Henk Swarttouw: Car is an extremely ineffective means of transport in cities

Cities should be designed to facilitate movement of people rather than cars, says Henk Swarttouw, the President of the European Cyclists’ Federation.

Publikacja: 23.07.2023 15:59

Henk Swarttouw, the President of the European Cyclists’ Federation

Henk Swarttouw, the President of the European Cyclists’ Federation

Foto: mat.pras.

At the Velo-city summit in Leipzig Daniel Mes from the office of Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, said the EU would see a “tectonic shift” in the approach to bicycles. A bicycle is supposed to be seen as a rightful means of transport. Is it a real alternative to a car?

Of course, especially in cities. There are several reasons to believe it. More than a half of car rides is less than 5 km. We see it everywhere: in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand. What’s more, around 30 percent of car rides is under 3 km. In most cases, there is just one person without much luggage in the car. A straight majority of the drivers is physically capable of covering such distance on a bicycle. As for that, it’s worth emphasizing that there are more people unable to drive a car than to ride a bike. Replacing a part of the short-distance car traffic with bicycle traffic fosters an effective use of metropolitan space, has a positive influence on road and environmental safety, and reduces emissions and noise. In more crowded cities a bicycle is simply a faster means of transport than a car.

Developing bicycle infrastructure usually means limiting automobile infrastructure. In Poland, this meets with considerable resistance of drivers saying that in our climate a bicycle can only be a seasonal means of transport. In the winter, bicycle paths will be empty and narrowed roadways will see traffic jams, which is not in favour of air quality. This doesn’t sound like an effective use of space…

Space is limited in most cities. It means that when you want to make some space for one means of transport, it’s usually at the expense of another. I can’t see why bicycle infrastructure in Poland would be seasonal. It isn’t in other countries. In Oulu in Finland, which sees much more snow than Polish cities, bicycle traffic in the winter is slightly less busy than in the summer. The key thing is to keep bicycle infrastructure well-maintained and passable in any conditions. Many cities in Sweden, Norway, Switzerland or Canada are good examples of how to do it. I think the popularity of cycling in the winter as well is going to grow with increasing availability of electric bikes.

Poland is still working its way up and we see having a car as an indicator of status. Even the president of our central bank has recently said, in the context of the EU plan to ban the registration of cars with combustion engines after 2035, that making people give up cars is a civilizational decline and an attempt at their liberty. Are such controversies inevitable?

First of all, we should encourage people to ride bikes rather than make them do it. I don’t quite figure how using a two-tonne machine to carry a seventy-kilo person, while consuming the shrinking pool of natural resources and polluting the air, sometimes killing other people, could be considered a civilizational achievement. The truth is a car is an extremely ineffective means of transport, especially in cities. Cities should be designed to facilitate movement of people rather than cars.

Na zdjeciu: Henk Swarttouw, president European Cyclists’ Federation, Piotr Kryszewski, vice presiden

Na zdjeciu: Henk Swarttouw, president European Cyclists’ Federation, Piotr Kryszewski, vice president Gdańsk, Łukasz Kłos director Velo-city Gdańsk 2025, Hanna Wawrowska, director Polish Bicycle Summit

mat.pras.

But our cities already exist, we don’t build them from scratch. Once the authorities allowed cities to expand by building housing estates far away from centres, how can they tell people who live there that they should stop using cars?

In many European cities that have also expanded but don’t have enough space to let everyone use a car, the problem is solved by making mass transit available to all citizens. A recent development is building express bicycle paths, sometimes called bicycle highways, which make it possible to reach a city even from a 20-25 km distance, particularly riding electric bikes. It’s interesting that for 2000 years the average time it takes people to commute, practically has not changed. Since ancient history till mid-19th century, most people walked to work, so the distance between their homes and workplaces had to allow making it on foot in a reasonable time. Then we had railway, trams and subway, which allowed people to settle a little further. An automobile as a mass means of transport appeared for good after World War 2 but it hasn’t reduced the average commute time.

You said that we should encourage people to ride bikes rather than make them do it. However, if we develop bicycle infrastructure at the expense of automobile infrastructure, many people will perforce believe that we forbid them to travel by car, in other words, we make them look for alternative solutions. Perhaps we should first urge people to leave cars for bikes or mass transit, and then rebuild the infrastructure?

