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News & opinion

6 NOV 2018

What we can learn from giving way to cyclists

The UK should look to a near neighbour if it wants to get cycle-friendly infrastructure right, says Carlton Reid.

Ask most people what the phrase “going Dutch” means, and they’re likely to refer to the concept of equally sharing the cost of something. But to liveability advocates, it means the sort of bike-friendly street engineering common in the Netherlands. And in the east London suburb of Walthamstow, the concept has its latest poster child.

“Ten years ago, this place wasn’t considered a cool area to live, but it’s now getting a lot of love,” says Jon Little, a transport consultant who works freelance in the local authority’s traffic team. In what was once a car-dominated neighbourhood, the council is now closing rat-runs with trees in planters and encouraging locals to walk and cycle by installing wide, kerb-protected cycleways beside busy roads.

Not everybody has been happy with the changes. At a 2015 ceremony to celebrate closing a local shopping street to motor vehicles, 60 or so protesters carried aloft a coffin displaying the message: “RIP Walthamstow Village.”

That street, Orford Road, was transformed via a £27m “Mini-Holland” grant from the Mayor of London’s £913m Vision for Cycling programme. But it’s not the first time that British planners and politicians have attempted to go Dutch. In February 1934, the Ministry of Transport’s chief engineer, Colonel Bressey, contacted the director of the Dutch infrastructure ministry, WGC Gelinck, to ask him about the wide cycle tracks being built beside new arterial roads in the country. He responded with maps and how-to advice.

In tandem: two cities putting bikes first

In the pink in Auckland

The “Te Ara I Whiti” cycleway in the New Zealand capital, Auckland, replaced a freeway slip road and is wide, pink and studded with Maori symbols. It joins up with three existing cycleways, with plans for another to link in soon. Experts cite this sort of approach as the most effective way to go Dutch.

Seville in the saddle

“Now in fabulous Seville on a visit to see how the city was transformed into a major cycling and walking city,” tweeted British transport minister Jesse Norman in January. Between 2006 and 2010, the Spanish city created a 75-mile network of cycleways, which led to an elevenfold increase in cycling.

Impressed, Bressey then commissioned the building of more than 250 miles of Dutch-style cycleways between 1934 and 1943. However, the British public were not keen on cycling long distances on bypasses and the infrastructure flopped. Today, most of those cycleways are overgrown, hidden, or used for car parking.

The next UK attempt to emulate the Dutch system was implemented in Stevenage. From the outset in the 1950s, the new town was laced with a network of cycleways, on separate alignments to roads. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Stevenage was held up as proof that the UK could build a Dutch-style cycle network.

Stevenage’s 1949 masterplan projected that 40% of the town’s residents would cycle, and just 16% would drive. The opposite happened. By 1964, cycle use was down to 13%; by 1972 that figure had almost halved. It’s now less than 3%.

Planners like Little hope that their more recent interventions will fare better than the previous ones – and there are signs that they are doing so. A study into the impact of Mini-Holland schemes, published in June in Transportation Research, found that Walthamstow residents are now walking and cycling more than residents in comparable boroughs.

Another 2018 study, Air Quality: Concentrations, Exposure and Attitudes in Waltham Forest, found that the borough’s 265,000 residents will gain a total of 41,000 years of extra life thanks to a significant fall in polluting motor traffic.

Little takes his children to nursery by bicycle, and he’s seen other locals take the pedalling plunge, even some of those who’d initially protested the changes. “For me it’s about enabling children to walk and cycle to school if they want to,” he says. “If that also means the streets have more trees, I don’t see that as a bad thing.”

  • Carlton Reid is editor-at-large of BikeBiz and author of Roads Were Not Built for Cars.