Living suburbs – getting to Copenhagen

Monday 3 December 2012

London needs to invest properly in its cycling infrastructure if it is to match the achievements of Copenhagen, consistently voted the world’s best place for quality of life.

This was one of the key sentiments to emerge from a fascinating and wide-ranging conference held at the NLA last week, geared towards discussing the London borough of Ealing’s moves to raise quality in the suburb.

Ealing leader Julian Bell kicked off proceedings by describing his own modal shift to becoming a ‘hardened veteran’ on the bicycle. ‘It came about because I come from Yorkshire and I’m frugal’, he said, going on to realise a challenge to complete 2012 miles during 2012 and losing a stone in weight in the process. He also lowered his blood pressure and cholesterol to the extent that his doctor declared ‘I need to get a bike’. But the serious message, beyond a new challenge to ride the equivalent of a round the world journey – some 18,250 miles – is for Ealing to ‘lead the way’ in cycling provision. ‘I am so inspired by Copenhagen’s example and what they are trying to do’, he said.

Ealing’s Pat Hayes continued the theme, urging that cycling must be seen as a ‘normal travel choice’. Despite all the money currently being spent, we ‘haven’t really dented the modal shift’ and the different choices need to be made about prioritizing resources.

NLA chairman Peter Murray showed examples of good bicycle infrastructure practice from a recent trip to Copenhagen, where he was gathering evidence and meeting Jan Gehl Architects with a view to informing his Portland Oregon to Portland Place ride, taking place next year. But one of the key problems concerns safety. ‘Unless you protect people better, those people who are afraid of cycling will just not get on their bikes’, he said.

And then it was on to the lessons from Copenhagen from those at the centre of the 40 year transformation of the city in cycling terms. ‘Living in Copenhagen is not about being a cyclist but about being a Copenhagener’, said Niels Tørsløv, Head of Center for Traffik, City of Copenhagen. The city has 550,000 inhabitants but 1,000 new ones every month and the average age is 35. And 37 per cent of all trips to work and education are made by bike – the highest number in Europe. Cyclists feel safe, said Tørsløv, and the activity represents ‘a way to have human beings on the streets’ and a human scale dimension, with people ‘exposed to one another.’ Now Copenhagen is experiencing a huge growth in numbers prepared to ride 10km to 20km, so is planning more superhighways. But the small things are just as important, such as a specially designed app through which residents can send requests for new ramps or report repairs needed, direct to those with the power and money to implement them. Changes need dedicated leadership as well as ‘investment for the next cyclist.’

For Jeff Risom, Associate, Head of Institute, Gehl Architects the whole issue is about political will and culture, rather than technical problems. The Gehl approach – evident in transformational projects in New York, Brighton and Copenhagen, is to measure, test and refine. ‘We try to add layers of research to existing datasets that a lot of cities have’, he said. Cities like London need to decide on an approach and be consistent about applying it across the board, paying heed also to connectedness, comfort, and being continuous – integrating with other modes of transport.  ‘A bikeable city is a liveable city’, he said. Work at places like New York’s Broadway also proved that traffic flows can even be improved while introducing new bike lanes and pedestrianized areas. But an important point was that ‘people don’t change their behavior when you tell them to – they do when the context allows them to.’

Other speakers included TfL director of planning Ben Plowden, who said he was ‘convinced’ that London is heading in the right direction towards a goal put forward by Boris Johnson for a 400 per cent increase in cycling by the end of the decade. There are 540,000 cycle trips now made in London per day, and the volume is growing at the same rate as it did in Amsterdam and Copenhagen when at their lowest points.

But it was that point about investment made by Niels Tørsløv which struck the loudest chord. Copenhagen invests some £18 per person, per year in cycling. ‘Investment works, said Tørsløv. ‘That’s basically the message from Copenhagen to London.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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