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Which comes first: the bike or the bike lane?

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There is evidence that as long ago as 1898, there were dedicated bicycle paths in the Netherlands.

The Spectator of December 31 that year reported that: “On the route from the Hague to Scheveningen, for instance, there lie parallel to each other a carriage road, a canal, a bicycle track, a light railway, side-paths regularly constructed…”

Fast forward 116 years, and Adelaide – which some people wish would emulate the Netherlands’ powerful cycling culture – is grappling with an increasingly fierce debate about dedicated road infrastructure for cyclists.

The public spat, mostly focused on under-construction separated bike lanes on Frome Street, comes just a few weeks before the gaze of the world’s two-wheeled fraternity will turn to Adelaide when it hosts the Velo-city Global cycling conference.

One question that will be hotly debated at the conference is whether bicycle advocacy groups are too focused on pushing for infrastructure such as bike lanes, at the expense of the longer-term and potentially more difficult processes of social and cultural change.

Melbourne-based urban design expert Jonathan Daly will deliver this provocative message in a speech to the conference, to be held at the Convention Centre from May 27-30.

It’s not that he opposes bike infrastructure – not at all. Rather, he believes there are many other powerful ways to build a cycling-friendly city that can’t be ignored.

“It’s easy for advocates to latch on to one thing and make it their sole focus,” he says. “But with that narrow focus comes a narrow range of professions involved.”

Intuitive choices

In this case, Daly is talking about the dead hand of the traffic engineer – the profession that has dominated the world’s cities for much of the past 70 years. His argument is that we can’t depend only on engineers to create a city where cyclists are encouraged, feel safe and respected on the roads.

He points to the rise of the car as an example of the complex dynamics at play.

“Car culture didn’t come about from the building of roads – there were a whole range of social and cultural changes.”

The end result was that our lives, our cities, our workplaces – everything – have been configured to make driving the “intuitive choice” for most people. There’s no reason we can’t reconfigure our lives and cities to make cycling that choice.

However, he warns: “We can’t address the issues by just focusing on one thing – you don’t need a silver bullet, you need silver buck-shot.”

And here is where things get difficult, long-term and not conducive to noisy, shallow, shouting matches about “bikes versus cars”.

Daly is talking about the hard graft of urban policy – things like finally addressing the voluptuous density of our elongated, sprawling city, sorting out land use and making sure our transport networks are properly integrated.

Defeating car culture

Back to the Netherlands, and this tiny, flat country provides some interesting grist for Daly’s argument.

He says good cycling infrastructure almost always follows social and cultural changes which favour the bike.

In the Netherlands, as we’ve seen, some bike infrastructure has been in place for many years. There is a debate about whether the Dutch love of the bike drove, or was driven by, the physical environment which favours cycling.

But even in the cycling-obsessed Netherlands, the rise of the car threatened its cycling traditions.

In the mid-20th century – in common with countries all over the world – more and more people were attracted by the motor vehicle, with roads becoming clogged with traffic. Bikes, previously ridden without compunction in the main road space, were pushed to the gutter. Sidelined as oddities. Sound familiar?

As the BBC reports it, the increase in car numbers caused a corresponding spike in deaths on Dutch roads. In 1971, a staggering 3000-plus people were killed by motor vehicles, 450 of them children.

This sparked a social movement – Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Child Murder) – which, along with fears about energy security, encouraged a renewed government investment in cycling infrastructure.

The Dutch, because of their deeply embedded cycling culture, were able to resist a global car-centric movement.

Adelaide, despite its flat topography, doesn’t have that culture, although we have a growing interest in cycling as a recreation, thanks mostly to the Tour Down Under. We also have a positive history: I remember my high school in the 1980s dedicating an area bigger than a basketball court to bike racks, which were filled every day. Few children cycle to school these days, at the cost of their health and our environment.

Instead of the roads being flooded with kids on treadlies, the school drop-off and pick-up times have extended the peak period (particularly given so many people’s love of giant, road-hogging, four-wheel drives – but that’s another story).

Unlike in the Netherlands, where fears about road safety sparked policy changes, it seems that here we just acquiesced to fear.

Pain and policies

The ingredient we need to drive cultural change, argues Daly,  is policy boldness.

In London, for example, former mayor Ken Livingstone’s congestion tax single-handedly created a new cycling culture – not bike lanes or anything else of the sort.

Daly doesn’t have a particular prescription for Adelaide – and we certainly aren’t London – but he says car-centric policies are antiquated and don’t work to create liveable cities.

“There’s just a period we have to go through that will be difficult for people to accept,” he says.

What has been missing in our debate about Frome Street is the idea that the change to traffic patterns might actually improve the street which, let’s face it, is not an appealing place, particularly south of Pirie Street.

Our assumption that people who ride bikes aren’t the “main game” for businesses might also be flawed.

Daly points to a Melbourne study of shopping trends in inner-city precincts. The thesis concluded that public space relocated from car parking to bike parking could result in 3.6 times the retail spend. The reasons are complex, but include the higher turnover of cyclists compared to car drivers, and different patterns of consumption. The full study can be read here.

The challenge is to encourage local traders to give it a go – which plays back into Daly’s argument. If we don’t have a cycling-friendly culture, our inclination will be to support the car-centric status quo.

As the Frome Street debate shows, many of us aren’t willing to consider the possibilities that cycling could afford.

Encouraging cycling has all kinds of benefits: reducing the number of people in cars (thus making things better for those who do choose to drive), improving our health, and making our city streets more appealing for those who live, work and visit there.

Cycling isn’t the solution for everyone, and it doesn’t need to be, but it is worth a more nuanced and sophisticated debate than the one we’ve been having.

For more information about Velo-city Global, including the full program, go here.

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