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Why bike-friendliness is next to godliness

The focus on quietways has led to an increase in two-wheel traffic, but it has also provoked a battle between tribes

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I t is a truth almost universally acknowledged that cycling is good for you.
It’s good for the bank balance: the average short-range commuter saves many thousands of pounds each year. It’s good for the environment, with less atmospheric pollution. It’s good for your health, and good even, as one recent study found, for the bedroom, with cyclists being on average more ‘athletic’ than their carborne cousins.


But is the bike being taken seriously as a potential aide to creating more attractive cities? In offices, the bike is certainly a growing factor. Cycling facilities are now an intrinsic part of the armoury used by agents selling space, recognising a shift in power from the building owner to the occupier.


In this war for talent, the customer is king and queen, with prospective employees voting with their toe-clipped feet. As a consequence, many of the keener-eyed developers and building managers are recognising the growing trend of workers demanding not just showers, but lock-ups, in-house mechanics, hair dryers, and on rare occasions ramps down to spa-like facilities, juice bars, and so on. If cycling is the new golf, the clubhouse has come to the HQ.


“Even Canary Wharf Group has been part of a lobby trying to thwart the cycle superhighway”


But it is not only at this micro-scale that cycling is having an impact. Visitors to Amsterdam and Copenhagen have long marvelled at the transformative effect of policy, allied to an enthusiastic public, on the cityscape. Think of all those shots of leisurely A to B riding by stylish men and women with no helmets or Lycra – even in the depths of winter.


Think too of the images of those cities before that transformation where, we are quick to forget, the highway engineer had the upper hand, and lanes of cars dominated downtown. Places like New York, too, have come to realise the benefits that having more cycle infrastructure can bring to public health.


London is seemingly in the midst of a sometimes difficult modal shift. Cycling in London is still too male and white with the picture having changed little since 2010, as Transport for London (TfL) admits in its latest Travel in London report. According to TfL, "barriers to cycling are felt more acutely by women, BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people and those earning less than £20,000 each year". It seems cycle-commuting has something of an image problem, with the perception of safety cited by TfL as putting riders off.


The electric blue London cycle superhighways, photo by Patrick Mackie
The electric blue London cycle superhighways, photo by Patrick Mackie

The UK capital’s programme of creating superhighways, quietways and ‘mini Hollands’ (now called liveable neighbourhoods) has led to an increase of two-wheeled traffic (build it and they will come).


But it has also often turned into a battle between tribes; the powerful taxi lobby militating against the loss of ‘their’ space, especially as they see it as one more affront after the travails of Uber. Even Canary Wharf Group has been part of a lobby trying to thwart the cycle superhighway.


The biking momentum appears to have stalled, however: partially, as one cycle consultant told The Developer, because of ‘risk-averse’ London mayor Sadiq Khan (in contrast to his predecessor Boris Johnson), and partly because TfL has lost a lot of pro-cycling staff.


Happily, Manchester is looking to the bike with a strategy drawn up by consultants and the public, coaxed by former Olympic gold medallist and walking and cycling commissioner, Chris Boardman.


Boardman’s ‘Beelines’ plan has the backing of Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, and the luxury of more road space with which to work. In contrast to London, Burnham’s major trick has been to ‘monetise’ cycling by borrowing funds against savings to be brought forth from health budgets. A very smart idea.


Greater Manchester’s 2017 Made to Move report suggested 15 steps to double (and double again) cycling numbers and create world-class streets, positing the notion that a city where it is safe and pleasant for a 12-year-old to cycle is one that should be good for all, whether on a bike or not.


Meanwhile, VeloCity – a competition-winning design for a new kind of settlement (sharing its name with a magazine about ‘people, property and bikes’ that I edit) represents an approach to planning, public space, employment and housing outside of the main conurbations.


“The biking momentum appears to have stalled, partially because of ‘risk-averse’ London mayor Sadiq Khan and partly because TfL has lost a lot of pro-cycling staff”


Drawn up by an all-woman team from Tibbalds, Mikhail Riches, Featherstone Young and Placemakers, Expedition Engineering and Khaa, the VeloCity project won the competition run by the National Infrastructure Commission seeking visionary development typologies across the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor. It is aimed at enriching village life and a sense of place with a shift towards greater densification, cycling and walking supported by new automotive transport. Chapeau to that.


All of this brings back to memory more research, further afield. Five years ago, I was part of a group of architects, designers and other professionals who rode from Portland, Oregon, to Portland Place in London, in search of what we could learn from US cities about how they were becoming more liveable, very often through more cycling take-up. Portland had set the pace – residents drive there 20% less than the rest of the US – while Portland Place seemed like a good place to end, being the home of the Royal Institute of British Architects.


What we learned on that trip was that, although the US was impatient for change, it was embracing active transport with an emphasis on the ‘whole journey’, including safe and secure facilities, as much as changes to the road.


Our motto from that trip: ‘A cyclised city is a civilised city’, is as relevant now as it was then.


It’s time to get the civil back.

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