Infrastructure, not culture

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November 5, 2018 at 15:11  •  Posted in Featured Posts, Infrastructure, Inspiration Abroad by  •  0 Comments

Bike lane dangerously caught between two buses

That’s not part of your culture?

Mir sinn hei net zu Amsterdam” and other false pretexts for which you preferred the traffic jams to the bicycle this morning.

This article originally appeared in French in Forum 374

Why don’t Luxembourgers cycle? Through construction sites and traffic jams, it can divide urban travel times by half. Despite this, the proportion of cyclists in urban transport in Luxembourg remains marginal compared to other European cities. Those where cycling has taken off prove it: the only way to encourage cycling on a sustainable basis in everyday travel is a continuous and coherent network that makes cycling safe and enjoyable.

Of course, there are obstacles that will always remain quite significant for some people and make other means of transport seem more attractive to them. Even in the most cyclable cities where people can easily cycle up to ten kilometres, it is not the best answer for all trips. These reasons, which may be true for a few people, are often generalized to the entire population and justify, in a counterproductive way, insufficient investment in inadequate infrastructure, which ultimately consolidates the role of the car in transport.

Always a good reason….

It’s not the topography. Yes, a flat city favours cycling, but it is not a silver bullet, and valleys are not insurmountable. The city of Aarhus, despite the clichés about Denmark, has steep hills and an incessant sea wind that has nothing to envy to the côte d’Eich; the modal share of cycling is 18%. Grenoble, the flattest city in France, has difficulty reaching 6%. Cheaper electric bicycles are spreading, and the Grund and Pfaffenthal elevators are full: we know how to get out of our valleys.

It’s raining, then. Or it’s too cold. Or too hot too? We’d get to work stinking of sweat. So how would the people of Amsterdam who work in suits do it? They wear a big coat in winter. Waterproof pants, sold for a few euros at bike shops, allow you to ride in the rain. What about not sweating? No, the offices are not equipped with showers: you simply drive slower than a sports cyclist, just as you would walk rather than run. In Copenhagen, green waves for bicycles on the main roads even avoid having to accelerate after each red light, to reduce fatigue.

Shopping and children to carry exit the picture as soon as you see two children crossing the red bridge in the bin of a cargo bike or a cyclist in a supermarket with her bags. Anything that fits in a shopping cart can, in the worst case, fit in a bicycle trailer.

Anyone can dispel these myths by cycling their daily commute during the week-end. The path will be a little different at first, but the problems we imagined often aren’t.

More cars and parking spaces are needed to encourage trade? On the contrary, everywhere on earth, all studies show that soft mobility is good for business. Where is it more interesting to open a new store in the City, rue Philippe II or rue Joseph II?

The most pernicious platitude, because it is more difficult to verify for oneself, is that the problem would lie in our culture. In the end, the Luxembourger would have to be forced if we wanted to exceed the few % modal share by bicycle, even in the city. He or she would never ride a bike, even if the problems were rare and the benefits obvious.

In addition to mistaking people for idiots who are unable to make rational decisions about which mode of transportation to use, the culture argument also has a short memory. Luxembourg roads were full of cyclists a few decades ago, while bicycles were heavy and less advanced. The Luxembourger is therefore not congenitally unable to travel by bicycle. It is a circular choice over decades to favour the car that makes everyone have a car that makes the car favour the car that really makes everyone have a car.

Creating a coherent network

If all these reasons are pretexts, what makes some cities more cycle-friendly than others? Just ask non-cyclists what demotivates them, which several studies have done: the main factor discouraging cycling is the fear of car traffic. It is not just a question of accident statistics; to attract new cyclists, cycle routes must also make them feel comfortable and safe. This is particularly true for the sections of the population that are more rarely encountered on Luxembourg’s cycle paths; young men, who are naturally more audacious, are less sensitive to such risks.

