REVIEWS: “Building the Cycling City” and “Designing for Cycle Traffic”

Here are two different books which are required reading for anybody thinking about creating cities where cycling is a genuinely mass mode of transport: which, when you come to think about it, is anybody with a view of cities which are less dangerous, polluting (whether it be from noxious, greenhouse gas or noise emissions), unsustainable and unhealthy for those living and working in them.

Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality”, Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett. Island Press.

Designing for Cycle Traffic: International principles and practice”, John Parkin. Institution of Civil Engineers Publishing.

This isn’t going to be a long review, because if you’re interested in this subject you’re just going to have to get hold of the books yourself!

The Bruntletts’ book is essentially a story of what’s happened in the Netherlands. I’d say it’s more of a background set of accounts from different cities. It may challenge some preconceptions, such as:

Looking at Amsterdam today, it would seem the 1978 policy equated to thousands of kilometres of bicycle-specific infrastructure, creating seamless network across the entire city. But the truth is actually a little more complicated and counterintuitive. This cycling utopia was built on traffic-calming rather than bike lanes. Instead of constructing separated cycle tracks on every street, officials started with speed-limit reductions, parking restrictions, through traffic limitations, and lane narrowings and removals”.(p.96)

What follows then, and is repeated at various places throughout the book, is statement of the central question of how examples achieved elsewhere in the past can be used as guides for the future: “Every city is different, and has to find their own ways to improve the city” (p.97).
Parkin’s book is a different thing entirely: a handbook for doing what it says on the cover. Although more expensive (but check out to see if any of the cut-price offers are still available from the publishers) it is something that every committed campaigner, planner and engineer will have to have. More importantly, as Parkin suggests in the podcast interview about his book , it needs, above all,  to be on the shelves of your local highway authority’s engineering department:

The aim of the book is to provide a coherent summary and evaluation of the principles and practices of designing for cycle traffic. It does this with reference mainly to Danish, Dutch, UK and US guidance and standards… A recurring theme throughout the book is that design not only needs to treat cycle as traffic, but also to create attractive and comfortable infrastructure for the riders.”

Each chapter has a clear overview and highlights, neatly separated sections, technical illustrations to satisfy any professional engineer and good quality references (yes., my book is in there!).

Here are a couple of favourite bits:

1. “One particularly common thought appears to be that cycling is ‘dangerous’, and, more than that, cycling causes the danger. The majority, by far, of collisions and injuries are caused by motor traffic. Cycling does not pose as much risk as many other activities in which people might blithely take part.” (p.28)

2. “The book does not use the term ‘vulnerable road user’ because this could imply that there are other road users who have the right and the privilege to make others feel vulnerable. Even if these other road users have the means (a motor vehicle) the ability to create vulnerability should be designed out of transport systems as far as possible and for obvious moral reasons… By contrast, the book does use the phrase ‘cycle traffic’ (p.2)”

Of course, neither of these books will provide “the answer” easily. Blueprints such as these have to be introduced into a society still in thrall to mass car use and yet more road building to accommodate (and generate) more motor traffic. How road users will behave, as well as getting more cycle-friendly infrastructure installed in the first place, is going to be affected – indeed confronted – by the ideologies and culture of accumulated decades of subservience to increasing mass motorisation.

But working out ways to get to a better future can be helped by demonstrating how existing societies have managed to provide a better alternative. Parkin’s book in particular will be a necessary tool when it comes to showing how the public highway can be laid out for the benefit of a transport system based more on the healthy and sustainable mode of cycling.

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