“To the man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail”
As World Streets readers are often reminded, great cities are complex living organisms, but in the world of urban mobility including the bicycle community, there are plenty of people each wielding different shaped proverbial hammers, from Public Bike Systems to cycle lane networks, all certain that theirs holds the potential to strike the magic blow to solve the transport issues for almost every city.
I arrived in China at the backend of last year with a mission to raise the status of cycling, which I saw as the problem for many of the cities here.
Was I right, or had I imbibed a little too much of the Mobility Management Koolaid, and events, marketing and promotion were actually nothing more than my own personal hammer searching for a nail to hit?
Some observations on urban cycling in China
The situation that can be observed in many Chinese cities is of actually relatively low levels of private car use, high levels of public transport use, comparatively good cycling infrastructure, and high but fairly rapidly declining levels of cycling.
Cycling projects are also fashionable, here in Zhuhai we have a beautiful ‘Green Way’ a cycle path running along the coast, Public Bicycle Systems are the new ‘must have’ item for cities all over China, and scores of Chinese cities take part in Car Free day activities.
All this, and yet I am told by bicycle industry insiders that national sales of low priced bicycles usually used as commuter bicycles, are declining by as much as 10% year on year. This I believe indicates that cycling for transport is declining at a similarly quick rate.
There are numerous reasons for this decline, and status is probably one, but factors such as theft, comfort and distance contribute.
Objective: More people cycling, more often.
Followers of this journal will need no introduction to the benefits to cities that Cycling England’s famous motto will imbue; cycling as a means of transport is efficient in terms of urban space, energy, noise, pollution and safety, and cycling is generally recognised as a component in increasing the health and happiness of citizens.
All of the above benefits can be presented almost like for like as the flip sides of the problems created by China’s infamous rapid motorisation.
Quick, someone do something!
Yes, but who and what?
The only people who can change a city are the citizens of the cities themselves; along with the city governments, the businesses and the schools.
The government must take the lead, and perhaps what we in the New Mobility community might be able to do, is to help is guide them to the best of what has been successful elsewhere.
As Laozi reputedly said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
Step One – Mapping the cycle facilities
Why start with a map?
This first step is critical.
It must be relatively quick, low cost and have a defined output.
It must be very easy for leaders of a city government to understand, have limited and clear objectives and make an effective contribution.
It must be a project that does not present any perceived risk of failure for a city leader, while providing a platform for the leader and the city to garner praise, plaudits and increased profile.
Ideally it should provide a vehicle to garner the support and contribution from all the key stakeholders; private sector sponsors, media, organisations within the city government, and the citizens themselves.
Considering all the options, mapping the cycle network is the only project that can provide all of these.
A map can also be used as a tool to identify where the demand for cycling is, where the pinch points occur, it helps establish a network which can then be fixed, and protected.
It highlights where infrastructure such as bicycle lanes, safe crossings, cycle parking, or even where the stations for a public use bicycle scheme should be placed.
It is sexy, it can be a combination of high and low tech formats.
If it is made ‘Open Source’ then contributions are requested from all the public, then it is an inclusive project.
It can also be launched, becoming publicity for cycling, information on where to cycle, and a tool for cyclists.
What needs to be considered?
A map must be easy to read, so when transferring onto paper based map it should be easy to carry, easy to read, and understand.
A pocket sized map with card covers that is easy to open is generally favoured.
For big cities it is usually necessary to divide the maps by region to keep legible, and a small pocket book approach can also work well.
Ideally, maps of a city should be in public display at or near main transport hubs, and the cycle network should be highlighted.
Maps can be placed on existing street furniture such as public bins, and longer term the mapping can be integrated with other modal maps, such as the Spider Maps at every London bus stop.
Digital maps hosted online are the future, GPS enabled phones are becoming more common and a digital map can be accessed by anyone with a smart phone, or a computer.
They provide the opportunity for presenting much more information than a paper map which must maintain simplicity.
They also provide an opportunity for updating and input by the local community.
There are some excellent examples of online route-planners for cyclists from around the world, and Google maps is now developing a Beta version of cycling routes in the USA, and OpenStreetMap.org provides a free editable platform.
2. Defining the cycle routes
A cycle network is more than segregated lanes, it includes quiet side streets, and even main roads where cyclists must cycle with other traffic.
Grading of routes can include a number of options.
Safety, segregation, by incline, by speed and quantity of traffic, directness to direction, by pollution, by vegetation, speed vs shopping, leisure vs commuting.
3. Listing other information
Places: Bicycle stores, safe cycle parking.
Information: Calories burned, CO2 saved, distance covered, time taken, elevation gained
For online and paper maps getting it into the hands of cyclists and non-cyclists is a crucial part of the process.
It must be free, it must be available at as many outlets as possible. Schools, workplaces, transport hubs, shops, restaurants and universities.
Marketing from the very beginning, including sponsors, bike shops, media and crucially cyclists in the process of building the map will help with this.
The launch of the map should be a major celebration, but a map is not static, it is a continuous process.