The best way to convert non-cyclists to cycling is what European cities with the highest cycling rates all have in common: complete networks of separate cycle paths. The share of cycling in transport declined with the introduction of the automobile, even in Denmark and the Netherlands, until these countries began to build cycling infrastructure again. Elsewhere and more recently, Seville, which had no tradition of cycling in transport, has adopted Nordic best practices to expand its infrastructure, and increased the number of cyclists by a factor of ten. The most important factor in predicting the success of a bike-sharing system is the quality of the cycling infrastructure. Why do self-service bicycles make up to twelve times more trips per day to other cities? There is no reason to think that this is not true for cycling in general.

The city of Copenhagen, with almost 800,000 inhabitants, invested nearly €19 million in its already well-developed cycling infrastructure in 2017. How much did  Luxembourg invest in 2018?

However, it is not enough to build any cycling infrastructure everywhere at any cost and blindly copy examples from the past. The choice of some technical guidelines over others is a political choice. Elected officials cannot replace experts and traffic planners, but must be aware that not all bicycle paths are created equal.

The way infrastructures are designed, their design, makes all the difference. Where we build cycling infrastructure, we must adopt the habits and best practices of countries with a high proportion of cycling. For example, these guidelines would avoid dangerous intersections, or two-way bike paths that statistically double the number of accidents at intersections. However, the Ministry of Transport guidelines already warned 16 years ago (!) about this problem.

There are more and more cyclists in all cities; is the evolution of cycling in transport in Luxembourg accelerating thanks to our investments? The rate of change relative to other European cities could be both a measure of our progress, and an instruction from the executive to planners, just as a central bank receives an inflation target. This would avoid the Potemkin infrastructure, built only to make it look better than it is.

However, the construction of a real coherent, continuous and high-quality network in Luxembourg, despite the advantages it would bring, also faces persistent preconceptions.

Planning to be replanned

Traffic planning is often based, at the technical level, on a theoretical traffic model. This model does not take into account pedestrians, cyclists, the way in which infrastructure influences traffic volume, or substitutability, i.e. the possibility of switching from one mode of transport to another when it becomes more attractive.

What may seem very theoretical and abstract is nevertheless simple: today there are no tram users in the Gare district because there are no rails yet. Once the tram is built, those who switch from their cars to the tram will no longer create traffic jams. What is obvious for the tram will happen, whatever the means of transport made more attractive.

A blind confidence in this model, which betrays a certain short-sightedness, is therefore opposed to the construction of cycling and pedestrian infrastructures, on the pretext that a reduction in car capacity would create traffic jams. However, providing a quality alternative offer would even help to reduce car congestion by reducing conflicts at intersections and encouraging alternative ways of getting around for short journeys.

There is therefore “not enough space” to build cycling infrastructure. There is a fixed budget of metres wide on each road, and the choice of their allocation, which favours some modes of transport and disadvantages others, is political and not technical. So much the better if every meter, every second of red light, has been effectively used for the car so far! We know how to allocate our resources according to needs, but this does not prevent the allocation from changing as those needs evolve. Even the narrowest streets in the country have room for pedestrians and bicycles.

370 Luxembourgers die early each year from the consequences of air pollution.  The streets of Luxembourg are exploding at the seams: they can no longer support the almost totally automobile traffic of a country of nearly 600,000 inhabitants where nearly 200,000 border residents return every morning.

Fortunately, some political decisions are beginning to move in the right direction. Free parking spaces at the workplace continue to attract tax-efficient company cars, but they are competing with very generous carrots on bicycles. The new law on bicycle paths provides for routes through urban areas.

An efficient transport system lubricates the labour market. Reducing the average annual 33 hours of traffic jams in Luxembourg City would not only be one less annoyance, but would also improve the quality of life and, ultimately, the country’s competitiveness.

There is no good reason why a real bicycle network should not be built. It’s time for a big push on the pedals.

Guillaume Rischard lives in Luxembourg city and travels by bike every day.

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