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A failure of understanding

As Easy As Riding A Bike - 8 April, 2016 - 10:21

As odd as it may seem to British people, surveys of Dutch citizens that ask them why they choose to cycle for the trips they make very rarely find them mentioning ‘cycling infrastructure’ as a reason for doing so – be it in the form of protected cycleways, or filtered permeability that keeps levels of motor traffic low on streets that are shared.

Take, for instance, this 2006 Netherlands transport ministry survey which examined (amongst other things) the reasons people cycle instead of drive for short trips under 7.5km (about 4.5 miles). It found that the most common reasons for doing so were (in order of importance) –

  1. cycling is healthy
  2. cycling is pleasant
  3. cycling is good for the environment
  4. I can cycle through traffic quickly
  5. I can park my bike easily
  6. cycling is easier, I don’t have to look for somewhere to park the car
  7. cycling is cheap
  8. other people cycle
  9. habit
  10. I don’t own a car

[The full table is near the start of the document, but it is in Dutch].

All these reasons, but no mention, at all, of protected cycleways, or of infrastructure in general. Does this mean that cycling infrastructure isn’t a factor in whether or not Dutch people might choose to cycle?

It’s highly unlikely. The reason Dutch people don’t mention cycleways (or low traffic streets, or the other basic components of high-quality cycling infrastructure) when they come to describe why they choose to cycle is in reality because cycling infrastructure is almost entirely invisible to Dutch people. Not literally invisible, but so mundane and ordinary they don’t even notice it. It’s just a part of the street, like drains, or lampposts, or bus shelters.

Just an ordinary, boring part of the street, invisible to Dutch people.

If that doesn’t sound convincing, imagine an equivalent survey that asked British people why they might walk instead of drive for trips of under a mile. I can think of several possible reasons that might be given –

  • ‘I enjoy being outside and breathing the air’
  • ‘I don’t have to worry about parking the car’
  • ‘I like the exercise’
  • ‘It’s nearly as quick as driving’
  • ‘I don’t own a car’
  • ‘I won’t be sitting in a queue’

And so on. (You might think of other reasons). But very few British people will say they walk instead of driving ‘because there are pavements’. It would just sound… weird, even nonsensical. Pavements are there – we take them for granted, because they are just a basic, ordinary, mundane component of British streets. If you walk to the shops, of course you are going to use a pavement, so why even mention that as a reason?

Of course, if pavements were taken away, and British people had to walk in streams of motor traffic, they would suddenly seem quite important. But we take them for granted, in precisely the same way that Dutch people take their cycleways for granted. That’s why Dutch people don’t mention cycling infrastructure when they are asked why they cycle, and why British people don’t mention ‘walking infrastructure’ when they are asked why they walk, even if that infrastructure is a fundamental component that explains why they are actually able to walk or cycle in the first place.

The CycleFisk blog explained this in a fairly similar way

Like cycle infrastructure, the presence of the Earth’s crust is pretty much ubiquitous in Amsterdam. Surprisingly, none of the survey respondents identified the presence of a crust above the Earth’s mantle as a factor when asked why they like cycling in Amsterdam. The logical inference is that the importance of the presence of the Earth’s crust to cyclists is overestimated.

Either that or, as a ubiquitous presence, the Earth’s crust is something which Amsterdam’s residents take for granted, and thus neglected to mention the Earth’s crust when asked why they like cycling in Amsterdam. A bit like the infrastructure really.

Nobody notices the earth’s crust when they’re travelling around, but (it’s safe to say) it is pretty important, in much the same way breathing oxygen is pretty important when it comes to staying alive, even if other more obvious things kill people.

Your average Dutch citizen really isn’t the best person to ask about the importance of cycling infrastructure, simply because they don’t appreciate it, for the reasons set out above. This isn’t meant as a criticism – it’s not a personal failing – simply an attempt to understand their point of view. I’ve spoken to Dutch people in Utrecht, and – as the conversation turned to why I was visiting (good cycling conditions) – their explanations for high cycling levels were completely different to mine, the kind of explanations we hear in Britain from the uninformed about why the Dutch cycle. ‘It’s flat’ (Dutch people will obviously appreciate flatness when they are cycling); ‘Our cities and towns are small, and close together’ (maybe so, but not of any great relevance); ‘it’s our culture’ (maybe, but let’s see how long that culture would last in British road conditions); and so on. Similar reasons British people might give to, say, a perplexed American from a town without any footways, who had never seen so many people walking before.

