End of Tour: Reflections on Cycling in Europe

So, two months after I actually returned home, we come to the end of the belated reports on my 3-month study tour of Europe. I finished with a couple of days in Frankfurt, Germany, before flying out, and I’ve included a few pictures in this post from wandering around the city. But mostly I want to wrap up here by reflecting on what Christchurch (and New Zealand in general) can learn about providing for cycling from its European cousins. Given the variety of places I visited, this is a fairly broad-ranging overview; you might also want to go back and review my more specific observations from the UK (well, really England) and the Netherlands too.

Separated cycleway allows two-way flow on this one-way street

Frankfurt isn’t a place that usually springs to mind when thinking about cycle-friendly places of the world, but it currently boasts about 15% of trips made by bike. In that respect, it reflects many of the same reasons I have seen elsewhere around Europe for why cycling levels are generally higher than in New Zealand.

Irrespective of the level of cycling, I haven’t found anywhere in the world that seems to have enough bike parking…

Many people focus on separated cycle facilities when talking about Europe and, it’s true, there can be plenty of them to find. Not all of them are necessarily the gold-plated standard that you often see in places like The Netherlands though. Many of the facilities I’ve seen around Europe are simply separated by means of a wider paint line, or a low kerb, or a series of bollards of some kind. Sometimes, effectively the footpath area has simply been divided in two by paint or tiles (and sometimes there is no real separation between pedestrians and bikes at all).

Separation – sometimes on-road, sometimes off-road

If I were to put my “safety auditor’s hat” on, I could find plenty of things to be concerned about in the design of these facilities (or lack of). But here’s the thing: people are using them regardless. Obviously you don’t want to create an even greater risk (attention to detail at intersections is particularly important), but we need to be careful not to get too hung up about the absolute safety of everything we build and imagine potential risks that are non-issues.

Voting with their wheels

Away from the cycleways I saw, I think that the pieces of the puzzle that don’t involve a specific cycle facility are actually more critical to getting a complete cycling network in your city. For example, I can’t recall any city (big or small) that I visited that didn’t contain each of the following to some degree:

  • A 30km/h speed zone (or UK 20mph), typically in residential or shopping areas. The encouragement factor for would-be cyclists is strong; the safety benefits for all road users are hard to ignore.
A busy place – so 30k is plenty
  • One-way traffic streets that allowed cyclists to ride against the flow (whether via formal street treatments or just by signs). A simple way to give cycling a leg-up over its motoring competitors.
Biking against the flow
  • A traffic-free area in the central city for only pedestrians, cyclists and maybe public transport. Time and again, the evidence shows that this brings about positive economic benefits for those people working and living in these areas (and just a generally nice place to be…).
It might be a major financial centre, but no cars allowed here in the middle

By contrast, in NZ it is difficult to think of many places at all that contain any of these features as part of their network (e.g. kudos to Wellington and Hamilton for their lower speed zones). Motor traffic is king and getting these kinds of concessions is like pulling teeth. That’s not to say that there weren’t busy arterial routes for motor traffic in the cities I visited, far from it. But they were mostly located around the periphery (underneath the city was another common option), and traffic certainly didn’t expect easy travel through residential areas or the central city.

For some reason, letting pedestrians and cyclists share space sends NZers into a panic too…

The litmus test for whether cycling was working in most cities I visited was the presence of women cycling as much as the more traditional male demgraphic we see. And my impression generally was that in most places there was little to differentiate the amount of cycling being done by each gender. Similarly, it was heartening to see a wider range of age groups represented too; children at one end of the spectrum (often unaccompanied) and elderly at the other. All of this indicates that cycling has reached the level where it is nothing “special” or difficult – it’s just what people do when they need to.

At least as many women as men on bikes

The other way that cycling can be seen to be taken seriously is when it is being used as a viable form of transport for business purposes as well. Cargo bikes and other “work bikes” are still relatively rare in NZ, whereas they are much more likely to be found in the mix in Europe (and lately their electric “e-bike” alternatives). Whether they are delivering goods or people, they serve a useful function in the way that a city gets around (this is particularly so for businesses within traffic-free areas who need things delivered).

A “velo-taxi” waits for business in central Frankfurt

Biking is also viewed as a viable transport option by enabling people without a bike handy to access one through a public bike share scheme. In the same way that I can elect to catch a taxi, or bus, or tram, such a scheme allows me to choose to bike somewhere instead (which often makes more sense both time- and cost-wise than the other modes mentioned). As a way of growing “opportunistic cycling” (i.e. you suddenly need to be somewhere that would be handy to get to by bike), it’s a great solution. Let’s hope that our own “Spark Bikes” scheme is equally successful.

Public bike scheme operated by the German DB railway company

In a way, this makes cycling start to become an extension of public transport. And if we are to truly reduce our reliance on driving to places, then the public transport provision needs to be just as good too. Europe does this especially well in most cities. Some trips suit a bike or walk, some trips suit a bus or train, and some trips suit a combination (the greater prevalence of folding bikes in regular usage around Europe shows that people are doing the latter). Interesting to see that some of the railway companies are trying to have a finger in all pies by also offering car and bike share schemes at the train stations. Back in Christchurch, I know we have worked wonders with our bus system over the years, but I do think at some point soon we are going to have to bite the bullet and look at either heavy rail (on separate corridors) or light rail (on streets) to complete the mix. If other small places like Freiburg and Canberra can be implementing it, then there is no reason for Christchurch not to either.

