18 March 2010

What makes a bike-friendly city? Being able to sell a holiday

This list of the '11 most bike-friendly cities in the world' was pointed out to me by my colleague Tim.

It's a promo for Virgin Vacations, and so it's really the '11 most bike-friendly cities in the world that Americans might have heard of and not be too scared to visit' (no Groningen or Munster, for instance). But it's interesting nevertheless. It doesn't feature London, which suggests they know what they're talking about. Their top three is Amsterdam; Portland, Oregon; and Copenhagen. (Trondheim, with its odd bike-lift, is No 7.)

The article links to a US blog on Bicycle Friendly Communities I'd not seen before (right) - a very interesting rating of the best American cities for cycling. Each is given a quality rating from Bronze to Platinum. They assess bike-friendly businesses too.

Cambridge would presumably come top of a British list, with maybe even a Gold rating. But I'm not sure the US blog's tick-list categories of Engineering, Enforcement and so on are right for us. Which categories would be?

Cycling in Cambridge, like Copenhagen or the Netherlands generally, is enjoyable mainly because lots of other people are cycling too. The place has a self-reinforcing cycling culture, a combination of things such as decent signposting, separated and shared lanes, bike-friendly shopping and living areas, parking at stations, driver attitudes, council enthusiasm, a vibrant local cycling group, and the sheer number of bums on saddles that encourage others to do the same. Possibly other factors too – student population, academic ethos, historic and hence car-repelling layout? – and yes, 'flat', but I suspect further down the list than most would imagine.

London I'd generously put at Bronze. Once the Cycle Superhighways come in, you can upgrade that, to Bronze with a hint of blue. But looking at the Cambridge factor tick-list, London struggles to score on any. And yet I still feel it's a fabulous place to cycle round, and I enjoy doing so every day, from the cut and thrust of the city-centre vectors to trundling around backstreets full of history, character and quirk. Everything happens here and you can access it all by bike fast, fun, and effectively for free. Maybe I've just got used to it, like you get used to your house's worn carpets and dodgy taps and collapsing fences.

So would I recommend Virgin's two-wheeled holiday hunters to come here? Um, ah, well. Yes, yes of course. You'll love it. Really. It's, er, the best way to see London. Just follow me, signal exactly when I signal, go exactly where I go, and do exactly what I do. Er, except what I do after taxis and buses overtake me too close on Whitehall.


  1. I lived in Corvallis OR, for 4 years, yes it is very bike friendly. Good lanes round town, alpine passes for the weekends -and then there is the mountain biking.

    But: petrol for $1.73/gallon, free short stay parking downtown. You had to want to cycle, as a lot of the usual sticks (costs of driving and parking) weren't there. It took a lot of willpower to stay committed through winter and its continuous rain. But those who did came into spring and the MTB season fit.

    Slides on the topic

  2. In the UK, I'd put
    * Edinburgh: friendly, good offroad
    * Bristol: similar, but with worse public transport.
    * Oxford.
    * Some of the welsh towns? Hay on wye, Abergavenny? Aberystwyth?

  3. One aspect of Cambridge which you haven't mentioned is its compact layout. You can cycle from the furthest edge to the city centre in about 15-20 minutes, and since most people live further in a typical cycle journey is only about 10 minutes. And there's much less "edge city" (developments by main roads on the edge of towns accessible only by car) than most places in Britain.

    Another aspect I would mention is the relative lack of big scary roads within the city itself. We've only got a couple of miles of 1960's-style dual carriageway roads within the inner area (there's a bit more on the edge) to form a psychologcal barrier to cycling. The "medieval layout" thing is exaggerated. It has a few car-free central streets but in terms of the area covered it's really no different from any other English town in this respect. However it does have a highly-educated and articulate population which has for decades questioned and in cases opposed any major road schemes.

    Finally, car parking. It really is limited in the centre (long queues at peak times) and costs a fortune (£22/day for six hours on Saturdays in the main central car park). Even if you have a car parked outside your house, if you only live 10 minutes by bike from your destination, why drive?

    I agree with you about the cycling culture. But I see the main benefit of a "cycle-friendly" council as having been cycle parking and good permeability rather than signposting or cycle lanes.

  4. Many people would argue with the idea that Cambridge is *friendly* to cyclists. The traffic is pretty hostile to be honest, and although there are lot of bike routes signposted they're often well out of your way, plonked on pavements, or both. The city is full of too-narrow bike lanes too. And as I said yesterday it's bloody hopeless trying to park at the station.

    I have friends who find it more relaxing cycling in London, where fewer of the drivers actively hate you, and where they tend to give you more room. I've not tried it enough to make the comparison myself.

  5. @SteveL: Bristol? Really?! I grew up there and the Council are so inept and the local rag so utterly fascistic that even if people WANTED to cycle there they'd be put off; they've been talking about building light rail in Bristol since before I was born (which is getting on for being some time nowadays) and look at how they've handled the whole Cycling Town 'can't spend the money fast enough' fiasco. Oh, and I'm not sure my legs are up to cycling up Park Street hill.

    Cambridge would be pretty high on my list for the UK too. I think London will catch up eventually not because of a desire to radically re-design our streets or anything but because there will be so many cyclists that things will HAVE to change: there were about 30 of us at Holborn / Kingsway junction this morning!

    Interestingly, David Hembrow used to live in Cambridge and still moved to Holland because of the better cycling culture there. Looks like we all have a lot of catching up to do!

  6. It's a very dubious list. Portland in second place with a mere 6% of commuters travelling by bike, and no mention of Groningen at all ?

    We moved here for many reasons. Amongst those related to cycling are not only the cycling culture, but the massively higher level of cycling, and the markedly better infrastructure which lead to this through better actual and subjective safety.

    I'm afraid I tend to use Cambridge to provide bad examples on my blog. Mind you, I also spotted many of those when I lived there.

  7. @Mark: Compared to London, yes, I like cycling in Bristol. It's good to get out of, you have Wales over the water; it's easier to cycle round than drive round. It's easy to blame the council for problems, but one of the flaws is the other residents -maybe you need to take the size of a city into account to assess its "friendliness".

    The US is the only place where I've been harassed by car drivers just for being on a bike. In corvallis, the police took the reg no and went round to the school -yes, they were only 16- and grabbed them from their classes. Having the defence of the legal system is reassuring. But look at the issues of back-country Oregon, "banjo country", and you have to worry about how safe you are.