Making cycling mainstream: the role of wider policy

Published: 19 July 2021

Susan Jeynes[email protected]

Selected final essay, published 10 June 2022
Unraveling the Cycling City MOOC on Coursera

Unravelling the Cycling City” has strengthened my belief that building more cycle paths will never, in itself, be enough to significantly increase cycling rates in Scotland. It is clear a broader approach is needed to achieve this.

Cycling must be both appealing and practical if it is to thrive as a means of transport. Cycling infrastructure alone cannot achieve this; wider policies disincentivising driving and reducing the need to travel are also key. “It is precisely that double-barrelled combination of ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ policies that make cycling so irresistible” (Pucher and Buehler, 2008).

In Scotland, my home country, most people believe that the best way to increase cycling rates is to create more traffic-free paths. However, this is only part of the solution.

Figure 1: Traffic-free cycle paths in Kirkcaldy (Scotland), 2020

Before even looking at cycling infrastructure, we need to understand why people travel. As Bertolini and le Clercq (2003) recognise, “what people ask is not so much a generic mobility but, rather, opportunities to participate in spatially disjointed activities.” People make journeys in order to access work, education, services and amenities. If cycling is to become a mainstream mode of transport, towns need to be designed so that journey origins and destinations are within cycling distance of each other. Immediately, it becomes clear that cycling is influenced by town planners as much as by engineers. 

In the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, “strict land-use policies foster compact, mixed-use developments that generate shorter and thus more bikeable trips” (Pucher and Buehler, 2008). By comparison, land use controls are less strict in the UK – one reason why only around 1% of trips in Scotland are made by bike (Cycling UK, 2019). 

The Scottish Government has several key documents that support low-car development. “Designing Streets” requires place-making to be prioritised over the movement of motor vehicles. Their “Town Centres First” principle focuses on prioritising town centres – including over out-of-town retail parks, which are typically designed around the car. However, this presents two key challenges – how can decades-worth of inaccessible developments be counteracted once they have been built; and what can be done to ensure that these policies are implemented in new developments? 

Out-of-town and edge-of town retails parks are common in the UK, and are designed to be accessed by car, with extensive free parking. The Netherlands have shown that free parking in itself does not have to discourage cycling – cycling infrastructure and the location of shops are also important. Dutch supermarkets provide free parking, but are still well-used by cyclists – not only are they connected to safe cycling routes, but they have to be within urban areas (As Easy as Riding a Bike, 2016), which makes them inherently more accessible by bike. 

Figure 2: Free parking at Fife Central Retail Park, Kirkcaldy (Scotland), 2020

So, has Scotland learnt from this experience of creating car-focussed developments? It appears not. A recent study assessed five new developments across the country that have been built since the introduction of “Designing Streets”. However, the research found that only one of these complied with this guidance, whilst the other four were still car-centric (Tasker, 2018).

A compounding factor is the proliferation of low-density housing estates, with limited local jobs and amenities. This design seems set to continue, despite most research finding that higher density, mixed use developments are more conducive to cycling (Harms, Bertolini, and te Brömmelstroet, 2014). Even Amsterdam has experienced this challenge, with lower levels of cycling on the outskirts being partially attributed to the higher distances to work, shops and schools in those areas (Van der Bos, Koorn, and Hilhorst, 2018). 

Experience in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany has found that cycling rates cannot be increased by one method alone – cycling infrastructure must be complimented by disincentives for driving and supportive town planning policies. 

In Scotland, some key questions remain. Whilst the Scottish Government is increasing funding for cycling infrastructure and has created cycling-friendly planning guidance, what needs to be done to ensure that councils implement this guidance? And in a country where driving is widely seen as an essential tool for freedom of movement, what is needed to generate both the public and the political will to disincentivise driving? 


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