Squint at Stevenage’s extensive 1960s protected cycleway network and you could be in the Netherlands – except for the lack of people on bikes. So why did the New Town’s residents choose the motor car over the bicycle?
Stevenage was compact, and [planner] Claxton assumed the provision of 12 ft-wide cycleways and 7 ft-wide pavements would encourage residents to walk and cycle. He had witnessed the high usage of Dutch cycleways, and he believed the same could be achieved in the UK.
But to Claxton’s puzzlement and eventual horror, residents of Stevenage chose to drive – even for journeys of two miles or less. Stevenage’s 1949 masterplan projected that 40% of the town’s residents would cycle each day, and just 16% would drive. The opposite happened. By 1964, cycle use was down to 13%; by 1972, it had dropped to 7%. (Today it has less than half that, and yet some neighbouring towns with few cycleways have cycling modal shares of 4-5%.)
Claxton poured scorn on those who chose motorcars rather than bicycles, complaining that motorists “seem to have a problem with their logic” because “they use their cars as shopping baskets, or use them as overcoats”. Claxton complained that he had provided “cycle tracks [modelled on the] pattern of those found [in] Holland” for the residents of Stevenage, but cycle use in Stevenage never reached Dutch levels of use.
The borough council’s cycle strategy – not updated since 2002 – conveys no doubt as to why cycle usage is so low: “Stevenage has a fast, high-capacity road system, which makes it easy to make journeys by car. Residents have largely been insulated from the effects of traffic growth and congestion and generally there is little incentive for people to use modes other than the private car … [The] propensity to cycle [appears to] depend on factors other than the existence of purpose-built facilities.”