Transport is a key challenge for healthy, happy, prosperous & more liveable towns and cities. It’s something that almost everyone in most UK urban environments agrees doesn’t work well anymore for anyone.
We’ve had the answer to this problem hidden in plain sight for over 100 years.
It’s the bicycle.
In this post I’ll attempt to explain why I believe it’s the solution to make our towns and cities work better and our citizens (of all ages) healthier and happier.
Britain invented the bicycle as we know it today. Britain pioneered the use of the bicycle for transport and led the world until the 1950s. In the early 1950’s the British made as many trips by bicycle as the Dutch do today – over 30% of all journeys, all over the country.
Our geography hasn’t changed, our approach to transport did.
In our towns across the country we cannot continue to have the private motor car as the primary way people make their journeys – it’s not sustainable and it’s not working any more.
We simply don’t have enough physical room in our towns and cities for everyone to have a car, drive it around and park it. This doesn’t work, not anywhere in the world.
The good news is that it’s fixable – if we put the bicycle back to the centre of urban transport.
It’s time to remind ourselves of why the bicycle is the best transport solution for moving people in towns & cities.
The sum of 100 years of traffic engineering is if you build more space for traffic, more traffic will come to fill it. Fortunately the reverse is also true. We’ve spent the last 65 years designing out cycling in the UK but it’s time to turn this around for the sake of our health and the future prosperity of our communities.
Cycling is enormously space efficient, it has no pollution, eliminates congestion, has virtually no wear on the roads, increases health and can be a quick, easy and pleasurable way to get around town and to do your shopping – but only if we design it properly into our streetscape.
To do this requires leadership and it means taking a step back and thinking about how we can best move people for the benefit of everyone in our towns and cities. We should be aiming to make cycling the default choice for the majority of urban journeys.
In many towns, the vast majority of car traffic is local journeys that start and stop within a few miles. We should be aiming for 50%+ of all local journeys by bike and this is easily and cost effectively achievable.
40 years ago the Dutch made a choice to prioritise cycling over motor traffic – we (in the UK but also almost all English speaking countries) carried on designing only for motor traffic. The Dutch are now healthier, less obese, more active, have less congestion, less pollution and have the best children’s well-being in the world. They also have road injuries of less than 1/3 of we do and easily manageable health system as people’s health continues to improve across all ages.
We’ve become one of the most obese, most sedentary nations in the world with terrible congestion that costs us billions a year, road design that put us all into conflict with each other, rising deaths and injuries for the vulnerable on our roads, falling quality of life, 10’s of thousands of deaths each year either directly or indirectly as a result of our transport system and a high cost for personal travel. We designed cycling, walking and active health out of our transport system, whereas the Dutch made active travel the core principle.
Some notes to consider from the film above:
– People think the Dutch have always planned and designed for cycling – it’s simply not true
– Also notice the speed people were riding. Transport or utility cycling is low speed at 10-15mph, so people ride in normal clothes and don’t get into a sweat (they don’t have showers at work as they don’t need them). People of all ages can ride comfortably and safely at this speed with the right road design. Road design is absolutely key and we’re decades behind in the UK right now as we can see outside our windows or windscreens.
Some of the specific UK problems the bicycle can help solve include the following
o We simply don’t have the room for everyone to drive a car as their main method of getting about. Cities and towns all over the world have tried and failed to make this work.
o The car based transport monoculture is stuck in the 1960’s and it’s created the same problems everywhere in the world. Congestion, pollution, road deaths, obesity etc, etc, which have never been fixed. It’s a system that can only work with much lower numbers of cars. Building more roads only brings more traffic – Google induced demand to find out more.
o In 1970 the population of the UK was 48m and we had 12m cars. By 2010 we had only increased the population to 56m but we had 30m cars.
o A single road traffic lane can at best accommodate around 2,000 cars per hour. The same space can allow 14,000 bicycles an hour. We can move 7x the people using bikes where space is limited (most towns and cities).
o It’s not just roads we don’t have the space for cars to dominate it’s parking them too.
- The Institute for Transportation and Development (USA) calculated the space required to park 2,000 people.
- By car: 7.2 football fields
- By bike 0.15 footballs fields – 2% of the space needed to park cars!
o The solution to congestion is counter intuitive – the Dutch cut their streets in half to increase safety & reduce congestion. Reduce road space available to cars and re-think where we let them go. We need to put people first not cars because that’s our challenge: moving people not cars
o Most UK car journeys are short: Of all trips made in 2012, 20% were less than one mile in length, 66% less than 5 miles and 95% were less than 25 miles. All eminently cycle-able distances. The average length of a journey in the UK is 7m and in the town where I live 60-80% of local journeys start and finish in the town.
