Tipping points

Since the 1950s, bicycle use has declined.  The one overwhelming reason is that decades of road construction, widening, and “improvement”, coupled with the advances in car technology that put machines designed for the autobahn on British city streets and country lanes, have given us a network of hostile and frightening barriers to cycling.  Cities and countries which today have mass cycling — Copenhagen and the Netherlands being the leading examples — did not escape the rise of the motor car.  In the 1970s, they too were discovering the many negative consequences of mass car use, and they too were seeing the rapid abandonment of cycling as transport in response to hostile road conditions.  But they have since halted and are reversing that decline.

We know exactly why cycling declined.  We know the precise interventions that successfully reversed the decline of cycling.  How to design streets and infrastructure that removes barriers to cycling is a solved problem, and “segregation versus integration” is a controversy that is visibly approaching a consensus in this country right now.  We know what needs to be done, the issue now is how to drum up the political will to do it, and to do it properly.

David Hembrow explains how the Dutch did it: the snappily named “Stop the Child Murder” campaign of the 1970s focussed on the massive rise in deaths and injuries of children on the roads, and demanded that children be able to safely cycle to school.

Mikael at Copenhagenize explains how the Danes did it: mass demonstrations in the 1970s and 80s, and quirky action to highlight the number of cyclists being killed on the roads.

Cyclist Demonstration on City Hall Square 1970s - Copenhagen

And, I notice, the Germans are doing it right now, citing now in addition environmental and energy concerns:

The way that we do it won’t be exactly the same as the Dutch, Danes, or Germans.  Our situations, politics and cultures are not the same — though nor are they so different.  What is certain is that even here, big things are beginning.

Haven’t you seen them?  You’ll see them.

8 thoughts on “Tipping points”

  1. I hope you’re right. I hope so much, because the daily hassles of cycling everywhere – the aggressive and dangerous driving – along with the weekly struggle with poor rural bus services is wearing me down.

    I meet such resistance to the idea of mass cycling, so many people insist that it just couldn’t possibly work, and ignore any arguments otherwise. I work in a bike shop, and yet everyone else that works there, drives in, and sees no issue with that. I used to get so angry, though I do understand the barriers and fears are high. Now I just feel weary.

    I want to thankyou for your blog, it’s one of those things that keeps my cycling life powering on.

  2. In describing the reasons why cycling has declined since the 50’s, it’s an omission not to mention the much greater affordability of motoring over that period.

  3. Perhaps one of the reasons why we might see a cycling renaissance is precisely because the affordability has gone backwards.

    I’m not talking about the oil price and petrol/diesel prices at the pump – I doubt that in the long term they will really stop people driving and I don’t buy the notion of “peak oil” . No, the killer cost at the moment, for young people and novice drivers, is insurance premiums. Well over two grand for a TPF&T policy? No wonder more young people are deferring their first car purchase.

  4. There is something deeply sad that in this country instead of the Dutch response to rise in deaths and injuries of children on the roads, “Stop the Child Murder”, we get “Tales of the Road: What happens when it all goes wrong”. It really says everything that is wrong with the DfT…

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