Attitude Is Everything: Why Cycling Succeeds in Europe

CC BY 2.0. Ken Avidor

It's fascinating, comparing the differences in attitudes toward cycling in Europe and North America. We recently looked at the lessons from Copenhagen, where the city government has been working on making cyclists comfortable for the last forty years. In North America it seems that we are going in the opposite direction, and trying to scare cyclists and pedestrians off the streets. Because as Ken Avidor notes in his cartoon, the first question should be about the infrastructure, not the reflective vest.

A good example can be seen in London, where as Carlton Reid notes, there has been absolutely amazing growth in cycling because of investment in infrastructure. He points to a report, Human Streets: The Mayor's Vision for Cycling which includes remarkable statistics:


© Transport for London

It is sometimes suggested that cycling is a marginal or fringe activity. In London, this is no longer true. In zone 1, during the morning rush hour, 32 per cent of all vehicles on the roads are now bicycles. On some main roads, up to 70 per cent of vehicles are bicycles. In the year 2000, motorists entering central London during the AM peak outnumbered cyclists by more than 11 to 1. By 2014, the ratio was 1.7 to 1 (or 2 to 1 in vehicle terms). If these trends continue, the number of people commuting to central London by bike will overtake the number commuting by car in three years.

The report also tries to deal with the complaints that cyclists are a tiny, noisy minority that are getting their way at the expense of the motorists, a complaint heard from Toronto to San Francisco, forgetting that when they are on a bike they are not in a car or an expensive subsidized transit system.

Many think of cyclists as somehow a separate species, unconnected to the rest of the transport system. But of course, anything that gets more people cycling improves life for other users of the transport network too – even motorists, in the end. If everyone who currently commutes to central London by bike went by car instead, it would put between 28,000 and 36,000 extra cars on the roads in zone 1 in the morning rush hour, and increase motor traffic by about a third. If they all travelled by Tube instead, it would require 42 additional trains on the Underground.

In his introduction, Carlton Reid notes that Boris Johnson directly addresses the whiners.

Johnson rebuffs those who say the building of the cycle superhighways is the cause of London's congestion. "They get the blame because they're what you can see. But we are removing traffic lanes on only 15 miles of London’s 1500-mile main road network. The main cause is the fact that our population is growing by 10,000 a month. To cope with all those new people who need to use the roads, we must make better use of the roads - by encouraging people on to forms of transport, such as bikes, which take up less space."

And where in North America, the government mostly refuses to take action on the safety of trucks and the requirement for sideguards, London is taking direct action.

HGVs [heavy goods vehicles or big trucks] account for a vastly disproportionate share of cyclist deaths. We have introduced Britain’s first Safer Lorry Scheme, requiring all lorries in London to fit special mirrors and sideguards to protect cyclists, and have achieved 97 per cent compliance. We are proposing to strengthen the scheme by requiring all operators to retrofit an extra cab window so they can see cyclists, and will use City Hall planning powers to dictate safe routes and the safest-possible vehicles.

In the UK they are big on promoting hi-viz clothing and helmets too, (and for the record, I personally wear both these days) but instead of just doing the bright thing, they are doing the right thing, and building proper and safe infrastructure.