Cycling is an activity that can mean many things to so many people. From recreation to main mode of transport, from fitness to fun. However, for a number of people, cycling is something they would never consider even though they may have had a bike as a child.
I still remember my first ‘proper’ bike and I am sure most you do. To me, getting my first bike was the start of my independence and freedom. When I wasn’t eating, sleeping or stuck at school I was on my bike, best friend in tow (who of course had the same bike). We would spend long summer days cycling as far as we could along the river track that meandered its way through our village in England.
Since then I must admit my biking ‘career’ has peaked and troughed – from being a weekend warrior, to a commuter, to then allowing my bike to sit in the garage looking sad and forlorn with a flat tire.
So why has my relationship with my bike been so stormy? Why have I not committed to this relationship? Then it came to me. Stress – moments of cycling stress have knocked my confidence and made other less stressful alternatives more attractive.
From having my bike stolen to having to reroute my ride into the office through busy arterial roads and steep hills – it all became too hard. ”
Now my personal experiences have shaped how I approach cycle planning with an emphasis on user experiences.
So what do we mean when we talk about low stress cycling?
Every segment of road and path accessible by bike can be categorised based on its level of traffic stress. The level of stress depends on a number of characteristics – road width, traffic volumes, traffic speed, the presence and position of parked cars and whether bicycles are mixed with traffic, in bike lanes or on segregated paths.
The level of stress felt by cyclists can vary depending on their individual tolerance levels. This is an important factor to consider when determining the potential end users of a cycling route.
There are a number of popular schemes for classifying the stress tolerance levels of cyclists and potential cyclists, one of which was developed by Roger Geller, Portland’s bicycle coordinator.
Geller categories cyclists into four groups based on their tolerance for traffic stress, namely the ‘strong and fearless’, the ‘enthused and confident’, the ‘interested and concerned’ and finally the ‘no way no how’ group
The ‘strong and fearless’ and the ‘enthused and confident’ cyclists, to varying degrees, respond well to riding in almost any traffic conditions. Together these two groups make up about make up 7% of the population.
The ‘no way no how’ group are at the complete opposite end of the scale and are not interested in riding a bicycle at all. They make up approximately 33% of the population.
The ‘interested but concerned’ group make up a huge 60% of the population. They like riding a bicycle, and they would like to ride more, but they are afraid. They find situations in which they have to negotiate with traffic uncomfortable, but respond well to standalone paths and streets with little and slow traffic.
Understanding road stress
Building on from this the Mineta Transportation Institute in the US developed a set of criteria by which road segments can be classified into four levels of traffic stress, with level one reflecting the lowest level of stress and level four representing the highest.
Routes with the lowest level of stress feature little traffic and therefore demand little attention from the cyclist and are attractive enough of a relaxing bike ride. Low stress routes are typically physically separated from traffic or on a shared road where interaction with cars is only occasional. Importantly, they are suitable for almost all cyclists, including children.
At the other end of the scale, routes reflecting the highest level of stress, referred to as level 4, reflect cycling conditions involving riding in mixed traffic at speeds of 50km/h or more, or in bike lanes or shoulders next to traffic at highway speeds. These routes, quite common in city CBD’s, are only truly accessible by the strong and fearless who make up 7% of the population.
So, think about the cycle paths in your local area.
Are they ones you would feel confident to cycle on? Could you be persuaded to cycle more often if your route to work or the local shops was along more quite streets, bridges over busy roads and barriers separating the you from neighbouring traffic?
This is what we need to address when planning our cycling strategies and infrastructure. Cycling is about more than getting from one place to another – the experience is just as important, if not more important, to ensure most people can enjoy the benefits of cycling as a viable mode of transport.
Earlier this year I worked with the City of Whitehorse in Victoria to develop a cycling strategy focusing in the principles of cycling stress.
The previous cycling strategy for Whitehorse focused on providing on-road infrastructure on the most direct routes throughout the municipality.
As a result, the previous strategy did very little to influence travel change – and the proportion of residents cycling for work remained static during the life of the strategy. The last Census date demonstrated that only 0.7% of residents cycling to work when compared to 1.3% in Greater Melbourne.
A new vision
In response to this the vision for the new strategy is to increase cycling through the creation of a connected network of attractive, safe and inviting low stress streets and paths which are accessible to all and respects the needs of all users.
In order to gain an understanding of Whitehorse’s existing and potential cycling community we undertook a range of community consultation events. Through this we were able to develop characteristics, specific to Whitehorse, for each of the four cycling groups. Interesting the characteristics of the Whitehorse community closely reflected the findings of the research undertaken in Portland by Bob Geller.
Implementing safer ways for cyclists to cross main roads was a key consideration for all respondents, followed by more off-road shared paths. Those identifying as interested and concerned stated that there was a need or more safe linkages from established cycling routes to major activity centers.
Using GIS we mapped the stress level of the municipality’s entire road network. The exercise revealed that 80% of the municipality’s road and shared path network is categorised as low stress. However, the mapping exercise also found that the majority of roads with dedicated on-road cycle lane facilities are categorised as high stress.
As a result of the community engagement and mapping process we developed a set of six guiding principles for the development of a low stress network in the City of Whitehorse with a focus on wayfinding, better linking of low stress cycle paths and ‘easy ride’ options to local amenities, education facilities and employment hubs.
The strategy was adopted in early 2016 and I look forward to seeing how successful approaching the development of the strategy from a low stress angle can be.