There's a war for space on city streets and bicyclists are on the front lines
Originally published on Europe & Me as “Challenging the primacy of the car – one European city at a time"
I stan utan min bil – In town without my car – was recently the premise of a car-free day in Stockholm, Sweden. The City of Stockholm shut down central parts of the city and arranged a wide array of activities for both kids and grown-ups. Representatives say that the goal is to give Stockholm’s residents an idea of what the city might look like with less cars and experience it in a new way, as well as spark a debate over public space. There might not be a need to spark any debate, though: throughout much of Europe people are debating how the increasingly limited space in cities should be used. Much to the chagrin of drivers, cars seem to be at the losing end – but is it actually that easy?
Stockholm is only one European city that has organised “car free days”, with Paris being another example. The French capital is organising one in 2017 for the third year in a row, and expanding the car free zone to cover most of the city centre proper. Anne Hidalgo, the Paris mayor, has called personal car ownership “archaic” and has proclaimed that the city will ban diesel cars by 2025 to stymie the pollution cars put out. The Norwegian city of Oslo banned diesel cars in the city for several days in January 2017 after alarming levels of air pollution. This seems to be the most straightforward way to achieve better air quality in cities. Frank Kelly, professor of Environmental Health at King’s College London, has said that a “total car ban is the only way to beat air pollution in cities”.
Oslo is aspiring to doing exactly this, and has put forward an ambitious plan to be the first European city with a car free city centre in 2025. However, both car owners and businesses protested: the city trade association said that banning cars would create a “dead city”, and car owners felt “bullied” by measures to transform parking spaces and streets into bicycle lanes. More often than not measures like this are put in words such as “Bikes vs cars” and “the war between cars and bicycles”. Apart from pollution, increasing urbanisation leads to more people living in European cities, which in turn leads to higher pressure on the available space, be it in a car, on a bicycle, or on foot.
Christian Gillinger has been blogging about bicycle commuting and bicycle infrastructure in Stockholm since 2010, and is a year-round bicycle commuter. He identifies one big change in the often-narrow bicycle lanes in Stockholm in the last couple of years: they are getting more crowded, especially in warmer months. He thinks that the biggest progress is that “everyday cyclists” (that just take the bike downtown or shopping) get out on the streets – people who don’t necessarily identify as “cyclists” or “bicycle commuters”, which he thinks are somewhat hardier and accepting of bad infrastructure. “Everyday cyclists” on the other hand, he says, need safe and nice infrastructure to get cycling. Lars Strömgren, chairman of Cykelfrämjandet, a Swedish cycling advocacy organisation, agrees, and has called Stockholm “a little Los Angeles” due to its many suburbs with car-focused transport solutions: “Many feel that it’s unsafe to bicycle and they therefore choose other modes of transport.”
Jennie Sörnel, who has been commuting to work with her bicycle since last year, can vouch that infrastructure and safety are essential. “If I had to cycle out there, with the cars, I probably wouldn’t take my bicycle to work”, she says, pointing to the busy two-lane road next to the bicycle path. Some other cyclists on the busy bicycle path, squeezed in-between four car lanes, also mention well-kept bicycle paths as central to their choice to use their bicycle instead of public transport, or a car.
The Dutch and Danish capitals of Amsterdam and Copenhagen are often elevated as prime examples of cyclist-friendly city planning. In 2016, bicycles outnumbered cars for the first time ever in Copenhagen. The city has worked hard to become cyclist-friendly in the last 20 years. And it has paid off: bicycle traffic has increased 68% since the mid-90s. The head of the Danish Cycling Federation, Klaus Bondam, says that strong political leadership, as well as “a new focus on urbanism” and sustainability, were central to turning Copenhagen into the bicycle-city it is today.
But political leadership might not get you particularly far, as the case of London has shown. Several London mayors have tried to create a network of what has been called “Cycle Superhighways.” But they have been opposed in almost every instance, and in almost every way. A former Chancellor, Lord Lawson, said that its construction “was doing more damage to London than almost anything since the Blitz“, and wondered seemingly in jest if the bicycle-lane project wasn’t age-discriminatory. In this question, Lord Lawson pinpoints another reason why cyclist-friendly measures seem to enrage so many. It is not just about the bicycle lanes, it is a question about things like age, gender and class – a question of identity, and the fact that different groups use different modes of transport.
Bicycle-commuting Jennie Sörnel is actually quite representative of Stockholmers taking their bicycles to work. While the cliché cyclist might be a middle-aged man in lycra zooming down the road at breakneck speed, more women than men cycle or walk to work. And the opposite is true with taking the car, which is something men tend to do.
Last winter Stockholm introduced what they called a “gender-equal” snow-clearing policy that prioritised walkways, public transport and cycle paths (gender equal because it clears snow from women-dominated modes of transport first, rather than from car lanes, which had been the routine before). During the first winter with “gender-equal” snow-clearing, opponents berated the policy as “silly”. When a previously entitled and privileged group (car drivers, in this case), are down-prioritised – be it through less snow-clearing or by converting parking spaces into bicycle lanes – conflicts are bound to happen. This is only one example of the “war” between bicycles and cars and the larger question of who should be prioritised, be it in regard to snow-clearing, or road space.
While it might be hard to reason against these often-irrational feelings of entitlement, much of the debate stems from the fact that infrastructure is seen as a zero-sum game. When cyclists gain a bicycle lane, car drivers lose a lane they could have driven in, or a space where they might have parked their car. While this is true – as in the case in Oslo, where parking spaces have been pushed out in favour for bicycle lanes – it also doesn’t tell the whole story. Apart from obvious gains in air quality and noise pollution, infrastructure that encourages pedestrians and cyclists rather than car-drivers might even lead to more “livable” cities for everyone. Indeed, cities with a lot of traffic are often seen as hostile and unfriendly, even if you are in a car.
Building better infrastructure also stops pesky cyclists running red lights and zebra crossings. Canadian-Danish urban mobility expert Mikael Colville-Andersen explains in a TedX-talk that well-designed solutions such as so-called “green waves” (a technique that encourages cyclists to go at a certain speed to breeze through traffic lights without stopping), or separating bicycle lanes and car lanes, induces better behaviour among cyclists. This in turn actually leads to a nicer traffic environment for everyone.
One might even call better bicycle infrastructure a win-win. Even for car drivers.