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Space Reclamation: The CROW ‘Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic’ as a Counterweight to Car Space

How are the Covid-19 pandemic, and its crisis of 'unsustainable immobility', connected to a 40-year old bible of sustainable mobility? The answer lies in the simple fact that the novel Coronavirus has created, at a stroke, a lobby as large as every pedestrian and cyclist in the world, all demanding 1.5m of space to walk and cycle in. As a result, pedestrian and cycling space are no longer compressible, as they are in so much of the world – that is, uses accommodated at the margins of car space, if and where the needs of the car allow. A huge public is now emerging from confinement with fresh and apprehensive eyes on the familiar sight of abundant car space, and scarce and cramped walking and cycling space, potentially triggering a Great Reclamation. The next step, which has been a goal of cycling activism everywhere for decades, must be the mass realisation that car space is provided everywhere as a routine, while cycling and walking space are discrete and exceptional. Car space is created and allocated in the background, as a routine part of city-making, while cycling and walking space is contested in the foreground, as an exception, to be justified case by case, and metre by metre. In most of the developed world we know the results: an archipelago of walking and cycling infrastructure floating in a sea of car space.

The CROW 'Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic' is radical, to me, not in detail but as a whole: it is a book that simply assumes that cycling and walking space is a routine and essential part of the space between buildings, in cities, suburbs and the countryside. It assumes that a cycling infrastructure doesn't exist and cannot function as so many sections of road, but as a network that can take you anywhere you might want to go, just like the car system does. It assumes that a road without space for walking and cycling is an urban freeway, and that urban freeway driving should be physically impossible in the heart of a neighbourhood.

As such, this book – as a distillate of five decades of experience and experiment – is an extremist position in the world of road engineering, although that seems to be changing by the week as street space is reallocated around the world. In my own research, I have tried to analyse why the Netherlands has diverged so sharply from even neighbouring European states, taking space allocation guidelines like the Design Manual as an important data source.

My answer: space allocation mechanisms in the Netherlands are less rigidly linked to specific vehicle types and mobility modes than elsewhere. In much of Europe, as the ECF's reports show, the mechanisms that govern space allocation for cars are much stronger, more embedded, and less visible than those for other modes. Often, they exist entirely outside of 'mobility policy', as Donald Shoup's work has shown, in the form of parking minimums, but also in the assumption that the car system is the sole legitimate and necessary transport mode for all trips. The burden of proof is different for mechanisms that allocate cycling and walking space: they are highly visible, and therefore contestable by special interests; they often depend on new policy tied to particular political backers; they are seldom coherently integrated into building regulations or international agreements; and they remain, in most places, part of a specific political, environmental or cultural agenda, for specific groups. For these reasons, the 'legal street' constructed by regulation remains car-first.

At great and regrettable cost, the Covid-19 pandemic has arguably, and temporarily, placed the world under a very Dutch assumption that sufficient walking space, and sometimes cycling space, should exist everywhere. The 1.5m buffer will, while it lasts, hold cities around the world to a sort of CROW Design Manual standard in which the minimum space needs of people on bicycles is briefly met, and placed at the centre of public life and discussion. There are already signs that Europeans, at least, have tasted a different version of their cities during this time, and do not want to return to the old space allocation. This means that space allocation practices have shifted, and more importantly, become visible, discussable, and contestable.

For the entire month of June, the Dutch Cycling Embassy and CROW are partnering to offer the 'Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic' for HALF PRICE. Purchase your copy online today.

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Tuesday, 22 September 2020
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