Cars don’t just produce congestion, there are other consequences too:
o Our road transport system in the UK kills 29,000 people per year from traffic pollution. Road Transport accounts for 50% of total emissions and has a cost of $1.7trillion across the EU
o Pollution also has other health impacts, such as asthma and allergies for many people and is deeply unpleasant to live with
o Dutch towns are quiet – traffic noise reduces liveability for residents near busy roads (including lowering property values)
o Studies in Scandinavia have shown that traffic noise significantly heightens the risk of strokes
- 5 people die every day on UK roads and this is positioned as a good result! 5 families destroyed everyday.
- 30,000 people are KSI on UK roads and 195,000 injured each year.
- 200 Children a month are killed or seriously injured on UK roads
- Sweden set a target for 0 road deaths – Vision Zero – why haven’t we? Perhaps because it requires a complete rethink on all parts of our road network. Whilst there are still road deaths in Sweden today – they’ve cut the toll by over a 1/3 already. Saving lives and saving cost to society.
- Sustainable Safety – mistakes that don’t kill. The Dutch principle of Sustainable Safety says that regardless of transport mode people make mistakes and that when people make mistakes, they shouldn’t have to pay with their lives. As a result they design their roads knowing people will make mistakes but working to ensure no one is killed as result. When someone is killed, a full investigation takes place and road is redesigned and rebuilt within months. Let’s do that here too.
- For every 1 cyclist death there are 4 pedestrians killed on UK roads and the UK has one of the highest rates of pedestrian deaths in Europe. It’s shameful that we kill so many vulnerable road users, especially as it needn’t be this way.
- When road deaths amongst vulnerable users falls it’s more likely that it’s because they’ve been scared away altogether rather than the roads are working better. People stay out of dangerous places wherever possible.
- Today 5 people will die on our roads, 63 will be seriously injured and 534 will be injured. We could design our transport system to significantly reduce this – if we decided to.
- Cycling is statistically safer than gardening. You’re more likely to get injured in an hour of gardening that an hour of cycling but to many, it doesn’t feel safe.
- If you cycled 1 hr per day for 40 years, you’d cover 180,000km. You’d still only have a 1 in 150 chance of being killed. If you lived in the Netherlands, your risk of danger would be 2/3 less than this.
Obesity (in both adults & children) & health
- 67% of men & 57% of UK adults are overweight or obese. Transport policies are a key reason that needs to be acknowledged. The Dutch level of obesity for adults is 10%
- 60,000 people die every year from inactivity related heart disease – the Dutch level of risk is half that of the UK
- A minimum of 5,000 people die from obesity each year
- Health report after health report and experts continue to argue that active travel must be prioritised to improve UK health – cycling as transport can be a game changer like it has been for the Dutch
- A recent UK govt report said that we are less physically active than at any time in the history of this country
All told about 100,000 people a year die because of our transport system as it’s currently configured.
Some points to note from this second film:
- As well as benefitting a wide range of people this video also shows some important points about the design of the paths:
- They are continuous and focus on helping cyclists maintain momentum (ie. Not stopping) which means people can & do ride slowly but still cover distances highly efficiently and easily with minimal effort
- They are wide, smooth and separated from heavy traffic
- Routes are direct and shorter than travelling by car because bikes are prioritised over cars
- They are well maintained and of a very high quality – think A-Roads for bikes
- They make the journey and progress easy and pleasurable
I’ve spoken to a number of mobility scooter users in the last few months and they tell me our roads are a terrifying place for them to travel in even using our “best” cycle paths.
Our car dominated society has contributed to creating social barriers
- Having people “locked” away in cars has increased social isolation and busy roads split communities. We all behave differently behind the wheel and behind glass.
- Bikes get people connecting with each other, with their neighbourhood and with nature. Neighbours can chat with each other on bikes and ride side by side.
- 40% of the UK population don’t have a drivers licence including 28% of adults over the age of 17. Let’s build a bike transport system everybody from 8-80 can use
- Whilst motoring has brought us advantages – it has brought unintended social consequences too
Eliminating the school run
- 50% of Dutch primary school children ride to school – over 90% of secondary school children. After 8 years old most children do this unaccompanied and completely safely. This also eliminates after school car journeys to clubs and activities and is key to childhood freedom, health and happiness. 38% of Dutch children ride between 6-15km each way to get to school – it’s not just those who live close.
