Let’s stop just treating (one of) the symptoms.

In a recent discussion about the appalling designs for Salford’s part of Greater Manchester’s Cycling City Ambition Grant project, Velocity 2025, I was prompted to think again about the lack of holistic thinking that seems to exist among many well-meaning people who are designing and implementing, or even campaigning for, better cycle provision. I am sure the people responsible for the Salford designs mean well, but they just don’t seem to understand what is needed, or even what the real objective needs to be. This reminded me again that much of what we are doing is just treating the symptoms of a metaphorical societal illness.

Every cycle scheme I can think of (in the UK) seems to be trying to address the question: “how can we safely accommodate cycling into our road infrastructure?”. Even when people look to successful cycling nations such as Denmark and The Netherlands, they tend to focus on the fact that there are cycle paths, or on particular junction designs, or often on some big, impressive new bridge. I believe this kind of thinking really is missing the point and, though I know I’m certainly not the first person to realize or mention this, it needs to be said again and again. I would even go as far as to say that the fact that the campaigning groups in this area think of, and present themselves as “cycle campaigns” is a problem in itself.

It seems to me that people are really trying to answer the wrong question most of the time. The following questions are the ones that tend to get asked, with the more enlightened ones at the bottom:

1. “How can we accommodate bicycles safely on this road/across this junction?”
2. “How can we accommodate bicycles safely along this route?”
3. “How can we accommodate bicycles safely across the town/city?”
4. “How can we make the town/city’s roads attractive & comfortable for cycling?”

The last one of these is very far from the thinking that seems to underlie most schemes that I have seen. Even the third one is rarely thought about in practice (in UK schemes), and even those people who are purported to be addressing the second one often seem to think of it as just a series of instances of the first. The first three tend to result in thinking that boils down to “how can we … without compromising motor traffic flows or capacity?”, and even the fourth is probably interpreted that way, if it’s considered at all.

The trouble is, all of these questions are focussing on the wrong thing. They are trying to address just one of the symptoms of a serious illness that afflicts pretty well all of our towns and cities. The symptom is that cycling is unpleasant and therefore effectively discouraged, but the cause of the illness is an extremely unhealthy and excessive reliance on motor vehicles for inappropriate uses. Now don’t misunderstand; I am a driver myself and there are many situations when I feel it is appropriate to use a motor vehicle. The problem is not in the use of motor vehicles but in the excessive and inappropriate use of them. I went into town yesterday to do some errands; a journey of about 5 miles round trip, which I did on my bicycle (despite the hostile road environment). Most people I know would automatically jump in the car – often as the sole occupant – to do this, and that really isn’t appropriate.

There are many other symptoms caused by this same illness, and in each case, the response is to treat the symptom.

  • Poor air quality is known to be a cause of respiratory problems, and is believed to be a significant factor in increased incidences of asthma in children, possibly even before they are born. The response to this is to give our children inhalers containing drugs to treat the symptom.
  • Congestion on the roads causes delays for those instances when motor vehicles really are needed, with estimates of the cost as high as £4.3 billion per annum in the UK. The response to this is to treat the symptom by building more roads, an approach that has been likened to loosening your belt as a cure for obesity.
  • Lack of physical exercise is resulting in a range of health problems for increasing numbers of people,  including obesity, which has been identified as a significant problem for the UK in a recent report. The response to this symptom seems to be repeated calls by Government and other organizations to do something about this symptom, but no attempt to address the underlying causes.
  • Long delays and an unpleasant environment for people walking, as they have to ask permission and wait every time they need to cross a road, or even wait for a gap in traffic before putting their lives into the hands of motorists as they dash across the road. The response to this problem seems to be to add more delays by introducing multi-stage crossings. (As an aside, why does a crossing that has been green for motorists for ages not instantly change to amber when a pedestrian presses the button, rather than delaying for no purpose?)

Other symptoms include urban sprawl, disconnected communities, noise pollution, road deaths and injuries – the list goes on.

