Planning for bicycles: A ticket to ride

The inclusion of cycling has been baked into planning and developments for decades on the Continent – but the UK is trailing behind, says Pete Carvill

Cycling around a city has always been perceived as more of a continental thing. It is easy to imagine, as a British person, a figure moving on two wheels along the side of an Amsterdam canal, or the banks of the Seine, or the front of the Reichstag.

Cycling as a mode of transport is very popular on the Continent (in the Netherlands, there are 23m bikes for 17 million people) – much more so than in the UK. Each year, Wired ranks the best 20 cities for cycling in the world; in its most recent list, only five (Montreal, Vancouver, Taipei, Tokyo and Bogota) of the 20 entrants are from outside Europe, and the highest-placed of those comes in at 12. The UK does not feature at all.

Much of this comes down to two things: a social attitude more conducive to cycling, and government drives to embrace, encourage and build upon adoption of commuting by bicycle.

Cycling on the Continent

In Germany, the federal government is currently finalising the National Cycling Plan 3.0, which follows on from the National Cycling Plan 2020. Under the 2020 version, the government set out to promote and improve cycling through the building of infrastructure, evolving traffic regulations, and supporting non-investment pilot projects. While all we know of 3.0 at this date is that it intends to increase the share of trips done by bike within Germany, the federal government has already allotted €98m to the building of cycle tracks beside highways each year since 2015. Other projects include the 62-mile bike highway known as RS1 in North Rhine-Westphalia, which began to open in 2015 at a cost of US$200m and will eventually connect 10 cities between Duisburg and Hamm.

“UK cyclists are often viewed with disdain by other road users and are thought of as being a clique that takes itself too seriously”

The federal government in Germany currently provides €200m of funding each year to provide bicycle lanes and paths, with states, districts and municipalities responsible for their construction and maintenance. “But,” according to The Local, “now there should be a big chunk more money: the government’s climate protection programme will provide an additional €900m through the year 2023 to promote the founding of new infrastructure projects in the states and municipalities. This would mean that €1.45bn would be available at the federal level just for cycling by 2023.”

France has been taking similar, confident steps. In 2018, then prime minister Edouard Philippe announced plans to increase the share of cycling as public transport from 3% to 9%. Other measures included Plan Vélo, which has a €350m budget to spend on building cycle networks across the country over seven years, beginning from this year; introducing cycling lessons in schools by 2022; and incentives and bonuses for civil servants and employees who cycle to work.

Within Paris, mayor Anne Hidalgo has promised that all streets will be cycle-friendly by 2024, the plan for which included the elimination of 72% of on-street car parking spaces. However, it seems to have stuttered somewhat. As Transport Environment wrote in January, “Hidalgo initially promised a doubling of the existing 700km of lanes to 1,400km by March 2020; she has since revised that down to a total of 1,000km, and just under 40% had been built by the end of 2019.”

The countries with perhaps the tightest societal bonds to cycling are Denmark and the Netherlands. The former’s capital, Copenhagen, has a 350km network of cycle paths, allied with a traffic light system favouring cyclists that helps 62% of its residents commute to work on two wheels. This drive (or ride) has even spawned the local verb ‘Copenhagenise’, which describes the turning of cities into bike-friendly places. This push has been replicated across the country during the past eight years. In 2012, there were 17km of cycle superhighways; that figure now stands at 167km, with plans for 680km by 2030 and more than 750km by 2045.

The Netherlands has not rested on its laurels, either. Between 2015 and 2018, Forbes reported that 400 miles of cycle highways had been built, in addition to the creation of 25,000 bike parking spaces around the main train stations in Amsterdam, Heerlen and Rotterdam. The money is there, too – as Forbes reported, “the Dutch government has announced plans to spend an extra €245m on bicycle infrastructure. This is on top of €100m that State Infrastructure Secretary Stientje van Veldhoven pledged last year to improve bicycle parking and city-to-city cycleways. Her aim is to get an additional 200,000 Dutch people on bicycles.”

On your bike

The coronavirus epidemic has given buoyancy to the advancement of cycling across Europe. It appears that well-founded fears about travelling on public transport pushed many commuters to cycle to work, abandoning trains and buses – in April, broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that there had been 40% less traffic on Berlin streets since the lockdown. And it seems that governments are happy to oblige. In Paris, it was reported a few months ago that the Ile-de-France region would be putting €300m into building temporary and permanent cycle lanes, the first of which were slated for completion by May. It was also announced that 116 towns and cities – including Lyon, Dijon, Le Mans and St Etienne – were planning temporary cycleways amid the health crisis. And the city of Milan, Italy, told residents recently that 35km of city streets would be made more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists as part of post-lockdown planning.

This has all left the UK trailing. Cycling as a mode of transport has never taken off in the country in the same way it did on the Continent. Cyclists are often viewed with disdain by other road users and are thought of as being a clique that takes itself too seriously. Infrastructure within larger cities has often left a lot to be desired.

That said, there have been some encouraging signs. In 2008, Bristol was deemed to be the UK’s first ‘cycling city’, an award that came with an £11.4m grant to improve infrastructure. In 2018, it was announced that there were plans for a 10-year project, costing £1.5bn, to build 75 miles of segregated cycle lanes and 1,000 miles of route across Greater Manchester. The Department for Transport managed to get in on the act in 2017 with an announcement that is intended to double cycling from its 2013 level by 2025, plans publicised in its Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy.

All of this should have been coming to a head in the UK with the announcement from the government in May, communicated through its Gear Change report, of £2bn of new funding for walking and cycling. It is an admirable and ambitious number, but Gear Change is vague and lacks detail, fine or otherwise. The smart decision, until something concrete appears, would be to make your own plans to get onto two wheels. 

Pete Carvill is a freelance journalist.

Picture Credit | iStock
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