- In 2010 the average distance for a child to travel to their primary school was 1.5m 43% of children were driven there! The National Transport Survey in 2011 said 64% of primary school children live within 1-2miles of school but only 2% of UK children cycle to school.
- The former Mayor of Bogota said “A great city isn’t one that has highways but where a child on a bicycle can ride safely everywhere”. He also said “If children had as much public space as cars most cities in the world would become marvellous”
- This is simply an engineering problem
- Let’s gives back some childhood freedom & independence to our children that’s been almost totally lost thanks to motor traffic
- If we want our children to be safe in our town – we need to redesign our roads but we’d all benefit.
Let’s reduce transport costs for our citizens
Running a car is expensive. Figures from London say the costs of running a car is £458 per month, travelling by public transport is £225 per month and a bike £9 per month. Start multiplying that for multi car families and we are talking a large amount of money per household. All of this expense on cars represents money not spent in our local shops and businesses. Money spent at the petrol pump typically leaves the local community.
Let’s help our local businesses
- All over the world retailers overestimate how many people shop by car. They also think that more cars mean more customers – it does not & I haven’t managed to find a study yet that says this.
- Pedestrians spend 65% more than motorists – TfL data
- For every car parking space we can fit 10+ bikes – would we rather retailers had 1 customer visit or up to 10?
- If we think about car parking outside shops – is it better to have parking spaces for say 20 cars or a bike lane that can safely bring 1000 people a day?
- Out of town shopping malls work not because of parking – once someone gets out of their car they’re in a completely safe, car free, pedestrianized environment where they focus on the retail experience.
- Bikes can easily carry shopping and cargo bikes can easily carry large loads
- Shopping habits are changing in a way that is perfect for bikes: People are now shopping little and often.
- 10 years ago we didn’t have a café culture – in 10 years time let’s be a city bike society – our health, happiness and international competitiveness may well depend on it. If we don’t other countries will.
Free-ing up road capacity for essential trips
- If we can move 50%+ of local journeys to bikes we would free up road space for people who really do need to use a car.
- Cars still have a place for longer trips but once we’ve made our towns around the bicycle we can then start joining up towns with high speed cycle paths and motor traffic will continue to fall as will congestion.
Where this takes us too is that I want a better quality of life for everyone in urban Britain regardless of age and I believe that only the bicycle can deliver this magic bullet.
It’s people and places that make towns great, not cars and traffic. If you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.
Cycling infrastructure only works if it’s of sufficient quality to attract people to use it – it has to be direct, safe, convenient and a pleasure to use. There has to be a network that goes everywhere designed to be accessible for those from 8-80 who have not ridden bikes but want to. It’s for people that don’t ride a bike now
Currently our roads are noisy, dangerous and hostile. Let’s give them back to people.
Let’s give the UK public a true choice in transport modes whilst remembering that a significant number are either unable or would rather not have to drive
- 60% plus UK citizens when asked say they’d like to be able to use a bike and that more should be done for cycling.
- Around 70% of people say they simply will not ride with motor traffic of any kind.
- Many people now resent the money and time they spend in their cars
The car is a 20th century solution that doesn’t work in the 21st Century.
People are driving less
- Young people are choosing not to get drivers licenses
- We don’t have the space for everyone to drive anyway and the side effects are literally killing us or making us miserable
- We need to work out the most efficient ways to move the most people in our urban environments – not use traffic modelling to force a few more cars in at the expense of everything else.
- Mileage driver per person has continued to fall every year since early this century (DfT stats)
- We don’t have a choice but to fix this
So why don’t 98% of the population cycle now?
- Our road designs
- Appallingly poor cycling provision & repellent conditions
- We’ve not built for cycling but you don’t build doors based on how many people are walking through walls, nor do you build bridges based on how many people are swimming across rivers.
What it’s not:
- Because of hills – San Francisco is one of the fastest growing bicycle cities in the USA. The Swiss make 5-10 times more journeys by bike that the UK do. Our bodies are amazing – they’re designed to move and they adapt rapidly. Today’s daunting hill is next months, no problems. Our hills will give our residents greater & faster health benefits.
- Because of getting sweaty – transport cycling is about riding slowly and just using a more efficient model – 10-15mph does not get your sweaty especially when we design so that cyclists don’t need to stop. The Dutch and Danes ride in ordinary clothing on comfortable bikes that are easy to ride
- Of not wanting to – we’ve removed the choice – we’ve made our roads too hostile.
