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.

 
 
 
 

For all our sakes’, smart cities need to slow down

A smart kiosk in New York City. Image: Getty.

All over the world, governments, institutions and businesses are combining technologies for gathering data, enhancing communications and sharing information, with urban infrastructure, to create smart cities. One of the main goals of these efforts is to make city living more efficient and productive – in other words, to speed things up.

Yet for citizens, this growing addiction to speed can be confounding. Unlike businesses or services, citizens don’t always need to be fast to be productive. Several research initiatives show that cities have to be “liveable” to foster well-being and productivity. So, quality of life in smart cities should not be associated with speed and efficiency alone.

The pace of city life is determined by many factors, such as people’s emotions or memories, the built environment, the speed of movement and by the technologies that connect people to – or detach them from – any given place. As cities around the world become increasingly “smart”, I argue that – amid the optimised encounters and experiences – there also need to be slow moments, when people can mindfully engage with and enjoy the city.

Cities provide an environment for people to move, encounter, communicate and explore spaces. Research shows how these experiences can differ, depending on the pace of the activity and the urban environment: whether fast or slow, restless or calm, spontaneous or considered.

“Slow” approaches have been introduced as an antidote to many unhealthy or superficial aspects of modern life. For example, the slow reading movement encourages readers to take time to concentrate, contemplate and immerse themselves in what they’re reading – rather than skim reading and scrolling rapidly through short texts.

Similarly, the international slow food movement started in Italy as a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant on the Spanish Steps in Rome, back in 1986. Then, in 1999, came the “cittaslow movement” (translated as “slow city”) – inspired by the slow food movement – which emphasises the importance of maintaining local character while developing an economy which can sustain communities into the future.

Slow cities arise from grassroots efforts to improve quality of life for citizens, by reducing pollution, traffic and crowds and promoting better social interaction within communities. They must follow a detailed set of policy guidelines, which focus on providing green space, accessible infrastructure and internet connectivity, promoting renewable energy and sustainable transport, and being welcoming and friendly to all. Slow cities can create opportunities for healthier behavioural patterns – including pausing or slowing down – which allow for more meaningful engagement in cities.

These guidelines present a clear road map for city governments, but there are also ways that local people can promote a slow city ethos in fast-paced cities throughout the world. For example, in London, artists and activists have organised slow walks to encourage the general public to meaningfully engage with urban spaces, and show them how diverse their experiences of the city can be, depending on the speed of movement.


Slow and smart

Trying to put people’s concerns at the heart of smart city policies has always been challenging, due to the lack of creative grassroots approaches, which enable citizens to participate and engage with planning. And while technology has been able to give citizens instant access to a wide range of data about a place, it is rarely used to improve their actual experience of that place.

Getting smart cities to slow down could give citizens the means to explore the urban environment at a range of different paces, each offering a distinctive experience. To do this, architects, artists and urban planners need to look beyond the ways that technology can give instant access to information, services and entertainment – whether that’s video game lounges, or recharging and navigation pods in airports and stations.

Instead, they must recognise that technology can create platforms for citizens to immerse themselves and engage meaningfully in different experiences within the urban environment. For example, technology-based installations or projections can tell stories about people and places from other times, which enrich people’s experience of the city. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning can offer new ways to understand cities, and the way people function within them, which could help give human behaviour and experience a significant place in smart city planning.

Slow and smart cities could take the best of both approaches, helping citizens to connect with the history, present and future of a place, emphasising local character and building a sense of community, while also making use of the latest technology to give people greater choice about whether they want to speed up or slow down.

This would not only enhance efficiency and productivity, but also ensure that technology actively helps to improve people’s quality of life and make cities better places to live. It may sound idealistic, but with the range of advanced technology already being developed, ensuring cities are slow as well as smart could help people live better, more meaningful lives long into the future.

The Conversation

Lakshmi Priya Rajendran, Senior Research Fellow in Future Cities, Anglia Ruskin University

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