I’ve been reminded of this failure of understanding by a couple of recent articles about cycling in London, one late last year (by a Dutchman), and one this week (by a Dane). Both betray a certain blindness to the importance of cycling infrastructure in their own countries, in a very similar way. Take the first article, by Henk Bouwman, a director of the Academy of Urbanism.

… the strategy of going Dutch [in London] seems strongly focussed on creating a safe infrastructure by separating cyclists from cars through segregated cycle paths. However, what we have learned in the Netherlands is that safety is by and large a result of behaviour, not infrastructure. Dutch car drivers are also cyclists so they know how to anticipate a cyclist’s behaviour.

If cycling infrastructure is ubiquitous, mundane and ordinary to you, because you have grown up with it, and it has surrounded you your entire life, of course you are going to underestimate its importance, and even go so far as to say that nebulous ‘behaviour’ is even more important at keeping people safe. This kind of comment is simply boggling to someone who has experienced cycling in a variety of street contexts in both Britain and the Netherlands, and is seeing both with ‘British’ eyes. What keeps me safe when I am cycling in the Netherlands is not ‘behaviour’, but a thorough and systematic approach to design that minimises interactions between people driving and cycling, and ensures that where they do unavoidably have to occur there is clarity about who should be doing what and as little risk to either party as possible.

most importantly, work needs to be done to encourage a behavioural shift amongst cyclists themselves to become more aware of other people on and around the road. Speeding men in Lycra still represent the majority and encouraging them through the roll out of cycle super highways only exasperates the challenge to transform cycling from a sport to transport. This shift in behavioural attitudes is so important that we believe it should be funded on par with infrastructure. [my emphasis.]

If you have a certain innate blindness to the importance of cycling infrastructure, then when you arrive in a different city and you see people cycling about in a very different way to the people in your own city, then of course you are going to see that different behaviour not as response to a very different environment, but as some kind of personal choice on the part of people cycling, a decision to cycle in a certain way that can somehow be beaten out of them.

People ‘speed in lycra’ in this kind of environment because they have to. Attempts to get people to cycle slower, or to abandon lycra, through simple encouragement will fail, and fail repeatedly, if people still have to negotiate roads like this.

Notice also in this passage that building cycling infrastructure on main roads is actually framed as a way of encouraging men in lycra – a diametrical inversion of what cycling infrastructure will achieve in reality, namely enabling everyone to cycle, in ordinary clothes, something that is already happening.

Children & parents joining the new infrastructure of N-S cycle superhighway #LDNCycleSafari pic.twitter.com/PgwJb5163T

— Cyclist London (@cyclist_london) April 3, 2016

This inversion is again only explicable if the author fails to appreciate the fundamentally important role cycling infrastructure plays in allowing people to cycle, and to cycle in a manner they choose. A similar example is his suggestion (not in the article, but in a conference, reported via Twitter) that it is the absence of workplace showers in the Netherlands that keeps people cycling slowly. Again – this is a simple inversion of reality. Showers are (rarely) provided at workplaces in the Netherlands because they’re not needed, because people are already cycling more slowly thanks to cycling infrastructure. To argue it is the absence of the showers themselves that somehow compels people to cycle slowly is completely back to front. But this is what happens when you can’t see what is in front of your own eyes. If you can’t see cycling infrastructure, then people in Britain are obviously choosing to cycling fast, choosing to get sweaty and then take advantage of showers – building infrastructure will only encourage more of these choosing to cycle around fast in lycra, when we need to take those showers away and ask them to change their behaviour.

The second article – by Camilla Siggaard Andersen of Gehl architects – is eerily similar. Again, we see a suggestion that cycling infrastructure will reinforce the existing culture, fostering more lycra, and faster behaviour.

getting more Londoners on bikes is not simply a matter of safety, but of culture. What kind of culture is the Cycle Super Highways fostering – more or less lycra?

Why would anyone think creating safer, more attractive and more comfortable conditions to cycle in would lead to more lycra? Only if you have a selective blindness to the importance of infrastructure in enabling cycling – you will tend to believe that building it will only reinforce the existing types of cycling.

In Copenhagen, the cycling network is great. However, the actual efficiency of the network relies as much on behaviour as it does on the infrastructure itself

An almost exact parallel of the claim from Bouwman that ‘safety is by and large a result of behaviour, not infrastructure’. Both are looking at London, seeing a different ‘culture’ and ‘behaviour’, and failing to diagnose why that behaviour and culture is different.

We do have an awful lot to learn from the Netherlands and Denmark, but we should be wary of taking the opinions of people from these countries at face value, principally because the fundamental importance of cycling infrastructure will often tend to be underestimated or downplayed completely. Not wilfully; but because it is so ubiquitous and mundane in their own countries as to be invisible.

 


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