“Cycling Cities: The European Experience” a new Dutch history book on 100 years of urban-realm transformations.

To increase cycle use cities need to be anti-car, say academics

A new book on how some European cities have high cycle usage, and others do not, has been published in the Netherlands. “Cycling Cities: The European Experience” is lavishly illustrated, and produced by an international group of cycling and history of transport academics. They heap praise on separated cycling infrastructure but add that “without restrictions on automobility … it is a moot question whether [cycle use can be boosted].”

Unless cities become explicitly anti-car, say the academics, the provision of kerb-protected cycle lanes in cities where cycle use is low will not lead to the modal share revolutions that some advocates believe will come once protected cycleways have been built.

The 256-page full-colour book, published by Eindhoven University’s Foundation for the History of Technology, is an expansion, translation and updating of a Dutch research report produced by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure. This was published in 1999, and written by Adri Albert de la Bruhèze and Frank Veraart.

Bruhèze and Veraart are editors of the new book alongside Dutch historians of technology Ruth Oldenziel and Martin Emanuel.

“Fietsverkeer in praktijk en beleid in de twintigste eeuw” of 1999 was in Dutch only, and contained a cycle-usage graph that has become famous in academic and advocacy circles. This shows cycling’s modal share in nine European cities, from the 1920s to the 1990s. The graph has now been updated, with information through to 2015. The fourteen cities featured in the new book are Amsterdam, Utrecht, Enschede, Eindhoven, South-Limburg, Antwerp, Copenhagen, Hannover, Stockholm, Malmö, Basel, Lyon, Budapest and Manchester.

The authors of “Cycling Cities” describe the “fine meshed” cycle networks of the Netherlands in towns such as Houten but it may surprise many “Go Dutch” advocates that central Amsterdam has fewer cycle lanes than often perceived (although those that exist are wonderful, such as the one that goes through the Rijksmuseum). On a photograph of a classic Dutch bike on a cycleway a caption in the book describes the scene as an “Amsterdam rarity: strictly separated bicycle lanes.” Amsterdam has high cycle usage, says the book, because motoring was discouraged by traffic calming and “reducing automobility” by making car parking expensive or fiendishly difficult.

“Cycling Cities” provides five factors to describe “why cycling thrived in some [cities] and languished in others.”

First, the city’s “physical landscape has an impact on whether urban cycling thrives”. For cycling to wither there have to be good urban alternatives to cycle use, such as public transport and unrestricted access for cars. Political will is also key, either by being favourable to cycling or preferring automobility: historically, were cyclists considered as “pests who hindered the pace of motorists and annoyed pedestrians, or were they first-class citizens, who belonged on the streets and had equal rights?” For cycle use to grow cycling also has to have a high cultural status, say the authors. Infrastructure is important to get more people cycling but sometimes cheaper measures are even more productive: “In some contexts, creating separate bicycle lanes has increased and encouraged urban cycling; in others, traffic calming schemes have boosted cycling spectacularly.”

Utrecht built separate lanes after 1994 and also heavily restricted car use. “Discouraging car traffic was the key to policymakers’ efforts to ensure that Utrecht once again became a cycling city” say the authors.

Removing car parking spaces is a recurring theme in the book, for cities that want to increase cycle usage that is, and until cities understand this they will make little progress towards their goal of “liveability”.

The Swedish city of Malmo proposed a separate cycling network in 1966 and built it the 1970s but “policy makers never seriously considered taking space away from car drivers.” However, Malmo has now recognised it needs to reign back motoring and its transport Master Plan is now an “explicit anti-car policy.”

The only British city featured in the book, except for mentions of London’s recent surge in cycling numbers, is the car-besotted Manchester. It currently has a cycling modal share of less than four percent. In 1911 the modal share for cycling in Manchester was just 10 percent higher. “Cycling Cities” praises Manchester’s recent efforts to “Go Dutch” with the £20m Cycle City Ambition Grant of 2013 but asks “will this policy commitment to bicycle-friendly infrastructure deliver higher levels of cycling?” This will be a steep challenge warn the authors because to “revive cycling … cultural change is also needed.” And that cultural change will have to include taking space away from cars.

“The new town of Stevenage,” write the authors, was “built with a comprehensive system of separate cycle lanes modelled on the best Dutch practices” but it “does not have higher than average cycling rates.” Why is this? Because it’s still easy to drive in Stevenage. “Providing adequate infrastructure may not be sufficient to nurture a genuine cycling practice,” say the authors.

“Despite a rapid and steep decline [in cycling] in the 1960s, cities [such as Amsterdam, Malmo, Utrecht and Copenhagen] recovered because policymakers liaised with activists to create pro-cycling and car-curbing policies.

The authors conclude: “Bicycle lanes and highways are expensive to build, but cost politically less because bicycle lanes do not question automobility. Traffic calming measures are cheaper – as Amsterdam discovered. They demand political courage …”

“Cycling Cities” has 100 illustrations, and 14 graphs, including an update of the famous one from 1999 (and this graph is accompanied by 30 pages of notes).

Produced in association with Munich’s Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, “Cycling Cities” costs €37.50 plus P&P.

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