Politically palpable paths to bike bliss

As a boy I recall looking upon that wee street there in front of my house, and thinking to myself, “Master Behooving, that there is the same street that passes in front of everyone’s house across this brown land Australia.” I was in possession of my very own 10 speed mens racer with dyno lights. There wasn’t much traffic, or at least I was too dumb to know cars could kill me. ’twas nothing to me that taxi drivers and postmen had new names for this band of bitumen as it turned one way or the other. It was all the one stretch in my eyes and it united every address in the whole of Australia.  I could go  anywhere.

It is nice to imagine children growing up in the Netherlands looking at the cycle paths in front of their houses and thinking (in Dutch one supposes with snoring sounds instead of Gs) “Ggggosh that’s the same cycle trrrrack that passes everrrry house in this countrrrry!” Most don’t look out upon cycle trrracks though. The typical residential street in the Netherlands is a no-through road that bikes and cars share. They pave them red to suggest they’re for bikes and that drivers are guests. But if they were paved in a manner that reflected the way they are used, red and grey pavers would be evenly mixed. Only as Dutch children grow older and start venturing beyond sight of their mothers, then beyond their own streets, do they see the way car flows and bike flows are refracted for drivers and cyclists further afield. In other words they see the red diverge from the grey so the grey can go faster.

The Netherlands is the only country that has ever, will ever, or could ever embark on a complete nation-wide refraction of bike and car traffic. None other is as flat. None other has the population density and wealth that they can afford the colossal refraction (check below for a footnote.) In fact, right now, countries are looking for infrastructure types to drop from their remits, not new ones to add.

But what if we stopped looking at the question as adults? What if we looked at the non-refracted bike-and-car space that children can ride on right now, in front of their own houses, that if it were in Holland should be paved as a red and grey checkerboard, and asked if all of that space can be amalgamated into one whole?

Here is a map of my neighbourhood with places a child can be on a bike coloured green. The situation looks pretty good, with lots of quiet streets and paths within parks.

 

But that’s not how eight year olds see the world. They’re told by their parents to play within ranges bounded by the busier roads that their parents don’t want them to cross. My own children and the others growing up in our enclave had our street and the beach to roam without supervision. Kids growing up in the next enclave to the West, separated from our enclave by just one road with through-traffic, were a whole other tribe. It was as if they were raised on a distant island separated by tempests and maelstroms.

If this were Holland and we had their infrastructure budget to play with, these islands could be joined in the process of reengineering the through-roads with cycle tracks and Dutch style signalised intersections and roundabouts that gave proper consideration to cycling. Still though, we’re looking at the problem as adults. Adults understand cities by the major roads that Adults are used to driving along, or riding along at big bully mens speed on their bikes. From such perspectives adults can only see solutions that would cost millions.

If we gave the problem to neighbourhood children to solve, I think they would more likely propose safe crossing opportunities that aligned with the laneways they play in. Kids don’t want to press a button and wait for green lights, or go the long way around Dutch roundabouts. They want to run across without looking. What would suit them are raised and cobbled chicanes that force cars to slow down and give kids right of way. The two islands I’ve mentioned could be joined with one such chicane for around 50K. For less money than it would cost to build one or two Dutch intersections and a few hundred meters or curb separated cycle tracks along the through-roads in one neighbourhood, chicanes could be added to link every quiet back street in the city. Here is a map of the whole inner city showing 30 separate enclaves that, with chicanes on the through-roads, could function as one.

 

A child growing up in Australia today—with soccer mums, texting P-platers, and genuinely suicidal middled aged men at the wheel—could look upon the street in front of their house and see something like the street I saw growing up: a surface to ride on to any kid’s house in their city.

Does it bother me that some ill-informed Nederlandophiles would see this as less than universal best-practice? I’m about as upset as a politician who just disenfranchised the one-millionth idealist. Does it bother me that bicycle user groups would rather see bike infrastructure pennies stretched to serve the whole sprawling city? I don’t care about that at all. Long lonely cycleways, regardless of how often I use them myself, in the end are just life support for the suburbs and the suburbs ought to be left to die with some dignity so their land and fine plumbing may be given to farmers.

In the past decade we have seen left-leaning, neighbourhood gardening, worm farming, home cooking parents discharging literally zillions of barefooted brats with chic bowl-cuts onto the street to free-range while they sip craft beer with their new yuppy neighbours and fantasise about orgies. If all the quiet back streets and alleys were to coalesce, as I propose, then Gen-Y yuppy mums will no longer have to get out of bed to walk their designer-children to school, or walk them to their friends’ houses, or drive them to their Scottish Highland dance classes, etc.. What I am proposing is something the electorate can understand, that cyclists can use. Beggars can’t be choosers now. You get what you get and you don’t get upset. That is my advice to bicycle advocate in the new lands.

Footnote: Singapore could afford a nation wide cycle track network but the government there is addicted to its “railastate”  and driving tax revenue streams. 

2 Comments

  1. Luke says:

    “The Netherlands is the only country that has ever, will ever, or could ever embark on a complete nation-wide refraction of bike and car traffic. None other is as flat. None other has the population density and wealth that they can afford the colossal refraction.”

    You sure? SE England/England is not notoriously hilly or poor, and is denser in population than the Netherlands. Forget your Scottish roots – no one lives there. See also Northern Italy.

    • Steven says:

      Haven’t you built a lot of car parking in your city centres that will not go away and be there as a magnet? You would have to double the size of your cities with building stock that has as little car amenity as most Dutch building stock. I still think your (our) best hope are heterotopic development tracts. Still, to you point, go as far as you can down the Dutch path and don’t be disappointed if the refraction (I take full credit for the first use of that super applicable word!) is still only half arsed in your lifetime—cycling for you will only get better.

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