When designing infrastructure for new cyclists, ignore the existing ones, says study [UPDATE prof adds word]

07/09/2011 Advocacy

‘Cyclists dismount’ signs; narrow paths shared with pedestrians; bike tracks that go nowhere; bike tracks with priority given to motorists entering from side roads; short, pointless cycle lanes strewn with obstacles. This is the sort of woeful cycle infrastructure designed by engineers who don’t cycle and put in place by local authorities who fail to consult with cyclists, or who go ahead ignoring their advice, or fail to design to recognised standards.

Controversially, a £936,000 study from green-leaning academics at three English universities urges policy makers to ignore the views of existing cyclists and pedestrians and only focus on non-cyclists and non-pedestrians. “Our message for policy makers is, do not base policies about walking and cycling on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists and pedestrians,” says the professor who led the study. CTC said such a stance was “extremely damaging”.

[NOTE: see base of article for words the study's lead author now wishes made it into the final document. Perhaps a revised document could be issued?]

The three-year study on why people in Britain drive instead of walk or cycle says it’s a fear of fast cars – and dislike of helmet hair – that keeps Brits off bikes, but that matters would improve if bikes were segregated from cars.

Sustrans welcomed the study’s call for separated infrastructure saying this was the “key to unlocking widespread, everyday walking and cycling.”

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’ shows that no matter how much infrastructure might be built for cyclists, there would still be stigma attached to everyday cycling. The study found there was a core image problem which kept people off bikes, with many respondents citing ‘helmet hair’ and ‘arriving sweaty at work’ as reasons not to cycle.

The built environment – currently hostile to both cycling and walking – was also an important factor in keeping Brits in their cars. A significant proportion of people won’t ditch cars because cycling is not seen as ‘normal’, said the research by the Universities of Lancaster, Leeds and Oxford Brookes. The academics concluded that if we want to tempt more people out of their cars policy makers need to listen to “the majority who don’t already choose greener modes of transport rather than the minority who do.”

The study was based on questionnaires, interviews and household ethnographies collected in Leeds, Leicester, Worcester and Lancaster from a cross section of society.

The three most common obstacles to walking and cycling over a short journey were found to be concerns over safety; the difficulty of fitting walking and cycling into complex household routines, especially with young children; and a perception that walking and cycling are “abnormal”.

A number of people interviewed as part of the study said they felt walking or cycling as a form of transport was seen as “weird” and cited problems such as arriving hot and sweaty for meetings, squashed cycle helmet hair and “feeling like a second class citizen” as reasons they preferred to drive.

Efforts to encourage more more Brits to get on their bikes have had limited success, said the academics.

Lancaster University’s Professor Colin Pooley, who led the study, said:

“Our study set out to discover not only the reasons why people were persuaded to walk or cycle but perhaps more importantly the reasons why people do not do these things. Many people interviewed as part of our study expressed a desire to walk or cycle but were not doing so, clearly something was stopping them from making that choice.

“Most people prefer not to stand out as different, but tend to adopt norms of behaviour that fit in and reflect the majority experience. In Britain, travelling by car is the default position for most people – over 60 percent of all trips are by car – and car ownership and use is seen as normal.

“Our message for policy makers is, do not base policies about walking and cycling on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists and pedestrians. These are a minority who have, against all the odds, successfully negotiated a hostile urban environment to incorporate walking and cycling into their everyday routines. It is necessary to talk to non-walkers and non-cyclists, potential cyclists and walkers, former cyclists and walkers, recreational cyclists and occasional walkers to determine what would encourage them to make more use of these transport modes.”

While acknowledging that new cyclists fear busy roads and could help create newbie-friendly facilities, critics say asking policy makers to ignore the views of current cyclists is counter-productive.

One health professional, an irregular non-Lycra cyclist, said:

“In the NHS we often get things imposed upon us without consultation. It’s critical that all users of a service are consulted and it’s folly to suggest that the views of committed cyclists should not be taken into consideration. There’s nothing to fear from taking into account the views of experts, alongside the views of a lay audience. By not listening to all users, policy makers risk making the wrong decisions, decisions that have to be reversed later, usually at great expense.”

Professor Pooley’s study says:

“It is essential that the urban environment is made safe for cyclists and pedestrians. This requires the provision of fully segregated cycle routes on all arterial and other busy roads in urban areas. It is clear from the research that most non-cyclists and recreational cyclists will only consider cycling regularly if they are segregated from traffic, and that pedestrians are hostile to pavement cyclists.”

Much of the current cycle provision in the UK is of the ‘shared use’ variety, with cyclists placed next to pedestrians on what were formerly footways only. It’s very rare for road space to be taken from cars and given to cyclists and pedestrians.

Echoing cycle campaign groups, the study argues there needs to be “restrictions on traffic speeds, parking and access on all residential roads and other routes without segregated cycle and pedestrian paths so that both cyclists and pedestrians feel that they have a safe and convenient environment in which to travel. This could include 20mph speed limits and resident-only access by car in some areas.”

Reducing parking is a key way to increase road space for all but there is rarely any appetite from either local or central government to “wage war on the motorist.” In fact, the current Government is rolling back many restrictions on cars.

The study says there needs to be “changes in the spatial structure and organisation of the built environment, enforced through planning legislation, to make accessing common services and facilities on foot or by bike easy. This would require the development of more neighbourhood shopping centres within walking or cycling distance of most people, restrictions on out-of-town developments, provision of secure bicycle parking facilities and the provision of cycle storage in most homes.”

Professor Pooley and his colleagues believe the current image of cycling as something that’s sporty needs to be changed.

Campaigns to promote cycling as normal should not be “dominated by super-fit or unusually committed specialists,” says the report.

The building of physical infrastructure is important, says the study, “but it is not on its own sufficient.”

