Stevenage is not Britain

So a dull grey 1950s new town of 85,000 people situated 25km beyond the London boundary on the far side of the Hertfordshire green belt seems to have become the unlikely topic that has dominated cycle campaigning discussion all spring. Driving this agenda is Carlton Reid, starting with his Roads Were Not Built For Cars blog describing the dense network of separated cycle paths that were built alongside the town’s big dual carriageway roads, and under the roundabout intersections, when the new town was laid out five decades ago.

Despite its network of “Dutch-style” cycle paths, Stevenage now has a modal share for cycling in the low single figures, just like its cycle track-free neighbours: it’s a typical British town, Reid points out.

The reason the cycle tracks didn’t work in Stevenage, he goes on to explain, is that car use was not restrained. The dense network of cycle paths parallels a dense network of high-speed dual carriageway motor roads linked with high-capacity roundabouts.

Others have already pointed out that the Stevenage cycle path network is ossified in its 1960s state, detached from the parts of the town that have grown since then. And others have already pointed out that the quality of the infrastructure is frequently far below modern Dutch standards, and doesn’t come close to the density of modern Dutch networks — accompanying only the biggest dual carriageway roads, with cycle users still expected to mix on through distributor roads that are much busier and faster than they would be expected to use in the Netherlands. And others have pointed out that the 14% mode share for cycling that Stevenage achieved in the 1970s — before the infrastructure had fallen so far behind the town’s expansion — is actually quite impressive for a town built for driving at a time when cycling in Britain was hitting rock bottom.

So I have no intention of discussing those things, or whether Reid is right to shrug them off. Because on the main point — that the primary reason people don’t cycle in Stevenage is because it’s a town built for easy motoring — everybody is agreed.

I’m more interested in whether Britain really has anything important to learn from Stevenage. Because Reid goes on to draw general conclusions about the UK from this town’s experience. Dutch-style infrastructure and street design, he says, would not be enough to get us on our bikes. At least as important is making it harder to use cars. Indeed, in a particularly bizarre episode that it’s probably kinder not to dwell on, he mocks the “build it and they will come” position with a weird sports analogy. It’s too easy to drive in Britain, he says, so using the car is too culturally ingrained for cycle tracks alone to get people cycling.

The problem with obsessing over the Stevenage story, then, is not that Stevenage is not the Netherlands. It’s that Stevenage is not Britain.

The Stevenage story tells us about mid-20th century new towns, which were built with dense networks of dual carriageways to keep high volumes of motor traffic flowing freely to all destinations. Traffic really is unrestrained in Stevenage. And Stevenage really does have a deeply ingrained car culture: populated by a self-selected pack of people who were attracted out of the overcrowded capital in the 1960s and up the motorway to the semi-detached countryside with the promise of a double garage and everything else that the white heat of technology could provide.

But most places are not Stevenage. It’s ironic that those who seem most fond of the Stevenage story are so often also those who like to point out that many of the streets in the City of London are medieval and so too narrow for cycle paths.

Most of us live in towns and cities that are not like Stevenage, physically or even culturally. Not to anywhere near such an extreme extent, at least. We live in cities which are, no doubt about it, car sick. Cities which have been scarred and divided by some big roads, and cities which have been disfigured by sprawling suburbias with double garage semis, certainly. They are cities where the car has done much damage, and where built-in dependence on the car still does great damage, and you wouldn’t catch me opposing car restraining policies if you were proposing them.

But though there may be little in the way of political policies to actively restrain car use in these places, the car is not, as in Stevenage, the free and fast and utterly unrestrained thing that it is in the new towns. In normal towns and cities, which don’t have the same dense network of dual carriageways joined by roundabouts, serving multistory car parks and double-garaged homes, the car must crawl down old streets narrowed by on-street parking; sit in the congestion that it inevitably creates; and on reaching a destination get waylaid by the task of finding suitable storage. Stevenage’s lesson about the need for policies of car restraint don’t matter for most of us, because in our towns and cities, there are already massive factors pushing against car use.

The problem for us is the lack of any alternatives to go to. In Stevenage the pull of the cycle path network has to compete with the much stronger pull of the road network. Supply of transport infrastructure far exceeds demand, so people opt for whatever’s most attractive. Everywhere else, the push of congested streets and insufficient public transport is met with the much stronger push of hostile cycling conditions. Here supply of transport infrastructure doesn’t meet demand, so people make do with whatever’s least painful.

