HOW CYCLING CAN SAVE THE WORLD
IT’S THE BOOK CHRIS BOARDMAN PROCLAIMED HE’D LIKE TO HAVE WRITTEN. AND PETER WALKER’S ANALYSIS OF THE STATE OF CITY CYCLING IS BROUGHT TO URBAN READERS WITH OUR EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT...
An exclusive extract of Peter Walker’s new book, Bike Nation, examines why big business is embracing the bike
Peter Walker’s new book Bike Nation takes readers on a journey around the world, exploring the various issues and attitudes to cycling on the UK’s and international roads. Guardian news correspondent reveals the statistics that show cycling extends your life; why cyclists are treated as an ‘outgroup’; and why the helmet debate is the wrong debate. Walker also focuses his investigative lens on big business and discovers why cycling rather than driving can make a city more economically competitive. Not convinced? Over to Walker and the Danes…
Odense leads the way
Directly opposite Odense’s Italianate nineteenthcentury city hall sits a squat and considerably less elegant box-like structure, nestled amid a mass of ongoing construction work. This is a temporary information bureau for people to learn more about the huge reconstruction project transforming Denmark’s third biggest city. Inside, the centerpiece is an enormous, carved-wood scale model of the city centre, featuring every street and building. But show this to an observant local and they might soon spot a few differences.
In the world outside, just north of here, runs Thomas B Thrige Street, named after a businessman who in the 1890s founded a firm making electric motors, part of an industrial boom that transformed Odense into the manufacturing centre of Denmark. The street carrying his name was built in the early 1960s and is typical of the urban motorways of that era – a rapid, four-lane route built over part of the old city. But on the wooden model, Thomas B. Thrige Street looks very different. The cars are gone. It is now a tree-filled boulevard for pedestrians and cyclists, lined with cafés, shops and apartments. This is part of a radical and locally controversial plan to more or less banish cars from the city centre. Anker Boye, Odense’s veteran centre-right mayor, a somewhat unconventional politician who began his working life as a house painter, describes the rationale behind the five-year, £2.5-billion plan. Yes, he says, encouraging more people to cycle and walk will bring the usual improvements to public health, pollution and the like. But the primary motivation is something less immediately obvious: finding ways to keep Odense, a small and relatively obscure city in global terms, economically competitive. “In this little country we are one of the big cities, and for generations we were the industrial centre,” Boye says. “But that has all changed. In the global market we’re small. So we’re concentrating on the clever parts of industrialisation, like technology.” These new industries include a European centre for testing drones and medical research connected to the city’s university. The mayor’s bet for the future is that with heavy industry now more or less gone – Odense’s shipyard building huge container vessels finally closed in 2012 – there is no longer an economic need for mass road capacity to carry trucks and cars. The newer, high-tech firms, he hopes, will be drawn to the city more for its quality of life, particularly lots of green spaces and safe cycling. “We no longer need all the cars in the city centre,” Boye says. “More and more investors are coming here because they believe in the way we’ve transformed this old, industrial city into a new city. We try to think about people living here all their life, and having a good life here.” A healthy workforce By the standards of most places, Odense is already very welcoming to bikes. With just under 200,000 people, it has almost 350 miles of bike laneshis colleaguesand 123 cyclist-onlysay they need bridges.to exploit But this Boye and advantage to the full. The rebuilt city centre will see drivers obliged to head to either underground parking garages or park-and-ride systems. A lot of people, the designers hope, will choose instead to cycle or use a new tramline. Boye says the focus is also on adding cultural centres and cafés, and ensuring enough of the new housing is affordable for people on lower incomes. “We know we need to live from private businesses, so we need to have good conditions for that,” he says. “But we care about the whole life of people, too.” Odense epitomises a relatively recent shift in the way people think about urban cycling. For a long time, bike advocates tended to be from the political left, from green movements, or both. But in the last decade a new set of arguments has emerged that contend that building better bike infrastructure is as much about boosting the local economy. This is billed as a new model for competitive cities – that they are these days judged less on busy roads than on people-friendly streets lined with pavement cafés. It is, however, about more than just ever-rising GDP figures. As with Odense, this philosophy aims to bring about a happier, healthier, more human-scale city. And at the heart of these changes is cycling. The high priest of this doctrine, you won’t be too surprised to know, is another Dane. Jan Gehl,
now in his eighties, is an architect and urban planner who is best known for his ideas about liveable cities. Gehl argues that people are happiest when they are able to engage with their surroundings on a human level. City dwellers, Gehl argues, should feel “they are invited to walk as much as possible and to bicycle as much as possible”. I met Gehl when he was on a visit to London in 2013. At the time, the city had yet to build much in the way of safe cycling infrastructure, and Gehl was visibly less than impressed by a local bike culture he described as ‘for the extreme sport enthusiasts, the freaks who think, “It’s a good day if I survive London, he argued forcefully to me,
WITH JUST UNDER 200,000 PEOPLE, ODENSE HAS ALMOST 350 MILES OF BIKE LANES AND 123 CYCLIST- ONLY BRIDGES
was being left behind in the ‘new set of paradigms’ on which cities were judged. “In the past they competed on who had the most parking spaces, or the biggest freeways, or the highest skyscrapers,” he said. “But now there are many more questions about quality of life and liveability.” The rest of Britain was also lagging in this shift towards more human-oriented urban environments, Gehl warned. There were, he noted, three well-respected annual lists of the world’s most liveable cities, each with dozens of places on them. No UK city featured anywhere. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s because you have a very, very strong tradition of letting the traffic planners rule,” he said. “They are still in a very strong position. They think that what you see out here is given by God. It’s not. We are realising that if you have people walk and bicycle more, you have a more lively, more liveable, more attractive, more safe, more sustainable and more healthy city. And what are you waiting for?”
