Earlier this week I reported on the recent draft Chch Transport Plan, which has some great proposals in it. It’s stated that many of the ideas in it came from looking at best practice elsewhere in the world; many of those best practices can be found in what is happening in various parts of Europe. Seven years ago I was fortunate enough to spend three months there on a study tour trying to understand what makes it tick from a sustainable transport perspective. This blog post (originally from Sep 2015) summarises what I saw as the key differences there if we want to make a similar difference in New Zealand (I also later wrote a paper about it too). How quickly can we make similar changes to transport here?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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…).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
What do you think we can learn from the cycling experiences of Europe?