Build roads, not bikes

Bicycle rush hour in Copenhagen, where 37% of ...
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London is spending a pretty penny in getting a bike-sharing scheme up and running in the centre of the city.  Sounds great in theory, but why do I have the idea that the focus on getting the science and logistics right on bike logistics will not go very far in promoting and fostering a mainstream biking culture?

The Netherlands is perhaps the most bike friendly country in the world, followed by countries such as Denmark (or at least Copenhagen).  The roles that bikes play in everyday life has little to do with the availability of bikes on the road, but the fact that there are roads to bike on.

Now, like most of North American cosmopolitan centres that are also trying to encourage more biking and less driving, London suffers from a number of infrastructural problems.  To put it simply: the roads are built for cars, and bikers – the minority, have to make do with minimal disruption to the drivers – the majority.

Having lived in a bike-centric country for more than two years, here are some problems I foresee with the London attempt:

  • Most of the bike lanes are either totally unmarked (you and your bicycle squeeze in however you can), or marked but only wide enough to accommodate one single bike that does not swerve.  This is unsafe.  Drivers swerve and hit bikers.  Sometimes bikers get killed.  After a couple of front-page headlines screaming “Biker get killed by speeding/drunk/careless drivers”, no mothers will want their kids try this.
  • Bikers get suited up.  With reflective markings on their backs, anti-scratch shirts and pants, specialty biking shoes, protective gloves and helmet.  Now going out by bike becomes more of an exercise in playing dress-up than anything else, relegated to the hardcore.  Who else would bother?
  • The anxiety of not having a dedicated lane to you, separated from BOTH car traffic and pedestrians, is a huge turn-off.  Imagine how feasible it would be to bike next to cars on a rainy day – the puddle splashes, on a foggy day – the fright! Some people talk about biking etiquette, but that is non-sense. Pedestrians are not told about walking etiquette, because they cannot be expected to share a paths with other moving vehicles.  Biking should be no different.  Separating all three types of lanes with barriers in between is the most sensible way to do this.

A few other things:

  • Doing this kind of scheme densely populated area is best.  People will most likely not mind biking for around 30 minutes to work, 5-10 to get groceries or pick up their kids.  Anything more than that, alternatives will be considered.  This bike scheme is only available in central London, because London is simply too large to bike from end to end.  So for everyday commuters, I’m just not sure that by tacking on a bike ride at either the beginning or the very end of someone’s already excruciating commute will appeal to many people.
  • Having a flat area/region/country helps tremendously.  You won’t be puffing and huffing once you reach your destination and have to change into a new shirt. Also, water don’t accumulate in inconvenient places that might make biking impossible during the rainy days.
  • The is-this-comfortable test?  Most bike paths here fit at least 2 bikers at the same time, so you can have a nice chat with your friend while biking.  Helmets are unheard of – because biking is perceived as such a safe mode of transportation (and I don’t disagree, given the VIP lane treatment, but that’s very specific to this country), so you will look just as composed once you reach your destination. And biking skills have reached such expert level that it’s no shock to see girls with skirts and high heels, or guys with suits on bikes.  All this means that biking has reached the same level of convenience and comfort as taking the car or public transportation.
  • For the biking culture to be adapted by the mainstream, it has to make economic sense above anything else.  We think we’ll bike because we want to exercise and save the environment, but more often than not, these are but a casual and positive by-product of biking when it is economically and socially advantageous to do. Biking is embedded in the Dutch culture, because it is the easiest and cheapest way to get around driving your expensive car and pay for exorbitant parking, and much faster than walking.  Surely, there are always bikers that will bike almost anywhere, regardless of conditions. But if the economic and convenience scale that weighs all other available modes of transportation does not tip in favour of biking in your city, than this kind of scheme will not take off on a massive level.

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