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.