Archive for August, 2011

26
Aug
11

Cycles for a richer society

When it comes to promoting cycling Sweden ranks fourth best in the world. Is this something to be proud of? Maybe, but its not very ambitious. Fourth best might be OK. I mean we’re not the worst, yet.

The annoying thing is that the knowledge base needed to be the best or as good as the best exists in Sweden, both among some politicians and many planners. Examples of how the urban environment can be improved for both pedestrians and cyclists is close at hand in those countries that are better than us. Investments to promote walking and cycling are not expensive. They provide great value for money when compared with other infrastructure investments. The missing ingredient, the one that means that Sweden doesn’t quite achieve the same high standards as lets say Holland for cyclists is lack of political will. The right noises are made but not implemented.

The main difference between cycling policy in Sweden and the Netherlands is quite simple. In Sweden you can easily and safely cycle around the cities. In Holland urban planning in recent decades, has made the bicycle quite simply the easiest way to get around in cities. Although it is easy to get around by bike in Sweden the easiest way to get about is often by car. For some reason, people choose to travel by car more often than necessary probably just because it is so simple. In Holland city planners have worked actively for years to give cycling a comparative advantage.

Why is this important? Is not it enough with the attitude we have now? The answer is no. for several reasons, but here there is only place to name a few of them. Each journey by bike gives an economic gain to society. Where as every trip by car is subsidized, heavily subsidized if it occurs within an urban area. Congestion charging at the levels presently discussed hardly affects this. If we want people to use one mode of transport over another, subsidies are a policy tool that demonstrably work. Although its important to subsidize the modes that you want to promote. Climate change, poor urban air, noise and insecurity are all external costs that are wholly or partially incurred by car traffic in cities. It is through taking care of the car’s victims that society subsidizes cars.

Most of the problems facing cyclists in Sweden are caused by cars. Cars travelling at unacceptably high speeds in urban areas and cars parked on narrow streets. On urban streets where people live and go about there business, the maximum speed should never exceed 30 kilometres per hour. Today many of our streets are empty, so why reduce the speed on a deserted street? Simple, when the speed of the traffic is lower, people start using street spaces again.

There is a much livelier street life in Holland than there is in Sweden. The Dutch initiative where cyclists are given a comparative advantage over motorists have benefited everyone, including the small minority who do not cycle. Dutch cities are pleasanter places to be in. And because it’s pleasant, people spend more on the street. They’ve managed to put life back into the cities, which among other thing increases personal security. Dutch cycling policy has had a variety of positive social feedback.

This said Holland has not declared war on motorists. The number of cars per thousand inhabitants is only marginally lower in the Netherlands than in Sweden (457/475). The difference is that in Holland motorists are also cyclists. Dutch motorists take the bike in the city because it is the fastest and easiest way to travel. All places are still accessible by car if you have to unload something. But its not that simple. Cyclists and pedestrians have the space they need in Dutch cities, cars get the space that’s over, and not vice versa as in Sweden.

Fourth best is pretty good but not good enough.

Ian Fiddies
Friends of the Earth, Transport Committee

This is a translation of the original article first published in Swedish in Göteborgs Fria Tidning

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