The study says “there is also need for an integrated policy that embraces social welfare, employment, housing, health, and education amongst other policy areas to create a total environment that is welcoming for cyclists and pedestrians.”

Given the UK Government’s love affair with the car, it’s not surprising that the study concludes:

“We recognize that the scale of changes proposed may seem daunting. The measures proposed cannot be achieved overnight – though some could be implemented quite quickly – but achieving transition to a society where walking and cycling is normal should be seen as a long-term project which creates more sustainable urban environments for future generations.”

Sustrans has backed the findings of the study, applauding the fact it “calls on government to listen to the views of those who aren’t currently walking or cycling when deciding on future initiatives for more active travel.”

Malcolm Shepherd, Chief Executive of Sustrans, said:

“This report shows that segregated, safer routes are the key to unlocking widespread, everyday walking and cycling and that smarter government investment from within available budgets is needed to encourage more people to walk and cycle for local journeys.

CTC said it welcomes much of the study, “which calls for public policy changes that we, alongside many others, have been long been campaigning for. Lower traffic volumes and speeds, changes to traffic laws and reallocation of road-space are all things we can strongly agree with.”

However, CTC’s campaigns and policy director Roger Geffen added “we believe it is extremely damaging to be advising policy makers to ignore the views of existing cyclists and pedestrians. Professor Pooley implies – without any research conclusions to support his claim – that the current ‘hostile urban environment’ is what those individuals have sought or campaigned for. This position fails to acknowledge, and indeed marginalises, the role of the thousands of people who have been pushing lower speeds and better walking and cycling conditions over many years, often against the entrenched interests of developers, complacent local authorities and supine law enforcement.

“The real debate we need to have is how to galvanise the political will to reduce traffic volumes and speeds, so as to create space for quality cycle provision, whether segregated or otherwise. That political support is what is so seriously lacking in the UK.”

Geffen added: “Four years ago, the protests of 11,000 cyclists pointed out that the Government’s proposed revision to the Highway Code would have done immense damage to the future of cycling, by telling cyclists that they “should” use cycle tracks regardless of how inappropriate or poorly designed they were. Had the Government of the day followed advice to ignore all those cyclists, the police would now be routinely prosecuting cyclists for obstruction, or inconsiderate cycling, whenever they chose not to use cycle facilities, however dreadful they may be.

“Other than cyclists, who else is going to campaign to ensure that cycle facilities – whether segregated or otherwise – are designed and built to decent standards? And given how little most traffic planners and engineers know about designing for cycling, what makes Professor Pooley think the non-cycling public will know how to campaign for decent cycle provision?

“Will the people who would like to cycle, but don’t, organise themselves to make their voices heard – especially if decision-makers are being urged to ignore them again as soon as they actually take up cycling?”

The European Cyclists’ Federation has weighed in to the debate caused by the study. ECF policy officer Martti Tulenheimo said:

“It would be a terrible mistake to dismiss views of those who cycle and walk. They form a valuable part of public opinion, and they are indeed ‘users’ of the infrastructure. But listening to non-cyclists is also an important part of the consultation process.”

On infrastructure, Tulenheimo said:

“Cycling should be something you do to conveniently get from A to B. To get more people on bicycles, those that don’t yet normally ride a bicycle need to feel safe and have better infrastructure. Building more segregated cycle routes on arterial and other busy roads isn’t as big a task as some would have you believe. As a general rule, they represent less than a tenth of a city’s road network.”

Geffen said the CTC would welcome good-quality infrastructure:

“There’s a genuinely interesting debate to be had about segregation. Moreover, it’s not about the wonderfulness of Dutch and Danish cycle facilities – that bit is mostly pretty obvious. The real question is, what does it take to ensure that segregation is done really well in the UK context, where our traffic laws and driver behaviour are very different, and where our streets that are far more traffic-dominated than Holland and Denmark were back in the 1970s.

“In that respect, the recent experiences of New York and Seville are much more interesting. It seems that, for segregation to work well, there has to be a really strong political commitment to create space for quality cycling provision, by reducing traffic volumes and speeds, and reallocating roadspace and junction capacity. Otherwise, any attempt to introduce segregation will merely end up marginalising cyclists.”

On Edinburgh’s CityCycling forum, financial services operator Andy Arthur (a cyclist for just two years “and four and a half stones ago”) said:

“We have to design cycling infrastructure to be useful to both existing cyclists (the people most likely to use it and benefit from it) and also to encourage more people to cycle.”

However, on the sidelining of existing cyclists, he pointed out that not taking into account expert views isn’t terribly sensible:

“[How about having] me as a non-driving, non-car owning person consulted on motorway design? I’d put bollards across them not quite wide enough spaced to fit a Range Rover through without scraping the paintwork; chicanes that LGVs can’t fit through without disconnecting the cab and trailer; signposts randomly in the middle of the lanes; and make it mandatory to get out of the car and push when approaching any junctions.”

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If the study had used just two different and simple words in its executive summary, there would have been less grounds for criticism. As it stands, even the segregation-is-best European Cyclists’ Federation said the sentiments in question were a “terrible mistake” (changed words are in italics):

“Our message for policy makers is, do not base policies about walking and cycling only on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists and pedestrians…It is also necessary to talk to non-walkers and non-cyclists, potential cyclists and walkers, former cyclists and walkers, recreational cyclists and occasional walkers to determine what would encourage them to make more use of these transport modes.”

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UPDATE

Professor Pooley told BikeHub:

“I do agree that, on reflection, it would have been better to include the word only in the statement that you object to. It was certainly not our intention to ignore or sideline the work of cycling organizations. But, I would stand by our view that it is essential also to embrace the views of non-cyclists and that these views may differ from those of existing cyclists. I don’t think that our views differ very much in this respect.”