• What happens when you build it and they don’t come?
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  • 26.02.2013


Cycle Pathways in Stevenage, UK.

Cycle Pathways in Stevenage, UK.

The tale of Stevenage (UK) provides a cautionary lesson to bicycle advocates across Europe. 

How many times have bicycle advocates asked themselves, what should I do to get more people cycling? Our conclusion is often infrastructure. The line of thinking goes; if we want the masses cycling, then we need high-quality, Dutch-style infrastructure in our cities and towns.

Want to know more? 

ECF recommends reading Carlton Reid’s blog post:  “The sad tale of a cycle network innovator forgotten by the New Town he built,” for the full story on the town of Stevenage. 

However here’s a cautionary tale. It involves the town of Stevenage in the UK, a ‘new town’ designed and built in the post-war period.

“Stevenage was planned by Eric Claxton, a utility cyclist…He had witnessed high usage of cycle tracks in the Netherlands and believed the same could be achieved in the UK,” writes Carlton Reid, Executive Editor of Bike Biz, and author of the upcoming book ‘Roads were not built for cars’.

Claxton went on to equip the town with first-class cycle ways, where cyclists could go from A to B with ease and in absolute safety. Yet as Reid notes, the results were not as planned. 

“Instead – to Claxton’s puzzlement, and eventual horror – residents of Stevenage chose to drive, not cycle, even for journeys of two miles or less.”

So despite the fact that residents were provided with high quality infrastructure, they didn’t cycle. Even at its peak, Stevenage only ever saw 14% of trips done by bicycle. (Today, the town sees less than 3% of residents cycling to work.)

tevenage cycleway, 1970s. Credit: Carlton Reid.

Stevenage cycleway, 1970s. Credit: Carlton Reid.

So what conclusions can we draw? Does this mean that building Dutch style infrastructure is a bad thing? Do the Dutch cycle due some innate reasons that other Europeans can’t replicate? 

Of course not. The real reason is that the town of Stevenage didn’t tackle car use. The car still remained the easiest way to get from A to B, and planners had only focused on one aspect of cycling by improving infrastructure. 

So what’s the solution? Words of wisdom can be taken from the final pages of the book ‘City Cycling’, by academics John Pucher and Ralph Buehler.

“Perhaps the most important lesson drawn from the case studies is that no single measure suffices. A coordinated package of infrastructure provisions, promotional programs, and transportation and land-use policies is the trademark of every city that has succeeded at significantly raising cycling levels.

The moral of the story… don’t focus on one sole measure when you’re designing a cycle friendly city. 


JF (39) web bw

About the Author

Julian Ferguson is the Communications Officer for the European Cyclists’ Federation. Originally hailing from Australia and a keen bicycle advocate, he plans one day to ride his bicycle from Brussels to Melbourne. 

You can follow him on Twitter @julian_ferguson




  • suquman

    To comparing two cities of similar size and demographics, one where driving is slow and expensive and the other where driving is much quicker and cheaper, Cambridge Cycling Campaign is organising a study tour at the end of May – – which may challenge Julian Ferguson’s conclusion.

  • Julian Ferguson

    Study tours are brilliant… good to see Cambridge Cycling Campaign is doing this. Going to a city where cyclists are the majority works wonders for motivation. All the same, would be interesting to see what other measures apart from infrastructure Bremen and Oldenburg undertake. I’m sure there’s more to the story than just infrastructure alone.

  • David Arditti

    I think a distorted interpretation is being put on the case of Stevenage (originating from Carlton Reid, whose conclusions Julian Ferguson has exactly copied). In its social context and for its time in the UK, in a period of general massive expansion of car use and car culture, to have achieved a 14% modal a share of trips by bike through planning and engineering was a major success.

    The reasons the success in Stevenage was not furthered and built-on were threefold, I think:

    1) The cycle network was not developed, improved and modified as the town developed. As older areas of employment and retail contracted and new ones developed, the network was not extended to service the changed patterns of mobility. In contrast, Dutch towns continually upgraded and extended their networks.

