A Conversation with Peter Walker, author of an important, brand new book: How Cycling Can Save the World
- So give us the elevator pitch – why should a big city like Seattle consider revamping or completely overhauling their infrastructure to support cyclist culture?
Because – in the briefest possible précis – it would, within a remarkably short time, make the city immeasurably healthier, happier, free-flowing, equitable and, more than anything, built slightly more around the needs of human beings rather than anonymous, speeding metal boxes, often carrying a single person for a laughably short distance.
The same could be said for more or less any town or city, especially in the US (or UK), places where public health experts warn there is a pandemic of avoidable illness connected to people living sedentary lives. Finding time to exercise is tricky; build safe bike routes and thousands of people instantly improve their health as an almost accidental by-product of getting around. Then there’s the reduction in smog, fewer lives devastated by auto crashes, less congestion (bikes are much more efficient for carrying people in urban areas), and lower greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the thing about more cycling – even if you never ride a bike, the city improves for you anyway.
But most of all, bikes are, paradoxically for an invention which has not changed fundamentally in more than a century, uniquely well suited to modern urban living, where people prefer to live closer to their workplaces, and cities compete less on fast-moving freeways than on quality of life.
- You do not personally object to bike helmets and wear one yourself. However, why do you view the helmet as a red herring within the realm of cyclist safety? Why do you think arguing over helmets and high-visibility gear is irrelevant to the wider safety argument?
It’s fairly well proven that wearing a well-fitted bike helmet will offer some protection in a relatively low-speed fall. But that’s about as simple as it gets. Once you start making them compulsory, all sorts of inadvertent factors come into play. One of these is risk compensation. One psychologist has found that not only do drivers tend on average to ride closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those who do not, he found separately that wearing a helmet tends to make people take more risks playing a video game – something where the helmet has no relevance at all. Then there’s evidence that helmet laws puts people off cycling, making the streets less safe for those who do ride and counteracting any public health benefit as fewer people exercise.
High visibility gear is similar; fine in theory, but much more complex in practice. The most innovative study about its use for cycling suggested, alarmingly, that drivers tend to pass too close because they clearly see the rider, but simply don’t take enough care. In the safest cycle nations, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, virtually no one wears a helmet. That’s because if you build proper bike infrastructure then the need to dress up as if for urban warfare suddenly disappears.
This is how cycling is made safe, but the debate is too often drowned out by people shouting about helmets.
- One barrier to entry for the cyclist movement is largely psychological – can you explain how the normalization of the term “accident” and roadside intimidation are problematic to the cause?
One of the many paradoxes of urban cycling in many places is that it is both much safer than many people think, but still so alarming in practice that only the young and gung ho (and often male) tend to do so. A pioneering study in the UK found that cyclists there experience a scary “near miss” on average every week. No one is necessarily hurt in these, but it puts people off.
One of the main reasons for this is that the roads are the one place in the modern, industrialized world, where death or serious injury is seen as an everyday part of life, and – to use the poisonous term – an “accident”. For all the understandable worries about terrorism, in the US the entire toll for terror attacks from 2001-13 is matched on the roads every month. Distraction, speeding and other poor behaviors are rife. One study has estimated that at any one daylight moment, more than 600,000 distracted drivers are on US roads, many staring at phone screens.
As cars become safer, the toll of this is exacted all the more proportionately on pedestrians and cyclists, who are in turn told they must somehow protect themselves. At airports, passengers aren’t given Dayglo vests and told the mind the planes as best they can as they head to their flight; but get on a bike and somehow it’s all up to you, even if you’re a child.
- Other arguments against cycling cite the dangers for children, as well as taking away easy travel options for the disabled and elderly. Can you address why better cycling infrastructure and a push for cycling as a popular mode of travel could actually be good for those populations?
Discuss cycling with someone and before long many will say: ‘Ah, yes, but what about my 75-year-old grandmother – how is she supposed to cycle? And what about my kids? I need to drive them about.’ There is, of course, an obvious answer to this: no one is yet advocating that everyone be forced to give up their cars. But go to somewhere like Odense in Denmark or Utrecht in the Netherlands and a very different answer emerges. Dutch older people tend to be far better connected with friends and family than their US peers, in part as many stay on two wheels even beyond the age at which they feel able to drive. An amazing 20% of Dutch people in their 80s still ride, a statistic helped by the innovation of the electric-assist bike, or e-bike. It’s the same at the other end of the demographic chart. In Odense, 80% of children ride to school, and it’s considered safe for them to do so alone from age six. Such safety gives children immeasurably more independence – not to mention exercise.
