With Bicycle Infrastructure You Get What You ‘Pay’ For

Background Reading

Summary

Bicycle streets! Don’t you just love them? Put up a few signs, a bit of paint, and voilà – instant Groningen.

Except it doesn’t work like that at all, though not everyone has figured that out yet.

For a bicycle street to work, it needs to have very, very low levels of motor traffic. It needs to form no useful through route for motor vehicles. Bikes needs to greatly outnumber cars and vans.

In Berlin, the highly-paid experts responsible for the roads think that signs and paint are enough to create a great cycle network. Just put up signs to tell drivers that a road is a bicycle street – or a home zone, or no entry – and they’ll behave differently, right? They’ll stop using that street as a rat-run, no?

Here’s Choriner Straße in Prenzlauer Berg:

Funny, the signs and paint don’t seem to be working.

Does it look like bicycles dominate there? Does that look suitable for young children? (And don’t be fooled by the low speeds, drivers are going slow because a double-parked car has narrowed the carriageway just off-camera to the left.)

This is pretend infrastructure – something which makes it look like the authorities are considering cycling, while they’re actually doing nothing. Other modes of transport don’t have this (with the possible exception of walking). There’s no airports without runways, or motorways with grazing sheep designed-in.

It’s not just Berlin that does this. When I lived in London, Lambeth Council painted bike symbols on Hercules Road to try and pretend it wasn’t an awful rat-run. That particular street is soon to be part of London’s forthcoming network patchwork of Quietways, so the green blobs of paint which taxis speed over will instead be purple blobs of paint which taxis speed over – more pretend infrastructure.

A nasty pinch-point on the rat run that is Hercules Road

A nasty pinch-point on the rat run that is Hercules Road

Here’s another bit of pretend infra, a moment’s walk away from the first video, at the junction with Oderberger Straße (look at it on a map and you’ll see it’s clearly a rat-run to cut the corner of Eberswalder Straße and Schönhauser Allee – no traffic lights, either).
This junction is signposted “no vehicles, except bikes and emergency vehicles” yet there’s nothing at all to stop anyone driving through here. So what happens?

More pretend infra. There’s even a “no through route” sign at the end of the street, but the local drivers all know this is nonsense!

The most profitable form of pretend infrastructure at the moment is shared space. If you’ve strolled along London’s famous Exhibition Road recently, you’ll be aware of the magnitude of bullshit at work here.

Lots has been written about the failure of Exhibition Road and other examples of shared space so I won’t go into detail here, but unfortunately the on-trend placemaking street architects’ marketing teams are still busy selling snake-oil, as can be seen here on Hackney’s lovely new Leonard Circus, where white van drivers share safely with anyone lucky enough not to be in the way:

Would you want your loved ones wandering around there when he speeds through this pretend infrastructure again, or would you prefer some tried-and-tested, proven-to-work sustainable safety?


TakeAways

I do not subscribe to the notion that:

For a bicycle street to work, it needs to have very, very low levels of motor traffic. It needs to form no useful through route for motor vehicles. Bikes needs to greatly outnumber cars and vans.

Here is why. If you consider the situation of crime in big cities, there are those who would offer up that

for a big city to work, it needs to have very, very low levels of people of color‘.

This is exactly the kind of thinking that spurred the Nazis to find a ‘final solution‘. That is at best wrong-headed thinking. At worst it leads to extermination camps. Bicyclists should not be in the business of removing cars from the roads. What they should be seeking is an alternative that allows society to choose alternatives for transport that may not even exist today (but will be invented in future). The design of the infrastructure that supports these choices should allow them to work seamlessly together.

The fix should not require a specific number of cars or bicycles or for that matter people on foot or in buses or light rail trains. It should simply be a system that can support whatever the mix with ease.

If the Urban Cycling Community is in fact envisioning a world in which it gets to reach a ‘Final Solution‘ based on the elimination of the pieces on the board then I think we have a very bad idea rumbling around in our collective consciousness. That way leads to madness.