Whose line is it anyway?

In this article, Jo Sachs-Eldridge from the Leitrim Cycling Festival and Cyclist.ie reflects on the importance of good design and how we might achieve it using the input of diverse voices. 

The announcement of additional funding to create almost 300 jobs in active travel is a very exciting step towards a more sustainably mobile Ireland – as we reported here . 

As the Minister for Transport notes ‘Developing high quality walking and cycling facilities will encourage more people to switch to active travel and will contribute to tackling climate change. Really good design is what is needed to connect communities and make walking and cycling attractive, safe and accessible to everyone.’

He is absolutely right we need really good design. But we also need to consider the questions of who determines whether this is really good design? Who gets to make those decisions? Who is involved in the whole process of design? Are everyone’s voices being heard – particularly those who may not traditionally engage in the process such as women, young people, people with disabilities and other people who may be even more significantly impacted by the quality of the infrastructure. 

As noted in the recent TII ‘’ report, ‘Travelling in a Woman’s Shoes’, “Transport is often seen as gender neutral, providing benefit to all equally. However a growing body of international research highlights that this is not the case. Women and men can have different needs, constraints and expectations for using transport”.

Really good design is often a highly complex process with no definitive right answer but lots of wrong answers. There is guidance out there, good guidance, but that doesn’t guarantee good design. We know that. So how do we now do things differently? 

My experience in Cardiff, where I previously managed the programme for cycling, is that engaging with the right people at the right time is key to good design. It sounds simple and in some ways it is. But to do it right requires a considerable amount of time and effort. Every aspect needs to be considered – the timing, the information, the audience, the wording, the method. But the time and effort invested will make a considerable difference to the result.  

Because good cycle design is all about lines. To start with are the desire lines of the people who live, shop, work, play, learn in a place. The desire lines matter but they are not the only ‘lines’ that need to be considered. 

We also need to think about the line taken on introducing innovative design; the line we take on deviating from the status quo; on reallocating road space; on removing parking spaces; on reducing the capacity of a junction for motorised private vehicles; on prioritising active travel road users over motorised traffic. 

And then there are all the detailed lines, the lines that can get so easily lost in translation – every millimetre of road space reallocated, every kerbline, every sign installed, every barrier is another decision. Another line.  

Who makes these decisions? 

Who draws these lines? 

There is a myriad of conflicting needs and wants and a myriad of potential decision makers. 

And there are no simple answers. 

The only way we get can this right, the only way we can overcome these conflicts and draw the best possible ‘lines’ is through engagement and collaboration with as many people as possible at every stage of the development. 

From my experience I would argue we need: 

  • strategic cycle network plans developed in collaboration with the people who matter and based on real desire lines; 
  • the integration of these network plans with all other relevant local area and national plans; 
  • routes that are designed based on best practice and through collaborative design workshops that involve all relevant parties – members, internal officers, external stakeholders – all with a clear understanding of the ambitions of the scheme;
  • community street audits or walk-throughs incorporated into the design process – for both internal officers and external stakeholders; 
  • simple audit tools to allow a broader and wider range of people to be involved in the process and to ensure that no aspect of high quality design is overlooked; 
  • effort made to ensure that voices from those harder to reach groups are heard – the right lines to be drawn by the right people at the right time.  

We know that designing for the expedient movement of car drivers no longer fits with our policies, our future plans, our targets, or our long term sustainability. 

Cycling benefits all of us regardless of who is doing the pedalling through the reduction in congestion, pollution, pressure on the health service and improved community cohesion. 

Key to developing a high quality cycle network that will have an impact on travel behaviour is the answer to the question ‘whose line is it anyway?’

In order to create quality networks that make cycling an attractive option we must make the time and effort to engage with everyone that matters.

As ultimately no one has a claim to the line.

It is all of ours. 

Photo credit: Luciana Prado

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