructure increase cycling?
Yes, I think so. For the last year my colleagues and I have been doing extensive and intensive ethnographic fieldwork in four English cities, and we have talked to many, many people who say (and I believe them!) they would like to cycle, but who are too afraid to cycle under currently dominant cycling conditions. The provision of dedicated, segregated cycling infrastructure is an obvious mechanism for helping such people to cycle. But I would emphasise, it is only one such obvious mechanism. Such provision should be just one of the tools in our kit for getting Britain on its bike. Here I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that such provision makes most sense along wider, key arterial routes, and should comprise part of a cycling network which embraces the existing – but hugely civilised (through for example slower speed limits and changing cultural sensibilities and legal responsibilities across different mobility users) – road network.
3) Because of the precarious state of cycling, is dedicated infrastructure the only realistic way of triggering a step-change in cycling in the UK?
My response to this question depends on my capacity to imagine a set of British politicians prepared to bite the bullet, and instigate – and then survive – a broader and sweeping portfolio of progressive changes to Britain’s transport environment. Because if UK government is capable of civilising the car, then no, we do not need a comprehensive dedicated cycling infrastructure (there will always be a case for some, selective, such infrastructure) – Copenhagen has such infrastructure because it was not prepared so to civilise the car, although clearly it has managed to ameliorate some of the car’s worst effects.
However, adopting a (slightly!) more pragmatic perspective, then yes, I think the installation of very high quality segregated cycling infrastructure along key arterial routes within and between British cities, alongside a range of other measures, is perhaps the way most effectively and quickly to reach a tipping point for cycling, which can trigger its elevation to a qualitatively different level (in terms of both practice – say, 20% of all urban journeys across the UK by 2025 – and perception – so that cycling becomes a perfectly acceptable and unremarkable thing for anyone at all to do); i.e. the ‘normalisation’ of cycling. This range of other measures would include the implementation of slower speeds (30 km/hr) across the rest of the road network, and would be aligned with other changes; infrastructural (such as modal filters, as you suggest), legal (such as stricter liability rules), and cultural (such as the adoption of cycling amongst high-profile charismatic individuals, and the consignment – and commensurate stigmatisation – of ‘cyclist-baiting’ to the most reactionary fringes of the gutter press).
In general, I seem increasingly to be moving towards what I’d call a ‘messy vision’ for cycling in the UK. By this I mean that getting Britain moving by bike will require many different interventions, which produce multiple (and potentially unpredictable) synergies, which together ‘spin’ us into a qualitatively new transport culture. Relatedly, I seem also increasingly to be adopting a position marked less by fixed adherence to some model over another (which when it comes to debating ‘the proper place of cycling’ (on or off road; integration or segregation) in the UK might be seen as a hindrance to debate about progressive cycling futures), and more by recognition that a heterogeneous rather than homogeneous ‘cycling system’ might be the inevitable and best outcome of our current and future efforts. But going back to the thrust of your questions, I think increased provision of specific and segregated cycling infrastructure might be key to getting the velorution rolling. The current and massive problem with otherwise wonderful initiatives such as Bikeability (a UK cycle training scheme, not to be confused with the Danish research project of the same name!) is that, given the existing cycling environment, we’re destined to lose the vast majority of those we train. However well we train them, only the hardy minority will stay on their bikes for long. We have strategically to crack, and then mine, the current dominance of car-based urban automobility, and the establishment of cycling corridors – a la Copenhagen and (in a fashion) London – on key, highly visible arterial routes seems one way of doing so.
Finally, I want to alert you to an upcoming event which is designed to explore precisely these kinds of question. ‘Building Cycling Culture/s’ is taking place at The Phoenix Digital Arts Centre in Leicester on Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th June 2011. I’m co-organising it with Rachel Aldred, who leads the ‘Cycling Cultures’ research project at the University of East London, Andy Salkeld of Leicester City Council, and John Coster of ‘Citizens’ Eye’. We’ll be announcing further details soon, but suffice to say that our vision is both to recognise and celebrate the myriad ways in which many people are currently working for cycling, and also to explore and debate what now needs to be done to produce in the UK a broad and inclusive cycling culture.
They’re some thoughts pretty much off the top of my head – but I hope they clarify my views (though as I hope I’ve suggested, my views are always under construction and so in formation ….), and that we have more debate over these and similar matters into the future. All the very best, Dave

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5 responses to “Getting Britain on its bike – can Copenhagen show us the way?

  1. Pingback: Building a British cycling culture – can Copenhagen show the way? « thinking about cycling

  2. If we want cycling to become much more popular and there are many reasons for wanting this, then emulating tried and tested strategies is a good way of achieving success. If the Dutch, Danes and the car-crazy Germans can do it, why can’t we?

    One thing’s certain, if the situation cyclists find themselves in the UK continues, the parlous state of cycling is likely to continue indefinitely. We need to do a lot to encourage those who want to cycle, but are afraid; those who would if it was more convenient & etc. Only then will we encourage people out of their cars and onto bikes.

    While we’re at it, we need to ‘level the playing field’ regarding causing death or serious injury with a motor vehicle. It cannot be maintained that one can kill or maim and get away with impunity by saying, ‘sorry but I didn’t see them’. That’s rather like saying ‘I didn’t know my gun was loaded’. It isn’t acceptable in a ‘civilised’ country, why should it be acceptable here? Taking a life or maiming someone shouldn’t be an easy ride and it needs to be treated with the utmost seriousness. Drivers who kill or maim should face prison, a heavy fine and must never drive again, essentially they need to be treated like anyone else who has Killed or mangled somebody, but didn’t use a car. Because driving facilitated the death, a life ban is essential.

  3. David Hembrow who lives in the Netherlands thinks that Copenhagen’s efforts fall rather short of the Netherlands. There’s a new post by David about Assen. As I understand it, while Copenhagen may ‘show us the way’, we shouldn’t stop there. It’s perfectly clear that this is a continuous process. As problems arise, they need to be dealt with appropriately. No perfect solutions exist, as long as there are powered motor vehicles and they can come into conflict with cyclists, there will be problems.

    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2011/01/policy-and-progress-in-assen.html

    Inappropriate ‘solutions’ that will never work
    In the UK, the solution to motor-vehicles killing and maiming cyclists is to blame the cyclists.
    Cyclists who are victims of vehicular impact are blamed for not wearing safety equipment that is neither mandatory nor effective at deflecting motor-vehicles.

    Whereas the obvious solution is to prevent motor-vehicles crashing into and driving over cyclists and segregation has to be the most effective method of achieving this aim in many cases.

  4. Are we finally starting to see a coalescing of informed opinion around this view? I hope so. Our conclusions concur 100%. See our Beauty and the Bike conclusions, also the subsequent approach of Darlington Cycling Campaign in its dealings with local infrastructure proposals. Surely time to bin the CTC and DfT’s hierarchy of provision, which so damages local transport plans.

  5. That’s very informational post…

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