18 January 2010

Free The Cyclists!

Margrete Auken [b. 1945] is a Danish politican for the Socialist People's Party and she is currently a Member of the European Parliament. She wrote the following blog post last October and I translated most of it here.

The Socialist Peoples' Party - SF - do good things for bicycle culture and couple them with ridiculous things like this and like this. Leaves you wondering if you should spank them or hug them. But this MEP is in Brussels, which for the purpose of this post is different.

Free the Cyclists!
Several large European cities are - gradually - starting to realise the blessings of bicycle culture: good for the environment, reducing energy use, better health and the auto-mobility of all traffic users. Both children and the elderly can get around if they can cycle safe and secure.

The city bikes in Paris are a success. In Brussels the bicycles happily turn right at red lights - often on the sidewalk! I cycle myself and it is the most liberating way to get around. And even though the Ardennes mountain range starts in the middle of Brussels, grandma here manages fine with two artificial knees and seven gears!

Bicycles are an obvious solution to the traffic problems in almost all the cities in the world. It is bizarre that they are still ignored. Even in Denmark, Bicycle Nation, the laws are not beneficial to cyclists. We could learn from Belgium where cyclists are not considered "weak motorists" but rather as "strong pedestrians".

They can do almost all the same things: turn right on red and ride through a T-intersection even when the light is red, but they must respect the right of way which here in Belgium is the duty of the strongest: cars stop for bicycles and pedestrians and cyclists stop for pedestrians.

Cyclists ride everywhere on one-way streets [which calms the racing cars]. If the street is too dangerous to ride on, the bicycles use the sidewalks without being yelled at. Many bike lanes are on the sidewalks. There is no war between pedestrians and cyclists. The feeling is that they are in it together!

If it's a little bit tricky to cycle here it's because the roads and sidewalks are in need of repair and because we are too few cyclists and must ride paying extra attention in case the cars forget us.

Denmark is much better in this regard with many more and wider bike lanes, elevators at all train stations and the possibility to take your bicycle on trains.

But just think if we took the consequence of what we know: regardless of laws, cyclists behave like pedestrians and they will always choose the shortest route.

That's what we should base the laws on. Cyclists should be allowed to do roughly the same things as pedestrians, albeit with more focus on right of way for pedestrians as well as signalling.

It is first when we really spoil the cyclists that we'll be a role model. The bicycle's contribution to mobility in an environmentally-friendly society would thereby grow greatly if it becomes possible for them to take them onto various forms of public transport.

Bicycles must be allowed on trains - from Lapland to Sicily - according to a set of EU laws. My Green Group in the European Parliament got that proposal passed into law in 2007. Unfortunately the train companies can refuse if they "find it too difficult". There's still a long journey ahead.


Mark said...

What an interesting article - I didn't know that under EU law train companies must carry bicycles (except when it is 'too difficult') This might be next to useless, but it's a good thing to have to hold up and wave about when lobbying train companies (especially if really they are just being ignorant - here in the UK it's usually too difficult to take a bike on a train because the train company has made it that way)

Opspin said...

And the greater Copenhagen S-trains now lets commuters bring their bike in the train for free!

mikkel216 said...

bikes for free on s-trains? didn't realize this. that's good news!

Miguel said...

Thanks for posting this. I posted a thank you on Margrete's web site.

I only wish the train law didn't have that "too difficult" exception. That's a huge loophole. Still, the mere fact that there is a law is a step forward.

Outlander said...

Brisbane, Australia has a huge population surge currently. Our public transport system and our roads are failing us. We have some of the world's most expensive parking lots right in the CBD (prime real estate), even more expensive than Moscow. Everybody drives everywhere here. There are more and more bikes but we really need to be able to use public transport as well as our bikes. A simple bike rack system that holds 5-10 bikes on both the front and back of trains would be awesome, pop your bike on the rack and get on the train. Our government is all about more roads, overpasses and car tunnels currently, maybe in another 5-10 years we'll have some truly sensible leaders.

Stefan said...

I'm glad Mrs Auken is having such a blast riding her bike around Brussels. Brussels is not an easy city to ride, but it still has a bad reputation that is not always correct. Villo, our bike-sharing project is doing amazingly well, though it will never get the recognise in the same way as the Paris' system.

But Mrs Auken is writing a couple of flagrant mistakes in her blog. This might explain why she enjoys Brussels that much, cause she is just breaking the law.

