International Lycra

From Julie Ann Genter, New Zealand MP's plenary presentation

From Julie Ann Genter, New Zealand MP’s plenary presentation

I’ve spent the last couple of days at the Bicycle Urbanism Symposium at the University of Washington in Seattle, at which I presented visualisation and analysis work we’ve done on bikeshares in London and four north American cities. It’s been very interesting from the perspective of understanding wider views of cycling and where it fits in to the city of the future.

There is a danger that cycling is viewed as a niche and leisure activity – certainly my initial interest in the subject stemmed from getting my hands on a juicy dataset and learning to get to grips with it, rather than any deep love for cycling (I do quite like cycling). Keen readers of this blog will recognise that I’m not a regular cyclist (I have cycled, regularly when I lived in Oxford, and infrequently in London), but I am an avid walker. But I recognise that for commuters, walking is just not an alternative to a car travel, or metro travel – it would just eat too much time in a busy day. And cycling cuts across so many issues: road safety, carbon and energy footprint, health, pollution, use of public transport, and sprawl, amongst others.

One of the things I found fascinating was the barriers to cycling in different countries. In China, as in Europe, cities are frequently dense. From the perspective of cycling, this helps as cycle journeys tend to be shorter distances than you might take by car*. There also seems to be significant political appetite to revive a cycling culture that’s in decline. Haixiao Pan showed images of a bikeshare station of 4,800 units, one of 9 at key metro stations in Shanghai – clearly there is the political will to support cycling. However, there are serious problems to contend with – the spike in car use, which a number of speakers linked to the rise of the Chinese middle classes and the prestige value of owning a car, paired with what one Chinese planner described as “cut and paste planning”. They linked the extremely rapid expansion of Chinese cities based around identikit western models to a growing car culture, and serious pollution problems which impact cyclists.

In the US, cycling represents a much smaller mode share: 1% of journeys in a typical city – contrasting with values of up to 38% in Amsterdam, 25% in Copenhagen and 2% in London (some US cities are higher – for example 3% in Seattle and 6% in Portland). US cities, especially more modern ones, suffer from sprawl – or to put it in a more neutral way, these cities are larger and less dense, especially residentially (even if they have a centralised business area)**. Many US cities are not well-supported in terms of public transport, with the car dominating, and this again supports a spatially large-scale city, one in which encouraging the non-cyclist to become a cyclist has the additional barrier of entry of large distances. If you’re not a cyclist, deciding that you’ll commute ten miles to work by bike is a big ask.

Safety was a question that came up again and again. Conference delegates perceive an “entitlement culture” among car users which contributes to driver antagonism to cyclists. The dominant note of discussion was providing mechanisms by which cycle traffic and motorised traffic could be separated – typically via cycle lanes physically separated from roadways with islands and foliage. I wonder whether that’s an interim solution – in the shining post-oil city of the future, if bikes have a significant mode share, won’t we need those roads to carry additional cycling capacity? Wouldn’t it be better to educate and habituate drivers to respecting cyclists? In the meantime, safety concerns in US cities where cycle modeshare is as low as 0.1% is focussing on infrastructural rather than road culture change.

I found the access aspect of cycling fascinating. Here we have a low-cost public or private transport solution with significant health benefits – a mode of transport which is not only inexpensive on both a public and private level, but would help fitness levels in populations especially at risk of obesity. Virginia Tech researcher Darren Buck explicitly addressed these questions in his session on bikeshare. Evidence suggests that bikeshare schemes are still essentially reaching the white middle classes; however, even among that group, I can’t help but feel that it’s starting to broaden access (to put a positive spin on matters). The cyclist-advocate stereotype of a “white man in lycra” needs to be broadened. Keynote speaker John Pucher identified the need to “get women cycling”, pointing to the strong correlation of mode share with good gender mix (he also offered interesting insights about age and how disabled users could benefit from bikes). Though he didn’t say so explicitly, I suspect that he’s describing correlation rather than causation, and the correlate is essentially safety. Dangerous roads will only be cycled by alpha-type spandex jockeys; safe cycling lowers the barrier to all ages and genders. In fact, the Roger Geller from the City of Portland created a framework for characterising cyclists, essentially in terms of their risk-aversion from “will never cycle” to “will cycle even in the presence of significant safety risks”; once again, the issue of creating safe environments to cycle within.

It may take more than lowering a barrier to increase entry for poor and minority groups, especially if car ownership is seen as a status symbol as well as a mode choice. David Hendry from UW talked about schemes which didn’t use “smart bikes, smart cities or smart phones***” and went back to the “First Generation” bikeshares, asking how social systems could be built that would preserve bike resources, rather than technological solutions being put in place. As a techno-geek, I love the data that’s coming out – for example, both Elizabeth Sall from San Francisco County Transportation Authority and Mariam Asad from Georgia Tech in Atlanta have been using GPS data gathered from smartphone apps to create detailed logit models of cyclist preference, allowing them to simulate the effects of policy changes (such as adding bike lanes).  But when you start to think about how you could capture this data for people who aren’t already active cyclists, and don’t have smartphones, it becomes a lot more difficult.

So no quick solutions. Lots of optimism, lots of enthusiasm about the multiple benefits that cycling has for our cities, but also a lot of realism around political realities. To paraphrase Darren Buck, bike sharing schemes can’t claim to be public transportation unless they’re serving the whole population. That, and the wider goal of increasing access and usage across all communities, and creating safe spaces for cycling, were the common themes at the Symposium identified as major challenges of the coming decades.

*Although this has caveats – many car journeys in the US and UK are 3km or under.

**I’m not a planner, but the fact that many American cities have grown in a period of widespread car ownership seems to be widely recognised to be a decisive factor for this, as well generally less pressure on land availability.

***although smartphone penetration in the US was quoted at 50%, it may well be the other 50% that you want to reach. I’m not familiar with research on this, but this techcrunch article did have some breakdown by ethnicity.

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