    2) The network remained divorced from a feeling of participation with activity in the main commercial streets and centres. It was too separate, in other words. This was a fault with the original plan, never corrected. Dutch examples tend to look like Stevenage only in suburban areas. In town centres the cycle network usually merges-in with low-trafficked streets in commercial centres. You can see this in David Hembrow’s video of Assen, here. True Assen is not a new town, but even in the Dutch new towns I think they tried to replicate this feeling of unity of the cycle network with the community hubs. This does involve a lot more exclusion of motor traffic from these hubs than planners have been prepared to do in the UK.

    3) The Stevenage cycle network remained isolated in the one town. As soon as you reach the edge of Stevenage it vanishes. Dutch cycle networks in towns, suburbs and villages have a cumulative reinforcing effect because they are connected to everywhere else in the country by practical traffic-free paths.

    Despite all this, Stevenage remains one of the most pleasant places to cycle in the UK and it has one of the highest cycling shares of any UK town. The analysis here is too negative and misses out too many important factors.

    • Julian Ferguson

      I hate to say it David, but I think you’re actually coming to the same conclusion as both Carlton and myself. (Not to mention quite a few academics.)

      As you say, “The network remained divorced from a feeling of participation with activity in the main commercial streets and centres.”

      In other words, the Cycle network wasn’t developed within a greater context of urban planning. You can’t just build infrastructure, you need to actually have a whole package of measures. This means urban planning, this means land use, this means promotion and this would have meant tackling the “general massive expansion of car use and car culture” that plagued post-war Britain.

      The message isn’t that high quality infrastructure is bad. (I’d argue the opposite.) It is rather that you need to implement a whole package of measures for cycling to be succesful. While Stevenage may very well be a pleasant place to cycle, it appears that it is also a very pleasant place to drive as well. That may well be why Stevenage’s cycling modal share isn’t the highest in Britain but actually close to the national average of around 3%.

      • David Arditti

        I think the national average is 1% actually. Stevenage, with its ease of motoring, is still doing as well as a high-profile pro-cycling inner London borough, Camden, in which it is really difficult to drive.

      • Raymond Bracewell

        I don’t know the statistics but I grew up in England in the 1950’s and 60’s. I wouldn’t say we were in a post war boom in growth of motor vehicles in those days. In the north of England the period of rapid growth of motor car ownership seemed to be post 1970 and probably at it’s peak in the 1980’s and 90’s. The 50’s and 60’s were heaven for cycling. It was probably a combination of cheaper vehicles and the bubble economy starting with the years of M Thatcher.

    • carltonreid

      The Stevenage network wasn’t plonked in place overnight and left to its own devices. It was constructed and modified over a 25 year period. Only since the 1980s has it been allowed to ossify.

      The success of David Hembrow and others is partly down to the evocative and inspirational photos of Dutch-style infrastructure. “We want some of that,” seems to be a common reaction to showing such pix. Thing is, we do have such facilities in Stevenage. Take a look at Amsterdamize’s Flickr set of Houten and then take a Google Street View tour of Stevenage: the similarities between the underpasses and the paths are really quite striking.

      I’d say the 14 percent modal share is poor considering the peak of bike use came during a fuel crisis. I didn’t say this in the piece because I have no facts to back it up but it’s possible that many town planners educated in the 70s and 80s may have studied the infra provision in Stevenage – or be aware of it – and may feel that it’s hardly worth spending millions to get *relatively* low modal shares. Yes, 14 percent modal share would be great in some places but in a town with a wholly connected and separated network?

      The key thing from the piece is not that infra doesn’t work – I stress it can work – but that, as Julian says, there has to be a range of interlocking measures of which infrastructure is but a part and perhaps not the first part to consider. As Robert says there’s little point having infra in a place like Staten Island, unless that is, massive car taming takes place.

      John Pucher, who I quote in my piece and who likes it BTW (I sent him a proof and the final link), is of the same opinion. John is one of the leading academics in this area. Infra is essential but is not the be all and end all. There are cultural, physical, and political factors that have to be considered in locations and a one-size-fits-all won’t work.

