A View From The Cycle Path)
Monday, 10 January 2011
I often get asked what can be done to increase the cycling rate in countries outside the Netherlands. It’s often noted that there is little government or public enthusiasm for spending even small amounts of money on the small number of people who are currently cyclists.
I think it’s a good idea to look at what worked in the Netherlands.
Cycling in the Netherlands declined sharply in the post-second world war period. In the 1950s and 1960s, existing cycle paths were in many cases removed in order to make space for more cars. “From 1950 to 1975, the bicycle was almost entirely excluded from the government’s vision”(Dutch Bicycle Master Plan 1999). The number of deaths on the roads rose, especially amongst children on their way to and from school. In 1972, a total of 3264 people were killed on Dutch roads, and at around the same time, in 1973, 450 road deaths were of children.
Note that this was a long struggle. The
photo shows Minister Zeevalking
receiving information from protestors
in 1982. (wikimedia)
1973 was also the year that the pressure group “Stop de Kindermoord” (“Stop the Child Murder”) started. The object of this group was to point out the number of deaths caused to children and to campaign to reduce them. They successfully influenced the Dutch government to re-emphasize building of segregated cycle paths, and to make money available to pay for them. This resulted in both a rise in cycling and a reduction in cyclist deaths, reversing the previous trend. It has been a success not only for child cyclists, but for all cyclists, and indeed for the population as a whole.
There is a lesson here for other countries. I’ll take Britain as an example.
It is difficult to campaign for better conditions for “cyclists” in Britain. Cyclists are a minority group, and not a very well liked minority at that. Cyclists can be considered to be an out-group. This is a large part of why it is that cycling initiatives come and go in Britain. There’s no real emphasis placed on results because too few people see it as important. When cyclists in Britain are hit by cars, they get very little sympathy from the public at large.
Campaigning for child safety is different. Very different. Children are not a minority group. Most families include children, all adults used to be children. Child safety is an issue which is important to everyone and difficult to ignore. All parents want their children to be safe.
It is clear that there is a problem with child safety on the roads in the UK. This is the underlying reason why it is that children are increasingly being driven to school. It is the reason why American style school buses are proposed for British kids, and even the reason why someone made the news for driving with his walking child on the school run. When British parents attack traffic wardens next to a school, they even do this in part out of concern for the safety of their own children. These are not solutions to the problem, but they are reactions to it. They demonstrate that parents are not remotely happy with the roads as they are.
Campaigners often talk about there being a suppressed demand for cycling in Britain. It’s true. There is. When I was a campaigner in the UK, many people would tell me that they were very keen to take up cycling, but for one reason or another.
However, the suppressed demand for conditions in which children are safe on the streets is very much greater. This is what any campaigner who wants to see mass cycling return to the UK ought to be campaigning about. Get parents on your side and there will be a mass move to change infrastructure and improve conditions.
I can see the responses from a certain element of the cycling community in the UK. i.e. those who are concerned about being “forced” to use sub-standard shared-use paths next to the road. However, this is all part of the problem. Sub-standard facilities are of no use to anyone. Not only are they no good for confident adults to cycle on, but they will also never provide the level of subjective safety required for British parents to think their children are safe on a bike. I’ve seen many examples of what happens in Britain. Planners think that if they provide a couple of hundred metres of astonishingly bad quality shared use next to a school that they’ve actually done something. People afterwards ask why it is that such facilities are not used. The answer is very simple: they are not usable. The quality is much too low. Tokenism isn’t the answer.
It’s a grave mistake to think that low quality off road provision “for slow and inexperienced cyclists” is all that is needed, and that “fast cyclists” will always be better off on the road. If separate infrastructure is not good enough for a confident adult to use then it’s not good enough for kids to ride to school on either.
The differences between British and Dutch streets are very easy to see. They’re actually almost exactly the same as the differences between Dutch streets in the 1970s and now. i.e. British streets now resemble Dutch streets 40 years ago. It’s not actually all that expensive to achieve such a transition – it simply takes a consistent policy over years.
Road casualties in the Netherlands have dropped steeply, even as cycling rates have risen. Now approximately 720 people per year die on Dutch roads. 180 of them are cyclists, and 22 of those are children. The cycling figures may sound high, but they are in part a reflection of the number of cycle journeys made. The Dutch now experience an overall risk which is less than a quarter of that in 1973, and for children it’s now a twentieth of that in 1973. Dutch cyclists are now the safest in the world. Of course, the campaign goes on to reduce the figures.
Meanwhile, British roads have become safer for drivers, but they have not achieved such good results for vulnerable road users. It would only take about fifteen years to turn this around, following which even better plans can be made.
Dutch parents improved conditions on their roads so that their children were safe. The same could be done in other countries.
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