What is Freedom? Cycling to Freedom!

On this website, I intend to argue the case for cycling as a means for ‘healing’ the urban landscape of the damage done by the motorcar, and increasing the personal freedom of the individual. To do this, I will look at exemplar cycling cities in Denmark and the Netherlands, and through an assessment of their physical infrastructure in the context of other political and sociological characteristics, reach an understanding of how the obstacles they have faced can best inform UK practice. In doing so, I will present a strong argument for urban cycling as a tool of sustainable regeneration, and will then conclude my study with suggestions for how this might best be approached. Join me as we begin cycling to freedom.

However, first and foremost, I would like to address the philosophical rationale behind supporting cycling as a mode of transport in the city. This will give me a firm theoretical position from which I can advise most effectively on decisions that influence the nature of the urban fabric. To do so, I would like to start with a question:

What is freedom for the modern man?

In a world in which more than half of the population live in urban areas (United Nations, 2014), increasingly the answer to this question is urban mobility; the ease with which one can move around their locality. Freedom, defined as ‘the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved’ 2 is the power to choose the way in which you move, it is the freedom to decide if you will travel using your two legs, two wheels, or any multitude of possible choices. So what is freedom? Freedom is therefore a world in which the pattern of urban development enables people to choose from the greatest number of transport options. The free city is the sustainable city, the city in which people are free to make the choices that are naturally the best for them and to pursue their own happiness.

According to the organisation for economic co-operation and development, we are entering the metropolitan century, “the world is in the middle of an urbanisation process that will reportedly cause urbanisation rates to rise from low double digit rates to more than 80% by the end of the century.”3 The question of how we can incorporate freedom into our cities is therefore increasingly important, as this lack of freedom, this lack of urban mobility, has severe consequences; depriving people of the ability to make the choices that improve their lives is a form of imprisonment.

…obesity, inactivity, depression, and loss of community has not ‘happened’ to us; rather we legislated, subsidised, and planned it” – Dannenberg et al. 2012, Making Healthy Places4

The symptoms described above are those of a car-centric city-body, and one that prevents the full expression of the human instincts that lead to health, community, and happiness. The physical form of our towns and cities shapes our experience of life, and if we are to alter our lives, then we can start by reconfiguring out cities for greater freedom and ease of movement. The easiest way of doing this, is by accommodating the bicycle.

Cycling is possibly the greatest and most pleasurable form of transport ever invented. It’s like walking only with one-tenth of the effort. Ride through a city and you can understand its geography in a way that no motorist, contained by one-way signs and traffic jams, will ever be able to. You can whiz from one side to the other in minutes. You can overtake £250,000 sports cars that are going nowhere fast. You can park pretty much anywhere. It truly is one of the greatest feelings of freedom once can have in a metropolitan environment. It’s amazing you can feel this free in a modern city.

-Daniel Kieran, The book of idle pleasures

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Despite such apparent pleasures, 65% of Brits cycle less than once a year or never; that’s approximately 37.7m people that never experience these joys 6. I will examine how political and social considerations, along with infrastructural issues, mean that in the UK, the feeling of a lack of subjective safety outweighs any potential gains to be had from urban cycling. Not only is a cyclist travelling a mile in Great Britain fifteen times more likely to have a fatal accident than a car driver going the same distance.6, but they are also not likely to reach the destination any faster. This is reflected in the amount of journeys undertaken, compared to countries in which urban cycling is safer and more efficient. In the Netherlands, 37 % of short journeys (of less than two miles or so) are taken on a bike. In Britain, it is about 3%.7

Cycling to Freedom

The bicycle, as a tool of freedom, is not only possibly the greatest possible aid to sustainable urban mobility, but with widespread use is associated with lower traffic fatalities, lower obesity, greater walkability, and greater liveability in our cities. (Winters et. al. 2016)8 Not only this, but cycling also contributes to the economic bottom line, and recent research from countries across the globe shows that people who arrive on bicycles to bars, restaurants and convenience stores often spend the most and visit most frequently (Sczepanski, 2013)9. Therefore with the correct infrastructure in place, businesses are likely to make greater profit per square metre of bike storage, than car parking, especially as with a space-efficient layout 20 bikes can fit into one car parking space.

Having established a brief rationale for greater levels of cycling in our cities, I will now examine how my study can help the UK work towards this, which resonates with government ambitions to double the number of people travelling by bicycle.10. To help consider how this might be achieved, I will conduct a comparative study of cycle networks in several cities in Northern Europe. My investigation will centre on the urban centres of Groningen, Amsterdam, Houten, and Copenhagen. At each location, I will examine the form, scale, materials and vegetation of the urban realm, and assess how this works for or against the cyclist. I will also assess the unique political and historical context, and its impact on cycling levels, which will then inform a proposal for how lessons learnt in these locations might be applied successfully to the UK. By doing this, a process of cycle-prioritisation that has taken forty years or so in the Netherlands, might be applied to the UK in ten. Keep reading…

 

Footnotes

  1. United Nations. 2014. World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas [Accessed 14 July 2016].
  2.  Oxford English Dictionary. 2015. Freedom Definition [Accessed 11 July 2016].
  3. OECD. 2015, The Metropolitan Century: Understanding Urbanisation and its Consequences, OECD Publishing, Paris.
  4. Andrew L. Danneberg , Howard Frumkin , Richard J. Jackson , 2011. Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability. 1 Edition. Island Press.
  5. Dan Kieran and Tom Hodgkinson, 2008. The Book of Idle Pleasures. Edition. Ebury Press.
  6. BBC News. 2014. How Safe is Cycling? [Accessed 11 July 2016].
  7. Hembrow, David. 2011. Busiest cycle street in the world [Accessed 23 July 2016]
  8. Meghan Winters. Kay Teschke, Michael Brauer, and Daniel Fuller, 2016. Bike Score®: Associations between urban bikeability and cycling behavior in 24 cities. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 13, 1.
  9. Sczepanski, Carolyn. Momentum Mag. 2013. How Bicycles Bring Business: Cities and businesses discover the positive economic impacts of bike lanes  [Accessed 11 July 2016].
  10. Gov.uk. 2016. National Travel Survey [Accessed 11 July 2016].