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Blog | 16 August 2023

'Cyclists were seen as a safety problem for far too long.'

In the safe and sustainable city of the future, a significant portion of trips will be made by bicycle, according to Professor of Transport Engineering John Parkin. However, British cities are only just starting to seriously consider how to establish a network of cycle lanes. "Civil engineers have prioritized long-distance traffic over local urban routes."

Cycle lane guru

You could call him the cycle lane guru of the United Kingdom (UK). John Parkin, a professor at UWE Bristol, who will retire this summer, trained civil engineers and advised the British government on road, footpath, and cycle lane design. He also wrote the ultimate handbook on cycle lanes, Designing for Cycle Traffic. He observes that the British have placed the car on a pedestal for too long, but also that this is finally starting to change. ‘The car is so normalized that everything else is considered abnormal.’

How do British cities, especially London, fare in terms of cycling infrastructure?

‘Cycling policies in the United Kingdom are far from unified, as it is a regional responsibility. For the national government, the climate crisis is not a priority, and consequently, cycling policy isn’t either. In Wales however roads are seen as a tool to limit emissions and promote active forms of transport. In cities like London, Coventry, Manchester, and Birmingham, I see real change.’

‘The major difference with a country like the Netherlands is that the Dutch know how to build cycling networks. In the UK, we are still not proficient in that area. The willingness is there, but the older ways of thinking are deeply ingrained among senior civil engineers.’

What is this old way of thinking?

‘Cyclists historically were seen as a safety problem. The solution was to remove them from the road and dump them onto the footpath. That is a subpar solution because a cyclist travels five times faster than a pedestrian. Furthermore, as a result of this approach, no route network was developed to facilitate cyclists in reaching their destinations. A coherent and comfortable cycling network inherently provides safety.’

Is that why even in London, where the number of cyclists is relatively high, the availability of cycle lanes feels somewhat random?

‘Yes. Where we have already build protected cycle lanes, they have often been placed between intersections. That’s where building them is straightforward. But at the intersections it becomes more complicated. We Britons often neglected this because we found the problem too difficult. In the training sessions I conduct, I always emphasize the need to consider the entire urban network.’

‘Start with the city centre, or the station, or the university, and build the web of cycle lanes from there. We have already done this for cars, buses, and railways, but not for cyclists. That is the missing link in British designs. Thankfully, it’s improving now.’

Interventions seen as anti-car provoke a significant backlash in some circles.

‘The car is so normalized that everything else is considered abnormal. This is reinforced by the media and the rhetoric of the Conservative government, which is primarily focused on industrial policy and emphasizing how world-beating the British automotive sector is. Over the past 18 months, we have indeed seen strong resistance from the population, particularly against the introduction of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), which are areas where motorized through traffic is restricted, in London, Oxford, and a few other places.’

‘Still, Wales for example is working on implementing a 20 mph (32 km/h) speed limit in built-up areas. In polls, 80 percent of people support it. But at the same time almost everyone believes that no one else supports the measure. There is a problem with a vocal minority getting a lot of airtime.’

Is this backlash a new phenomenon or something that has always existed?

‘In 1963, the document Traffic in Towns was published in the UK. It accepted that the amount of motorized traffic would grow. As a result, it opened the door to giving cars ample space within urban areas. Since then, civil engineers have built inner-city ring roads, set up one-way roads, and designed traffic management systems. We have fractured local urban routes to accommodate longer-distance motor traffic.’

‘In the Netherlands for example, the same happened initially, but in the 1970s, a counter-movement emerged. This led to a shift, especially from the 1990s onwards. In the UK, that counter-movement never materialized, so policies have veered much further. I believe some people now resist LTNs because we have never fully confronted the extent to which motor vehicles are dangerous.’

Are you optimistic that a shift will come?

‘Absolutely. There is a new generation of civil engineers with the right knowledge and skills. Now we need to become familiar with active forms of transportation. It starts at the local level, in major cities, where the shift has already begun. After that, progress can be swift.’