— Cycling requires a mix of measures, not just segregation on main road but also not traffic calmed residential streets.
COMMENT & ANALYSIS / LONG READ: There’s currently a document circulating called “Sustainably Safe Places to Live: Lessons for Ireland from the Pandemic” — it purports to cover Dutch ‘Sustainable Safety’, but in reality makes the Netherlands out to be some kind of idealised place which it isn’t.
I’ve been avoiding writing this but the author of the discussion paper is probably one of the most determined people in cycling campaigning in Ireland. For reasons which should be clear below, I cannot let it go unchallenged. Practically speaking, I want to avoid going over this with people again and again and this is a better format than places like Twitter to explain what’s involved.
The document ‘Sustainably Safe Places to Live: Lessons for Ireland from the Pandemic’ is written by Shane Foran a Galway-based cycling campaigner. Foran has shared links to his discussion paper widely, so, I don’t see the issue linking to it or the summery. Please don’t read it without the context outlined here.
To minimise criticism, here’s how Foran describes himself:
Shane Foran is a founder member of the Galway Cycling Campaign. He is the campaign representative on the Galway City Community Network (GCCN) and sits on the GCCN secretariat. He currently represents the GCCN on Galway City Council’s Transport Strategic Policy Committee. In 2005, he presented a paper on Irish roads practice at Velocity 2005, an international conference on cycling matters. He contributes to the European Cyclists’ Federation working group on cycle helmets. He is a member of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport’s National Panel of Sustainability Experts. In 2010, he was a guest speaker at the Engineers Ireland annual Continuing Professional Development seminar for roads engineers.
Before we go any further, Mark Wagenbuur — who runs the excellent BicycleDutch website and YouTube channel — has an article called and explaining ‘Sustainable Safety‘. Mark as done fantastic work with videos and articles highlighting Dutch cycling. Mark wrote that “Sustainable Safety is based on five principles”:
- Functionality (of roads)
- Homogeneity (of mass, speed and direction of road users)
- Predictability (of road course and road user behavior by a recognizable road design)
- Forgivingness (of both the road/street environment and the road users)
- State awareness (by the road user)
Foran’s paper quotes the BicycleDutch article on Sustainable Safety, this quote from Mark is included:
“All Dutch streets and roads have been classified (under a legal obligation) and are or will be re-designed to the Sustainable Safety principles by the road managers. This led to areas where people stay (residential areas and areas for shopping/sporting/theatre etc.) and designated space used for the flow of traffic in order to transport people from A to B. Under the Dutch vision these functions cannot be mixed.”
Under Sustainable Safety, each road can only have one of three functions:
- Local Access Roads – low speed roads with houses, schools, and shops.
- Through Roads – for fast traffic going longer distances.
- Distributor Roads – these connect through-roads with local access roads.
The problem is that BicycleDutch on the other hand wrote:
To the Dutch the most ideal situation is when roads and streets have only one single purpose. To achieve this mono-functionality a hierarchy of roads was introduced.
- Through Roads for high volumes of fast traffic on longer distances.
- Local Access Roads from which end destinations can be reached.
- Distributer Roads which connect through roads and local access roads.
I don’t know if Foran is being willfully disingenuous or if he’s just misguided or something else. But the context he is writing this is while he’s still defending people who spent half of their life arguing against segregated cycle paths (see below).
In any case, switching the “the most ideal situation” to “only” is wrong. While the idealised situation can be found in many parts of Dutch cities, it isn’t that systematic in many places outside the likes of the town of Houten which was built that way. The Netherlands isn’t the perfect place that is being described by Foran — most Dutch cycling experts and advocates warn about this.
This selectiveness and framing is a recurring issue with the document.
Cycling infrastructure and the levels of cycling varies from city to city. Sustainable Safety was adopted in the Netherlands in the 1990s and even today there’s situations which do not comply in terms of breaking function “rule” or in terms of higher level traffic circulation or designs of individual streets.