Disability is another little-examined area. Many people unable to walk far, or at all, can travel long distances on adapted bikes or hand-cycles, especially with electric assist. But such cycling cultures need coherent networks of proper bike lanes, not to mention measures to calm car traffic elsewhere. In places like the US and UK, this is absent – meaning those who ride tend only to be the minority brave enough to mix it with the traffic. That excludes the young, the old, the infirm and even the cautious from their own streets.
- Public bike-share systems are popping up in cities around the globe: Montreal, Portland, Hangzhou, Mexico City and London to name a few. What has the impact been like on these cities and the populations?
The public bike share system in its modern form is now a decade old, with Paris’s Vélib’ network launching in 2007. Since then, it’s arguable, bike shares have shaped modern cycling as much as any innovation. There are now around 1,000 bike share schemes worldwide, ranging in size from a few dozen machines to the 80,000 or so in the Chinese city of Hangzhou. One big effect of such bikes is to humanize a city. London’s system made its debut in 2010 amid predictions of carnage as fleets of novice riders took to the roads. Instead, they filled the streets with recognizably everyday riders – businesspeople en route to work, grinning tourists taking in the sights, sometimes even friends riding round for the sheer fun of it.
They also have the potential to revolutionize transport. Experts in China, where the sheer scale of many cities make transport hugely difficult, predict a big growth in bike share systems alongside subways or other metro rail networks. People ride the first or last mile, and suddenly the city is so much more accessible.
- Some opposition to increased cyclist infrastructure comes from local businesses worried about fewer parking spaces and thus fewer drivers visiting their stores. How does building better bike infrastructure in a city actually boost the local economy?
The transformation of New York City to include miles of protected bike routes came under Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire media tycoon who, it’s fair to say, is not someone to get misty-eyed about cycling. He changed his view after commissioning a report into how the city could cope with an estimated million extra inhabitants in the coming years. The answer was simple: gone is the era where we can bulldoze blocks to create urban freeways; only more cycling (along with walking and public transport) can do it.
There was a backlash among some shops and companies when the lanes were built, but that’s largely gone, not least as the proof is that bikes are good for business. New York’s transport department commissioned a huge study which found that business revenues tended to rise more quickly on streets with separated bike lanes on them than those without. Study after study has shown that shop owners tend to over-estimate how many customers come by car. Cyclists might buy less at a time, but they often buy more overall.
- If a local biking activist community hopes to campaign for better cycle infrastructure, what should they keep in mind based on past successful demonstrations, for example in Montreal in the 70s and 80s?
Montreal is regularly named as one of North America’s most bike-friendly cities, despite the hills and the fierce winters. Much of this is down to various groups which in the 1970s campaigned for bike lanes, and together highlight two key elements of how to achieve this. In one corner was La Monde à Bicyclette, a loose and occasionally chaotic collective of alternative types, left wingers, and general misfits, who staged die-ins and other such theatrical actions to press authorities for infrastructure. In one famous stunt, co-founder Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman highlighted the lack of a bridge able to carry bikes across the St. Lawrence River by dressing up in a rented Moses costume and inviting photographers to watch him try to part the waters so his fellow cyclists could cross.
But alongside La Monde à Bicyclette was the more sober Vélo Quebec, who lobbied politicians, pushed for funding, and helped seal the deal. Vélo Quebec now runs an annual weekend of cycling events in Montreal, intended both as a celebration and a reminder to the city council of the numbers involved. This is not unique to Canada. The Dutch network of bike lanes began after mass protests, inspired by a leading journalist whose six-year-old daughter had been killed on her bike by a speeding driver. These days the process often involves the slightly more prosaic business of lobbying local councils and making sure the voices of noisy objectors are not the only ones heard.
The best route to bike lanes, however – and this is harder to arrange – remains having a sympathetic and powerful politician in office, for example Michael Bloomberg in New York City.
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HOW CYCLING CAN SAVE THE WORLD
By Peter Walker
On Sale April 4, 2017. TarcherPerigee Paperback | $16.00 | ISBN-13: 978-0-14-311177-1
Find out more about How Cycling Can Save the World by Peter Walker. © 2017 Peter Walker. Published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Related: 3 Reasons Why We Need Separated Bike Lanes
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