So yes, of course the formula for building cycling is multifactoral. But there’s a very good reason why there is such a strong focus on campaigning for better infrastructure, and why we might even say: build it and they will come. This is the factor that has so far been missing. In London, in Bristol, in Manchester, Belfast and Glasgow, we have the push of congested roads and too many stored cars for the space available. We have the cycle training in schools and the glossy promotional campaigns. What we’re missing is the infrastructure.

If you care about growing cycling in Stevenage, by all means, go and campaign for the factor that is missing in that town: car use restraint. Good luck to you. Make it difficult to drive and I’m sure They Will Come, to coin a slogan.

I don’t really care about Stevenage. I care about enabling cycling it where it’s needed most, and I’ll carry on campaigning for the factor that is missing in those places: the infrastructure for it. In those places, when you build it, they do come — a phenomenon I’ll explore in more detail later in the week.

21 thoughts on “Stevenage is not Britain”

  1. Joe

    In my piece – a history piece, written for a history book – I write that the Stevenage network is ossified and is not as usefully connected as the equivalent Dutch town would be today. In fact, I make many of the points you make.

    The piece also stresses that – just like you – I want masses of cycle infrastructure. I have been writing editorials calling for such infrastructure for 25+ years.

    As was shown by Danny Alexander’s shockingly bad Comprehensive Spending Review, there’s little appetite from Government for spending on anything other than vanity rail projects and trunk roads. What little money cycling gets will have to be spent wisely.

    Cycle infrastructure has to be put in place where it’s most likely to get used. It’s chicken and egg stuff but that probably means it has to go in places where there’s already a great deal of cycle use. If it goes in places where car use is very high because it’s very easy the infrastructure will be rarely used and will be deemed to be a waste of money by the powers-that-be (and motorists who, as we all know, pay for the roads and “our” infrastructure).

    The Stevenage piece’s main thrust is that where car use is not restrained, cycle use may not rise as fast as many cycle advocates think it will rise. Infrastructure alone is never enough. Is there really anything heretical about that statement?

    1. Thanks Carlton. As I say, we agree on why Stevenage fails and that growing cycling is a multifactoral process.

      But I don’t think “the main thrust” of what you’ve been saying is quite what you claim here that it has been, and I certainly don’t think that most people have been interpreting it that way.

      I spent two minutes doing a Ctrl+F to remind myself how you presented your Stevenage piece in twitter discussions over the past couple of months:

      “The main thrust” has never had anything about “where car use is not restrained” in the sense that this post discusses. The main thrust looks to me like it has always been that if anywhere in the UK is ever to grow cycling, we must war on the car in addition to (even in places _instead of_ — though I know that can’t be intentional) building infrastructure. And I can see that a few people have grasped that idea very firmly.

      But if it’s an idea you do not recognise as your own, then, great, I’m glad we all agree.

      1. Indeed, I read the thrust of Carlton’s ‘Stevenage’ message as being that there is no point building infra unless we ‘curb cars’ first.

        While this may be true in a handful of exceptional places like Milton Keynes or Stevenage, the reality is that across the rest of the UK driving is already an unpleasant, expensive and frustrating experience. People continue to drive in these places for want of an alternative, not because driving is easy.

        So making driving even more difficult (or attempting to make driving even more difficult – because this strikes me as being especially hard to achieve, politically; even harder than spending money on bike infra) before offering people that alternative is doomed to failure.

      2. The piece is long and detailed, with many, er, thrusts. It argues strongly in favour of cycle infrastructure. I want what you want but given 100+ years of motor centrism it’s going to be very tough to get it, and will require many interconnected solutions, of which cycle-specific infrastructure is one part.

        I’d also like more pedestrian-specific infrastructure for it’s not just cyclists killed on the roads of Britain. Car speeds and car culture needs to be reigned back. This, I recognise, is going to be super tough to achieve because we’re spent the best part of 50 years building mostly for the car. That kind of “investment” won’t be changed overnight. So, we should start now may go the cry, but that’s ignoring the fact an awful lot of people have bought into car culture and *want* car culture.

        London is different in this respect, in some ways.

        In a car-owning democracy where driving everywhere is the societal norm, it’s going to take one hell of a shift to get the cash and the political will on the side of pedestrians and cyclists.

        To those that say infrastructure is what turned it around in the Netherlands 40 years I’d agree but there was more money sloshing around back then, a different political mind-set and, lest we forget, a declining but still very strong Dutch cycling culture, and declining but still high cycle use.