Public transport and bikes – two pieces of the same puzzle

The other elephant in the room when it comes to cycling in Europe vs NZ is cycle helmets, or more specifically their mandatory compulsion. NZ and Australia continue to be the only countries in the world with full mandatory helmet laws (some other places have children-only or state/province-specific laws). Irrespective of your views about the effectiveness of helmets in a cycle crash, the effects of a mandatory law on the perception and take-up of cycling cannot be ignored. I saw plenty of people cycling with helmets in Europe, particularly road-training or MTB riders, children and their care-givers. But I also saw more people cycling without one – and no-one seemed to have an issue with it. In fact, culturally it makes cycling no big deal – it’s just a part of life: Have bike, can ride… I know that politically the helmet question is a hot potato in NZ (and I suspect that many average punters suffer a bit from “Stockholm syndrome” on the topic). But I would like to think that, when our planned “all ages and abilities” cycling infrastructure has become more commonplace, we can have a more mature discussion about the impacts and necessity of such a law.

Helmets: some people wear them, some people don’t

The common response to suggesting doing some of the things mentioned here is “but that’s Europe; we’re not like them”. I’ve never fully understood this defeatist approach, because all humans are capable of changing their ways. The typical Kiwi of 2015 does all sorts of things that their predecessor from a generation ago wouldn’t dream of (think of what we eat and drink for starters – cappucino, anyone?). One might argue that the typical European mediaeval town provides an advantage in restricting motor traffic in the central city, but that didn’t stop many of them from letting countless cars come in anyway until they had a change of heart a few decades ago. The key is to let people see what the alternative could be like, and give it a fighting chance – many Europeans were initially pretty sceptical about these initiatives too.

Bicycle and pedestrian priority streets? We couldn’t possibly do that here…

Ultimately, the Europeans I observed were not really any different to you and me. They may have some different customs and practices, but the underlying human behaviours were no different. Some of them acted a bit recklessly or carelessly, some of them ignored road rules, some of them clearly weren’t very proficient using their chosen travel mode. And still they tried to go about their daily business, or catch up with friends, or just sit somewhere and watch the world go by.  Having a less car-oriented place with more cycling options tended to make the cities I visited all the more pleasant while these activities occurred.

Parking on a cycleway – Europeans aren’t perfect either

So that’s all my posts from this time around in Europe; back to the more local happenings for now. It’s fair to say that we can’t always unquestioningly adapt things that we see overseas directly as they are. But they do provide ideas for what we could try and certainly some inspiration for what a cycle-friendly city might look like…

Encouraging cycling has to be a deliberate policy

What do you think we can learn from the cycling experiences of Europe?

8 thoughts on “End of Tour: Reflections on Cycling in Europe”

  1. Interesting series of posts Glenn – thanks for taking the time to document and share.
    But gosh, on the helmet issue, according to folks I speak to here in NZ, – you should have reported that the Emergency Departments in these European cities are stuffed full of cyclists with serious head injuries.

    1. Well, they’ll also be even more full of motorists with serious head injuries, despite all the other safety features of cars, but I haven’t seen anyone calling for mandatory car helmets yet… 🙂

  2. “A traffic-free area in the central city for only pedestrians, cyclists and maybe public transport.” I do wonder what the reasoning was for removing Colombo Street from in front of the Anglican Cathedral, back in the day. So, there is a precedent there as well as in High Street/Cashel Street.

  3. Any chance of producing a publication which includes every European post here in it’s entirety, photos included and hand delivered to every City Councillor , business leader and person of influence in city?.
    This comment is posted from Rotorua after day two checking out the place. Given the extensive mountain bike facilities and enjoyable tracks to ride around the sights ( including Nga Haerenga Te Ara Ahi , Thermal by Bike Trail ) which are great Rotorua CBD is a huge disappointment for an enjoyable ride. Millions spent on a kerbing/footpaths/landscaping seems a waste when the entire area of wide grid pattern streets favour cars and car-parking alone. For such an important tourist city to be so pedestrian unfriendly is a travesty. Where many of the small centrally located businesses are is sadly devoid of foot traffic, despite wide well built and nicely landscaped pavements. Crossing the streets is terrible as there is little traffic calming and the entire grid seems to be for roads to get THROUGH the CBD . ( sound familiar at all ?)

    East of the CBD is a large mall and bulk store area with copious car parking and this has sucked the life out of the heart of the city. Such a shame. Whilst there is a shared bike/pedestrian footpath or two around they are inadequate for purpose and seemingly little used. ( in fairness the wind-chill factor has been rather low) Rotorua could be such a cool little city though.
    The point to make here is that to encourage an everyday culture of biking is far more than a few separated lanes for bikes, clever town planning plays such an important part , as clearly obvious in the posts from Europe.

  4. My wife is from Lower Hutt, we currently live in London. Cambridge Cycling Campaign put together this document / website which may be useful to borrow/suggest ideas to your local councillors – http://www.makingspaceforcycling.org/ My approach is based on trying a changed design using temporary measures. Two way cycling on one way streets would be very easy to trial with some signs for example. Good luck.

  5. Thanks for the article! It’s a a great summary of the cycling infrastructure in northern Europe. Very different from NZ, but as you say there is no reason why we cannot achieve the same here. It wasn’t always that way there either. In the 1960’s there was even a plan to fill in Amsterdam’s historic canals to make room for cars – thankfully never happened!

  6. Excellent points-
    ‘Pulling teeth’ is a great metaphor! Soft measures can make a huge difference as you see in N EU.
    ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ is on the money, too!
    And surely yes, people and habits CAN change quite dramatically. See what happens when you light a cigarette in a restaurant nowadays!

    Agree with Rob- your EU articles would make a powerful argument gathered together… good stuff.

    1. Brilliant article. Am living in Uk at moment but returning to wgtn next year. Been involved in campaigns for cycling. As well as travelling around Europe and have seen and experienced everything in your article. So totally agree. Kiwis need to be more open to change.

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