So what is: it?
- It’s that we’ve tried to “encourage” or “educate” drivers & cyclists for 40 years to share the road rather than build high quality cycling infrastructure so only 2% of journeys are made by bike (when according to the CTC over 40% of the UK population own a bike). The Dutch redesigned their road system with cycling at the centre and 40% of journeys are made by bike.
- The vast majority of people will not ride with motor traffic. It’s these people we need to design for – not people who already cycle. Again the Dutch have solved this and perfected it over 40 years – if you build it well, people will come
- 23% of Journeys by people aged over 65 in NL are by bike. Less than 1% in the UK
- 40% of all trips by people aged under 17 in NL are by bike. Less than 2% in the UK
How to fix this:
- Look at the world’s best – we’re very lucky that it’s only 200 miles from here
- Take the world’s best and improve it – don’t re-invent the wheel
- To reduce congestion we have to reduce the road space and access for cars – it’s worked in the Netherlands, Sweden and more recently in New York City. Nothing else works.
- Realise that bikes have different needs than cars or pedestrians & design for them.
- Design for Cargo bike traffic – let’s make it easy for people to not have a second car – we don’t have the room for them – let’s build dual carriageways for bikes
- Allow bikes to keep moving from one side of the town to the other without stopping.
- Engineer out the school run – make it safe for children to ride across town in safety on their own. Remove the need for parental taxi services.
- It only took the Dutch 10 years to transform their transport system.
- In 1970 bicycles only made up 10% of Copenhagen traffic – now it’s 50%.
- They decided to make it happen, overruling complainers– many of whom now ride instead, permanently eliminating congestion.
- Recognise there is currently little best practice at all in the UK but British engineers are some of the best on the planet – let’s allow them to fix this for us and make us a world leader – not to mention healthier, happier, richer and less stressed.
- Try things – trial to see what works before we do it permanently – it also gives people a chance to get used to it.
- Let’s make bold changes – tinkering around the edges will mean failure. We need to open up to new ways of transport planning. What we’ve been doing isn’t and won’t work.
That’s my magic bullet – it’s the only proven and cost effective way that I’ve been able to find to deliver all of these benefits
It will make Britain more liveable, healthier, prosperous and welcoming.
So what is it going to cost?
The Dutch spend €30 per person per year as the world’s best. To keep it simple, let’s just use £30 per head per year. That works out to around £2bn per year. It would take 10 years to transform our country, if we do it properly, so say £20bn. According to the government’s own estimates, for every £1 spent on cycling infrastructure, £4 is saved in the NHS. £20bn to eliminate congestion permanently and save the NHS £80bn – not to mention save 10’s of thousands of lives per year. It’s so much cheaper to build high quality bike infrastructure compared to roads for motor traffic.
This government has allocated around £40bn for HS2 and nearly £50bn for new roads – so the money is there. To transform the entire country we need £2bn a year for 10 years – half the price of the lowest estimate for the HS2 project and we’d transform the lives of everyone in the country.
Two quotes for you before my final video:
“Adding more cars in urban environments is not going to work” Alan Mullaly, CEO Ford Motor Co, 2014.
“If access by road is the key to economic prosperity, Birmingham should be the wealthiest city in Britain. It is not.” Oliver Tickell, 1993.
Here’s my final video and it’s one to inspire us all….
There are some powerful messages in there … not least notice how big the applause was for the improvements to cycling! Everyone benefits from fixing this and bikes are a key tool. It’s a fantastic video.
We can’t make our towns or cities work now or in the future the way it is – as the UK continues to grow we need a different paradigm for us to keep up – let alone to prosper.
Other countries and cities are already doing this – we will be left behind if we don’t and jobs will leave, house prices will fall, sickness and obesity will continue to rise.
Let’s choose to make Britain a model for embracing the bicycle and make this country a truly wonderful place to live. Let’s turn transport from being a burden to a blessing.
Thanks for reading
For those who’d like to know more about how cycling can fix our towns and cities, please visit the following sites for a much better explanation than I’ve given. These are where I’ve gone to learn:
The last post I wrote about why we need to embrace the bicycle in Britain is here, in case you’d like to read it: https://girodilento.com/why-britain-more-than-ever-needs-the-bicycle/
One last extremely good video that explains what’s possible and how to do this:
Thanks to @AsEasyAsRiding for the photo at the beginning