        The 1960s ‘Traffic in Towns’ Buchanan Report (which I know you know well) was used to bolster Britain’s car culture. In the Netherlands the very same report was used as a warning not to build just for cars.

  2. It’s BikeAbility week at our primary school this week. Today there were four or five boys wheeling expensive full-suspension mountain bikes to school along the pavements (they aren’t allowed to ride on the road by their parents or the school, and they aren’t allowed to ride on the pavements by law).

    Can they ride their bikes: yes, of course they can, they love riding them.

    Can they ride on the roads? no, of course not, the cars and lorries make it far too risky.

    So will we see lots of year 6 children cycling to school for their last two weeks at primary school? No, because the local residential roads around here are just too dangerous and busy with cars driving children to school, and rat-running commuters. The school officially discourages cycling (instead children are encouraged to scooter to school on those small-wheeled foldable scooters along the pavement), so I don’t know quite why they bother with BikeAbility. There’s precious few places a BikeAbility-trained ten-year-old can put their new training into practice. .

    Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, 8-year-olds cycle to school as a matter of course, and they’d like to get more 7-year-olds and 6-year-olds doing the same too, as they have done in the past. How on earth can that be possible, when everything we’ve done in the UK has failed to allow this?

    Safe infrastructure.

  3. If I’m being perfectly honest, I couldn’t care less about mass cycling.
    I want safe, fast, comprehensive, direct cycling infrastructure for me and my family. If it is provided and no one else bothers to get on a bike, their loss not mine.

    Thing is, it hasn’t ever been provided in the country and so we have no idea whether “build it and they will come” is true or false.

    Why don’t we give it a go and see what happens?

    PS Please choose my home-town as the testbed. ;)

    1. Actually we do have safe, fast, direct cycling infrastructure in a few places in the UK. Here we have the very-popular National Cycle Network Route 2 along the coast. It’s not wide enough, but the crucial thing is that it’s safe for children to use and that it is more than a few metres long!

      Between Lancing and Worthing this now often carries over 1,000 bicycles per day in the summer, and has seen significant growth (10% to 20% per year, averaging at 13% per year) in cycling by all types of people on bicycles (including lots of families with children of all ages) over the last six years. They built it, and the ordinary people on their bikes are coming more and more. A couple of hundred commuters use it all year round, too.

      1. I don’t live in Lancing or Worthing but does it connect with safe, fast, direct cycling infrastructure to the local housing, schools & shops or does it tip you out onto a busy A-road?

      2. Not very well no, although it connects fine with Worthing town centre so long as you’re happy to get off and walk across pedestrian crossings into the pedestrianised area (which most people are). From most houses you’d need to cycle on busy 30mph roads (or cycle on the pavement as most people so) to reach the safe path. Some people drive to the seafront with their bikes on their cars, and some come from dozens of miles away to ride here as it’s one of very few places that families can ride their bikes without fearing being hit by motor vehicles.

        If it was better-connected then the population would rapidly find that it was far too narrow for the numbers using it, but that’s a problem that would be nice to have.

        The crucial point is that it is only this particular piece of infrastructure that is motor-traffic-free that has seen any growth at all in cycling levels. Council-provided free BikeAbility training has failed to get people cycling on local roads even though it has been going for years. Bike Week events have proved worthless, with only a few keen cyclists bothering to turn up.

        You have to make cycling look and feel safe for ordinary people, otherwise you’ll never get more than a small minority of keen cyclists riding bicycles for transport.

    2. I think Carlton makes a valid point when he says that if investment isn’t matched by more people cycling, it’s more likely to be considered a waste of money. So it does have to be spent wisely, and I think prioritizing places where car ownership is already low makes sense. So in a way I think we should all be arguing for mass cycling because if we don’t, there’ll be no political capital in it.

      Most cities don’t have the space for everyone to park their car, and many people already choose public transport to commute into the centre. Councils should be looking to make main routes into and through the centre easier and more welcoming to people on bikes, as to some extent the work of discouraging driving has already been done. In cities with a large number of students and young people, there’s already the potential audience for cycling, so it comes down to making it into an actual viable alternative.

      1. Investment in decent motor-vehicle-free infrastructure is guaranteed to get ordinary people cycling in our car-choked towns and cities. It has been done here in Worthing, where it is now quicker, cheaper, more convenient, and more pleasant to cycle a couple of miles along the coast into town than it is to sit in a car in a traffic jam.

