This post first appeared on the STV Edinburgh website, as part of a series of articles for Bike Week. I have slightly rewritten and expanded it here.
As I have said before, cycling is a good thing, as it achieves so many policy objectives: it is clean, it is green, it reduces congestion, it can boost local economic activity. It is healthy – active people, such as regular cyclists, live longer and make fewer calls on the NHS. In addition, people who use active ways of travel to get to work are more productive, it is relatively cheap and therefore has great potential to save money (the future savings in health costs alone make worthwhile). Apart from all that, over distances of up to 10Km cycling is fast and efficient, it is also fun and increasingly fashionable. So it is no wonder that many people want to be able to use bicycles to make short journeys. Surveys have shown that up to 60% of ordinary people would like to be able cycle for transport on short journeys, at least some of the time. So what is stopping them? The answer is simple, they don’t feel it is safe to ride on the roads, and this is the major barrier to increasing cycling rates across Scotland.
When I first heard about the proposed Quality Bike Corridor between the King’s Buildings and George IV Bridge, I thought this was a great idea. I have been cycling in Edinburgh for nearly 20 years and must have ridden parts of this route thousands of times, starting from when I was a student at the King’s Buildings. Over the years I have noticed a number of changes around the city. In the early years there were the new, and then controversial, cycle lanes painted red at the side of the road, then the introduction of Advanced Stop Lines (ASL) at traffic lights. Over that same period, the annual counts of commuter cyclists carried out by the SPOKES Cycle Campaign, have risen steadily.
However, cycling as a share of all means of transport for all short journeys remains low. Why isn’t utility cycling taking off, when cycling is apparently booming and the City of Edinburgh Council has committed 5% of its transport budget to cycling? Part of the problem is the “dual network” approach. This is based on the idea that people will start off on the “family network” which is “catering for less confident cyclists” and then, as they gain confidence (and maybe have some training), they will “graduate” to using the “Quality Bike Corridors” as part of the “cycle-friendly city”. According to the council’s Active Travel Action Plan this is to “include on street cycle facilities such as cycle lanes, enhanced cycle parking/loading restrictions and marketing” [sic]. Here is the central flaw, this “cycle-friendly city” is aimed at “confident cyclists” who are happy to ride on the roads with the existing motor traffic. These are the people who are already cycling, not the ordinary people who want to cycle but don’t at present because they don’t feel safe. If the aim is to create a truly cycle-friendly city, then there would be no need for a “family network”, all areas of the city would be accessible by people riding bicycles, as almost all Dutch cities and many more cities across Europe are.
The section of the Active Travel Action Plan which deals with cycling recognises that “safety, and perceived safety, especially on busy roads” is a barrier to cycling. However, given the rising rates of pedestrians and cyclists injured on the roads across Scotland as a result of collisions with motor vehicles (Provisional results from Transport Scotland for 2011), it is time for a change in approach. We need to look to best practice internationally. In the Netherlands, where 25% of trips are by bicycle, the risk of being killed or seriously injured is over seven times lower than in the UK. The “dual network” approach does not in any way fit with the Dutch approach, which is based on the concept of Sustainable Safety. In order to make cycling as a means of transport attractive to the greatest number of people, the routes available need to be direct, pleasant and safe. It should not be required to make a choice between direct and safe, however this is implicit in the dual network approach. Only on the “family network” is there any form of separation or traffic calming (i.e., on quite back roads, which are quiet because they don’t offer direct easy access to anywhere). This is the central flaw to the “dual network” approach, that it is designed to avoid making any changes to the road environment which might “inconvenience” the motorist. For this reason, we have painted bike lanes which go around car parking bays on the “Quality Bike Corridor” (aka QBiC or QBC), rather than removing the parking on main roads. In Paris before introducing their Vélib cycle share scheme 7000 car parking spaces were removed and cycle lanes introduced, the world did not end, the city did not grind to a halt.
I am not alone in being disappointed that the first “Quality Bike Corridor” has made no attempt to provide a separated on-street cycle lane, or cycle priority junctions (no, ASLs just don’t cut it). Many of the 3,000 people who Pedalled on Parliament feel the same disappointed that a more ambition approach wasn’t tried. There are cities in the UK which are experimenting with separated cycle infrastructure, among them Birmingham, Manchester, London and even Glasgow! Although none of these have cycling rates approaching those of cycle-friendly cities on mainland Europe. No, the Edinburgh approach is simply not good enough, we need change, we need to move forward and learn from our near neighbours across the North Sea.
Addendum: I have added a new post with images from the “Quality Bike Corridor”.