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The Bicycle and Public Transport

Monday, November 15th, 2010 by George Goodwin

The common-or-garden bicycle is many things to many people. Although Von Drais’ original machine was conceived as a useful form of transport (”faster than horse and cart”) it was received largely as a plaything; the following penny farthings were similarly used primarily for pleasure rather than to serve a practical purpose.

It wasn’t really until the advent of the safety bicycle that the idea that cycles could be used as a viable form of transport manifested itself. At some point thereafter, someone thought that racing them would be a corking way to spend an afternoon; if we move still further along the bicycle’s evolutionary history we come to the enterprising riders who pioneered mountain biking and BMXing. It would be interesting to know which bright spark first added a box to his bike.

Although we’re interested in ‘most all kinds of HPVs (human powered vehicles), we honestly think that the future of cycling is in providing an antidote to any transport crises that may rear their ugly heads. A bike does not require petrol to run, and so is reasonably immune from possible supply shortages of oil or oil-based products.  Naturally however, bicycles are not the only way of getting people from A to B, and there are also other solutions available – mass public transport, for example.

The primary challenge for governments is to make driving private cars a less attractive option than other methods of transport. Some countries have done this very effectively: in Hong Kong, for example, newly purchased cars are subject to a tax of between 30 and 100%, depending on their cost and size. Additionally, in general, public transport is cheap, fast and comprehensive and the well-integrated Octopus card system (similar to Oyster cards in London) means that it’s easy to ride on virtually any type of public transport (underground, trams, buses, ferries etc.) without having to scrabble around for loose change.

In testament to the effectiveness of these measures, there is only one car registered per 14 people in Hong Kong. (Compare this with one car per two people in the UK.)  Furthermore, 90%+ of journey miles are made by public transport in Hong Kong, compared with almost 90% made in private vehicles in the UK.  There are a few things that our transport policymakers could take from this:

  1. People’s decisions are heavily influenced by money.  This may seem an obvious statement, but it’s worth bearing in mind that artificially making driving significantly more expensive than other forms of transport is a good way of getting people to switch.  (Public opinion and corporate interests have previously stood in the way of this – see the 2000 fuel protests in the UK, for example – but that’s just a price of democracy.)
  2. To get people to use public transport as an alternative to private vehicles, the services must be inexpensive, frequent and fast.
  3. The further a public transport scheme goes, the further it can go – obviously the more fares collected on public transport, the more can be reinvested in improving services.  Additionally, if there are fewer cars on the road, buses can move faster, more frequently and more reliably.

Clearly there’s something of a complication in the UK wherein housing is generally low density – it takes longer to get anywhere because it’s geographically further away – so surely it can’t be cost-effective to open masses of new high-frequency bus and tram routes everywhere?

This is where bicycles come in – it’s quite conceivable to cycle a couple of miles on a Brompton, Airnimal or Maderna to the nearest rail station and back again each day.  This retains the autonomy of the commuter (being able to leave whenever he/she wants and live wherever they want) without necessitating an expansive network of underused transport.  Naturally this requires train operators (and the like) to have a more open attitude to cycles – currently, unless  you have a folding bike, you need to pre-book a reservation on each train you plan to take your bike on, which is something of a hassle if you need to change trains.

Another problem faced in the UK (and other European countries) is that it’s not especially pleasant to cycle in the wet – although solutions do exist (fairings, wet-weather gear) they do tend to have limited appeal.  It’s an unfortunate fact that many people are simply resistant to change, regardless of the benefits are and so other ways around the problem should be explored; a viable solution could (for example) be covered cycleways, which would have the additional benefit of keeping pedestrians dry too.

The best part is that most of the infrastructure for cycleways already exists inasmuch as there are roads everywhere already.  In other parts of Europe (e.g. the Netherlands) many roads are dominated by cyclists – other countries have shown what’s possible and all that’s left to do is to implement more sustainable and less car-centric policies in other places.

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3 Responses to “The Bicycle and Public Transport”

  1. Kim says:

    Was Karl Drais’s Laufmaschine (later called the velocipede or draisine) really invented as a toy? H. E. Lessing has proposed that that it’s invention in 1817, following the “Year Without a Summer” (due to the eruption of Mount Tambora), at a time when horses (and people) across Europe were starving, was a practical answer to a transport problem. Right from the start, the bicycle was intended as practical transport, but misunderstood as being a toy.

  2. Whoops, you can tell I hadn’t done my homework properly… revised it now, thanks :)

    I’m surprised at Drais’ apparent foresight though, although I wonder whether his aspirations had something to do with his seeming desparation to make money out of the project (running round German states taking out patents wherever possible, for example).

  3. Kim says:

    Drais was the chief forester of the Mannheim area and so would have need to travel a fair bit. With horses in short supply he need to find a mains of transport that was quicker than walking, hence his invention of the Laufmaschine (”running machine”).