Friday, December 16, 2011

What the mayor doesn't always tell you about bike modal share

Part One of this Series. For Part Two - going beyond what was published in Cycling Mobility - focused on cycle training of immigrants to the Netherlands, click here.

Intro: For the fourth (and sadly, final) issue of Cycling Mobility, which has just hit the street, I wrote a long blog-style article which was edited down considerably into an opinion piece. This follows immediately below, though the version in the magazine is somewhat longer. It was originally titled by the editors as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" which I objected to as it had both nothing to do with gays and lesbians serving in the U.S. military -- and as some kind of word play it also did not describe accurately what this whole thing is about...
The whole thing starts with the opinion - part I - and follows with four parts originally intended to be sidebars/boxouts with the original text. In part I have added some clarifications or emphasized certain things [in brackets] based on the original text. - Todd Edelman, Slow Factory.


As I walked in Copenhagen one night in December 2009, I joked with my companions that portraying it as a leading cycling city was so important to the mayor that he would pay cyclists to ride around so there were always bicycles on the streets [or even show a live CCTV video with computer-generated cyclists added]. 

Neither Copenhagen nor Amsterdam need to exaggerate how many people cycle there, or the percentage of cyclists as part of overall traffic. These figures are in hundreds of blogs every month and increasingly in mainstream media.

...or illusion? Frame grabs from "Protektor"(Czech Republic, 2009)

But as more people get on bikes in any given city, is it enough to simply publicise cycling’s share of journeys? I would argue that it isn’t. Instead, it is increasingly important to analyse how these figures are arrived at and what they tell us about cycling. It is more than a simple percentage: publicising cycling’s modal share should reflect design conditions, participants [e.g. ethnicity, ethnic origin, income level, gender...] and cyclist behaviour.

There are great infrastructure designs — the best are usually found in the Netherlands — and there is a lot of rubbish, and that includes high-density areas where cyclists are added to pedestrian space. Such shared use is normally the result of weakness; politicians are reluctant to take space from cars (either travelling or parked) due to pressure from motorists and the motoring lobby. 

I moved to Berlin in 2008, and my own street is a great example of how cyclists and pedestrians have been marginalised. Urbanstaße, in the district of Kreuzberg, was planned in the late 19th century. In its early configuration, a tram ran along the centre of the street and wide outside lanes were shared by horse-drawn vehicles, cyclists and a few motor vehicles. Not many cars were parked on the street.

Until roughly mid-20th century: Facade – garden – footway (sidewalk) – trees/planter – multi-use street lane – double-tracked, centre-running trams [streetcars] – multi-use street lane – trees/planter – footway – garden – facade

Today: Facade – footway – bike path – trees/planter – car storage – motor-vehicle lane – motor-vehicle lane – narrow centre divider – motor-vehicle lane – motor-vehicle lane – car storage – trees/planter- bike path – footway – facade

By the early 1960s the layout had changed, and it is still like this today. Cyclists are now in the former pedestrian space and the pedestrians are in the former garden area. The pedestrian and bike areas are at the same level, so cyclists who need more space (for instance to pass each other) ride in the pedestrian space. In recent years cycling has increased significantly and this has put riders perilously close to facades and doorways. Many riders go the wrong way, and it seems most are unaware they are breaking the law. If challenged, they say that “others do it” as a way of justifying their own actions.

This is the worst of Berlin’s cycling mobility — it is at the expense of pedestrians and other cyclists. The best way to describe it is “cycle-colonisation”. In terms of infrastructure, the current situation is a layout created over time and without much thought towards anything but improving the flow of motor traffic. It encourages and facilitates bad cycling behaviour. Bike trips in such locations are low in quality and dangerous — or often simply annoying for pedestrians. Such car-friendly/people-ignorant street designs have led to an explosion in the number of bike salmon, the term coined by NYC Bike Snob to describe people who ride illegally against traffic. As the cycling renaissance gathers pace, it is important to remember that one-way streets created for cars, such as the main routes in Berlin on either side of wide and fast streets, will suffer from an increasing number of wrong-way cyclists.

Some examples of how authorities see who is actually cycling - From top to bottom: Berlin results strongly hints at ethnic origin and income level (e.g. central districts are wealthier); Bogota chart is nearly explicit about income level (e.g. Zona Chapinero is the Colombian capital's most exclusive district); Netherlands info is quite specific about ethnicity of both parents ("Autochtoten" means both or only parent born in NL). All three ignore gender (though other research from these authorities does not).

So who is cycling and who isn’t?
Cycling accounts for about 15% of journeys in Berlin, but that varies considerably by district, and is often dependent on residents’ income or ethnic or national background.

Let's look at two districts. Broadly speaking, Mitte is gentrified with middle- and upper-class people of European origin. Neukölln is more varied and is home to a high number of people of Turkish descent, among others. It is middle- to working-class, except in the south, outside the S-bahn ring road.

Neukölln has a 12% cycling modal share, but just who is cycling? Is it men, women or children, the better-off, those on average incomes or the poor? In the northern part of this district, there are a high number of bike-happy newcomers from Europe and Canada/USA who probably make up a sizeable proportion of the 12%.

We need to know what lies behind the figures. Is it Neukölln’s terrible cycling infrastructure, or the social status that some residents attach to car ownership? All of this needs to be taken into account when quantifying bike use.

Dr. Jekyll? ...

Who is paying the penalty?
I spent weeks looking for a flat in Berlin before I moved here. It was wonderful and initially liberating to be in a city with a fair number of cyclists. I was generally on a bike myself — but that meant I missed something significant. It was only when I was settled into my new home and brought my old and frail dogs from Prague that I started walking a lot.

