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Re-thinking walking and cycling in the route to sustainable travel

07 June 2019

I t was always mistaken to think that transport is only about vehicles. The logic was flawed, for many interlocking reasons including its failure to deliver promised benefits even on the classical rather narrow appraisal criteria dominated by speed. Walking and cycling are more important for present and future travel than had been recognised, and they also have self-evident advantages in terms of energy consumption, carbon and noxious air quality emissions, and health, including fitness and obesity. Being powered by human effort, and with orders of magnitude less potential for causing damage, there has been a feeling also that this can contribute to social well-being, interaction and human contact. Their relative cheapness in terms of claims on money and resources gives them an added advantage, although unfortunately this has also often led to the adoption of ‘lip service’ policies with very low budgets and poor design standards. 

But that’s not the end of it, and what we are now discovering is that there are problems that the simple account above simply does not address.

First, it is true that on a spectrum of modes of transport ordered by emissions or health, walking and cycling sit very close to each other, and very distant from all vehicle travel. But considered as modes of travel with characteristics making them more or less attractive to different people and to different journeys, they are very unlike each other. The journey length distributions of walking and cycling are different. (They overlap, but only in the same way that all journey length distributions of different modes overlap). The distributions of characteristics of their users are not identical (They overlap, but so do the characteristics of the users of all modes). The journey purposes and locations overlap, but are not identical. And crucially, the technical features of speeds, momentum, accelerations and manoeuvring characteristics are very different, hardly overlapping at all, and hence the design of suitable street space is different. Shared space between powered vehicles, bicycles and walking can work well in some specific circumstances where rules of precedence are clear and accepted, but it is a dangerous illusion to think it ought to be the norm. 

What this means is that to add them together, as though there were a transport mode called ‘walking and cycling’, is very misleading as a template for collecting data, or as a guide to planning, design and investment. It may be useful in discussing and monitoring general policy trends, in the same way as one might sometimes say ‘public transport’ instead of ‘buses and trains’, but nobody would think that a public transport strategy could be developed without having detailed separate specific data on the buses and trains and how they interact with each other in both demand and supply. Therefore the allocation of budgets has to be identified and accounted separately. So it is with walking and cycling. Each must have its own, specific, detailed data, planning design and resources. The default position should never be to define data, draft a survey question or write a policy section on ‘walking-and-cycling’ added together.  

We are reaping the bitter fruits of not doing so now, in the appearance of conflicts between cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles, which have been ‘designed-in’ as a result of too flippant a treatment of how they physically and socially interact with each other on the ground. The driving-walking-cycling interaction has become a powder keg of potential conflict. The inadequate funding for high quality sustainable transport has direct consequences on the success of specific initiatives. But it also is having an indirect result, especially in the most congested areas, of simmering hostility, where a small spark can trigger an intrusion into the everyday activities of travel of some of the hostility and tensions seen in the wider political scene: a breakdown of trust and civility, the intrusion of blame and distrust as a commonplace.

 One of the unexpected effects of new technologies has been the very rapid growth of body cameras, car-cams, phones and the like, recording direct evidence of selfish, careless, impolite – and in some cases deliberately and horrifyingly criminal – acts of aggression by users of one mode against another. Even allowing for the exaggeration and artificiality of echo chamber discussion on social media, it is impossible to ignore the anecdotal but now clearly documented evidence on drivers who use cars as weapons against cyclists and sometimes pedestrians, and its trickle-down consequences of inconsiderate behaviour of cyclists on pavements. This is always, to be clear, only some drivers, some cyclists, some pedestrians – small minorities, unrepresentative, quite unaware of the reasons for their feelings of entitlement. But that’s not the point. So too burglars and murderers are small unrepresentative minorities, who should never be defined in terms of their race, gender, age, religion, culture or mode of transport. But if enforcement is abandoned, the effects can only be dire.  Look with anger at this 15-second video at  https://twitter.com/hashtag/RE13OFH?src=hash , and if you are minded dip into the following discussion. How could either the event or the cynical despair be even possible? 

I think it was in the Roman Empire that the slogan ‘divide and rule’ was articulated as a set of methods in which a ruling power kept subject peoples under control by fermenting division and discord, and there has been a long history since of the same thing happening in civil society, whether by villainous dictators or democratic but unscrupulous parties seeking votes. Slogans like ‘road rage’ and ‘war on the motorist’ are reflected in an exaggerated potential hostility between drivers of cars, taxis, goods vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, bus users, taxi drivers, residents, local businesses, disabled travellers, parents with children, young people, old people, owners of big vehicles, tiny vehicles, old vehicles, unusual vehicles, noisy vehicles, and polluting vehicles. At a time of political discord, there are always voices to express such antagonisms, and travel is possibly the single activity bringing strangers into repeated close contact with each other. 

Not all such problems can be solved within transport, clearly, but in this case design and enforcement are both critical elements. For many years I thought that painted-line cycle lanes were the most economical and successful way of achieving a sensible reallocation of road space between vehicles and bikes, and their extension has been an important feature of sustainable transport. Potentially there are still great advantages in scale and speed of implementation of this approach. But where drivers are allowed – implicitly encouraged – to park straddling pavements and cycle lanes, and open their doors carelessly, the whole system breaks down. The cyclists encroach onto pavements or are forced to veer out into the road. Everybody ends up angry and inconvenienced. Some are injured or killed. 

Many agree that sustainable transport requires a substantial shift in resources from providing for vehicle growth to providing for growth in cycling and walking. But the nature of those resources should also be re-examined, with design and enforcement both being given a higher priority, in order to design out, rather than gloss over, potential conflicts, and rebuild acceptance of sensible social norms. Parking on pavements is not a minor irritation, it defeats their functions. To aim a car, deliberately, at another road user is not a minor demeanour, but a crime. We need to remind ourselves of the ‘calming’ in traffic calming. It is not about humps, but about mood. 

In the best cases, calm and determined improvement in the quality of local areas, funded by a wide variety of different sources, has resulted in town centres no longer dominated by traffic and parking, safe residential areas, first class public transport systems with growing use, and a shift to walking, and to cycling, at a scale which had seemed unimaginable. The root causes, no doubt, are much broader, but the laws, enforcement and design of transport can contribute to a more coherent society, just as it can contribute to an unpleasant and divided one.  

Phil Goodwin is emeritus professor of transport policy at both the Centre for Transport and Society, University of the West of England, Bristol, and University College London. Email: philinelh@yahoo.com


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