Beyond “build it and they will come” lies a more nuanced narrative.

They keep building, and they keep coming.

The bridge this photo is taken from, is the original structure built over the Manukau Harbour, Auckland. I remember driving over it in a car with my family when I was a child. It was usually on the way to Auckland airport. Cars have not been on it for years. It is past its use by date and is due to be replaced. It now only provides access for people walking and cycling and fishing. I have been traversing it for the past 15 years or so. I have managed to capture a few snaps from it, and on it, over those years.

A 4 lane bridge was its replacement. That was in the 80’s. A decade or so ago, an extra 4+ lanes were added. That is what you are looking at, in the photo above. Check out the photo in this blog post to get a different perspective of those bridges and the motorway that feeds them. It funnels a lot of traffic. Those bridges form part of the motorway network that now, finally, encircles the Auckland isthmus. The anticipation has been huge. Finally, traffic congestion will be consigned to the dustbin of history. Or at least, that is what it was sold on. But as a small minority know, traffic does not operate like water. It doesn’t evaporate. Motorists will indeed use it. The anticipation of congestion free motoring will encourage its use. “Build it and they will come”, is the expression, I believe. Induced demand is the technical term.

I can see why it is tempting to generalise this axiom and apply it to a cycling setting as well. Needless to say, I have never been comfortable with this, and have tried to argue this point many times before. Of course, the best scenario for cycling would be to build a top shelf cycle lane and see it overflowing with people on bikes. Just like new, big budget motorways will generate lots of new users. A new, safe cycle path will generate more users. But not in the numbers we need to create a genuine #cyclisedcity. It will be used and appreciated by the current users, very much thank you.

Why is it that new cycling infrastructure will fail to deliver the significant induced demand that new motoring infrastructure will? It’s that lack of demand that is the critical factor. I have written about that before tooDriving is god. Driving is in the DNA. All that kind of stuff. Driving has a huge head start on all other modes. It’s the “teacher’s pet” of transport modes. That’s why “build it and they will come”, will only ever have limited application to cycling, compared to motoring. At least at this point in the evolutionary cycle. Cycling has a perception problem. It suffers from an outlier status. We know what’s needed. An urban environment that works for all users needs to be the goal. A #VisionZero kind of goal.

All cycling infrastructure is welcome. These technical solutions that make cycling appealing and safe are known and need to be embraced. This explains the increasing interest in The Netherlands. We look to there to learn about the bicycle infrastructure; to see how it works, first hand. But here lies the issue that I keep coming back to. Why is it that new cycling infrastructure will fail to deliver the significant induced demand that new motoring infrastructure will? Importing those infrastructure solutions is not a guarantee of increasing cycling mode share. Nor is having agreement on the best infrastructure solutions a guarantee that it will be built. For that to happen, there needs to be a public ‘buy in’. That human component.

The Dutch experience is quite useful for us as well, on that front. The “Stop the child murder” was a compelling, grass roots campaign. The infrastructure that we now admire so much was born out of that. And remember, they already had a strong, well established cycling culture and mode share. Something that is non-existent outside The Netherlands. So, while we may be advantaged by our ability to witness a successful model for a “cyclised city”, it is unlikely that we will be able to piggy back ourselves directly into a similar scenario. There are some essential foundation steps that are going to be needed before hand. That human component. And cynically speaking, there are business opportunities in developing infrastructure, that do not exist in developing grassroots movements for change.

Human behaviour is not always rational. Our ability to adapt can be terrifying and amazing, in equal measure. Shifting behaviour is a specific task requiring specific skills. That’s why a new shiny bicycle path, on its own, will not be enough to get us where we want to be. That new shiny bike path needs to be built on a foundation of positive perceptions towards cycling and an increasing awareness that car dependence is an unsustainable folly. Advocacy that embraces new ideas and robust dialogue would be a welcome addition towards achieving this goal.

‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat. As easy as walking, but faster.

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One comment

  1. Wheeledpedestrian’s suggested transfer of the ‘build it and the will come’ mantra from the consequences of building more roads to building cycle infrastructure misses important differences.

    I’ve not heard it applied before as a justification for road building as used in the blog. The actual justification, as WP makes implicitly clear in the preceding paragraphs, is that extra road space will solve congestion issues, not that we must build more roads in order to generate more motor users (though this may be the background objective of some interest groups).

    On the contrary the ‘induced demand’ concept has been devised by critics of the road building approach.

    The ‘build and they will come’ slogan, as devised and used by cycle campaigners, is rather more sophisticated than the slogan in itself. To sum up that case briefly, no one says (anymore at least) that ‘building’ paintways will attract cyclists; rather, implicit in the ‘build it and they will come’ slogan, is that the ‘it’ means build a specific type of infrastructure (infra that feels safe to the user, is extensive, connected, is linked to other types of infra such as ‘filtered zones’ and, critically, does not peter out at danger points).

    WP’s characterisation of building infra as providing ‘a top shelf cycle lane’ is misplaced. As explained in parentheses in the previous para, ‘build it and they will come’ applies not to ‘a’ (i.e one or even a handful) of top notch cycle routes, but to an interconnected network of them also interconnected with filtered zones.

    There is also plenty of evidence that good safe cycle routes do not, as WP suggests, that quality infra ‘will be used and appreciated by current users’ alone. Initially that may well be the case, but over time, with growth of interconnectedness and network reach, new users will be attracted. (Actually ‘attracted’ is the key concept.)

    But it is also worth saying that there is nothing wrong or second class about creating cycle infra that is ‘appreciated’, to use WP’s term, to existing cyclists. A glance at a graph of cycle usage at different age ranges shows that cycle use declines as people grow older. However, the rate of decline is a national phenomenon. The rate of decline, for example is much more rapid in the UK than in the Netherlands.

    We can easily boost cycle numbers with no need to do anything, apart from building attractive infra, simply be delaying eh age at which people stop cycling. No efforts or resources need to expended on marketing to induce demand as the cyclists are already convinced of the benefits and attractions of cycling. Survey after survey shows that the reason people give up cycling is that the danger outweighs the attractions/benefits. However, having said that, the same attractiveness of safe infr will, as has been well established, bring new cyclists.

    WP goes on to justify their assertion that ‘new cycling infrastructure will fail to deliver the significant induced demand [because of] the lack of demand that is the critical factor.’

    Unfortunately, WP has not established that new cycling infrastructure ‘will’ fail to deliver’ significant demand, only asserted that it won’t.

    One factor that WP doesn’t consider is suppressed demand. There are millions of bikes lying unused and rusting in garden sheds across the land. The very purchase of those bikes, to my mind, shows that latent demand for cycling does exist. The reason those bikes are unused, as we well know, are to do with the hostile environment for cycling created by the dominant road design and operation ideology.

    Another indicator of suppressed demand is on display in just about every park and play area in the country. Children cannot wait to get on a bike and learn to pedal with pleasure. But, outside the parks and play areas, there is no where safe for them [to be permitted by their parents] to cycle. Again the road system suppresses demand at its very inception.

    I am by no means against WP’s proposed campaigning to boost the image of cycling by ‘advocacy that embraces new ideas and robust dialogue’, though, as is almost universally the case with those who say we need to do more than build good infra to boost cycling levels, I find the details of concrete measures that would achieve this tantalisingly absent.

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