Or can they? “It may be ‘best practice’ over there, mate, but you can’t do that here.”
The title of this piece the inclusive version of an old, allegedly Chinese proverb that refers only to man’s track record. The point it’s making is about the art of the possible: if someone else has done such-and-such a thing, that proves it’s doable. Not that it’s quite that simple, as we shall see.
I was reminded of the proverb specifically in connection with the ongoing debate about the merits and practicalities of ‘going Dutch’ when it comes to provision for cycling in the UK. However, I think the issue it raises is also of much more general interest. This is demonstrated by the fact that, “Ah, but that wouldn’t work here, you see”, is the all-too-common response given in relation to the applicability to any given UK town or city of ideas from any other UK town or city, let alone from anywhere ‘abroad’. People who use this mantra can really do your head in. Partly, of course, because they may have a point!
Every place is different. Every city, town or busy street is different from every other; often in many, important and significant ways. You can’t just cut successful design or policy solutions from one place, paste them to another, and simply expect them to work like a dream. So you shouldn’t. What you should do instead, is to examine the conditions that made for success in the one place and try to work out if and how they can be replicated in your place.
Now, this old proverb has been playing in my head ever since I embarked, last year, on a series of visits to European cities, principally to cycle around them and discuss what I observed with local practitioners and campaigners, and with UK-based colleagues. While trundling around places like Amsterdam, Utrecht, Copenhagen, Berlin and Munich (hugely different cities, all with cycle mode shares of 15% or much higher), I brought to mind the long list of reasons/excuses that I’ve heard people give for why ‘we can’t do that here’. Sometimes these are based on ignorance, or fear, or prejudice. Sometimes, they are, in fact, good reasons. But, even then, those good reasons should be a motivation for action leading to change, rather than a justification for doing nothing.
The list I’m thinking of includes lack of space, different legal/insurance framework, different road use culture, visual ugliness of some infrastructure, the number of buses, cost, education, and the particular assertion that Dutch humans are somehow a different species from the ones we have in the UK. Broadening the point, I regularly hear UK practitioners claim that the people living in their area are unique in the badness of their driving habits and that some traffic management techniques that work well in other UK towns and cities simply wouldn’t work in their manor.
Now, I’m not denying that there can be differences in the way that different people drive – or, indeed cycle or walk - in different neighbourhoods. They may, for example, be more or less courteous, circumspect or skilled. But that isn’t a good enough reason just to shrug and say, “Well, what can you do?”
It all comes back, I suppose, to the big question that I often bang on about: what do we actually want to happen? If we really do want our cities, towns and streets to be more pleasant to be in, safer to move through, better able to support the economy, and places that promote our physical wellbeing, then, when we see what others elsewhere have done to achieve one or more of these goals, we should really do our very best to see what can be learned and transferred.
It’s a while ago now, but when I was in Amsterdam, I was alerted to the fact that the Evening Standard was carrying an article about some really quite positive figures relating to cycling flows in central London. However, the choice of banner headline for the online version of the piece – ‘Move Over Amsterdam’ – did cause me to smile in a manner best described as ‘wry’. This was not least because the headline appeared over a photo of a phalanx of cyclists mostly dressed as though they’re preparing for battle (which, in a way, in London, they are.) That’s not how it is in Amsterdam, where the helmets I saw on a single group of people on a Segway tour doubled the number of helmets I’d seen on people actually cycling over a period of three days.
Two things in particular struck me about the comparison between cycling conditions in the cities I visited and those in London (and indeed other UK cities). Firstly, the former have been actively made more attractive places to cycle in – the conditions don’t just happen to be like that. Secondly, where it’s hard to fit better conditions for cycling into congested streets, the Dutch, Danish, Germans and others find it just as hard as we do. The difference is, they haven’t let that stop them. The closer you get to the busiest parts of these cities, the more that street space is at a premium, there’s typically less in the way of protected bike infrastructure (which some seem to think is the only thing that ‘Going Dutch’ means). However, the more there typically is in the way of thoughtful traffic management that limits the volume and speed of motor traffic.
Not one of the cities I visited is a transport paradise, of course. Cycling provision, even in the Dutch cities, remains a work in progress, and will do as they continue to grow and otherwise change. As for walking, in crowded areas where there were lots of people on bikes, I sometimes felt less comfortable than I’d like to while on foot. And in each city there was the odd street or space best described as a basket case.
However, I’m not trying to make paragons out of these cities, or indeed out of any other place or scheme that has merits. What I am trying to do is draw attention to the importance of learning lessons that may enable us to achieve better outcomes, and of doing all we can to apply these to the work that we undertake ourselves.
So I’ll close with one of the lessons that I learned from my time in the Netherlands and elsewhere. It’s also another old proverb: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
It’s only a headline in the Standard, but the comparison is at best premature, at worst preposterous.
A ‘UK-style’ bike lane in Amsterdam! Safe and popular, thanks to traffic management. We could do that.
Cyclists waiting mid-way through turning left in Copenhagen. Two-stage opposed turns are the norm in well-cycled European cities: can we really not provide for them here?