Cyclists are solution, not problem

Eindhoven University of Technology

Cycling is healthy, good for the climate and reduces congestion on the road. To get and keep more people on their bikes, bicycle innovations should really be aimed at helping cyclists, says PhD researcher Matthew Bruno. The new million dollar investment made available recently by the Dutch ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management to improve cycling infrastructure can hopefully contribute to this. “Look at cyclists as a solution, and not as a problem”, says Bruno. The researcher will defend his thesis on Friday 25 November at the department of Industrial Engineering and Innovation Sciences.

It was a big switch when he came to the Netherlands for his master’s degree, confesses American Matthew Bruno. In San Francisco he took over the city’s main streets every week with a large group of ‘bikers’ for a festive demonstration and called attention to cyclist safety while cycling, here he saw everyone casually whizzing along the bike path.

In recent years, the PhD student has studied the influence cyclists have on bicycle policy and how innovations can ensure that we cycle more. His main message? “Put the cyclist more central and be proud of this sustainable way of transportation.”

‘Innovative’ bicycle roundabouts

The Netherlands is a true cycling country, with more bicycles than inhabitants. According to a recent study on the climate benefits of cycling, we Dutch score the highest worldwide with an average of 2.6 bicycle kilometers per day. The Danes follow next and, with an average of 1.6 kilometers by bike, are not doing too bad either. In these cycling countries, more than twenty percent of passenger trips are made by bicycle, whereas worldwide this is less than five percent.

Still, we should not be complacent, warns Bruno. “Despite the fact that it would be very beneficial climate-wise to cycle more, we don’t see that happening in practice. Dutch cycling rates are relatively high, but have hardly changed over the past decades. There really could be a lot more cycling. Especially in a country like the Netherlands, it is a very functional way to get from A to B.”

Despite being considered an innovative cycling country, those innovations are not necessarily aimed at the cyclist himself, Bruno explains. “Take the Hovenring, the world’s first floating bicycle traffic circle. That seemed like a radical design to improve cycling infrastructure in Eindhoven, but is actually nothing more than a costly method of separating cyclists and cars on the road. Car traffic flow is thus enhanced and motorists can get to the airport or onto the highway faster. Such innovations hardly contribute to the transition to a more sustainable mode of transportation.

The construction of a bicycle traffic circle in Zwolle shows that things can be done very differently; there, car traffic is restricted and cyclists can cross the city in a faster and more comfortable way. And that works.”

In 2013, Zwolle became the first Dutch municipality to have a bicycle traffic circle, where the main bicycle street has priority over car traffic. Photo | Matthew Bruno
In 2013, Zwolle became the first Dutch municipality to have a bicycle traffic circle, where the main bicycle street has priority over car traffic. Photo | Matthew Bruno

Baby carriages

To make passenger transport more sustainable, bicycles should not compete with public transport – which is mostly the case now – but rather people should take to bicycles instead of cars.

Innovations should therefore help cyclists themselves, and not primarily improve car traffic. New bicycle parking facilities at the train station? It often sounds very nice, but If cyclists have to pay to park their bikes, that’s a different story. The purpose of such a parking facility is often to make passages clogged with bikes passable again. Very useful, but mainly for people who want to get to the station, not so much for cyclists.”

By looking at cycling behavior and travel patterns, both cyclists and the climate can be helped, Bruno emphasizes.

“For example, having children often goes hand in hand with buying a (new) car. Why is there no subsidy for buying a much more sustainable alternative such as the cargo bike? And if you want to go into town by bike with small children, where do you leave the stroller or baby carriage? Eindhoven has handled this well by making baby carriages available to young parents in the bicycle sheds. Such innovations keep people using bicycles longer. “

Respect for the granny bike

Bruno is happy to leave the question of whether the increased use of electric bicycles makes for more sustainable transportation to his colleagues. His project – part of the NWO program Smart Cycling Futures – has come to an end, but in the meantime a follow-up project has started at TU/e looking at the role of e-bikes and share bikes. Without Bruno, he started as a postdoc at TU Delft and now finds himself in a daily cyclist traffic jam on his way to work, he adds chuckling.

But instead of seeing the bicycle as an ugly problem, Bruno says it is important to continue to appreciate the bicycle – even in the traffic jam.

“The Dutch should be more proud of their bikes; the rock-solid granny bike is a wonderful showpiece of Dutch cycling culture,” he says. In San Francisco, ‘cyclist’ is an identity, I do miss that feeling here. Good bicycle infrastructure should not be taken for granted too easily.

Unfortunately, the bicycle is still too often portrayed as a problem. Cyclists obstructing car traffic, or improperly parked share bikes. Policy makers would do well to look more through the eyes of the cyclist.”

Title of thesis: Cycling Innovations; supervisors: Ruth Oldenziel, Frauke Behrendt and Anna Nikolaeva.

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