        People will take the most convenient and pleasant form of transport. If you make cycling more convenient than a motor car (easy to do in our towns!) and pleasant (i.e. motor-traffic-free routes) then people will flock to using bicycles for local transport. Especially the quarter of the population’s households that don’t have access to a car!

  4. Carlton Reid raises an interesting point on spatial distribution – build where it’s most popular. Not Newcastle then? What about making it temporal too – build for those who use it most? So let’s build for 20-50 year-old, peak-ecomomic-contribution, go-getting, vehiculars. Let’s forget the 8-80 principle. Oh wait – that’s precisely what most UK authorities do. Business as usual. Seems like fonant and I and the 20% of non-cycling potential cyclists who don’t live “where it’s at” are going to have a long wait for what we’d like.

    And Joe Dunckley writes “I don’t really care about Stevenage. I care about enabling cycling it where it’s needed most.”

    That’s a dreadful thing to write. People like him and me and our families live in Stevenage. So cycling IS needed in Stevenage as much as anywhere else.

    One technical point: consider this – – the arms of Lonsdale Road (among others) point towards cycle paths . Yet the cycle paths cannot be accessed from these ends they are blocked by garages or houses. Compare with a similar set of culs-de-sac in Bremen . Direct access to a cycle path for each. I don’t give a Dutch example because they appear to design their estates/highways to different (more overtly bike friendly) principles. But you’ve got to wonder what the people who failed to connect the ends of residential roads with cycle paths only metres away in Stevenage were thinking. In that respect Stevenage is very, very British. What bets we get similar inconsiderate design in most future prohects in the UK.

  5. Very interesting post. I’d agree with your observation that “Stevenage is not Britain” but add one cautionary note: London is not Britain, either.

    Most of the “go Dutch” campaigning of the last two years has been led from London. Dutch infrastructure will work in London straight off. Build it and they will come, no doubt.

    There are other places, generally cities, where the same applies. Bristol definitely, Manchester and Newcastle probably; Birmingham’s a bit more difficult for various reasons but there’s potential there, too. Let’s call it the Cathedral Principle: if a city has a cathedral, you can make it a cycling town.

    But don’t underestimate the number of “armpit towns” there are out there. Stevenage is an utter craphole, but there are a lot of crapholes across Britain. Towns littered with distribution parks, out-of-town supermarkets, a McDonalds at every roundabout, and truly, truly appalling driver behaviour. These guys need mass cycling, too: indeed, it can’t be “mass cycling” if the vast swathes of the population in these towns aren’t provided for.

      1. …and it drives a huge amount of media coverage and political discourse.

        Getting things right in London would, I think, be extremely significant for the rest of us, even out here in Manchester (which apparently, is having a cycling renaissance).

  6. The problem is that the country has changed. When I was a kid the town centre had all the shops one needed and I could cycle into town with a list from my mum and buy everything she needed; food, clothes, a mop head, rawl plugs, carpet beater, etc etc. I had plenty of time to do this because in the evening or at weekends all I had to do was to mess around with my mates playing football/cricket/tennis in the street or on the rec depending on what was on telly. Lack of bike paths didn’t stop me.

    FFwd to today. The town centre is all mobile phone shops, barbers and charity shops. The DIY shops are all in one out-of-town complex, the supermarket is in a different OOTC; tech stuff is in another. if I sent my kids out for a typical shop that I used to do for my mum they’d have to cycle over ten miles – which is out of the question, whether most of it is on cycle paths or roads. Even if they wanted to do this, they haven’t got the time. The poor buggers have got so much homework that they haven’t got time to play out in the evenings. Saturday it’s into the taxi of mum and dad to play hockey, football and drum school. Even with fantastic infrastructure the boy’s and I are not going to cycle 40 odd miles to a hockey tournament and if we all did there’d be no goalies!