      If often seems to me that the ‘opposing sides’ in this issue are actually pretty much in agreement. When pressed, those in favour of separation tend to say something like “of course, it’s not needed everywhere, even in Netherlands separation isn’t everywhere.” And this is my position, too. Infra where it’s needed, but it can never be put in place from everywhere to everywhere. Where infra isn’t put down there needs to be car taming and other measures.

      However, in a car-centric society even very basic infra is going to be a struggle to get. Focussing on infrastructure as the number one prerequisite for mass cycling means other measures – which can sometimes have just as much effect – are given less credence by some bicycle advocates and some are actively ridiculed, which is not helpful.

      I’m sorry you feel my history piece is a “distortion” and you’re perfectly at liberty to dig out all the original sources I did and come to a different conclusion. For your information Warwick university holds all of Eric Claxton’s papers. You may not be able to track down 1970s trade mags but I have a whole bunch which you’re welcome to peruse.

  • Dave H

    One thing is in the way a building or institution ‘welcomes’ those who choose not to arrive by car. I notice it especially when I’ve travelled to a distant town for a meeting, and arrive with cycle or off a train or coach with my luggage. For an office meeting there might be an embarrassing issue of where I might slide my overnight bags and outdoor clothing in behind the potted palms or reception area furniture, but to places like Parliament and courtrooms there isn’t even that facility. Back in the early 1900’s there would be a cloakroom for the greatcoats and portmanteaux but today it is presumed that everyone has the profligate luxury of a personal portable storage facility called a car.

    It came home to me recently when it was simpler and cheaper for to book a car club shared car for an hour and use it as a left luggage service, rather than go through the palaver of booking bags in to the facility at a local railway station, which happened not to be the one we were travelling from. Folding bike users in London have an informal list of museums and galleries which get their ‘business’ in preference to places where the expensive bikes have to be left outside, often some distance away at high risk of theft from public parking racks.

    The same applies to shops. I never use Tesco, have practically stopped using the local Sainsbury store through both the attitude of the local manager and the corporate lack of listening when told that bike parking, visible from inside the store was needed. Widely we note that the covered facilities for ‘parking’ shopping trollies, are better and more conveniently located than the parking provided for those who cycle, despite clear evidence that a) they shop more frequently that those using a car and b) 17% of cycling shoppers leave with over 2 baskets full of shopping which compares with 75% of car users who buy less than 2 baskets full, judged to be the amount that a pedestrian might manage to carry home or to the bus stop. No surprise really that the EC report “Cycling, the way ahead in Towns and Cities” identified that per square metre of non-revenue space provided for parking, cyclists spent 20% roughly €2000 per year more than those coming to the shop by car. For many stores the area provided for car parking is double that provided on the sales floor, and a few examples exist of stores expanding by building over unused car park space to no ill effect.

    I do shop regularly at Lidl, Farmfoods, Aldi and my local Co-operative Society stores, and my regular ‘big shop’ at the local Lidl is normally a 20-30 minute visit when the store is less busy and I can bring my bike and trailer alongside the check-out to load the shopping directly and sheltered from whatever the weather is doing outside. It also appeals to me as a production oriented engineer since it avoids the double handling of reloading a shopping trolley inside the store only to unload it from the trolley to the car outside, and then park the trolley. Typically I leave the store laden with 50-70 Kg of shopping (the trailer has a 100Kg capacity when used as bouyant ‘luggage’ in a canoe). With cycle friendly retailers I’ve done a ‘shopping dash’ of 4 stores and a bank between 16.30 and 17.00 on a weekday, when in a car you might be queueing for this long just to get on to the motorway, from a city car park.

    Mary Portas and other UK shopping experts simply don’t get it and it has to take take the brute force of numbers when facilities such as the Pinellas Trail draw in the spending power of a large number of cyclists, who have a surprisingly valuable socio-economic profile, to turn the thinking of local retailers.

