Cycling women and infrastructure design

I was lucky enough to attend and majorly interact with the Women & Cycling conference that was held in York this week. My fortune extended to taking an active part in the conference by facilitating a workshop-style roundtable discussion on the wonderful subject of ‘Infrastructure and Urban Design’. Other workshops were available, stretching from cycling with kids run by the superb Rachel Aldred and teenagers by super-cool Sally Hinchcliffe – you name it.

Running the sessions was a great experience, thanks to the fantastic folks turning up at my table. Each time (there were four sessions altogether) I started with briefly introducing myself (Hi, me: Chartered environmental engineer, cycle campaigner, PhD researcher) and then launched straight into getting my (simplified) model of ‘Space and Who makes It’ out there.

Ensuing lively, inspiring and supportive discussions amongst delegates centred around some technical aspects, but mostly around the how-do-we-make-it-happen and the ‘politicalness and complexities’ of it all. Thanks goes to every one who took part.

Let’s just keep it simple for now:

Workshop: Infrastructure and urban design


Which professional is doing what?

The highway engineering professional creates options of cross-sectional road design and suggestions on how to thread ‘that cycleway’ through the location.

The transport planner assesses strategic movements, and investigates how we can make the network function efficiently (and hopefully equitably).

(There are bigger decisions ie land-use planning and policy making which majorly affect the potential of modal shift away from the car. These are long-term factors and really important – for simplification I have left these untouched.)


Cycle space requirements

Determining what type of cycle infrastructure is needed it actually quite simple (at first). After data on

  1. actual speeds
  2. traffic volumes
  3. vehicle mix

have been collected, a decision can be reached using the design document (manual, guide, manual, guidelines or standards). There are many, many, many documents out there.

I’d recommend getting chummy with the Dutch CROW manual – it seems to be successful given that it has sustained and enabled mass cycling conditions in its own country. It is also very good at dicussing specific purposes of roads and streets, something that is often left out of the design process (see more below).


Cycle space decision time

Based on the input data, cycle-specific space is either

  • needed (separation)
  • or not (integration)

Or you can ‘turn the tables on the data’. If the analysis of the input data says that cycle infrastructure is needed, another decision can be taken: to reduce speed, volume and/or vehicle mix so that no specific infrastructure were needed for cycling.

And here is where the easy part ends.


Contested space

Either way – with building new cycle space into the road or civilising road conditions – these will in most cases, due to our urban built environments being spatially constraint, affect motor vehicle movements. And that’s the point where space (especially under our current status quo of providing for driving and relegating walking and cycling) becomes contested and hence immensely political.

It is most important to gain political support so that changes to the transport system can be effectively executed. In other words, the highway engineer and transport planner – even when working together harmoniously – can only go that far.

However for sustainable transport to succeed, a two-way process must be in place. It needs an open and honest exchange between politicians and (engineering and planning) officers as to what’s wanted and needed – constraints and enablers.


Transport transition

The whole thing (transport) is of course not just about cycling. The whole thing is about reducing car dominance (and car dependence) and creating liveable places. So, where to start if a city or town fancies itself to go on a transport transition which inevitable involves many of the place’s spaces to undergo a road diet?

Much of the transition is treading on contested space and a redress in the power balance must be achieved.


Making a plan

Transport projects are rarely successful unless part of a bigger plan – and it needs to be done holistically and citywide too – and communicated to the public in an easy-to-understand way.

Technically, road classification is the starting point and everything else should almost automatically fall into place after that. It’s paramount to discuss the purpose of the road – people or vehicles? Fast movement or place function? The journey of the transport transition is multi-disciplinary and political – and this might explain, to a degree, why it hasn’t moved on much over many decades.


Debates about social and environmental justice are important kick-starters of the debate. And women, due to their much busier complex travel diaries, should be at the very heart of it. You are all fab. I really enjoyed the chatty buzzy energy. Bring it on. And, let’s keep in touch and let’s keep up the debate!

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