Unfortunately, it’s impossible, because the thing that discourages people from cycling is the lacking sense of security rather than weather, the lay of the land or worrying about a hairdo. If people are supposed to feel safe on their bikes, they need proper infrastructure. Obviously, it’s usually possible to develop bicycle, railway or tram infrastructure in rural areas without taking space away from cars. However, this is typically impossible within city limits.  You can’t widen streets and they need to accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, means of public transport, and cars. We could also do with some greenery. In this context, car parks are a huge problem. They take a lot of space but don’t bring any economic or communication benefits to the city. So, we need political decisions on the infrastructure we want to develop. The decisions should take into account the fact that people adjust their preferences to infrastructure. For example, increasing traffic capacity of roadways does not reduce traffic jams because it attracts more cars. And the other way round, when traffic capacity goes down, some drivers will choose other means of transport and traffic jams may even decrease. This goes for other means of transport, too. New bicycle paths or tram lines attract users.

From this perspective, the greatest advocates of developing bicycle infrastructure should be the drivers that, for some reason, have to go downtown by car.

Exactly. The more people switch to bikes, the easier will be to run their errands for those that have no choice and have to drive a car. At the same time, in the economic crisis more and more people cannot afford using a car. So, taking on the development of automobile infrastructure is, in a sense, unfair.

However, development of inclusive bicycle infrastructure is difficult, too. If a bike is supposed to be a rightful means of transport, the infrastructure has to enable fast commuting, but this would make it unsafe for families with children. By the way, children up to 10 years of age may not use bicycle paths in Poland.

The easiest solution is building sufficiently wide bicycle paths, so the faster cyclists could safely overtake those that ride more slowly. The same as on a multi-lane roadway with faster and slower lanes. The need for such infrastructure increases due to the growing popularity of electric bikes, which enable faster movement. Another solution is to decrease maximum speed for car traffic, e.g. to 30 km/h. In Brussels, where the change was made two years ago, the number of fatalities in car accidents has gone down by half. All this not only increases the safety of cyclists, but also diminishes the competitive advantage of a car. However, even now it is smaller than many drivers think. Taking into account traffic lights and jams, the average driving speed in a city is around 15 km/h. We also need to consider the time lost on looking for a parking spot. Delivery companies understand that and they more and more often use cargo bikes in city centres.

Considering what you said, it seems that even a complete replacement of combustion cars with electric cars is not going to solve communication and environmental problems of European cities.

Electric cars solve one or two problems but our cities have more of them. These cars reduce the emission of greenhouse gases if they can use clean electrical energy. About 25 percent of the emissions comes from transportation and private cars are responsible for a half of it. It is worth fighting for. However, we need to remember that when the EU ban on the registration of cars with combustion engines comes into force, it will take quite a lot of time before these cars disappear from the roads. Even now, 90 percent of the cars sold has combustion engines and they will be used for several decades. Electric cars are not totally clean, either. They don’t solve the problem of polluting the air with dust from brake pads and tires. Quite the reverse, these cars are usually heavier than combustion models, so they emit more dust. Electric cars take as much space as combustion cars, so they are not an answer to problems related to limited space in cities. Last but not least, electric cars are not going to alleviate our current health issues resulting from insufficient exercise. The greatest advantage of a bicycles over cars is that they have a positive influence on the health condition of users. In a long-time perspective, each euro invested in the development of bicycle transport will save 5 euro in healthcare systems.

Do you believe that advocating electromobility may be counterproductive, i.e. aggravate a part of the problems that it’s reportedly supposed to solve? It’s easy to imagine that some of owners of electric cars will use them more than combustion cars since they are “clean”. Actually, the privileges for electric cars in many cities, such as permission to use bus lanes or parking for free, reinforce this attitude.

For sure, we may not forget that the development of electromobility is in the interest of automobile producers. The automotive industry is aware that the market for combustion cars is going to shrink, so it needs alternatives to sustain production growth. The topic reducing emission from transport was on the agenda of the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (in 2021 -ed.). I remember that we were not allowed to bring our bikes to the conference centre while electric cars were all over the place. In the final statement, which discussed ways the transport industry can contribute to the achievement of climate goals, mentioned only electric cars but not public transport or bicycles.

Due to the role of the automotive industry in the European economy, its growth is in the interest of the Europeans. This is a rather common argument of those who oppose limiting the space for cars to make room for bicycles.

People don’t realise that popularisation of bicycle transport brings a lot of economic benefits. The French Ministry of Economy has recently noticed the great potential of the bicycle sector and established a department to deal with it. It’s not only about manufacturing bikes but also storage and parking systems, insurance for cyclists, development of various applications, etc.

