Mobility Cycling A Nice-to-Know Guide to Cycle Highways

A Nice-to-Know Guide to Cycle Highways

Jo Helme
I studied (and cycled) at the Universities of Cambridge, Nottingham and Vienna. My day involves squeezing information out of cycling advocates, experts and policymakers, and then writing all the juicy bits into articles. When the climate crisis gives you lemons, ride bicycles.

Should we associate cycling with noisy, dangerous ‘highways’? Are longer, but more scenic routes worth it? Are speed e-bikes hijacking the highways? Read this article to challenge your conceptions of cycle highways and hear what people working in the field think. 

Having covered the basics of cycle highways in our ‘Need-to-Know’ guide, this article digs deeper into the topic. Although there are many more out there, we’ve highlighted five talking points that are sure to crop up in conversations with those curious about cycle highways. 

Talking Point 1: Should We Associate Cycling With Noisy, Dangerous ‘Highways’? 

‘Highways’ connote cars, noise, pollution, speed, environmental destruction and even danger. Cycling’s selling points hinge on the opposite; healthier, greener, quieter transport. Is it wise then to marry the two and create a ‘cycle highway’, ‘velobahn’ or ‘Fietssnelweg’? 

“The idea of building a ‘highway’ through a town centre or neighbourhood often stirs strong opposition,” notes Julian, cycle highways expert at KontextPlan, Switzerland. This seems to be true of London, where the ‘Cycle Superhighways’ were renamed ‘Cycleways’ to dispense with the disapproval. 

Do people on bicycles measure time from sunrise to sunset? Image credit: Unsplash / Chronis Yan

Despite the negative connotations, however, Head of Copenhagen’s Cycle Superhighways Secretariat, Sidsel Birk Hjuler, supports the use of the name. “No matter if you come from Uzbekistan or the US, the highway logo is intuitive – it communicates very clearly which direction the route will take you.” The simplicity and quality associated with highways, combined with the upgraded status of cycling due to having a dedicated road, may therefore reappropriate highways from the claws of cars. 

Moreover, cities can put their own spin on the idea of a ‘highway’. The capital region of Copenhagen uses the label cycle ‘super’ highways. “If we call it what it is – a regional coherent bicycle commuter route – this doesn’t say much about the vision of the network,” explains Sidsel. “Instead, if I tell a municipal leader that the route is not ‘super’ enough, it carries a more valuable message.” 

Joris Van Damme, Cycle Highways Project Leader for Provincie Vlaams-Brabant in Belgium, points to another way the name can be utilised to improve infrastructure. “If you start calling a substandard route a cycle highway, it may become one,” he argues. People will complain that it does not met the high-quality nature implied by the word, which will then spur on change.  

Ultimately, the word ‘highway’ is more versatile than it first appears. Not only can it be reclaimed from its noisy, polluting bearings, it can also be recast as a tool to secure super routes. 

Talking Point 2: Is a Longer but More Scenic Route Worth It? 

Functional, direct commutes are often at the forefront of cycle highway design. Yet, unlike the closed car, bicycles bear witness to the outdoors: people can soak up the fresh air, scenery and nature’s charms. Should cycle highways then be designed with pleasure and sensory experiences in mind, rather than traditional efficiency?  

“Sometimes adding a small curve around a tree, a resting place or taking a slightly longer route along a river is better than the short, straight route,” says Joris. Not only do attractive highways make for more enjoyable, social journeys, he argues that they led to a ‘trickle-down’ effect, where people who appreciate the highway as a tourist then consider it for commuting. 

Julian similarly diverges from the traditional concept of a direct highway. “A cycle highway is not just one piece of infrastructure that’s the same from beginning to end,” he states, “it has to be integrated into the setting.” Lisbon’s cycle highway to Ciclovia Belém, which skirts the rivers and is speckled with trees, is an example of this.

Does cycling make us measure time from sunrise to sunset? Image credit: Unsplash / Matt Duncan

However, whilst a picturesque route may be desirable, surely this becomes a trade-off with time efficiency – which would then undermine the idea of a fast highway? 

