In the UK we're slowly beginning to see the infrastructure that will allow us to choose cycling as a matter of course. However, there's still a long way for us to go before we can enjoy the kind of segregated cycling infrastructure seen in cities like Copenhagen. Here, Matthew MacDonald examines the current barriers to cycling in the UK and suggests ways we can overcome them.
My five-year-old daughter learned to cycle recently in our local park.
Thanks to the wonders of a balance bike it took her about an hour to learn. She loved it.
The freedom, the rush of air on her face, daddy slowly disappearing behind her as she laughs maniacally. I wanted to capitalise on this, and start riding with her to places we need to go: to shops, friends’ homes, to her nursery.
However, I couldn’t, because doing so would require riding on roads I myself ride, and knowing some of the close encounters that I’ve had, I couldn’t bring myself to take the risk.
Good-quality, protected infrastructure would enable us to build a life skill that will serve my daughter for the rest of her life.
And whilst we’re slowly starting to see infrastructure of this kind in Scotland, there is still a lot more that needs to be done.
Steps in the right direction
Given what I’ve just said, I’m privileged to manage a design competition called Community Links PLUS for Sustrans Scotland. Community Links PLUS seeks big, game-changing infrastructure projects that recalibrate streets in favour of people on foot and on bike.
The concept is simple but powerful; reallocate road space and create places that work for people. The proposals are multi-year, multi-million-pound projects in densely populated areas, with all the complications that they can bring.
The competition finds us moving away from the old-fashioned view of delivering off-road networks (which are still great by the way), to understanding that people want to walk and cycle safely on the majority of streets.
For example, the first winner of the competition, the South City Way, is an incredible project by Glasgow City Council. The South City Way will offer over 3km of Copenhagen-style terraced separation from Queens Park in Glasgow’s Southside, right into the heart of the city.
I’ve gathered together a few insights into the elements required to successfully deliver public realm infrastructure projects, and I hope that in sharing them it enables you to identify and support projects in your own area.
Successful delivery of cycling and walking projects
I’d like to tell a short story that highlights the biggest determining factor in the successful delivery of cycling and walking projects.
A couple of my colleagues recently went on a research trip to Copenhagen. I wasn’t even remotely jealous as I knew they’d come back with precious insights, honest! And they did. Whilst there, they met with the team from Gehl Architects.
Jan Gehl is the man credited with much of the public realm improvements in Copenhagen that have helped shape it into the thriving city that it now is. My colleagues were taken to the busiest, most desirable shopping street, Strøget (see the second image above).
I’m sure you agree, it’s pretty amazing. Who wouldn’t want to spend time there, meeting friends, letting children play, shopping, eating out?
But, if you scroll along to the third image, you can see how it used to look.
Not so pleasant. Truthfully, quite cool, looking like a scene from an Orson Welles movie, but not somewhere you’d want to hang around too long, and certainly not somewhere children could cycle or walk around without parents desperately holding onto their hands.
When it was closed as a temporary street trial, in 1962, it caused outrage in the media and amongst the general public. So what led it to become the chic street you see in the first image?
Strong political support. There was both cross-party and cross-political term support for change.
The lesson is to support, involve and be nice to your Councillors, and for that matter MSPs and MPs. Involve them, empower them with knowledge, invite them to see the issues. Don’t just fling pelters on social media.
Despite the optimistic title, there are obviously barriers, but I want to focus on how we overcome them, so what are they?
Five ways we can overcome barriers to cycling
1. Properly fund cycling
In these times of austerity, local authority’s budgets are being constrained. Seek sources of funding, and share them with your local authority officers, offering to help write bids for funding.
Our own Community Links and Community Links PLUS funding streams offer 50% of project costs but the local authorities must find the rest. When successful projects are delivered and the benefits are seen, more local authority funding will be allocated for similar projects, as Edinburgh have demonstrated over the last decade.
2. Create cycling teams
This is linked to funding in that teams delivering cycling and walking projects are being stretched.
Seek out the teams in local authorities delivering these projects and offer support, as they are your allies. As with politicians, don’t get stuck into them on social media.
Constructive campaigning is far better, offering evidence of benefits and community support is far more likely to open doors than being relentlessly negative.
3. Engage with the whole community
If there is one thing that the Sustrans Scotland team have learned from infrastructure delivery, it’s that community engagement goes a long way in dealing with issues before they arise.
Good engagement that goes beyond statutory consultation requires a lot of time and effort. Do your bit to support it, go and knock on doors or deliver leaflets, help identify venues, turn up at events and proactively engage with the people that turn up.
The earlier engagement happens, the better.
Ideally, projects should be co-designed with the community, by clearly setting objectives and working on interventions that achieve those objectives, e.g. increased footfall for businesses, safer streets, streets that allow better movement of people on foot and on bike.
4. Abolish divisive labels
Avoid letting a project be pigeonholed as either cycling or walking or people as cyclists or pedestrians. We are delivering projects for people, creating safer, more attractive streets that are better for businesses and the community as a whole. We are working together to give people a choice about how they travel and what their neighbourhoods look like.
5. Focus on the positives
Finally, remember that you can’t please everyone. Avoid the vocal minority that often refuses to see the bigger picture and fear change. Instead, focus your efforts on those receptive to change for the good of the majority.
Emotions can often run high when people’s views are challenged, but we must stay calm, be well informed, and bring people with us.
It is people that create change, be they politicians, local authority officers, business owners and residents. It is only by everyone working together, as a team, that we can create places and spaces that work for everyone.
I’m confident that if we do, in ten years’ time my daughter will be cycling to high school on infrastructure that our friends in Copenhagen will be visiting on study tours.