Once on two feet rather than two wheels, I began to notice cyclists riding without lights, not using a bell, going too fast or going the wrong way. My impression is that Berlin is worse for this than other north European cities. Even when I was walking the dogs in the right place on the footway, I felt that we were threatened by cyclists. Walking Prague with its low number of bikes felt safer than doing so in cycle-happy Berlin.

We’re probably all familiar with poor behaviour by cyclists, but these people were misbehaving for four reasons, all of which which feed on the other:
  • Bad infrastructure — as described
  • Antisocial behaviour — some cyclists and pedestrians react badly because they are at the bottom of the pile due to poor street design. It is also a reflection of Berlin itself: people here respond in different ways to the freedoms they enjoy when compared with the social disciplines expected elsewhere.
  • Sharp sticks but soft carrots — cyclists who misbehave can be fined, but enforcement is patchy. Most of the time these riders are ignored by the police, and other street users rarely speak out. There is no encouragement to behave better.
  • Lack of training — few Germans over the age of 50 have had any cycle training in school. Likewise, many immigrants have little experience of cycling in cities.
The four points combine to affect other street users, including other cyclists. In my view such poor quality cycling should not be counted or represented in in any publicised figure for cycling’s modal share.

... and Mr. Hyde? Grabs from a promotion video for "Neber der Spur. Das Fahrradhasserbuch" ("Off the Track. The Cycle Hater's Book", published in Germany in early 2011) , which suggests that normal, peaceful people become aggressive when they get on a bike.

So what about your city? Most people will not know how many people ride bikes. It probably only matters to politicians at election time. On a personal level, what counts is that you and your friends can cycle.

Any number for modal share is, therefore, abstract. Not all cities count cyclists in the same way, even if they use the same mechanism. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Waco — they are not on a racetrack in adjoining lanes.

The numbers are bandied about by mayors and city councils and their representatives. They use it for marketing. And experts pass the figures on.

Please don’t get me wrong — Berlin does have a few great examples of cycling infrastructure and education. Any hope of building on that is, however, dashed by the public’s collective reaction to bad cycling, usually expressed in the media. This backlash is too much for politicians to address within a term or even three.

But then why should cyclists expect more? Germany is addicted to the car, though some deny it. Nearly every cyclist stopped by police can point to a nearby driver doing something worse [if just because of physics]. Our politicians need to work with city dwellers to end the domination of the car and car culture. We have to remember that many of today's drivers are tomorrow’s well-behaved cyclists, and work out a way to manage that change. This is not some romantic ideal, but a realistic view forged in the heat of the debate over the energy shortages to come.

We need to be equipped to face the new reality — which will be with us not too many years hence. To prepare for this there needs to be significant investment in infrastructure and education, starting immediately.
Berlin, summer 2011 - Sign reads "Fight the Aggressive Cyclists. Consideration Takes Priority on All Our Paths" Photo by Steffen Zahn.


For Part Two in this series, click here

In the coming days I will upload the intended boxouts/sidebars which further detail my arguments herein. Please join, follow or otherwise watch this space.... and have a safe and truly representative holiday!


Erik Sandblom said...

Is it illegal in Germany to cycle among the cars when there are bike paths? I was briefly in Berlin a while ago. Since the traffic was light at the time, and since the bike paths were bumpy, I preferred to wiz along among the cars. Another reason for cycling among the motorists is that pedestrians are often less alert than motorists. So it's sometimes easier for me and more pleasant for the pedestrians if I mix with the motorists.

In Sweden, people wait longer and longer to get drivers' licenses and there is no longer any bicycle education at school. So there is a growing number of people without any traffic training at all.

The whole issue of cycle training is a little polarized. To me it's not squarely about safety (cycling just isn't very dangerous). At least as important is how to read traffic and proceed quickly without getting frustrated. It's like going to a party. A positive attitude is a good start, but it's even better if you learn some tricks.

Slow Factory said...

Thanks, Erik -- also for the info about Sweden.

Here is the deal with Germany and cyclepaths, as far as I know: In Berlin you can cycle with motor vehicles on 50km/h streets, but it's the exception. ADFC is campaigning for this to be national regulation, and also to prevent a law making it illegal to go faster than 15km/h on a shared ped-bike path.

What you - as a very experienced, fit, etc. - can do is irrelevant as I imagine you might agree, because the real issue if the 8 to 80's people can safely cycle on all streets. My feeling is that the cycling infra. reality in the majority of German towns and cities is so bad that it requires a change in the law to reflect the bad reality, and this does not help anyone except experienced cyclists (who may also be issued fewer fines en masse).

Training for me is also very much about protecting the other users of the street, namely pedestrians.

As I mentioned, I will soon be posting more on this....

Erik Sandblom said...

The 8-80 age group is important but so is the 30-60 age group, because they do most of the driving. They already have the training and experience to understand traffic. If they find cycling as fast and efficient as driving, car traffic might fall and the problem would be just about solved. I think it's important to note that the 8-80 age group is a very diverse bunch of people with differing needs.

I'm saying this because the Swedish bike path networks are joined-up and useful, but narrow, twisty and with bumpy surfaces. After driving a car on the nice road network, cycling on these bike paths feels distinctly second-class. All that effort, and they still didn't make cycling much more attractive, especially to those with driver's licenses.

I don't feel fitness is so important for my type of, uh, on-road cycling. It's more an understanding where I'm hindering car traffic and where not. If it's easy for motorists to pass me or if traffic isn't moving very quickly, I feel confident I'm not getting on anyone's nerves.

kfg said...

" . . .a law making it illegal to go faster than 15km/h on a shared ped-bike path."

My 79 year old mother on her one speed sit up and beg would be inclined to further shun such paths under those circumstances.