This isn’t necessarily the case; Sidsel argues that cycle highways challenge the traditional way transport planners comprehend time efficiency. “People look at their trip not from A to B, but from sunrise to sunset” she argues. “Squeezing in exercise, fresh air and alone time in one day is extremely hard, but if they squeeze it in their travel time, people feel time efficient.” Cycling therefore feels more timely, even though travelling by car or train is technically quicker. 

“That’s the unique selling proposition of cycling,” remarks Joris, “while cars loose time in congestion, you gain time when cycling.” Hence, shaping cycle routes to the environment can lead to greater enjoyment, without compromising tight schedules.

Talking Point 3: Are E-Bikes and Speed Pedelecs Hijacking the Highways? 

Speed pedelec bikes can reach 45kph and ownership of e-bikes is on the rise. Given that cycle highways are typically bidirectional and 4m at their widest, these electrified bikes can threaten the safety and comfort ordinary bicycles trying to navigate the highway. E-bikes can also unsettle the harmony between pedestrians and bicycles and disrupt the gentleness of a morning cycle commute. 

Does the need for speed ruin a cycle highway’s tranquillity? Image credit: Unsplash / Daniel de los Santos

“One option is to keep speed peledecs on the road and not on the cycle paths, as Germany has considered,” states Julian. This would provide a quick, simple solution to the issue of sharing cycle infrastructure.  

However, Sidsel argues that the majority of conflicts are due to people feeling like there is insufficient space. “This is an issue whether its an e-bike, or just a fast racing bike overtaking,” she explains. “What we need is to have a concept of a minimum acceptable width, so we can accommodate for everyone.”

Moreover, e-bikes can be a positive change for cycle highways. “E-bikes + highways = magic formula” says Joris. “They make cycling more democratic. If you can cycle at 30kph, long distances which were not possible suddenly become achievable.” 

Hence, instead of being terrified by electrified bikes, we need to ensure that cycle highways are wide enough to accommodate both, so that the ‘magic formula’ can come true. 

Talking Point 4: Is There Any Point in Building Cycling Highways in Places With Low Cycling Modal Shares? 

Cycle highways fan out across Flanders, Copenhagen and the Netherlands. As places with cycling cultures, investment in this infrastructure makes sense. For the more cycling-shy countries, however, lacing the place with cycle highways is arguably a wasted venture. Not only is there a lack of demand, there also has to be safe connections to and from the cycle highways – something unlikely in countries with limited cycling infrastructure. 

Joris, however, argues there is a case for cycle highways in cycle-shy countries. “Cycle highways can start off as a weekend attraction,” he states. “By allowing people to experience the pleasure of cycling, this may then increase the modal share.” 

Sidsel further advocates for greater cycle highways. “Even in Denmark, there’s this belief that cycle highways only have potential in the capital region – but I don’t think that’s right,” she states. “47% of Danish commuters travel 10km or less to work which this is doable when you have cycle superhighways. This shows there is huge potential all over the country.” 

Moreover, Covid-19 has propelled leaders to rethink transport options and consider the potential of cycling. Cycle highways be therefore be the key to loosening traffic gridlocks. 

Talking Point 5: Should Cycle Highways Come From the Car Budget? 

Costing between €500,000 to €2 million per kilometre, cycling highways are not cheap endeavours. Although relatively inexpensive compared to motor highways, budgeting for cycle highways can be a make-or-break moment. 

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. “The highest costs we pay for a cycle highway is actually for the car,” argues Joris, “it should not come from the budget of the bicycle.” 

Intersections tend to be the cost consuming part of cycle highways. Whilst placing sensored traffic lights to detect bicycles and stop car traffic would be a cheap solution, fear of car congestion or driver backlash prevents this, resulting in more costly infrastructure like tunnels or bridges. Hence, the highest costs exist to accommodate the comfort of cars. 

“Why should we build bridges for bicycles?” asks Joris. “You should put the car in the tunnel.”

In a Nutshell… 

Cities are having conversations about cycle highways more and more frequently. Chatting over the challenges, be it the label ‘highway’, the route’s attractiveness, the role of e-bikes, the budget or cycling modal share, are all important in determining the future impact of this infrastructure. 

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