Saturday, 26 May 2018

Infrastructure Creates Culture

We often hear about cycling culture which in itself sets up the mode as something other people do, yet the tenuous idea still exists.

This subject has been written about by others and I'm not even sure I can bring anything new to the discussion, other than an engineer's eye and my own prejudices I guess. 

I am approaching my 23rd year as a post-graduate civil engineer and one way or another, I have been involved in building stuff. The reason we build stuff is for people to use it and hopefully it will make people's lives better.

My first job was with a utilities contractor where we basically laid telecoms ducts in the street, constructed chambers and ran the odd armoured cable to houses and businesses. Without the construction of this stuff, people wouldn't have had telephone services and so until we connected people, they weren't involved in telephone culture.

Fast forward to 2018 and the amount of data being carried through wires and cables in 100mm plastic tubes in the ground is astonishing and one could (I suggest) sensibly argue that we have a pretty mature communications culture. Unless people had spent the last several decades digging trenches in streets, we wouldn't have this "culture".

That all being the case, given the UK's tiny mode share for cycling, why would anyone talk about a cycling culture? Apart from some specific locations, cycling is seen as a weird way to travel and so whenever something is proposed which would enable cycling, we are often told that it's a waste of money because nobody cycles. 

We've heard the saying that nobody can see the demand for a bridge by the number of people swimming across the river and this holds for transport more generally. The data is there, the examples are there - unless we build for cycling, people won't do it and then we cannot claim to have the culture. In fact, I find the whole culture discussion to be an excuse not to confront the infrastructure issue.

Like the digital pulses through the glass and copper cables, unless the infrastructure is provided, the flow along it is not enabled. Telecommunications rely on a network of connections and cycling is the same. London's Embankment cycleway is (roughly speaking) carrying a quarter of wheeled traffic in a quarter of the space taken by asphalt surfacing, but we are already seeing congestion at junctions which will always be the weak point in any system of flow. 

Cycling 'culture'

It is a good problem to have to a certain extent, but when one considers the parallel routes which don't provide any meaningful protection from traffic, cycle trips are nowhere near the same. In other words, people will be diverting to use the Embankment cycleway, even if it makes their journey longer. The cycling culture of central London is concentrated to a few corridors and the more progressive boroughs. The rest of the Capital has a similar mode share as the rest of the UK. 

We are also too obsessed with routes. It is difficult because one has to start somewhere and the classic approach has been to build routes and this perhaps shows some obsession with thinking too much about commuting or leisure. By this I mean, we  built routes into town centres for commuting, but unless someone lives very close to the route, they will have to get to it. For leisure, we have routes which may go through lovely parks and open spaces, but they are no use for transport.

With telecommunications networks, we generally don't rely on single routes to take all of our signals because in the event of damage or another failure, we have taken a big hit on our capacity. With a proper network, we have the ability to cope with a failure by rerouting the data flow a different way or coping with a reduced flow.

One route for cycling, even though it isn't great
quality is a nightmare to go around when it is
closed - a 500m diversion in this case.

This is resilience. Even better than coping with a failure, we can build in adaptability which means that a temporary fix can maintain most of the flow or we might undertake repairs when demand is lower.

A cycling culture is created where there are sufficient main roads and streets with protected layouts connected with each other and genuinely quiet residential and commercial streets. A cycling culture is created where this network does not rely on a single route and is sufficiently resilient to provide alternatives for people which are at least as convenient to pass the disruption.

A cycling culture is where people planning roadworks or other events have properly taken people cycling into account and they have alternative ways of getting people around the works in safety and comfort. Unless the basics are dealt with (and interventions don't need to be pretty; this can come after review and tweaking), then we won't see the indicators of a cycling culture such as people of all ages, women, children, disabled people, ordinary clothes for short trips, cargocycles, adapted cycles and so on.

So, for me at least, I will continue to bang on about throwing the kerbs, asphalt, traffic signals and bollards around as it is the correct mix of these elements in the right place that gives us a cycling culture.


  1. As you alluded to roads, cycle and footpaths are networks, just like telecommunications networks. In the wired old days there was essentially one route (alternatives possible but difficult/inconvenient). The advent of cellular communications,driven by a military requirement, changed all that. So it is now about nodes, or cellular/mobile masts, and the multiple connections to each. Sounds a bit like road junctions. Your telephone conversation goes through multiple nodes, which will change depending on traffic density (telecommunications term). Sounds like a road network and depending on traffic density (highways term) the route varies between primary route, secondary or back streets (rat running?).
    The problem for cycling is that they have an incomplete network of primary routes, and the rest are equivalent to a collection of crackly old telephone lines.
    No easy solutions, not like banging up a new cellular mast. Also like telecommunications, in case anybody hasn't noticed, demand will expand to fit the capacity available.

  2. I agree that there is too much concentration on routes, partly, I think because they win awards and people can "see" a route the way they can't see a network (easier to open with a press attended ribbon cutting also)
    I slightly disagree about the leisure routes not being useful for transport. Where I live and work 50% of the area is greenspace and there are several large river valleys. The green routes along these are great leisure routes and also often the best routes for transport, being often more level than roads in the area, and also providing shortcuts that can be 20% the length of the equivalent road route. Add cycle friendly areas and the occasional protected route on a major road and you have an excellent (potential) network.