We do not want to lose any more
So what were they waiting for? In London, at least, people were waiting for the then-mayor, Boris Johnson, to stop building bike lanes marked only by paint, and embark on a network of betterdesigned cycle routes. This he did, and fairly soon: work began on the city’s first major separated lanes in early 2014. The complex and fascinating political battle behind this process is told elsewhere [see Walker’s excellent book for more], but one element in particular illustrates the changing attitude of big business to mass cycling. The two lanes were fairly modest by most standards, one running a few miles north to south across the city centre, and another, longer lane bisecting it east to west. But this was a politically charged moment. It was the first time a mayor in the city had definitively taken small if significant chunks of space from motor vehicles
NEW BIKE INFRASTRUCTURE IN LONDON WAS UTTERLY NECESSARY FOR THE EFFICIENCY OF THE COMPANIES
and given them to bikes. And this was happening on some fairly major routes, including along Embankment and across Blackfriars Bridge. Separated bike lanes were not entirely unknown in the UK. What was to become known as the A40, the main road heading into London from the west, was first built in the 1930s with a wide cycle track running alongside it. A miniboom in cycle planning in the 1960s and ’70s saw several places – for example Bedford, Middlesbrough and Milton Keynes – acquire bike lanes, or even whole networks of cycle routes. But these were almost all completely separate thoroughfares, or built onto space next to the existing road. They did not remove lanes from the motor traffic. And so when this began to happen in London, some groups were not happy at all. The opposition was relatively small, but extremely noisy and quite influential, including the trade organisation representing London’s famous black taxis. Equally outraged were some Members of Parliament, whose regular drive to work was delayed for a period by the construction of the east–west Embankment lane. As well as being the mayor, Johnson was at the time also a Member of Parliament. Some of his fellow MPs would harangue him on a virtually daily basis about the inconvenience, he said later. The volume of complaints rose ever higher, and all conveyed the same message: such bike lanes were bad for business. They might be okay in a Utrecht or an Odense, but London was a global city and relied on the free road movement of deliveries and people. The city would grind to a halt.
Corporations for cycling
Then a slightly surprising voice emerged in favour of Johnson’s plans. Dozens of companies, among them corporate behemoths like Microsoft, Coca-Cola, the bank Santander, mobile phone firm Vodafone and the supermarket Tesco combined to form a lobby group called CyclingWorks. This argued that new bike infrastructure in London was utterly necessary for the efficiency of the companies. There was another reason, they said: all their staff had a right to expect to get to work safely, however they travelled. “We have tragically lost employees in the past who have been killed while trying to cycle to or from work,” wrote Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch household goods multinational. “We do not want to lose any more. Our sister head office building in Rotterdam is surrounded by cycle lanes and an efficient urban tramway system. We see the benefits to urban mobility and quality of life.” Not all businesses signed up. One major property group, which runs the Canary Wharf estate in London’s Docklands, secretly paid for the taxi drivers’ union to make an expensive and doomed legal challenge to the bike lanes. It later emerged that the company’s main concern was that visiting executives would face longer limousine journeys to and from the airport. Speaking to me as he officially unveiled one of the new lanes just before his mayoral term ended in May 2016, Johnson said Cycling-Works had been an important movement. “I think there’s been a big change in London, and London businesses increasingly understand this,” he said. “One of the reassuring things about this whole exercise is that, even though we got very heavily attacked, businesses all the way along the route have pretty much all supported it.” It’s worth noting that Johnson, while a politically brave supporter of cycling facilities, is a Conservative, and by no means known as a champion of wider questions of equality and environmental change. During his eight years as mayor, air quality in London deteriorated, while a laissez-faire attitude to property speculation contributed to massive social changes in many neighbourhoods. Similarly, it’s hard to argue that companies like Coca-Cola and Tesco have an all-pervading interest in public health, let alone a commitment to social justice. But their interest in cycling as an economic force, or even just something they should be seen to support, is nonetheless fascinating. There are still those in big business who argue that a vibrant and competitive city is based around roads choked with cars, taxis and vans. But these are increasingly starting to look like dinosaurs, clinging to a bygone era.
Odense is seeking to attract big business through cycling BELOW
ABOVE Architects Gottlieb Paludan designed this new cycle bridge for Odense’s residents
ABOVE Odense recognises the economic benefits of a cycle- friendly city
TOP Sceptical businesses are now supporting the cycle network ABOVE Cycle Superhighway (CS7) channels over Blackfriars bridge