Plan cities around bikes to make cycling a real option for more women

A woman, and her dog, cycling in Hong Kong. Image: Getty.

Growing up in North Germany, cycling was my main means of transport, as would be usual for residents. When I moved to Newcastle, northern England in 1996, I stopped. The clear cycle paths I was used to in Germany simply didn’t exist and I didn’t feel safe. But slowly I began cycling more a few years later. Short local trips at first, then to work, and for leisure in the countryside. I enjoyed the thrill of it.

But cycling became more and more difficult over the years and I soon reached a point where it didn’t seem worth it anymore. Competing with fast and heavy motor traffic whilst being on a flimsy two-wheel metal frame was increasingly something that worried me. By 2009, it had started to feel downright treacherous and extremely uncomfortable. It was at this point that I started campaigning.

It’s hard to deny that cycling is good. Increasing active travel can improve the common good and individual well-being. Cycling reduces emissions, improves air quality, reduces noise levels, improves social and economic equity, independence, dignity and health to its users, is spatially efficient, affordable, and provides inexpensive access to work, education and other venues of public life.

But despite these known and well-documented benefits, rates of cycling have remained low in anglophone Western countries. Nationally, getting around by bike is particularly rare in the UK, with only 2 per cent of all trips cycled. In comparison, in the nearby Netherlands, 27 per cent journeys are made by bike; in Denmark it’s 18 per cent; and in Germany 11 per cent.

Men in lycra

In the UK, cycling is also primarily a male rather than female travel mode. Less than a third of all UK cyclists are women, whereas women’s cycling participation is 56 per cent, 55 per cent and 50 per cent in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany respectively. These three countries seem to work for women and cycling. So what keeps people from choosing the bike?

First up there’s the notion that cyclists in low-cycling countries, like the UK, have an image problem. Or as urban planning expert Clara Greed put it: “Some young men on bicycles (dressed in lycra outfits, face covered with air-filter masks) are extremely arrogant and aggressive, just like some men in cars, and seldom are they burdened with shopping or children.” Put simply, our transport system is designed for speed. Aggression abounds. Dog eat dog. Might is right. Close passes are a normality. Inconsiderately parked vehicles block the roads. All this hinders walking and cycling.

Of course, the right infrastructure could change this. But despite the availability of the technical expertise in what is needed to get more people on bikes, cycling levels in the UK have remained low. Although cycling levels have increased almost every year since 2008, the rise is pretty slow over the country as a whole, with some exception for some cities, such as London. And more cycling does not mean a diverse range of people are cycling.

Experts agree that in particular, protected cycle space is needed. Most people want to cycle away from motor traffic; in their own space; at their own leisure. More cycle lanes that physically separate cycling from driving spaces would enable a broader spectrum of the population to cycle.

This would entail taking into account the full variety of journeys that are made around a city. Road design favours those commuting by car, and commuting, historically, is a breadwinner’s activity – usually a man’s. A substantial building programme is needed to rearrange our cities to benefit all types of journeys – such as school runs, grocery shopping or visiting friends – encouraging people to cycle or walk. This would involve constructing cycleways, getting cars out of living and shopping quarters and prioritising public transport on roads and rails.


A wall of officials

I want cycling to be stress-free. As a woman who would like to enjoy cycling more, I have long been frustrated with this very slow rate of change. This is why in 2010, I co-founded the Newcastle Cycling Campaign. And why in 2015, I began to research cycling activism, hoping to inspire policy implementation. Over the last decade, I have carried out countless conversations with a diversity of people, campaigners and decision makers alike.

Speaking with women activists was a particularly humbling experience. These women had dedicated a substantial part of their spare time to lobby for cycleways. By doing so, they hoped to effect better cycling conditions, better cities and more democratic spaces. But they found the experience incredibly trying. No one wanted to listen. One woman described the feeling of campaigning as standing in front of a vast “wall of officials”.

The interviews I carried out for my PhD reveal how much cities are primarily designing for cars. Technical officers, like transport planners and traffic engineers, reign supreme in our cities. They have remained unquestioned for much too long a time by local politicians. Activists have even less of a chance to contribute. I found that they met with a culture that held them at bay. New ideas – such as building cycleways – could not penetrate into council’s technical practice of designing for the car. This, to me, seems undemocratic. Beyond the opinion periodically expressed at the ballot box, just how could an interest group gain access to the decision making process?

In addition to this dysfunctional official system, the women I interviewed also came into conflict with older styles of cycle campaigning: the so-called “vehicular cyclists”. These cyclists denounce the need for cycleways, preferring to cycle on the road in vehicular traffic. They believe that cycling in 30mph motor traffic is desirable and that you are only a real cyclist if you mix with motor traffic. Such cyclists abhor cycling infrastructure.

Challenging the car

Of course, individuals can do what they want. But such a perspective fails to challenge the status quo of prioritising the car. Planning cities around the car harms local democracy and well-being. It leaves little room to account for people’s realities and fails to focus on the public good.

A small number of cities have made headway in recent years. Seville, New York and London are such examples. As a result of strong local leaders, road space has been set aside and converted into cycleways.

But the need for strong leaders to enact such change again raises questions of the democratic process. Everyone knows that cycling is good for you. Cycling is contentious because campaigners demand physical changes to the roads – often at the expense of cars. And roads are political.

The Conversation

Katja Leyendecker, PhD Candidate in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.