As the research paper ‘Sustainable Safety in the Netherlands: Evaluation of National Road Safety Program‘ discuses: “Although a change in road function may be desirable (e.g. increasing the residential function) it may not always be possible…” This is not idealism, it’s pragmatism that local situations will differ even if the goal should be the ideal.
I’ve defended Shane before, over a number of years. Even to cycling campaigners from outside of Galway — some people who don’t visit Galway much or who get off the train and stay centrally have a limited view of the city. Galway is a mess for walking and cycling, and too many people in power there see expansion of car use as the only way forward, despite the growing evidence that cities like Galway cannot built its way out of congestion.
Although there’s some signs of hope with a wider range of Galway residents taking on the idea that building a second bypass is a must have for the city, at the higher level of officialdom that view has not taken hold much. It’s easier to understand Foran’s ultra combative style in that context, but such a stance — especially when cupped with personal attacks on officials which focuses on if they are suitable to design or redesign roads and streets to make them cycling friendly — doesn’t seem to allow for progress.
It’s worth looking at two IrishCycle.com news articles covering issues involving Foran’s campaigning — the Galway to Dublin Greenway and the South Kerry Greenway. His view is that his stance did not differ from other campaigners. I know other at least some campaigners did not agree. I’ll let people click on those links to the greenway articles and avoid describing Foran’s views. As can be seen in the comment sections of both articles, it’s very hard to satisfy Foran’s requested level of clarity within news articles when he continues to selectively give out about lines or paragraphs when such are set in a wider context.
Foran has said in the past that he’s not anti-segregated cycle paths — but the discussion papers he wrote and the framing, ie the Galway Cycle Campaign under his leadership had this clanger about the Nazi Party and cycle paths on its website homepage: “History of Cycle Tracks: How the National Socialist Regime of the 1930’s/40’s. and their post war successors, used cycle tracks for the explicit purpose of clearing cyclists out of the way and encouraging a switch to the mass use of private motor cars in German towns and cities” (See the copy of the website saved on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine).
I’ve been told on Twitter that it’s unfair pointing to his words written years ago, but he’s keeps including hints of such in tweets and in his recent discussion document.
Foran’s very recent tweets defending John Franklin are a case in point. John Franklin’s negative effect on cycling in the UK is documented on a well-sourced post on The Alternative Department for Transport blog.
When Foran defended Franklin, UK cycling campaigner David Arditti tweeted in reply: “I’m not sure about your assessment of Franklin. He may have believed/written different things at different times, but for a long time his website systematically misrepresented evidence on comparative cycle safety, and he really seemed to think the Dutch model should not be emulated.”
He added: “All the info that Franklin put out for a long period was to emphasise the risks of segregated cycle paths (which certainly exist in bad designs). He never acknowledged that the overall result of the Dutch and Danish systems was desirable, never dealt with inclusivity at all.”
When Foran replied with what is viewed to be selective research, Arditti said: “You’re unearthing much ancient stuff which is (a) cherry-picked and (b) mostly got debunked long ago, especially the output of the Helsinki Traffic Planning people. My overall point stands: influential cycling voices stopped the UK implementing infra for years.”
Foran is being generally more subtle than Franklin, but slipping away from the subtle with things like defending Franklin. What Arditti describes is what I see with much of what Foran writes about cycling infrastructure.
Foran also mentions Groningen — “Groningen in the Netherlands removed motorways from the city centre and created a system of four zones that cannot be crossed by private motor traffic, which must use the ring road instead” — but as Mark at BicycleDutch points out, there’s some major problems with cycling in Groningen. These problems such as very high levels of buses on narrow city centre streets and no cycle paths on the inner ring road (think more like a circular road) are really not compatible with Sustainable Safety in a broader sense.
Residents of Groningen and other observers have also expressed frustration at the city taking steps backwards and choosing to mix unsuitable traffic levels in places rather than segregate or filter. This can be off-putting to somewhere like Ireland, but I see the lesson here as the Dutch are human and make mistakes.