I had an experience last year in the Bolton Cycle Forum that really brought home to me the way that different people live within world views that are totally alien to one another. We were discussing plans for a one-way street that is adjacent to the new railway interchange that is being built. I made the suggestion that the Council should remove one of the two traffic lanes and use it to create a two-way cycle lane, which could be used by people of all ages – the proverbial 8 to 80. The response from some people there was a look of absolute horror, and one person said: “but you’ll gridlock the whole town!”  It seemed utterly inconceivable, to some of the people there, that a street might have  a purpose other than to act as a thoroughfare for motor vehicles. Any actions to improve matters for cyclists would be fine, provided they don’t impede the passing of the most important thing, the motor traffic. In a sense, I can’t blame them for this in the context in which they said it; the nature of the forum, a “cycle forum”, is almost bound to lead people to focus on questions 1 to 4 above.

It seems that the people in charge of urban design, in the town and city councils and engineering departments, rarely think of the more general question, which would address many of the symptoms I listed above:

5. “How can we get people to switch to healthier, more environmentally friendly modes of travel?”

or, at least, when they do talk about it, it is in the abstract and never gets near to consideration of “what are we going to do tomorrow?”. But even question 5 does not address the underlying problem, embodied in another question which they seem to be prevented by their world view from even conceiving:

6. “How can we remove the blight of motor-centric design and make our urban environment better for people?”

This question gets at the root of the problem; the one factor that results in, or significantly contributes to, every one of the symptoms I listed above. This is the question that the Dutch have undoubtedly addressed, starting in part from their “Stop the Child Murder” campaign back in the 1970s. It just happens that the bicycle is a huge part of the solution – of the answer to this question – so in observing their solution from outside, it is easy to get the impression that they have been addressing just the problem of providing for bicycles. Even relatively enlightened people who are prepared to look outside of the UK tend to focus on questions 1 to 4, which leads them to look at Dutch junction designs and cycle paths as a starting point rather than as just features of a much larger end point. These questions are bad particularly because they cast the bicycle as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution.

This brings me to another unfortunate consequence of question 1 to 4 thinking, which is the perpetual argument between the “segregationists” and the “anti-segregationists”. I think the focus of this argument, which seems to revolve around the belief that cyclists should be taken off the roads onto separate, cycle-specific infrastructure versus the belief that cyclists should maintain a right to be on the roads, is a complete red-herring. If we have to use the term “segregation”, then we should re-interpret that to mean removing motor vehicles, as much as possible, from the environments that humans inhabit – segregation of motor vehicles, not segregation of cyclists.

David Hembrow captures this well when he talks about unravelling of modes and in his article on segregation of bikes and cars, though the ideas there are still expressed in terms of providing for cycling (for example, using terms like “segregated cycle-paths”), so can lead people to think in terms of questions 1 to 4 rather than question 6. But have a look at the images (and writing) in the second article there; in most of the pictures, the people shown are riding on roads. It just happens that those roads are either forbidden for motor vehicles, or have motor vehicle access heavily restricted. This is segregation of motor vehicles, not segregation of bicycles, and you can see how the environment is improved for all people, not just bicycle riders. The only sense in which this is bicycle-specific is that bicycles happen to provide a good way for people to get around in an environment that inhibits the use of motor vehicles. Even in the one case shown where there is a “road with cycle paths”, the bicycles are still on a road, it’s just that the road design has been altered to make some space for motor vehicles to use it as well, without impinging too much on the safety and convenience of human beings.

It is my belief that, until we grasp the nettle and get everyone thinking in terms of question 6, we will continue to see designs like the ones proposed by Salford, and extreme opposition to schemes like the ones proposed in London.

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One Response to Let’s stop just treating (one of) the symptoms.

  1. Alex Bailey says:

    I like the way your questions become wider in scope as you go down the list. I’d propose a further question: how could we organise our lives to minimise the amount of travel we need to do? This question recognises that much of the travel we do is for the purposes of taking our children to their schools, taking ourselves to our workplaces and carrying groceries from shops. Of course, the need for these journeys arose when it became normal to live, work and shop in places that are long distances from each other – and to use vehicles to ‘connect’ them. The resulting connection however comes at great cost to our finances, our time, our quality of life and to the natural environment. So how could we, as a society, get beyond transport dependence? We then find ourselves asking questions such as… ‘how could we plan our towns differently?’ and perhaps ‘what other ‘means of connection’ could we use more (and how could we use them better)?’

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