    In less than 40 years we’ve built a country that relies on motorized transport. When I was a teenager (1970s) about half the houses in my street had cars and most of the mums didn’t work so they had time to shop in the day time, cook nutritious meals, darn socks and give me a clip round the ear for almost any (and every) misdemeanour. Now those same houses have got two cars each and the mums work full time. Not only that, they’re expected to get two siblings to and from different schools at opposite ends of the town unless the teachers have called a play day. The shops have moved out of town. One’s support network of family, friends and colleagues now spreads over hundreds of square miles instead of being restricted to a couple of streets like it used to be. Leisure activities take place tens,or hundreds, of miles away from the home instead of being concentrated on the back garden, the street, the rec or the woods. What’s more, most people see this as an improvement on the good old days they remember; they think they have more choices and a better quality of life (I think it’s arguable but I get called a nostalgic old idiot)

    It might have taken half a century to to build a country dependent on the car but it will take much longer to change it to being bike friendly. I know that some people use their bikes more than their cars, I know that it has tremendous health benefits, I know that cycling (dreaming, saving, buying, fixing, modifying, riding, wheelying, racing, traffic-jamming) has great benefits, is great fun – but to a majority of people I mix with cycling is just another leisure activity. Many of the parents I know would prefer infrastructure money to be spent on a local astroturf pitch or a tennis court or a swimming pool, bouldering wall, handball court, dry ski slope, etc, etc, than on better cycling facilities. Put more money into coaching if you want healther kids. Some families I know spend more time skiing than cycling in a typical year. I understand the “if you build it they will come” principle of making cycling safe and accessible – but the same goes for hockey, handball, swimming, etc etc. and why are they any different? Some might argue that a team games foster not only fitness but friendship, leadership, teamwork, etc. (yes – I know about racing – I said “some might argue”).

    I understand the pollution stuff – but if there were a hockey pitch within walking distance of my house I wouldn’t have to drive 35 miles a weekend.

    I’ve been a cyclist for 40 odd years. I lusted after a chopper but got my cousin’s cast off (a girl’s – but it was still a bike). My current Raleigh would feel right at home in the late 70s (except possible for the rear mech – I’m not sure when Superbe Pro came out). I don’t commute any more but I still get a few thou under my belt bumbling round the local roads when it’s not raining and going to the pub on a Saturday (raining or not). I love cycling but I sincerely believe that all the concrete, tarmac, white paint and friendly tinkling bells in the world won’t make much difference unless we can change the culture that forces people into cars – that’s families, work, housing, schooling, local planning – and I think that it’s too late.

    This isn’t a carefully researched argument and I’m prepared for a fair (in both senses) number of flames; it’s an emotional response and I’m sorry if it’s pessimistic. I’m not saying don’t invest – if it makes it safer for cyclists then that’s good, but don’t expect the investment to get masses more on the road. I don’t need cycle paths to get me on my bike but by the same token it’s quite easy for most of my friends and neighbours to get into the town centre without having to cycle on a road and only two of them do. I live 1.5 miles from the town centre. On Saturday it can take 30 mins to get into town in the car – and the same to get out – and it’s at least £1.20 to park. On the bike it takes 10 minutes and tad longer by the cycle path – but you wouldn’t get my neighbours (most younger than me) to cycle it if you kidnapped their kids and started cutting their fingers off. They’ve got their cars and making cycling easier, safer, pleasanter, cheaper, friendlier won’t make a blind bit of difference to them. I’ll still be passing them in their cars on the way into town and most of them will still spend a sunny Sunday morning cleaning and polishing them instead of heading out to try a local hill without getting into the bottom two gears.

    We’re not going to turn Dutch by getting better cycling infrastructure any more than we’re going to turn Italian by eating more spaghetti.

  7. We’re already seeing some results. Look at Glasgow where they are – patchily, imperfectly, slowly but steadily – building a segregated network, complete with the ‘bridge to nowhere’ becoming a ‘bridge to somewhere’. And already cycling is rising as people start to use it, something that will only increase as the network gets more connected. Similarly in Edinburgh (despite the farcical Quality Bike Corridor) where the network of off-road paths is building cycling (although there the trambles has probably done as much to discourage driving). It’s a shame the census information on cycling levels hasn’t come out for Scotland yet, but it would be interesting to see what’s happening in those cities in terms of commuting numbers

  8. Speaking from experience part of the problem in Stevenage is the lack of signs. I have been visiting since the 90’s and everytime the cycle lane dives towards an underpass my heart sinks as there will be multiple exits and none of them sign posted.

    BTW – Andy Mac, I played hockey in the London and East Leagues for twelve seasons and managed to cycle to almost every home game (5 miles each way) and a decent chunk of the away games. But I certainly could not have done so towing a goal keeping kit!twelve

  9. I do find it a little odd, and disturbing, that there is still anything less than unanimous support for hard infrastructure. Would you start trying to increase the number of pedestrians in a town any other way than by building pavements?

    (And would anyone then say, “oh, in such and such a place they have an excellent pavement network, but very few journeys are made on foot”!)

    My thoughts on this:

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