    But clearly without the delivery of detail such as secure parking at home (which I took up as a project in 1998, and in Hackney delivered the Homebikepark report with Trevor Parsons of LCC Hackney Cyclists, on street (with a monitored and successful programme of on-street parking in Glasgow from 1995, and still running, and the Cambridge study with Simon Nuttall (mirroring a similar project in Utrecht) to establish the best designs for public use locally.

    Grab & go public bikes (bike sharing) along with bikes having the convenience of never having to do bike repairs or servicing – either for a daily journey to or from a station (the Dutch OV-Fiets model, which as grown to over 200 locations in 6 years), or longer term (more like a lease) as offered by Brompton Dock and the C-TEC (Belgium) scheme, both of which have been running since 2009 or long term use of bike share/OV-fiets bikes through the ability to apply a variety of tariffs through the computerise billing system.

    Finally the role of the cycle in delivering the unique and individual connections that deliver the total travel package from door-to-door that most travellers need, means that public transport operators have to recognise and ‘sell’ the complete journey in this way with the bike-rail/bus/coach/ferry-bike as a whole deal that has bike parking, carriage, or hire as an option. The immediacy of that cycle connection for onward travel delivers a high level of service and delivers this as an individual, incremental, means of reducing journey times, which can be delivered very quickly at low cost. the growth of onward travel from London rail stations by bike during the morning peak has grown by 400% between 2001 and 2011, with formal bike parking at some locations increased by between 1000% and 2000% between 2002 and 2010, albeit from very low starting points. It is not really surprising as a 10-15 minute bike ride often replaces a 20-30 minute journey by walking and Bus or Tube train, costing around £1200/year (London Zones 1&2 card), and when combined with a saving of up to £1600/year for a space in a station car park, plus the costs of running the car parked there, and the longer time taken to drive, park, and walk to the train, I have some correspondents reporting savings of up to an hour on their door to desk journey times, and savings of over £8000 per year on their commuting (and gym) costs. With an incentive like that small wonder that so many people are switching to bike & rail commuting given the right ‘nudge’.

    Bikes in and with taxis also has an underestimated potential, as many of those who cycle for utility trips have in surveys, noted that they would make more trips by bike with the option of getting a taxi one way if for example the return journey was being made late at night through an area which some cyclists might feel unhappy riding through alone. If London cabs delivered this service the number of cyclists using a taxi with their bike could easily triple on the current reported level. I’ve also noted unofficial use of late night London buses for similar reasons, and want to see the bus services through cross-river tunnels carrying bikes.

    • Erik Sandblom

      Can’t you arrange to leave your overnight bags at a hotel? I suspect if you ask at the time of booking, they’ll make it work for you at no extra charge.

  • Robert Wright

    I pondered precisely this point earlier this month after I took my bike to Staten Island, the part of New York City that has the lowest cycling rate. As I wrote in a blogpost – – the traffic there was fast, inconsiderate of cyclists and apt to pass far too close. The distances are also fairly long – the island’s 14 miles from end to end and home to only 490,000 people.

    My conclusion – which is I think fairly similar to what’s being said here – is that the key point is what happens with cars. At present in Staten Island it’s easy to drive anywhere at a speed way over the speed limit. That discourages both pedestrians and cyclists and keeps the area car-dominated. It’s hard to see that if there were segregated bike facilities put in they’d get much use. They’d end up neglected, like those in Stevenage. Instead, I think it’s vital first to calm traffic (and, where appropriate, introduce congestion charging – to make the streets nicer for everyone. Once that starts happening, it’s going to be easier to get some people cycling and work towards the levels that would justify new, separate infrastructure.

  • Katja Leyendecker

    Is exactly the findings articulated in Car Sick by Lynn Sloman: in providing for cycling and walking – you got to squeeze car space at the same time.

  • Marko

    I can only agree that good infrastructure is just one segment of things needed for developing cycling culture. In Novi Sad we have major issues with bike theft that is so demotivating for local cyclists… On population of some 10.000 regular cyclists, we see almost 2.000 bike thefts per year, and we also have pretty much dutch-like infrastructure (separated bike paths etc.)

Last Updated March 11, 2013