An Interview with Landscape Architect Tom Turner

Today we speak with Tom Turner. Landscape Architect. Professor at Greenwich University, urban cycling advocate, and writer at Gardenvisit, he is the author of a series of London-focused videos and blog posts on the Landscape Architecture of Cycle Planning.

The landscape architecture of cycling and cycle planning

The questions I ask prompt an exploration of how levels of urban cycling might be most effectively raised.

What is the most effective way to raise levels of urban cycling? Is it introducing a complete network of segregated lanes?

I love the second generation of Boris’s segregated superhighways. The best of them (ie the Embankment section of CS3) have a serenity and serendipity that is new to London cycling. Even the first generation of Boris’s superhighways is better than the ‘signposts only’ ‘cycleways’ which preceded them but only short sections were ‘segregated’. Turning to Stevenage, I have only used the segregated tracks out of curiosity. The problem is that they are NOT the shortest routes. Cycling is quicker and almost as good on the highways.

Tom Turner landscape architecture cycle planning embankment

Image from

Is there a policy measure that can be as effective as this?

This is not an easy question to answer because it depends which type segregated lane the question refers to. The UK’s oldest segregated lanes fell out of use. I suspect this was because they were badly planned and designed (though I guess the engineering was OK). See Carlton Reid’s project.

In the light of examples of towns like Stevenage, where bike paths were built but didn’t create higher levels of cycling, how important do you think it is to restrict car use in order to promote bike use?

Have you read what the CROW manual says about cycle planning?  It is based on what I see as the obviously correct principle that people will switch to cycling when the routes offer a safe journey that is faster than other transport modes. There are two ways of making cycle routes faster: plan them as the shortest routes and make other routes slower but blocking through traffic in residential areas.

There are cities that cycle in spite of undeveloped infrastructure, like Cambridge, where demographics create a greater propensity for cycle use, and Tokyo, where culture seems to permit the trouble-free sharing of pavement between cyclists and pedestrians. Do these cities disprove the, ‘build it and they will come’ hypothesis?

University towns often have high participation rates for cycling because of ‘other factors’, including low student income and the total impracticality of accommodating car-driving commuters. There are also special factors in Tokyo (1) the planners want to get cyclists off the roads so that there is more space for cars (2) Japanese urban cyclists have very different behaviour patterns to their UK equivalents: they travel slowly and courteously. There seem to be few ‘boy racers’

As UK cycle planning in the 1930s and 1950s shows, ‘build it and they will come’ does not work for cycling EXCEPT when you build the ‘right product in the right place’

Tom Turner cycling interview tokyo

Cyclist on a quiet street in Tokyo. Image by Joe Mabel.

Is there such a thing as a tipping point, whereby levels of cycling reach a point that mean it becomes effectively mainstreamed as a form of transport?

I’ don’t know the answer to this. My guess is that when more cyclists are seen on the streets  more people are likely to give it a go. But I doubt if this is a major factor. When I became a cycle commuter in London (c1973), there were few of us on the roads.  Cycling has grown a lot since then and I’d like to know why this is happening, My guesses are (1) fashion, to some extent (2) the acceptance of less formal clothing at work – cycling in a woolen city suit was no fun (3) overcrowding on other transport modes (4) the difficulty and expense of keeping a car in London. I was given a parking fine of £130 yesterday because my resident parking permit had run out. This is more than the old age pension and I also had to pay £92 for a new permit.

I am interested in how the most change can be created with the least resource use. The Pareto principle states that 80% of the outcomes in any given situation come from 20% of the cause. If a city has a minimum budget for investment in urban cycling, how they should place that minimum investment?

potentially an interesting application of the 80/20 principle but the answer needs to come from research rather than from soul-searching.  It would be a difficult thing to research for several reasons. The London Cycle Network (in and after the 1980s) was an attempt at minimum investment and the money was almost entirely wasted. It went on mapping and signposting. Hardly anything was spent on facilities and I doubt if it any significant affect on cycling behaviour.

Do you think that change needs to come from the ground up, or top down? Can bicycle activism really create lasting change?

Yes it can!  My strong impression is that the Stop Killing Cyclists Campaign in London is having a significant affect. I think it was a major factor in persuading Boris to go for his second generation of superhighways. But apart from what I described above as soul-searching how would one find a research answer to the question?

How significant are sociological issues to overcome in getting more people on bikes – e.g. fear of being seen as poor etc?

I would describe these as ‘social’ issues rather than ‘sociological’ issues and I’m sure they a factor. Have you read  John Forester’s books on cycle transport?  He is well informed and makes significant use of research data – and he is against cycle lanes. One of the points he gives insufficient attention to is perceived safety. Many people are afraid of cycling because it looks dangerous. So the only ways to get them on their bikes is to make it look safe. It is also an open question as to whether segregated routes are safer. It depends on usage levels. The Cable Street section of CS3 is a case in point. It is said to be the busiest cycle route in the UK and the ridiculously narrow lanes create a risk of collisions with other cyclists. This can happen when a careless boy racer is going in the other direction or it can happen if the inexperienced cyclist in front of you swerves to overtake without thinking of looking behind.