We should learn to share the roads

For decades cities have been designed for cars, but in many places that is starting to change. What also need a rethink are our attitudes to sharing the streets

Home life innovation We should learn to share the roads

Ask a London taxi driver what they think of cyclists and chances are their opinion won't be favourable. “They get in the way.” “They make up their own rules.” “They're a nuisance.” Would be some of the more polite replies.

The feelings are, of course, mutual.

In the effort to get from A to B in a city, roads are often seen as a battleground and things can get confrontational very quickly. Particularly with buses, lorries, pedestrians and, these days, the odd shared e-bike or two thrown into the mix as well.

What is needed to overcome such aggression over road use in the city is a reboot of our thinking about whose space it is anyway. Urban planning may have gone too far in favour of the car at the expense of other road users, but there is much that can be done to turn that around.

Owning the streets

In most countries that shift went unchallenged. One major exception was the Netherlands. There a social movement developed in the early 1970s to demand safer cycling conditions for children and this, along with the oil crisis of 1973, pushed the Dutch government to move away from car-centric urban planning policies and invest in cycling infrastructure.

In Amsterdam, for example, it's easy to be impressed by the free-flowing movement of cyclists weaving their way around the city with cars dancing (mostly) politely alongside them. The bike is ubiquitous – carrying shopping, children, even furniture. And everyone travels at a steady (rather slow) speed.

Shaping social behaviour

It's a remarkable social shift. More than a quarter of all trips made by people in the Netherlands are by bike, according to the European Cyclists' Federation. Although this figure is clearly boosted by the country's relatively hill-free geography, it compares favourably with figures of 5 per cent in Italy and 2 per cent in the UK, for example.

Over the past decade we've seen a number of major cities – from Barcelona to Bogotá – working to make themselves more bicycle friendly. And it is happening hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce urban speed limits. Central London will be a 20mph zone by May. Nearly all of Brussels will be 30kph by 2021. Cities including Paris, Milan, Dublin, Glasgow and New York are heading the same way.

Some urban planners go further by advancing the concept of “shared space” to include all street users. In such areas – including the first shared-space town of Drachten in northern Holland – traffic and pedestrians coexist without all the traffic lights, road signs, even kerbs, designed to keep them apart. The analogy is that of an ice-rink and the way skaters navigate those who are slower and faster than them in a constant flow of sensible, safety-conscious behaviour.

That means everyone goes slower – including those Lycra-clad cyclists who see roads as a training track.

Meanwhile, any car drivers who may resent their changing status on urban roads would do well to ponder another historical fact. The much-quoted complaint about driving in central London is that the average speed on the roads is 8mph – very similar to that of the horse-and-cart era of more than a century ago. In that sense, what's the rush?