Everyone who is sincere about encouraging greater use of the bicycle and less use of the private motor vehicle in the urban environment is naturally interested in the experience in the two countries where this tendency is most advanced: the Netherlands and Denmark. But the trend to copy those countries' cycle infrastructure with seemingly minimal consideration about whether this is appropriate for its new locality is highly questionable.
Here in Nantes such separatist infrastructure is proliferating, with, in some cases, bans for cyclists who use the (superior) road alongside, so I do question it. A good example of this regrettable tendency is the two-way cycle track that has been laid parallel to the D75 which runs from the village of Indre, at sea-level on the Loire, to Orvault, ten kilometres north. Orvault bourg is fifty metres above sea-level. To get there, you climb out of the Loire valley, and up onto the lip of the Massif Armorican. This is considered a mountain range by the geologists, though it's a low one.
It's not quite true to say they don't have any hills at all in Holland or Denmark, but basically they don't. In the Netherlands, according to Wikipedia, half of the country is within one metre of elevation above sea level, and another quarter below. Now ask any cyclist: "Do hills make a difference?" Duh!
I rode the D75 last Saturday, and on its rather abrupt climbs and descents reflected just how inappropriate a narrow cycle lane is for such circumstances. Of course the D75 itself is beautifully engineered and smooth, as is normal in France, but the separated cycle lane is narrow, and there is no separate provision for pedestrians who are, admittedly, few. One is obliged to stop (stop line + stop sign) at even the most minor crossings (a hotel entrance, a farm road etc). Entries and exits to it from the major roundabouts are awkwardly angled. I don't have a speedo on the bike, but I'd guess I'd usually go about 45 km/h on the descents. Such a speed is safe enough on a road designed for motor traffic, but the reduced sight lines on the cycle path, and the loss of priority at side roads would make such speeds folly on the cycle path.
On city streets, I guess, I am mostly resigned to playing my part in the charade of motor traffic reduction. If you narrow the carriageway, motorists will drive more slowly, which is safer for everybody, and the so-called "cycle infrastructure" which serves as cover for this reduction in available space for driving is, I suppose, potentially progressive. I've scored a pair of 2-inch wide Schwalbe Kojak tyres for bouncing around the assorted kerbs, tiles, cobbles, and lumps and bumps that Nantes' mayor seems to think we cyclists will enjoy, and I'll certainly be hopping off the cycle path and onto the carriageway as I see fit.
I plan to continue to use the carriageway if I desire brisk progress though, and out in the countryside I'm damned if I'll be chased off France's excellent departmental road network: being able to ride on it is why I moved here.
Happily my fellow lycra-clad compatriots agree: there were quite a few of us roadies still using the road, and quite a few Sunday riders on their mountain bikes on the path (with assorted joggers and dogwalkers). That, it seems to me, is as it should be, though I shall continue to investigate how to reverse the cycling bans on the D75,
In an attempt to better understand the kind of cyclist who thinks separatist infrastructure would be a good idea, I'm following a few exemplars of the type on Twitter, and trying to understand their point of view. One wears a helmetcam as he commutes on busy A-roads around Glasgow (@magnatom); another is a cycling mother who wants to ride on the road with her four year old in Hackney (@bikesandbabies); and a third a Tyneside cycle campaigner who has a German cultural perspective (@katsdekker).
All three share a touching faith in "better cycling infrastructure." I don't disagree with this for major roads (where there are angled slip roads), but if you were to ask me to increase cycling levels as a policy objective, I'd suggest fewer cars, more courteously driven, and better training for cyclists, not some fantasy parallel reality imagined into being by the most anxious cyclists out there. Cycle training is easy for policymakers to pay for. What is not readily legislated for, but what is really required, is greater respect and courtesy from drivers towards cyclists. Strict liability laws would help. So when Kats Dekker suggested on her blog that:
In other words, ignore the 3% of people who actually do cycle when formulating cycle policy, I did feel impelled to respond:We should be listening to the people who we want to see cycling in the (near) future i.e. the 97%, and make them the subject of our city cycling research – through their eyes can we see the “real” world. Due to circumstances beyond their control, the current cyclist had to turn a blind eye. The current cyclist is desensitised – not by making a conscious decision.
It is true that a perception of danger is the main reason that non-cyclists cite for not cycling. But people say many things. Yer Conservative voter was famously reticent with the pollsters in the run-up to the recent general election for example. But the underlying problem is that it is not normal to cycle. Most people consider themselves to be normal, and would like to drive a car they've seen advertised on the telly.
As for the minority who do cycle turning "a blind eye" to danger: I doubt that this is true, or they wouldn't be cyclists for very long. Existing cyclists have learned to take their place in the traffic. Yes, road conditions can be demanding, and we can all imagine better. Training helps. "See that cycle lane on the left? Ignore it as you approach the junction!" There: just cut your actual risk of dying on your bike by more than 50%.
Note: if a business is trying to grow, it first tries harder to satisfy its existing customers...
Ms. Dekker has not to date posted the comment, so it is published here on the usual premise that it is rejected comments that are the most interesting and valuable. I note the one (anodyne) comment which was posted under that article seems to have disappeared. This lack of desire to discuss her ideas (which resembles Hembrow's) would be sufficient explanation for her being so mistaken in her views.
Update 0839h 20/8/17. Following the introduction of separatist-critique tag, the Guardian comment that was here is now appended to Taking the high road.