cycle infrastructure

Mental-health issues can’t be solved by psychologists alone—city design can help, too

The world’s cities aren’t very mentally healthy.

People who reside in cities are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia than those living in the countryside. No matter where you live, at least one in four people will have a mental illness in their lifetime, and everyone suffers from mental-health problems such as low mood, loneliness, stress, and anxiety at some time or another. These kinds of problems can affect everything from our relationships and housing to our social capital and resilience.

But mental health is not just an individual issue: It affects the whole city. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), economic costs associated with mental illness amount to 4% of national GDP. Mental illness increases a city’s costs of health and social care and puts people at higher risk of physical-health problems. There are also indirect costs to the city: People with mental-health problems can become disadvantaged in education and employment, and their opportunities for economic and social participation may begin to decline.

In these ways, mental-health problems affect a city’s ability to remain thriving, resilient, and sustainable. But while many of the more physical aspects of health have been addressed using urban design—for example, some cities have created walking and biking infrastructure that encourages physical fitness to reduce obesity, while others have separated pedestrians from motor-vehicle emissions to reduce urban air pollution and prevent respiratory diseases—most cities have not taken the same intentional approach with their citizens’ mental health.

The solution for mentally healthy cities

But urban planners can design the urban environment in ways that systematically address mental-health opportunities. For example:

  • Expanding access to green spaces—such as parks, street trees, or even office-window views of nature—has been proven to benefit mental health.
  • “Active design” is not simply a physical health effort: Because regular exercise can be an effective way to address some forms of mild depression (as well as reducing anxiety and some of the symptoms of dementia, ADHD, and even schizophrenia), interventions like creating walking circuits in a park or installing safe cycling infrastructure can have substantial mental-health benefits.
  • Positive social interaction increases self esteem and feelings of belonging as well as mitigating loneliness and anxiety. In order to encourage this, public spaces can install features like benches and chess tables to facilitate social interaction and provide settings for community activities.

When people are experiencing mental-health problems, individual and group interventions by mental health professionals are essential. But when it comes to promoting good mental health and preventing disorders, there are myriad untapped opportunities. When we shift the scale of innovation from the individual to the city, we can create long-lasting solutions that make our cities more enjoyable—and mentally healthy—for all.

A global transition is needed to shift linear economic models typified by carbon intensive energy consumption and significant environmental impacts, where we ‘take, make and dispose’ natural resources- to circular models with reduced energy requirements from low carbon renewable sources, with minimal environmental impacts, and where natural resources are recycled and reused, and products are maintained and re-manufactured. 

Investing in projects and schemes, and across a range of sectors and scales, that align with this transition can have significant environmental benefits, as well as other positive sustainability related outcomes. Consider, as examples, the range of environmental, social and economic benefits that can be achieved at both a regional/national, and global, level of investing in cycling as a mode of urban transport- or by designing and engineering natural infrastructure that works in harmony with existing natural systems.


Vancouver’s cycling-friendly side streets seen as a key step forward for North American cities

For the past decade, Vancouver’s separated bike lanes have continued to generate headlines and heaps of public scorn from conservative Vancouver residents who see them as the most overt example of Big Government’s ongoing “war on the car.”

Urban-planning and transportation experts have long feted Vancouver’s extensive system of bike-friendly side streets as a cheap and uncontroversial way for bike-resistant North American cities to create the infrastructure that gets people out of their cars and onto two wheels.

“It’s very simple,” says Gordon Price, a six-term former city councillor and former director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program. “All you have to do is put in traffic signals where these side streets cross another arterial.”

Mr. Price says Vancouver’s place at the forefront of North American cycling infrastructure stems from activists in the early 1970s successfully stopping a freeway from carving through its downtown core. After that, he says, Vancouver’s politicians declared that the car would not be the dominant mode of transportation, which paved the way for the city’s first dedicated bike lanes to be created in the early 1990s, with little backlash.

These lanes – which force cars to obey lower speed limits in order to give cyclists preferential treatment on an open residential street – soon began to reshape the “mental map” residents use for getting around the city, he said.

Mr. Price was a councillor from 1986 to 2002, after which he says his Non-Partisan Association party committed to fomenting a “bikelash” among Vancouver’s more conservative residents to oppose any expansion to the city’s cycling infrastructure. This movement began to reach a fever pitch in the run-up to council reallocating a car lane of the Burrard Street Bridge in 2009 to create a separated path for cyclists riding in and out of downtown.

Networks of traffic-calmed streets can be an important – and politically feasible – middle step for a city to make cycling safer and easier for many, but, ultimately, separated lanes on busy streets are the key to getting more commuters peddling to work, according to Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former director of planning.

Roughly 10 per cent of Vancouver commutes are now on bikes thanks to these separated lanes, making it one of North America’s top-three cycling cities, he says.

“By far the biggest safety benefits are in terms of huge declines in traffic injuries of children,” Mr. Pucher says of the side streets calmed for cyclists. “What resident of a neighbourhood is going to oppose this?”