Foran also mentions the Ghent city circulation plan — Ghent’s approach is a fantastic one. But as outlined by officials from that city: Dutch experts thought they were mad trying what they did a year out from an election. An elected official said he had death threats made against him and an official in the city’s bicycle unit said: “…when I went to Congress European Congress somewhere at you know cities for example a lot of people even Dutch people told me well the plan you’re going to implement that’s political suicide one year before the elections you can’t do that.”
Most places work on traffic circulation in a more gradual way with a range of measures such as pedestrian streets, filtered permeability, bus gates, cycle paths etc etc. Ghent is an example of the next step then being brave and more radical than the Dutch and it paying off. But you need strong political and official buy-in. That doesn’t look like Galway today, especially not when there’s too many toxic clashes.
Foran keeps going back to high-theory-style idealism rather than some kind of pragmatism. In his paper he spends a good deal of time describing unbundling cycle routes. It is an idealist view of the Netherlands to think most of their cycle routes are unbundled and even where there’s unbundled primary cycle routes there’s usually also segregated routes on the main roads. Different cities differ in layouts and how easy it can be to unbundle routes.
This video is of a secondary cycle route in Utrecht which runs very close to an unbundled primary cycle route — Sustainable Safety is still applied on this route on the main road and despite this being the secondary route, it is of higher quality than any main road route in any Irish city:
In most countries we are used to cycle paths that stop and start, and go up and down… it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s a secondary route in Utrecht, NL: pic.twitter.com/ugFEt4ucoz
— IrishCycle.com (@IrishCycle) October 29, 2019
In Foran’s paper, he states:
“Figure: County Offaly, “National Cycle Network” funding paid for this unprotected painted cycle lane marked in the hard shoulder of a 100km/h rural road. In contrast to this kind of practice, Dutch engineers work to keep cycle routes completely away from arterial traffic.”
The reality is that the Netherlands is crisscrossed by cycle routes — both urban and rural — which are not unbundled and which do run beside arterial traffic, with as large of a green buffer as possable. The idealised theory is good but it’s not going to happen everywhere and sometimes both options are a good idea.
Foran also wrote:
“The attractive cycling and walking conditions in the Netherlands did not happen just because they spend money on facilities. They are the result of spending money on Sustainable Safety. Dutch cycling facilities are not an afterthought squeezed into multifunctional roads to meet a budget target for the quantity of cycle tracks built. They are one part of a system-wide approach to managing roads in a way that recognises the needs of all users.”
There’s half truths sprinkled on this. Dutch cycling facilities may not be an “afterthought squeezed into multifunctional roads to meet a budget target for the quantity of cycle tracks built” but a hell of a load of Dutch cycling facilities are squeezed into multifunctional roads — how well that is done depends not just on top-down national policy but also local buy in.
And the system-wide approach includes cycle paths on main roads, traffic calming and filtering on residential streets, service streets, bridges, punching holes in walls, bicycle-only streets etc etc.
In the last part of the paper, Foran deals with what he calls “Through-traffic on local roads and the Irish motorway error”. This will be especially seductive to some sustainable transport advocates who rightly see large sections of the motorway network overbuilt. The evidence is strong now that building ring roads like the M50 wider and wider does not ease congestion inside the city it circles.
And Foran is correct that building bypass ring roads around towns should have been a higher priority than point-to-point motorways. My own choice of what is prime madness is the new N5 Castlebar to Westport road which is under construction — the €241m dual carriageway between the two relatively small towns does not even include a eastern bypass of Westport.
As with a lot of things, there’s some sense mixed with some things which seems out of context. Including an appraisal of the motorway network in a document named ‘Sustainably Safe Places to Live: Lessons for Ireland from the Pandemic’ seems a bit of a stretch. Within Foran maybe also idealises the Dutch motorway network, as if none of it is over built and as if that doesn’t push induced demand.
Back to the main issue at hand — the focus needs to be on a range of measures which allows for segregation of cycling in space (ie cycle paths) or volume and speed (ie low traffic residential streets / filtering out traffic). Overly focusing on selective parts of high-level theory or idealised situations which are not even close to universal in the Netherlands won’t serve us well in quickly providing safe and attractive cycle routes to schools, work places and everywhere else in Ireland.