Getting more people cycling instead of driving is a challenge that many cities are facing. Roads are clogged up with passenger vehicles, emissions are soaring, and nothing is changing. Safety is used as an excuse – “the roads aren’t safe for cycling”. The problem is that improving safety is fast becoming the default excuse for poor cycling infrastructure.
Safety isn’t overrated, as it’s an essential component of transport planning. However, in isolation, it’s only one piece of the puzzle… and a bit of a boring piece. It ignores one of the of the biggest appeals of cycling: it’s fun.
That sensation of kicking off on the pedals down the driveway, free to roam and explore, never goes away. Even a commute to work gives a chance to cut loose, just a little bit. It could be the speed, or the little dip and rise, or a bunny hop along the way – it’s just fun. When this is stripped out of infrastructure plans, the magic is lost.
One of the issues with getting more people cycling is that it’s often flagged as dangerous, and until it isn’t, cycling will remain something that only the fearless few will do. Newsflash: cycling isn’t inherently unsafe, but neither is it risk free – because nothing is, right?
Most cyclists at some point will lose some skin. It hurts. You get another scar and a story to share about the moment when you lost traction and went flying. It’s part of the deal, the same way muscle strains and sprained ankles come with running. Trying to eliminate this risk by making cycling paths so slow and boring that you could ride them in your sleep just won’t work. That would tip the scales too far in the wrong direction and ignore some of the needs of cycling as a mode of transport: a relatively fast, fun and efficient means of moving around.
Part of the reason cycling gets such a bad rap is the way roads have been designed. We’ve been building roads and believing they’re for the movement of cars, not for the connection and movement of people. There usually isn’t room on our roads, either spatially or in people’s mental space, for any other users. That is by design. Cyclists are shoved onto the shoulders, often with not much more space than a 30cm ruler.
Most projects that retrofit cycle lanes onto a roading corridor to try to shift this balance are costly and misguided, because they don’t want to compromise the space given to motor vehicles and end up further compromising the design for cyclists and other users. The movement of motor vehicles is prioritized every time, because this is what we believe roads are for.
The safety box may be ticked with these retrofit projects, but usually at the cost of achieving the primary goal: to get as many people as practical choosing to cycle instead of taking their car. That bigger goal is, ironically, one of the most effective ways to improve road safety and reduce emissions – through having fewer cars on the road. Most of the cycling infrastructure being built right now will fail to achieve that goal, because it is pushing the pedestrianization of cycling.
Cycling needs to be accepted and embraced as a form of transport that belongs on the roads, because our roads should be connecting people, not just moving cars. To achieve this, cyclists need the same privileges and access on the roads that drivers get. Because just like drivers, cyclists need space to move (along with the trucks and cars), access to both sides of the road, to turn down side streets, go around roundabouts, and move through traffic lights to reach their destinations. Cyclists, just like drivers, need to keep out of pedestrians’ way.
Pedestrians also contribute to the movement and connection of people within our transport infrastructure. However, while we seem to understand their needs and safety better than we do cycling, we often lump these two forms of movement together. That is a big mistake. It’s dangerous for pedestrians and it’s a denial of what cycling is, and what it can do to improve positive outcomes for everyone in the community: health and wellbeing, less congestion, less need for parking, lower emissions.
Instead of grouping cyclists with pedestrians on shared pathways or cycle lanes that are between the kerb and the footpath (meaning you have to stop at every side road), people on bikes, e-bikes and scooters all need to be understood as types of vehicles, just like cars and trucks. Safety and accessibility for cyclists needs to be equal to that of car drivers, because both are forms of transport achieving the same goal: the movement of people.
However, let’s not strip the joy from cycling in that process, because while safety might encourage people to try cycling as transport, it’s the fun they’ll experience that will keep them doing it. And that will tip the balance towards far more people cycling.