Lessons learned in Europe
by Eric Britton (March 2009)

The debate over how to accommodate bicycling in presently automobile-dominated cities continues, with contention between "infrastructurists" (who believe in building up specific and often segregated separate cycling facilities) and "vehicular cyclists" (who believe in integrating cycling with other road traffic) continuing, in often bitter exchanges.

International experiences at the leading edge, mainly in European cities that are doing the job, put some interesting lessons on the table.

For starters, let's make sure that we do not allow ourselves to get too comfortable too fast. By that I mean I am not at all sure that the best approach to safe cycling is to start by shopping around for the most attractive cycle path designs to be put in your city's streets here and there. I can understand the temptation but we are dealing with a systemic problem which requires more than occasional attractive street architecture.

Safe cycling is based on the existence of networks which provide a safe travel environment over the areas and routes most taken by cyclists. By that, I mean to say that a lovely cycle facility here and there does not by itself promote safe cycling (in fact conceivably it can make cycling even more dangerous). What is needed from the beginning is to strive toward that basic network without letting up . To accomplish this, it means targeting a solution set that is pretty pervasive, far more so than most plans today dare even aim for.

What do you do when needs definitely outstrip the resources, approaches, and plans that are traditionally available to you? The only way to do this is to change the rules. That happens in five main parts.

  1. Speed Reductions:
    "Don't leave home without them." The first pillar of new mobility policy is to slow down the traffic on every street in the city. I do not say this lightly, and I understand the extent to which this runs against long-standing practices and what people regard as their fair interest. But there is no longer any mystery about this at the leading edge. I do not imagine that there is a competent (note the word) traffic planner today who will argue for top speeds in excess of 30 mph in the city. 30 mph is terrific, and though too fast for safe cycling is something which we can reasonably target for arterials and thoroughfares. For the rest a policy of 10/20/30 is feasible and fair...once you get over the shock.

  2. Reclaim Street Space:
    The second prong of the strategy is the taking over of at least portions of a quite large number of streets in the city. This is accomplished in two ways:

    • The first is the alteration of the street architecture, taking over lanes for fully protected cycling. The most popular, parking lane out/bike lane in, often works very nicely when the cycle lanes work against the flow of traffic.
    • The second prong of street reclaiming is the hard edge of speed reductions.

    In these cases top speeds on the side streets drop to something like 10 to 15 mph, with 10 leading better than 15. Again for most cross-town traffic (especially in places such as Manhattan) this should not be a problem.

  3. "Occuper le Terrain":
    (French for safety in numbers, the real critical mass, not the rolling house-party version.) You are seeing that in New York already, though I have to guess the Big apple not quite at the tipping point yet. But the more people you get out on the street on their bicycles every day, the more that everybody involved moves up a couple of notches day after day in the learning process. The cyclists learn how to behave better to protect themselves in traffic, drivers get accustomed to looking out for those small wavering frail figures, the police learn how to play their part in this learning process, and the system they have today learns and adapts.

  4. "Street Code":
    The Highway Code, a collection of laws, advice and best practice for all road users, which mainly functions as a written basis for learning to drive as well as stipulating the letter of the law (licensing, required safety equipment, default rules, etc.) In Europe this happens at a national level, with room in some places for stricter local ordinances. In the US it is mainly a state prerogative.

    Many European cities are advancing on the idea of establishing far tougher "street codes" specifically adapted to the special and more demanding conditions of driving in city traffic. This is becoming especially important as we start to see a much greater mix of vehicles, speeds, and people on the street. The idea is that culpability for any accident on street, sidewalk, or public space, is automatically assigned to the heavier, faster vehicle. This means that the driver who hits a cyclist has to prove his innocence, as opposed to today where the cyclist must prove the driver's guilt (not always very easy to do). This is not quite as good as John Adams' magnificent 1995 formulation whereby every steering wheel of every car , truck and bus would be equipped with a large sharp nail aimed directly at the driver's heart-- but it can at least help getting things moving in the right direction.

  5. It's a Learning System:
    Once you start to break the ice to the point where provision of cycling facilities even starts to be an issue, it is probably best to think of the city and the street network as a learning system. And learning of course takes place over time, and if you are lucky leads to a continuous stream of adjustments as you go along. There may be a bit of comfort in that, if you are patient enough, because what it definitely means is that any cycling improvement you can conceivably come up with today has to be thought of not as a solution but as the start of the path. This is very definitely process-oriented planning.

So we really do know what to do, and we do know that it requires a combination of foresight, originality, guile, and pragmatic planning from the beginning. Fortunately there is plenty of international experience which backs this up.

Paris is an example of one that I live with and cycle in every day, as I have over a decades-long period of its steady adaptation and change. It is definitely not Copenhagen or Amsterdam. It is a work in progress. Only a few years ago Paris was a city that was planning almost exclusively for cars, and yet over the past decade it has gradually begun to build up a network for safe cycling. Perhaps not so much safe as safer, and the role of planners here is to use the full cookbook of approaches in a dynamic organic manner so that each day things get a little bit better. Because all this has become part of the culture, the mainstream culture, it is no longer a big deal, and so the good works are able to go on every day.

Of course if cycling is your game it would be great to be able to import whole hog those terrific physical infrastructures that are found in Dutch and Danish cities. But this takes decades, and I do not see it happening overnight in most US cities. What is interesting about the Paris example (and we are certainly not the only one) is the manner in which safe cycling infrastructure is being built up step by step and day by day. We are not yet at the point at which we can feel comfortable with Gil Penalosa's "8 to 80 rule," where cycling is safe for your eight-year-old daughter and your eighty-year-old grandfather. But give us a time and we will get there.

I hope you will too.

Eric Britton

See also Do We Really Need Bikepaths? and Ian Fiddies' articles, The Safety Paradox and The Safety Paradox.