Speaking of “bicycle economy”, I often come across the argument that promoting bikes in cities at the expense of cars is going to finish off shopping streets because customers won’t be able to get there.

This is a fallacy. There are numerous studies that show it. It’s quite the opposite: for many businesses it’s easier to operate at streets with limited car access. Drivers can’t stop spontaneously to visits a shop or café, while pedestrians and cyclists can and they often do. Sales volume in shops and restaurants at streets with limited or zero car traffic is greater. It’s a no-brainer: customers don’t want to be surrounded by cars. Shop and restaurant owners often don’t realise that. When you ask them how their customers reach their stores, most of them says by car, but it’s not true.

This illusion may come from the fact that cars take so much public space. Which cities have made the biggest progress in promoting bicycle traffic in the recent years? Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Utrecht – the symbols of a bicycle revolution – are the examples that, for various reasons like e.g. scale, might appeal to the authorities of Polish metropolises.

The largest European cities like London or Paris have seen great changes in the recent years. It actually started in the first years of this century, when public city bike systems were introduced. This showed the authorities that people are ready to uses bikes and justified the development of bicycle infrastructure. I visit both cities on a regular basis and I’m impressed with ongoing changes. In other big cities like, among others, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Milan, Barcelona, Lisbon, Lyon and Vienna, bicycle transport is thriving. Both Oslo and Helsinki, which saw no fatalities among cyclists last year, boast significant achievements. However, metropolitan authorities outside Europe also appreciate the role off bicycles, e.g.in Istanbul. Local authorities in Africa say they won’t make the same mistakes as the Europeans, i.e. designing cities for cars. Most people still travel on foot over there but the number of cars is increasing rapidly. Pedestrians are pushed aside and don’t feel safe anymore, which only encourages those that can afford it to buy a car. Here comes the vicious circle but African cities can stop it at an early stage.

Covid-19 pandemics encouraged many people to dust off their bikes. Using public transport seemed unsafe back then. Cities responded to it, e.g. reserving some lanes for cyclists. Have these changes, temporary by design, become permanent?

It’s true that the number of cyclists went up during the pandemics. We used to record such temporary changes in traffic management. They were particularly frequent in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal. In most case the changes have survived, sometimes with modifications. A famous example of a failure to do it is Kensington Street in London. The changes have been cancelled there, which stirred a lot of protests. However, after the pandemics we see more cyclists everywhere.

You have mentioned public bike systems that have contributed to the promulgation of this means of transport. Nevertheless, it seems that their role has diminished by now. Some Polish cities have given up their systems. I think they have lost to electric scooters, which provide more flexibility as far as parking is concerned. What is the future of public city bikes?

I don’t see electric scooters as an alternative to bicycles. It’s a passive means of transport that replaces walking and short rides in mass transit. However, they may convince some people it’s possible to move around a city on two wheels. You mentioned the flexibility of electric scooters, which could be seen as an advantage over shared bicycles but it’s diminishing now as in most cities you may park them only in designated places. Public city bikes are still in demand. First, these bicycles help people decide if it’s worth to invest in their own bikes. Second, they go together well with the development of public transport. If people are supposed to commute from to outskirts to a city centre by train or subway, they need a means of transport from a station to their destinations. Public city bikes perform well here, particularly in an integrated system of metropolitan transport. For example, in the Netherlands a single city card entitles owners to leave their bike at train stations, ride a train and rent a city bike.

Henk Swarttouw has been the President of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) since 2021 and he was the organisation’s Vice-President for two years. Before he got involved in advocating bicycles, he had worked in the Dutch foreign service for 30 years. Among others, he used to serve as an ambassador to Finland and Denmark. In 2025, the city of Gdańsk will host the annual ECF conference.

At the Velo-city summit in Leipzig Daniel Mes from the office of Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, said the EU would see a “tectonic shift” in the approach to bicycles. A bicycle is supposed to be seen as a rightful means of transport. Is it a real alternative to a car?

Of course, especially in cities. There are several reasons to believe it. More than a half of car rides is less than 5 km. We see it everywhere: in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand. What’s more, around 30 percent of car rides is under 3 km. In most cases, there is just one person without much luggage in the car. A straight majority of the drivers is physically capable of covering such distance on a bicycle. As for that, it’s worth emphasizing that there are more people unable to drive a car than to ride a bike. Replacing a part of the short-distance car traffic with bicycle traffic fosters an effective use of metropolitan space, has a positive influence on road and environmental safety, and reduces emissions and noise. In more crowded cities a bicycle is simply a faster means of transport than a car.

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