To make our cities safer and more attractive to cyclists, we need some bold politics. The roads need to be made hostile to cars, and as you can imagine, that doesn’t go over with drivers, even though having more cyclists improves the city for everyone, including car users.
Taking London’s new Quietways scheme as an example, London's Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan explained to a London cycling conference last week how weak local politicians make infrastructure improvements for pedestrians and cyclists almost impossible. "I think the Quietways program is a failure at the moment," he said at the Hackney Cycling Conference. "There’s going to be a couple of good ones, but not many more."
The Quietways scheme is meant to offer cyclists quieter routes. Bike lanes on busy roads are still pretty terrifying, as trucks and cars hurtle by, kept apart from cyclists by little more than a painted line. Not everybody has the constitution for this, which keeps many people from switching to a bike as their main form of transport. The Quietways offer routes on friendlier bike lanes, and should—if implemented as originally planned—make life harder for drivers, forcing them to prefer main roads instead.
For example, one big problem in London is "rat runs," or small, often residential roads which cars use as a shortcut between two main roads. This makes it impossible for cyclists to avoid the main routes by taking a side road. One of the requirements for London’s Quietways is closing of these rat runs to traffic, usually by installing barriers impassable by cars but permeable by bikes and pedestrians. But local councils, thanks to complaints from drivers, have cancelled these modifications.
In Hackney, East London, a proposal to calm another road has been cancelled. "Rather than closing 13 junctions along the route to motor vehicles (but allowing bikes to pass)," says the Guardian’s Peter Walker, "the council opted to just make the Quietway route narrower, which will reduce the average 4,000 vehicle a day traffic on the road by just 10%." And of course the remaining cars will now be forced closer to the bike lanes, making everything worse than it was before.
This neatly highlights the problems that cycling faces in our cities. We need strong government to stand up to car users and to automobile interest groups, or any infrastructure changes are abandoned, or neutered, at the first sign of a complaint. Contrast the failing Quietways with London’s successful Cycling Superhighways, which cut uninterrupted bike routes through the capital. The Superhighways are overseen by Transport for London, whereas the Quietways are administered by weak local councils.
"It is discouraging how little progress there has been on Quietways," said Gilligan. "We’ve got five segregated Superhighways in place now, on extremely difficult roads, busy roads, with massive traffic, massive political sensitivity, and we did that. We haven’t got a single Quietway route open, not one."
The irony is that only around one third of Hackney households own a car, and yet they are keeping control of the streets. And this is not just a problem for London. It’s a model for the rest of the world. Reducing cars isn’t just about making life nicer for cyclists. It’s about reducing pollution in our cities. "I think the struggle for clean air in London is as important as the struggle for clean water in the 19th century and that struggle cannot be won without a significant increase in cycling," said Gilligan.
In order to get significantly more people cycling, then, we have to make cities bad for driving. "If bikes are to share the road space with cars, then the cars must be going at no more than 20 mph," writes Walker. "This can be hard. It’s also—and this is the really tricky bit—about making it more difficult to drive."
Roads must be designed for cyclists and pedestrians first, but they must also be conceived to make things worse for cars— something which sounds like a dream job for a bike-loving city planner. "The Dutch are very good at such schemes," says Walker. "In many places a trip which might take five minutes on a bike could take three times as long in a car. And so people tend to not use cars unless it’s necessary."
The Netherlands is so far ahead when it comes to cycling infrastructure and policy that it seems unfair to use it as an example. But while today its cities happily make life hard for drivers, almost as the default, they still had to start somewhere. Our cities need some tough love from our elected officials, and until they get them, the shrinking minority of car owners, and car lobby groups, will continue to control the streets the rest of us live in.
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