Thursday, 28 March 2013

Amsterdam announces plan to create separate priority networks for bikes, parallel to priority networks for public transport and for motor vehicles. Ditches current priority of journey "speed".


German television broadcast an interview (in English) last year that I've only just noticed and I'm posting it on this blog because it's the clearest articulation I've heard in quite some time about why cities should design themselves around cycling and how to do it. What I particularly like about the interview is the way that Klaus Bondam, a former rightwing politician in Copenhagen simply pulls no punches and tells a few home truths that local authorities around the UK would do well to heed. 

His first comment seems quite obvious: "In medieval cities, there's a limited amount of space, so you have to have a discussion about what the space should be used for...Right behind us there are loads of parked bikes, just imagine how much space that would take up if it was parked cars." 

Yup, spot on. You have to discuss cycling and private cars on an equal footing. This is a concept that is still nascent in the UK. But the same sort of thinking is going on in the Netherlands: Amsterdam this week published its new "Action Plan for Mobility". The document talks about how "Until now the guiding principle for almost every [street layout] reorganisation has been to guarantee the accessibility of all the functions for all modes of transport."

Traffic counts (units) at a major central London
junction in the morning rush hour. Bikes make
up 37% of the vehicles. 
That sort of thinking is very much the case in the UK. You have town planners trying to squeeze in buses, bikes, motorbikes, taxis, white vans, lorries, pedestrians. It's a fairly hapless task.

I was looking at the traffic mix at a central London junction earlier (graph pictured left. I can't tell you which junction I'm afraid). As you can see, there's a mix of all sorts of vehicles and people on bikes make up 37% of the traffic. The approach to designing a junction like this in London is, broadly speaking, 'let's keep everyone happy' and make the junction work for everyone (which is something of a misnomer as the reality is that motor vehicles always predominate).

Amsterdam has decided to throw that sort of thinking in the bin. Rather than "guarantee accessibility for all modes of transport", the city planners have decide to prioritise different modes of transport on different streets. It will create "Plus Networks" that prioritise just one type of transport.

Map of proposed Amsterdam priority routes. Green routes
will have bicycle priority. Blue will be public transport, red is
private motor vehicles. Yellow is pedestrian priority. 
Out goes 'smoothing the traffic flow' on all streets (currently the dominant thinking in London, for example). In comes something quite different. There will be one network that prioritises private cars and vans; one network that prioritises public transport; and a network that priorities people on bikes. And these networks are not the same roads. They are different networks that run in parallel. You can see an image of the proposed networks on the left. 

This sort of thinking is well advanced on anything in the UK, where these discussions are still in their infancy.

I find it fantastic that Amsterdam is planning a bike priority network that is separate and different to, say, public transport or pedestrian networks. It puts bikes and walking on equal footing with motor cars, something you can't say for UK towns and cities. 

And this is where Denmark's Klaus Bondam has some home truths to share: "All cities have to discuss where should we allow the car in the city," he says. That is exactly what Amsterdam is considering, namely de-prioritising cars in some parts of the city but prioritising them in other parts.

This is what streets look like when you prioritise all forms
of transport. See, even Amsterdam can be rubbish for cycling
sometimes. Source: Plan Amsterdam 2013
Bondam also points out in fairly frank language: "It is a strange thing that [some cities] think only people driving in cars buy things or contribute or go to work". Too true. It's all about treating bicycle transport as an equal. This is a real problem in the UK. For example, in the City of London's recently published draft Local Plan, the City of London talks repeatedly about "responsible cycling" rather than just "cycling" and never refers to people getting about by motor transport having to be "responsible" as well. To me, that reads like the local authority is happy to treat people on bikes differently to people in, say, cars or taxis. That sort of thing is not on. Especially when you realise that 37% of vehicles crossing into the City at one particular junction are people on bikes. Why should only 37% of road users be 'responsible' and not the others?

Denmark's Klaus Bondam debates this dynamic in the video: If you want to encourage people on bikes, he says, "you have to tell people we really like the contribution you're making as a citizen" by not driving a car. That sort of language is still not happening in the City of London or many other local authorities.

And this is what streets look like
when you prioritise different
forms of transport differently.
Source: Plan Amsterdam 2013
Bondam is also extremely critical of one policy that is very in vogue in London, in particular in the City of London, and that is shared space that is used by cyclists and pedestrians: "It is a big, big, big mistake, mixing pedestrians and cyclists....It's error number one - walking and cycling are two completely different ways of transporting yourself. You create a conflict between two weak forms of transportation. It's a total mess." Amsterdam's new policy is more or less the same - it's about creating priorities for each form of transport on different networks.

Just compare what Amsterdam and Denmark are telling us with this assertion from the City of London: "Shared space is now used in preference to other measures such as separate or segregated cycle lanes. Segregated measures were found to encourage excessive cycle speed and, in the City lead to cyclists and pedestrians being less considerate towards one another." As Bondam says "It's a total mess... A big, big, big mistake" to make this assertion.

I'll leave with one more quote from the video. It's so true but I can't imagine any UK politician standing up and saying this: "I mean, it's healthy if people bike: they don't get so fat". Very blunt. Very true.