Wednesday, 1 July 2015

If cycling is popular in Cambridge because it is flat, why is it also popular in Bristol?

To find out, read Urban Transport without the hot air by Steve Melia (UIT Cambridge). I particularly wanted to read this book because traffic congestion is a terrible problem in Cambridge but when the council consults us on what we want them to do about it I never know how to answer. For example, we were recently asked to prioritise a number of schemes under the Greater Cambridge City Deal programme. Do we want cycle junction improvements, bus priority measures on radial commuter routes, a western orbital bus route? What would be the implications of each of these? Having read the book, I at least now feel able to take part in a sensible discussion around the issues.

Part one of the book busts myths, such as that cycling is only very popular in flat cities (Bristol and Heidelberg in Germany being counter examples), or that ‘shared spaces’ allowing traffic to mix in with pedestrians are better than strict pedestrianisation. Shared spaces can work well when traffic volumes are low but when there is more traffic than people, people feel intimidated. Even if the accident rate goes down this does not necessarily imply success – this may be because people are taking more care or avoiding the junction altogether. Part two of the book discusses solutions, with examples from a variety of cities in Europe and in the UK, Cambridge being one of them.

I learnt a new term – ‘filtered permeability’. This means making streets permeable to some kinds of traffic but not all. Cambridge has used this strategy to great effect, with roads blocked at strategic points to cars, but pedestrians and bicycles are allowed through and often also buses and taxis. (They carry tags that trigger the bollards to sink into the ground while they pass). This means that for many journeys in and around the city it is shorter and quicker to cycle than to drive, even ignoring the time to find a place to park. Since people generally choose to travel by the quickest mode, or the most reliably quick mode, this strongly favours walking and cycling over car travel. This has not happened overnight – changes were made piecemeal over a number of years in a number of areas, not just cycling, and the number of people driving to work has gradually decreased. Between the 2001 and 2011 census the number of people driving to work in Cambridge decreased by 18%. London is another success story in this respect – the number of people driving to work in London decreased by 21% over the same period. Melia has a whole chapter on London.

I do have some concerns about the emphasis on cycling in Cambridge, since it does not benefit people who are not able to cycle for one reason or another. However I note that in Groningen mobility scooters are allowed to use the cycle routes – perhaps we should do that here too. (In the UK, mobility scooters are allowed anywhere pedestrians can go but no faster than 4mph and not in cycle only areas [2].)

Census data has its limitations. In particular, although we were asked how we get to work, we were not asked where that is. So the figures above are for people living in Cambridge but do not include people working in Cambridge who come from a long distance away. Cycling is not practical for many of these trips. Melia cited our guided busway as a good example here: not only has the number of passengers exceeded expectations but it has persuaded people out of their cars – a survey showed that a quarter of the commuters on the guided bus previously used a car. That is slightly better than examples elsewhere such as the Manchester Metrolink (21%) and the Kent Fastrack Bus (19%). However, increased use of public transport does not necessarily mean less car use – it can also mean people switching from cycling and walking to using buses and trams or making more journeys overall – as in Freiburg.

I have made an assumption that you all agree we need to reduce traffic in cities. There are at least three reasons of this of which climate change is one – though for that we need to reduce overall transport energy use not just take cars out of towns. As Melia points out, in terms of CO2 emissions, switching from car to bus doesn’t necessarily help. It depends on how many people share each bus.

The other reasons are general quality of life and economic benefit and these benefits are linked in complex ways. For example, reducing congestion can increase property values. On the other hand the economic benefit of new roads and airports is one of Melia’s myths that he does not so much bust as utterly trash. In places where infrastructure is poor, building roads does allow the economy to grow, up to a point. Past that point it is more likely to shift economic activity from one place to another. Airport expansion is in the news recently – should we expand Gatwick or Heathrow? We are told we must expand one or the other but in practice, expanding either will bring a big loss to the economy as it enables more people to travel abroad and spend their money elsewhere. Only 19% of passenger air travel is related to work, the rest is for leisure or personal reasons, and there are 3 times as many trips made by UK people travelling abroad as vice versa. The money we spend on holidays abroad comes out of the UK economy.

Before I stop I must just mention another new term I learnt: ‘false consensus’. This is where a group of people such as estate agents assume that other people are like them when in fact they are not. For example, estate agents are often status conscious and drive fancy cars so they assume other people don’t want to buy a home without at least one parking place. In fact, 25% of households do not have a car, and in the majority of cases this is nothing to do with affordability. Car-free developments with good transport links are popular across Europe and in the UK.

I could go on, but I strongly recommend you read this book. It is easy to read, with lots of examples, and although the author clearly has strong opinions that he is keen to air, he does justify all his points with evidence. There is a comprehensive reference section too. This book easily justifies its place in the popular ‘without the hot air’ series.

By the way, one of the Greater Cambridge City Deal transport projects is the Chisholm Trail – a new, mostly off-road, cycle route connecting between the Guided Bus path to north and south. Off road cycle paths are important to encourage people to cycle more. Surveys show that for many people fear of mixing with heavy traffic is a big deterrent. The Chisholm Trail will be on the agenda at the City Deal Assembly on July 15th.

Finally, Steve Melia will give a talk based on his book this Friday at 7pm at Waterstones. Tickets £5. See here for more information.

NB. Although I am good friends with UIT they have not paid me to write this review. My enthusiasm is entirely genuine.

[1] Urban Transport without the hot air by Steve Melia (UIT Cambridge)

[2] Mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs: the rules

1 comment:

  1. Useful review, thank you. Sounds like a good book, well worth reading.
    Sam Hampton


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