The Bicycle-Train Combination: A Ticket to Success

By Joeri van Mil , Jerom Marseille, Tessa Leferink and Niels van Oort

Attractive, futureproof cities with the bicycle-train combination.

The pressure on keeping cities liveable is an ongoing challenge. As urbanisation and population growth keep increasing, more and more houses will be realized in our urban areas. These higher densities will lead to challenges as well as opportunities for sustainability, health, air quality and the mobility system.

If we want to meet the goals of the Paris agreement and live in attractive and active cities, we need to travel differently. But how can we make futureproof investments in our urban environment, to make sustainable travel choices the most attractive ones?

One sustainable mode gaining more attraction is the bicycle-train combination: with a bicycle ride before or after the train journey. Combining these modes, both short and long distances from door-to-door can be covered fast (thanks to the train) and flexible (due to the bike). This makes the bicycle-train combination a potential competitor for the car, even on long distances. Research from the University of Amsterdam shows us that 60% of the Dutch who combine their train trip with a bicycle trip do have a car available, but choose not to use it. An indicator of its attractiveness. 

Top: Bike-and-Ride (BaR); bottom: Bike-on-Board (BoB) trip chains. Visualisation by authors

In this blog, we show the potential of the bicycle-train mode and most importantly, share recommendations how to facilitate and stimulate its uptake.

Bicycle-train in the Netherlands and its international building blocks

In the Netherlands, nearly half of train journeys begin with a bike trip, making the Dutch train station areas look radically different than most places in the world. Rather than large car parking lots, there are hundreds and hundreds of bicycles parked. Worldwide, momentum for this multimodality is growing as cycling shares increase and transit oriented development (TOD) is becoming a standard in housing projects. The pandemic increased attention to cycling in general, and teaming up with public transport will enable our sustainability and liveability goals.

The EU has funded the bike-train-bike (bitibi) project for various pilots including bike sharing schemes and campaigns for the bicycle-rail combination. The theoretical 6 building blocks shown below were inspired by Dutch practice.

Home is where the start is

Urban development is a unique opportunity for change. When people move homes or jobs, they have a 'life-change event'. Unfortunately, the sustainable and active choice isn't always the most attractive one. A badly lit bicycle path or a lack of safe bicycle parking spaces at your front door or office, can make the freely parked car right at your doorstep seem even more attractive.

When developing new areas, we can build a more sustainable mobility system from the start. Permitting the site is located on a cycling distance from the train station, bicycle-train can be a great option! In the Netherlands, on average, the Dutch cycle 4km to catch their train from home for instance, and research shows that passenger are willing to travel 6 minutes longer to another train station if that saves them a transfer.

We will provide you with three recommendations to facilitate bicycle+train (and other sustainable modes for that matter) right from the start of the door-to-door trip: housing development.

Tip 1: know for whom you develop

Developers spend a lot of time on understanding their end user to facilitate their living spaces. Why not use this knowledge to also understand their mobility wishes and frustrations and facilitate a more desirable option?

Tip 2: realise a mix of mobility options

Flexibility gives freedom: ensure a mix of mobility measures are at hand for the users. So don't go crazy on car sharing alone but also ensure fast and direct bus routes, with bike parking spaces and safe pedestrian routes for all ages and abilities.

Tip 3: make it easy to try

Trying something new is hard. Make the first step easy. The challenge is to ensure that all options are there from the start: also when not all developments are delivered yet.

From bike pedals to the train platform (first mile and transfer)

Let's look into opportunities on the first leg of the journey: the first mile. Depending on the (perception of) quality, this route can be either a push or a pull factor. A safe and direct route with other cyclists is a pull for more users, whilst route options with limited cycling infrastructure and many fast travelling cars, can be a strong incentive to opt for another mode. A chain is as strong as its weakest link. We'd like to share some ways to improve the first mile:

  • Recognise there's no silver bullet as each place is different - design for your local issue, using mobility data, surveys and panels. Dedicate routes for safe, direct and attractive cycling opportunities in a network.
  • Take bold decisions and put cyclists first. With the current dominance of the car in most of the world's urban environments, you cannot expect more people than the occasional thrill seeker to get on two wheels. In the Netherlands - and metropolitan areas around the world - there are a many examples that show how less space and speed for the car can help facilitate more sustainable and social traffic modes.
  • Share the knowledge and experience you gain. Multimodal, sustainable transport requires collaboration of many different parties. Ensure the entrance barriers for more sustainable policy and design choices for other developers, councillors, consultants or civil servant are lower by sharing what you learn.

The bicycle+train combination will either involve parking the bicycle at the train station, or taking it along, folded or otherwise. To make the journey a success, a good connection between the two modes is essential. So if we want users to experience bicycle and train as one it is very important that they can expect enough parking space at the station. Therefore, in the Netherlands hundreds of millions are invested in bicycle parking spots at stations. Besides good parking, ensure that the last few meters of the first mile include clear wayfinding and direct, well-lit routing to the platorm. An integrated ticketing system also leads to more users.

Let's look at the last mile

Then, there's the last leg to the final destination. Due to the typically higher densities at the destination station, the last mile is usually shorter than the first mile. The feeding area can however increase greatly by offering shared bicycles - assuming cycling infrastructure is in place. The Dutch station-bound 'OV-fiets' has made the train journey more attractive as it connects better to the final destination. In addition, new dockless shared bicycle systems attracted other, new users, as a study in Delft showed. People travel from door-to-door, not from station-to-station. The last mile is not only covered by the bicycle, but (especially amongst younger people) by e-moped or e-scooters. Sharing schemes might decrease the use of local transit systems like the bus, yet the bicycle-train combination also decreases car (and taxi) use. More generally, bike sharing schemes can decrease car use with shares up to 20% in Australia, for instance.

Take it from there: what's next?

We've shared some thoughts and tips on seizing the opportunity of the bicycle+train mode, from our Dutch perspective. In this recent field of research however, there is still much to learn, do and share. We've limited our scope to the bicycle and train, but there are many opportunities to include other forms of public transport, including Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), light rail and metro systems. With an increasing interest for bundling transit routes into high frequent corridors (with benefits accordingly, as explained in this video), the importance of a well-organised network of feeder routes to stations is evident.

With 40 factors affecting the use of the combined bicycle+transit mode, it is not easy and won't happen overnight, but the benefits are so evident, that it is better to start today than tomorrow to make your city bicycle+train ready!

This blog is based on a Dutch blog series written by four authors. About them:

Joeri van Mil works at AT Osborne, a Dutch consultancy firm specialized in mobility and infrastructure. Joeri mainly works in the policy stage of projects. He graduated at the University of Amsterdam in urban planning (BSc) and at Delft University of Technology in Transport, Infrastructure and Logistics (MSc).

Jerom Marseille works at AT Osborne, a Dutch consultancy firm. He works on spatial development projects with an integral point of view, including themes like mobility, climate adaptation and housing. Jerom graduated from Wageningen University with a thesis focussed on the first mile.

Tessa Leferink works at Dutch engineering consultants Witteveen+Bos, on projects where space and sustainable mobility intersect, including station area and urban development and cycle route design. She has gained experience as a traffic engineer both in and outside the Netherlands.

Niels van Oort is co-director of the Smart Public Transport Lab of Delft University of Technology and is involved in research and training with regard to the expected usage and planning of the combined bicycle+transit mode. Find related research via: https://nielsvanoort.weblog.tudelft.nl/tag/cycling/

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