First of, it is not allowed to 'happily turn right at red lights' and it is most certainly not allowed to ride on the sidewalk.

Also: riding both ways in a one-way street is only allowed if a specific sign is there.

When she writes 'There is no war between pedestrians and cyclists. The feeling is that they are in it together!', then she is being charmingly naieve.

Because of cyclists doing exactly what she writes above, more and more people - pedestrians and car drivers - look at the cyclist as a reckless and dangerous outlaw. Cyclists racing on the sidewalks DO very much get yelled at.

Like I've said before, if you check our media, you will find more and more people being very annoyed by the cyclists who are ignoring every traffic law, especially in Brussels. Sometimes the discussion becomes very nasty, and all respect for each other dissapears. It is only a matter of time before the discussion and the fights switch from online and print media to the city streets.

Nobody benefits here, especially not the cyclists. Goodbye positive image. And as ever, it all comes down to - and here Mrs Auken is spot on - infrastructure.

Klaus Mohn said...

Excellent post, Stefan. Let's all keep riding and demanding our just place on the street (which can vary depending on the city you're in I guess). Didn't know you had a bikeshare, I look forward to going back to Brussels and getting around by bike.

Liz said...

Excellent post, Stefan.

I really worry about the quality of Denmark's elected officials at the EU. Anyone who rides in Brussels regularly has to recognize that it's one of the least bicycle-friendly places in Europe. The author appears to be a clueless rider ignoring all the signs around her, and probably worsening the reputation of the few cyclists brave enough to challenge the lawless car culture there.

100 Mile Bike said...

London is changing for the better too with regard to cycling. It's a slow process though.

One area I'm not sure I agree is with regard to cycling schemes such as one in paris and the one planned for Lonndon this year.

The problems of theft and damage are so great because individuals dont take responsiblity for others property. This means that (in the case of london scheme) the pricing is set very high as it must cover the cost of so many stolen bikes.

Perhaps a better solution is to extend the "bike to work" scheme which offers a tax reduction / discount when you buy a bike ??

Luke Bream

Anonymous said...

I have to (mostly) agree with Stefan on that. Nice the Mrs Auken is giving a positive image, but it's not reality. Does she say that to defend her politically ideas, or is she simply naive ?

There is sure respect for cycling in Brussels, but there is also a significative % of drivers who actively try to kill you. And that's a huge problem : you never really feel safe.

What is true is that law is not enforced by policemen (applies also to cars), so you can do many stupid or illegal things without being charged.

And the bike share program is a joke : very few use it, because of the fear of the drivers (+ a bit hilly city, but that's no excuse). It's very fashion to have a bike share program nowadays, but cities do not realize how much was done to infrastructure in Paris BEFORE Velib was introduced. Furthermore since the bike share program was introduced in Brussels, JC Decaux ads grew like mushrooms in the city.


Stefan said...

In response to anonymous: stating that Villo is a joke is a bit harsh, I think. Again, it's nowhere near Paris, but but it is working. There are facts and figures to prove that, but I also have eyes. I work in Brussels in a very busy area (Antwerpsepoort) and I see them being used a lot. Villo is doing much better than when they first gave it a go. And I for one am glad to see that.

Riding in Brussels is risky business, I won't deny that. And a bit of respect for one another and some good infrastructure would indeed make a world of difference, but what else is new, right?

lagatta à montréal said...

Stefan, I'm glad to hear that. I've walked round Brussels a fair bit (staying in hilly Forest) and while there were many things I loved such as the trams - and the grass under a lot of tramlines - it looked really cycling unfriendly. No excuse for a city between veteran Amsterdam and upcoming Paris (which has hills too - especially around Montmartre and Belleville/Ménilmontant and yes I've climbed them - slowly, with a practical bicycle but with speeds (a "mixte").

If our knees are no longer up to climbing hills at a certain age (this applies to people with arthritis, not all people over 50, just as heart and lung problems can kick in) I think electric ASSISTED bicycles for hills are a wonderful idea. But they should be an assist, not a substitute for pedalling. I'm sad to see a lot of older people (and I'm not young) using electric "bicycles" on which they never pedal in the basically flat neighourhood on a plateau in the centre of Montréal Island where I live. Ridiculous, and I don't want those things on bicycle paths.

And just imagine MEP Auken in a helmet: professional image bye bye. Why not a garish dayglo vest, tant qu'à faire?