Thousands of cyclists hold up their bicycles after riding around the Hungarian capital Budapest on April 25, 2015, to demonstrate critical mass and demand that the city, where hundreds of thousands of people regularly use bikes to get around, develop more cycling infrastructure. The Bernadett Szabo photo was selected as one of The Atlantic’s Photos of the Week.

For all its problems, it’s nice to see that Belfast’s cycling infrastructure does consider cyclists from time to time. On Castle Street in City Centre, there are some nice cycle traffic signals. They’d be better mounted a little lower down, but they’re nice to see. Unfortunately just down the street are confusing “No vehicles” signs which give the impression that cycles may only proceed if pushed by a pedestrian, whereas approach from the other side says both buses and cycles are welcome on the road. The signage around the Streets Ahead programme and the City Centre as a whole would benefit from standardisation.

It makes me want to cry...

At the weekend we decided to go for a “family bike ride”. That thing that other people think we do all the time, because they see us riding bikes. Most of the time in our house, a “family bike ride” is the school run or a trip to the shops, going on a “bike ride” is something we rarely have time to do.

We went to try out the Monsal Trail and thought we’d cycle from Thornbridge to the L’Eroica Festival, which I’d estimated as a 6 mile round trip and just about doable by a 6 year old. The trail is Derbyshire’s flag ship cycle route, hailed as ideal for family cycling and indeed there were plenty of families out cycling on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Almost all on mountain bikes, helmeted and nearly half with wrap around glasses on!

The Monsal Trail is depressing on many levels. It is yet another railway line that was victim to this country’s short sighted transport policy that means rural areas are almost entirely car dependent. The “redundant” railway line has now been converted to “leisure use”, meaning it is shared use path and full of dog walkers and no-one keeps vegetation under control. It’s clearly not considered as a route that could replace any form of vehicular travel. This is reinforced by the poor quality surface that has been put down - a half hearted attempt at compacted gravel. In some areas ok ish, but in many areas large pieces of loose stone making it down right dangerous.

After a brief glimpse of it a few weeks ago in torrential rain (full of puddles) I realised it certainly wasn’t going to be Brompton friendly, so I took my vintage Raleigh Roadster, thinking that the roadster, designed for rubbish roads and perfectly capable of handling Sheffield’s potholes, would be fine. I was wrong. The Schwalbe Delta Cruiser tyres were skating all over in the gravel and far from being a nice relaxing ride, most of the time I had to keep all my concentration on my steering. (I certainly wasn’t going to risk taking photos)

That was bad enough, but the dust, after a few days without rain, was terrible. The bikes were covered in it, we were covered in it and I realised the wrap around glasses would’ve been handy the amount of grit that kept flying in my eyes. I was glad I was wearing soft contact lenses, with gas permeable ones I wouldn’t have been able to see a thing!

Another thing Derbyshire have skimped on is the signage, which is also poor and hard to see. We ended up adding an extra 2 miles to the trip because of it, which was a bit much for the 6 year old, who really struggled with the last mile back to the car.

The final straw was the end of the route, just outside Bakewell, which ends with cyclist dismount signs because the path becomes to steep. And by steep I mean ridiculously steep. Going downhill was bad enough, but uphill was something else. Youngest daughter could barely walk up it without her bike. Eldest daughter kept sliding backwards pushing her bike up it and I was really struggling. Hardly what you call accessible! The crazy thing was there was loads of room to make a gently sloping ramp, but no, yet more cost cutting and lazy planning.

For me the trip really summed up how poor all cycle provision is in this country and how we are constantly being fobbed off with substandard rubbish. And as if to ram the point home, I got back to see this photo in my twitter feed:

photo by @amsterdamized

It just makes me want to cry!

Cyclesaurus became iconic among Belfast’s cycling community in 2013. It represented cycling provisions in Northern Ireland as a whole - largely installed without thought, and where they were provided, were often dangerous. Cyclesaurus was a triangular strip of green tactile paint which guided cyclists across a 3-entry junction onto a two-way segregated cycle lane. Those exiting the lane into the crossroads were guided onto the wrong side of the road.

The NI Roads Service have recently “upgraded” Cyclesaurus, and it is now more dangerous than ever. As you can see, the old green triangle is visible under the new, and the approaching lane has been extended much beyond the junction. However, the lane approaching the camera has a significant metal pole right in the centre, which is actively dangerous at night, and when approaching the lane from the road shown to the right in the photo. Bewildering sets of lines (not to regulation and which give a confusing idea of priority) make road users approaching from the side roads unsure of their right of way. If you do manage to get across the junction unscathed, there’s a green splodge of paint (just below the truck in the photo) on the left hand side of the road to gently remind you that cycling on the left is generally best.

Overall, it’s a massively disappointing “upgrade” to Belfast’s cycling infrastructure, and one that gets lots of use thanks to being on a popular link to the National Cycle Network Route 9.

The Guardian has examples of enviable bike infrastructure from around the World. The Peace Bridge, in Calgary, Canada is a 126m single-span bridge uses an open double helix structure, with glass ‘leaves’ filling the top section to give some protection against the elements. The 2.5m-wide bicycle lane runs down the centre of the bridge, with pedestrian paths on either side. The photograph was taken by Joshua Dool.