Tuesday, 5 June 2012

US government backs Dutch-style cycling as a real American transport choice. Makes Mayor of London & England's transport ministers look anti-motorist as well as anti-cyclist.

Green Lane Project from Bikes Belong on Vimeo.

The US Department of Transportation has just announced its support for the Green Lane Project, a "new effort that works closely with six U.S. cities to help them build world-class cycling networks on city streets. These are cities poised to make significant progress over the next two years in installing cycle tracks and related improvements, which we’re calling 'green lanes.'"

Compare and contrast with the UK where the government in England has recently scrapped Cycling England, the only government body (and a very small and weak one at that) dedicated to bringing best cycling practice to English towns and cities.

The US scheme is mind-blowing when you compare it to what's happening in the UK.

Chicago, for example, will build 25 miles of segregated bike lane every year. That's a city with less than a third the population of London, building more segregated bike lane per year than London in the last decade.

Wherever you look, the US is beginning to make the UK approach look utterly isolated. Over in Silicon Valley, the city of San Jose is building protected bike lanes. It doesn't simply want to reduce motor traffic on its street network, it wants to slash motor traffic - down from 80% of commuter traffic to 40% - and grow cycle traffic from 1% to 15% by 2040. Compare that with the lukewarm words of Boris Johnson who is planning to a) increase motor traffic and b) only expects 5% of journeys to be made by bike by 2026. Wow.

Why has the US fallen in love with the bicycle? Simple really. The US Department of Transportation has decided that cycling is a "smart, quick and inexpensive way for everyone to get around". The Department of Tranportation and the Federal Highway Administration "like traffic-separated lanes because they increase safety. And bicycle infrastructure is much less expensive to build and maintain than either transit or roadways, so communities get a bigger bang for their buck...And, the more people who choose to ride instead of drive, the less congestion motorists experience as they make their way through town. Green lanes even benefit pedestrians and children; by inviting more bicyclists, we reduce the burden of tailpipe emissions on the air we breathe."

As the US Department of Transportation says, cities can cut congestion and improve transport for everyone by encouraging more cycling but it can only achieve that by building proper cycle infrastructure - a network of "green lanes —inspired by decades of experience in European cities and adapted to meet the unique needs of American streets."

Meanwhile, over in London, over 50% of all car journeys in outer London are less than two miles. So what's London doing? It's planning to build for more motor traffic by making motoring easier. No sign from the Mayor that he realises why the US is building hundreds of miles of segregated bike routes this year.

Cities in the US are doing this to reduce motor traffic, reduce congestion and get some of those people who are currently driving two miles off their backsides on to bicycles. The Department for Transportation is explicitly saying it wants to encourage cities to use Dutch, Danish and European experience in cycle infrastructure design and blend that with its own experience to make cycling a truly American way of getting around its cities. By implication, it is saying that Dutch-style cycling infrastructure is the only thing that gets normal Americans on their bikes. And it's doing this to get people moving to jobs more cheaply and more efficiently than by car. Which is good for everyone. Less congestion, less pollution, less cost to taxpayers.

Boris Johnson's view on all of this? Ambiguous at the moment. See his comment below to a question posed during a live twitter chat last week:

What does that mean? No space for bike lanes? How come Amsterdam managed it on its network of medieval streets? And what does 'watch this space' mean? Something sneaky and exciting in the pipeline? Do bicycles not 'keep the city moving'? They seem to do just that in the opinion of the American transport secretary but not in the opinion of the Mayor of London. Let's see...

When you compare what's happening in the United States with what's happening in England, it becomes increasingly apparent that cycling's going nowhere in this country.

If you have time, watch the video above by the US Department of Transportation. Then have a listen to some of the obfuscation and sheer ignorance about cycling displayed by the UK goverment's (technically only with responsibility for England on this issue) transport ministers Mike Penning and Norman Baker. If the video gets too frustrating for you or you don't have time, you could have a quick read of this spot-on synopsis written by Cycalogical blog. As Cycalogical puts it so well: "What was David Cameron thinking when he appointed Mike Penning minister for road safety? He might as well have appointed Harold Shipman minister for the care of the elderly".

For more background on the US announcement, see Carlton Reid's piece in Bike Biz.


  1. It's not US Dept of Transport funding this, it's grants from US bike industry org, Bikes Belong.

    US Secretary for Transportation Ray LaHood would like to fund bike infrastructure but plenty of car-fixated politicians make sure he doesn't.

    Green Lanes Project was kicked by boss of Federal Highway Administration. As I say in my BikeBiz piece on this story, the FHA was created by cyclists...


  2. US politics is much more complex than ours, apparently made deliberately so by the founding fathers, who set the executive (President), legislature (Congress) and judiciary all against each other to provide checks and balances to prevent excessive accumulation of power. The result is often conflict, indecision and chaos. The USA is also an extraordinarily politically polarised nation, with a clear "donut" form - democrats and liberal conservatives hold sway in the coastal states and big cities around the rim, while the Tea Party rules the big prairie states and the midwest.

    Nowhere is this more apparent than matters of raising and spending Federal taxpayers' money. My colleague in charge of our Washington DC policy group once remarked to me that when our Prime Minister or treasury secretary announces a measure, it has a 95% chance of becoming law ("pasty tax" being an example of the other 5%), whereas when the President, or leader of either the House of Representatives or the Senate makes such an announcement, it has about a 25% chance of making it through to law.

    There is also of course the pork barrel effect - it is much easier to get votes for a spending plan if you can show the Congressman how many Federal dollars will arrive in his constituency or state, to support employment etc. In this respect the auto industry has a very long reach indeed and most Congressmen will rely heavily, in a way that no UK politician relies, on financial support during, or between, election campaigns, from big business, in which the auto industry is a key player. So it is hardly suprising if politicians, especially Republicans, oppose "anti-car" measures, for after all, what may strike you as neutral or pro-car like reducing congestion so that car use becomes more efficient for those fewer occasions when it is strictly necessary, is anti-car from the perspective of someone whose primary aim is to sell as many cars, or as much "gas", as possible.

    Also bear in mind that the USA is a far more devolved administration than the UK, which has become steadily more centralised in recent decades. The federal government cannot lay down law in an area such as local roads or off-road paths, it can only encourage, with exhortations or with money IF it can lay hands on it.

    That doesn't mean that there is no hope. We know for example that a significant proportion of the States, possibly a majority and certainly some of the most populous such as California have challenged the previous federal administration on its environmental and transport policies, and have opted to follow policies which directly contradict Bush-era policies. The Republican governor of California for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has presided over laws to force down the average emissions levels of the state's auto fleet and promote electric vehicles.

    And another encouraging thing about this development is the fact that the libertarian wing of our own Tory party tends to see mainland European countries like the Netherlands as the anti-Christ, and looks to the USA for political inspiration. If the USA embraces the bicycle at last (and previous experience suggests that an idea which is initially opposed, but which proves to be effective, eventually gains the approval of its opponents) then our Tories will just have to follow.

    All that leaves to overcome is all the politicians of centre and left, many of whom are even less supportive than many tories such as Boris Johnson who do believe in cycling but who perversely believe that freedom of choice works efficiently in our society.

  3. Loving your blog. Intersting post, would be nice to see conservative America follow liberal Holland and chase the Bike. We are trying to get cycle lanes built in Harrogate and hitting a bureaucratic brick wall at the moment. cycle harrogate