Last modified on Thu 10 Jan 2019
By selectively reducing the number of city streets available to vehicles, journeys that were once relatively easy by car became arduous and convoluted. Residents chose to cycle instead of drive, even when heading to a big furniture and homewares store such as Ikea – whose specially designed cargo bikes are popular with locals.
The idea, later termed “filtered permeability” by transport planning professor Steve Melia, applied in a single stroke what he calls the three most important principles for increasing urban cycling: separation from motor traffic, consistent design, and making bike journeys quicker and more convenient than car journeys.
Excluding cars entirely isn’t always practical – and can make life difficult for disabled people, as well as preventing access for ambulances, fire services and delivery lorries.
Slowing cars down makes city centres more hospitable to cyclists – but does putting up 20mph or 30kph speed signs actually have an effect?
Evidence from Portsmouth (where the speed limit was reduced from 30mph to 20mph on around 94% of roads) and Bristol (where 20mph was introduced on several main routes) suggests that 20mph zones increase both perceptions of road safety, and actual road safety – and lead to more people walking and cycling.
But a November report from the Department for Transport concluded that, over 12 schemes across Britain, 20mph zones have achieved on average a less than 1mph reduction in median speed.
Urban designer and transport planner John Dales suggests that, regardless of signposting, “designing the street, as a whole, to achieve the desired speed is the key thing”. The more successful low-speed areas include physical designs which make it natural for drivers to go slower. These include humps, speed tables, rough surfaces, tight corners and carriageway narrowing lanes.
What if legislation alone could encourage more people to cycle?
In the Netherlands, liability is automatically placed with the more powerful road user, unless it can be proven they were not at fault. The law is designed to protect vulnerable road users from financial damage caused by drivers of motorised vehicles. Unlike in the UK, a motorist who hits a cyclist in the Netherlands must prove they were doing everything they could to avoid contact – otherwise they will be liable for damages.
Supporters say stacking the law in this way would encourage people to drive more carefully.
For many people the real roadblock to cycling in cities is fear. According to statistics from the UK Department for Transport, almost half of all adults strongly agree that “the idea of cycling on busy roads [is frightening]”.
One way to get around this could be by teaching drivers to use the “Dutch reach”, a term actually coined by an American cyclist Michael Charney. By opening a car door with the hand furthest from the handle, the driver is forced to turn their body towards the door, becoming more likely to catch sight of approaching cyclists in their peripheral vision.
One study in Chicago found that about one-in-five bicycle accidents involve car doors, with many happening as cyclists swerve to avoid collision. Even in Vancouver – another city with a notable cycle lane network – “dooring” is the most common cause of injury for cyclists colliding with cars.
In the UK, where “dooring” is responsible for an average of 700 injuries and two deaths every year, the government announced in October that Dutch reach will be added to the highway code. Traffic safety organisations like the AAA will begin teaching it to US drivers from January.
- The ‘Dutch reach’ – opening a car door with the hand furthest from the handle – makes drivers becoming more likely to spot approaching cyclists. Photograph: Hympi/Alamy
According to American professor Donald Shoup, car driving is subsidised greatly by the general public. When parking spaces are provided free of charge to the motorist, their cost is absorbed into the cost of other things – be that supermarket prices, company fees, or taxes.
In his ground-breaking 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking – and his latest tome, Parking and the City, published this year – Shoup argues that these economic subsidies pull people into cars, to the cost of everyone else.
In California, Shoup managed to get a new state law requiring employers who provide subsidised parking for their employees to also offer a cash allowance in lieu of a parking space – so taking the fringe benefit of free parking and transforming it into an incentive for cycling.
Although, so far only one workplace has actually implemented the “parking cash out”. At the Sony studio in Santa Monica, cyclist Gary Kavanagh discovered this idea independently of Shoup, and pitched it to his HR department only to find it was unenforced state law. Soon enough, his cycle commuting made him $120 richer each month. He chronicled the experience in his blog.
“It didn’t take long for this kind of incentive to start influencing behaviour,” he writes. “Some part-time bike commuters who would occasionally drive became full-time bike commuters. Some people who never rode bikes before suddenly embraced it full swing, and would come to my desk to ask bicycle questions.”
Can banning cars from part of a city for just for one day help lead to long-term change? Supporters say it gives people a taste of what the city could be like in a less car-dominated future.
Many think that car-free Sundays in the Netherlands in the 1970s were pivotal to the country’s transformation in the following decades. Since then cities around the world have tried their own version, with congested Asian cities such as Chengdu and Jakarta even roping off a few streets.
Paris has been leading the way in Europe, with the almost five-mile distance between the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Nation closed to car traffic once a year, which is soon to be increased to once a month.
London does not have a large-scale car-free day but one Sunday in September the city’s boroughs agree to the closure of 50 individual streets. The London car-free day campaign is pushing mayor Sadiq Khan for more.
Park and pedal
In a new twist on park and ride, some cities – such as Oxford, York and Cambridge – are offering park and pedal schemes which provide free parking for vehicles outside the city as an incentive to hop on a bike and cycle into the centre.
There are two of these “bicycle interchanges” a mile outside Oxford, where cyclists can leave bikes at Redbridge or Seacourt park before catching a bus, or park their car at the site and ride into the city centre.
In Seville, the Bus&Bici scheme entitles resident commuters to free bike rental for the last leg of their journey – as long as they return it by midnight.
Pay people to cycle
Some countries operate cycle-to-work schemes – with tax exemptions on bike purchases – but this can be taken to the next level by directly paying people to get on their bikes.
Governments in several European states have experimented with the idea. The Netherlands trialled a scheme in 2018 allowing companies to pay employees 19 cents for every kilometre they cycle to and from work. Congested Milan is also contemplating a similar programme and, on a smaller scale, one company in Christchurch, New Zealand, pays employees an extra $5 a day if they cycle to and from work.
Paying people to cycle could even be profitable for a city. Elly Blue’s book Bikenomics explores the economic benefits of cycling and finds that cities benefit from reduced congestion, while businesses benefit from reduced sick leave and improved employee satisfaction.
One trial in France, though, showed that a monetary incentive only attracted a certain type of commuter – with most of the rise in cycle commuting coming not from former drivers, but from dissolved carpooling arrangements.
And finally … the Tullock spike
Studies have shown that injuries to pedestrians increased when seatbelt laws were introduced in Australia in the early 1970s. The argument goes that as drivers’ sense of safety grew, they became more likely to take risks, and subconsciously drove a little faster or a bit more recklessly. While the legislation had made those inside the cars safer, it had shifted the risk on to other road users – particularly cyclists and pedestrians.
American economist Gordon Tullock proposed one novel way of getting around this. He suggested that more lives would be saved if the government ordered sharp spikes to be installed on all steering wheels, leaving drivers perpetually poised on the edge of serious injury.
His idea was built on by several others, including economist Sandy Ikeda, who suggested that the best possible safety measure would be to “ban brakes on cars”.
But both were proposed strictly as a thought experiment …
What other ways can help promote urban cycling? Share your ideas in the comments below.