15 February 2011

A Civil Society Needs the Bicycle

In an earlier post, I referred to the work of Jan Gehl and his approach to “liveable cities”. One of the things he is trying to do is to civilise our cities, and remind us that the human scale is important. It is why some of his most renowned work has revolved around re-discovering pedestrian routes and re-thinking the balance between cars and people.

If a city with a considered balance between streets and roads, between people and cars can be considered civilised, then another measure of civility is surely how a city treats its cyclists.

So, if you believe that in order to encourage cycling, there needs to be an attention to cycling infrastructure on the Dutch or Danish model, then the way a city treats its cyclists has a physical form. There is a visible demonstration of commitment. This is an important distinction to make, as it means you can’t hide from the political implications of wanting to create a “world class” city (an avowed mission of the good burghers of Cardiff, unlikely as it may seem) – an aspiration of that kind has a real effect on the ground – your progress towards that goal can be measured in blue paint and kerbs.

A civilised attitude to accommodating cyclists and thus offering citizens a safe and viable alternative mode of transport also brings its own rewards, in the shape of benefits which themselves have an impact on quality of life and “liveability”. Improved health, less pollution, less congestion, more efficient public transport are just some of the widely understood arguments, which seem to be happily accepted by Councils and Governments everywhere in terms of written policies. What they haven’t realised is that accepting the argument and spouting platitudes is easy. It is the wholesale re-allocation of street space that is hard – and the lack of action stares us in the face.

But how about some of the less obvious, but equally – if not more – important benefits that we should also champion. How about seeing people with a smile on their face as they cycle along? How about just being able to see people’s faces? How about a gentler pace in peace and quiet in the morning rush hour with just the tinkle of bells and whirring of gears to accompany the birdsong? How about the opportunity to say good morning to a fellow coommuter?

All intangible in terms of benefit. All immeasurable and unquantifiable. And yet at the very heart of what it is to be civilised.


  1. It's also about noise pollution. Did you know what the top noise complaint in the borough of Westminster last year? Was it:

    a) neighbour noise related complaints;
    b) licensed premises noise related complaints; or
    c) noise from road traffic?

    The answer is (c). Noise from motorised traffic topped the complaint list.

    Traffic noise makes people aggressive. It stresses them out. It makes cities unliveable. When Oxford Street was pedestrianised for a day, people were much happier and calmer.

    Noise pollution should not be left off the list when discussing liveable cities.

  2. And if you need the link to the document that supports that it is here - in Westminster's noise strategy 2010-2015 under 'Executive summary'