Fast cyclists, eh.
Whizzing around; speeding through; belting around corners; appearing out of nowhere; tearing along.
At twenty miles an hour, even. Sometimes.
Twenty miles an hour.
Hang on. Twenty miles an hour? Twenty miles an hour? Isn’t that the kind of speed society conventionally considers to be quite slow, at least when it comes to motor vehicles? Witness the frothing that presents itself any time a borough, town or city wants to lower a speed limit from 30mph to 20mph.
30mph is seen (rightly or wrongly) as a reasonable, normal urban speed; yet this is the kind of speed that ‘cyclists’ – even the fittest and most powerful – will struggle to attain under normal circumstances. Equally, 20mph for motor vehicles is seen as an acceptably slow speed, yet 20mph on the flat requires serious effort from someone cycling.
So is there really such a thing as a ‘fast cyclist’? How can it be the case that cyclists are considered ‘fast’, when they will almost always be travelling through areas dominated by motor vehicles travelling within the speed limit, yet at greater speed? (Sometimes much greater). What’s going on? Does it even make sense to refer to cyclists as ‘fast’ in this context? If cycling on the road at well under 20mph isn’t ‘too fast’, why should it be ‘too fast’ on cycle-specific infrastructure?
One of the most recent examples of the employment of ‘fast cyclists’ was in this press release from Sustrans about a new bridge in Bristol.
The project will coincide with the first installation of new lighting technology which is used in Copenhagen to encourage faster cyclists to slow their pace. The “green wave” lights will coordinate with the signals at the crossroads on Coronation Road so that cyclists flow more smoothly through the junction.
It turns out that the purpose of the lights is really just to pace people to the traffic signals (at what speed, it is not stated) rather than, specifically, to slow down ‘faster cyclists’ – so this is a poorly-phrased paragraph (and misleading about the purpose of this lighting in Copenhagen). But it fits with a general atmosphere in Britain of blaming people for cycling ‘too fast’ for a situation, attempting to slow them down, without any apparent assessment of why it makes objective sense, in urban areas, to slow down anyone cycling to a speed far below 20mph, when 20mph is the minimum speed limit for motor traffic.
What is really the issue is not speed; it’s poor design. It’s paths that are too narrow to safely accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, in the numbers that are using them. Witness the attempts to get people to ‘behave’ on the Bristol-Bath railway path – ‘anti-social’ issues that simply would not arise if the path was wide enough, and had a separate footway.
It’s poor sightlines, and pinch points, and sharp corners, that bring people into conflict, and necessitate the use of awful barriers and chicanes in an attempt to get people to moderate their speed.
Rather than designing paths to accommodate a range of cycling speeds, paths in Britain are, sadly, often designed for walking speed, and then impediments and obstacles are put in people’s way once it turns out that the natural cycling speed of most people is much higher, and consequently problematic.
It’s awful, and it’s still happening. As I type this, a brand-new walking and cycling bridge is being installed over the A24, the bypass around Horsham. It will have TWO sets of slalom zig-zag gates on the ramp.
Why is this? Simply because the bridge has not been designed properly; designed to accommodate people’s natural cycling speed. It will have a ridiculously tight, Alpe d-Huez series of mini hairpin bends at the bottom of the ramp.
This ramp has come ready-made with obstacles attached to it, to slow people down, all because it has not been designed to accommodate normal cycling speeds in the first place. It’s as simple as that.
The vast majority of the people cycling in the Netherlands will not be getting near speeds of 20mph for everyday cycling. However, a minority will be (and may exceed that speed), and the infrastructure is designed in such a way as to accommodate those higher speeds, and to mitigate potential problems. I’ve set out in a previous post how this works; designing for the bicycle as a vehicle capable of speed.
More broadly, this is the kind of design that is good for cycling regardless of the speed at which people are travelling. The corners will be smooth, with sufficiently large radii, to make turns a pleasure, rather than an inconvenience. And conflict will be avoided, even at higher speeds.
It makes cycling a pleasurable experience; there aren’t obstacles in your way, corners are not sharp, and momentum is not lost. Journeys are smooth and easy, be they on the flat, uphill, or downhill.
By contrast, cycling in Britain appears to continue being accommodated within pedestrian-specific infrastructure, and is then hobbled to reduce the speed of people cycling to walking speeds.
The problem, therefore, is not with ‘fast cyclists’, but with completely inadequate design.
Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, Michael Dugher, gave an interview with the Mirror in December, which attracted a fair bit of attention, principally because it resembles a transparent attempt to court the ‘motorist vote’ (whatever that may be) – presenting Labour as being on the side of ‘the motorist’. It included all the usual antique soundbites – ‘cash cows’, ‘war on the motorist’, and so on – as well as the miserably unambitious suggestion
If car drivers switched just one car journey a month
Switched not to walking or cycling, but to buses or coaches. Walking and cycling were entirely absent in this interview, as Caroline Russell pointed out in this excellent response piece.
But there was one detail in this piece that I confess I missed when it first appeared, and I’m grateful to Katja Leyendecker for pointing it out. Dugher argued -
When people demonise the motorist it’s offensive. Look at the huge increase in women drivers. That’s been a great thing. It’s about women’s independence and it’s about safety. Often women choose to drive when it’s dark because they feel safer.”
Now it is true that many women will opt for the car to make trips when it is dark, because they feel safer within a motor vehicle, than outside it. (Indeed, I suspect this is true for a number of men too).
But absent from this analysis is the role of government in designing, building, maintaining (and policing) environments in which people feel safe when they travel. The role of ministers like Michael Dugher. I don’t think it’s a ‘great thing’ that women who may not even want to drive are forced to do so because the streets on which they should be able to walk or cycle are socially unsafe. In fact I think that’s a pretty appalling thing.
To take an example, is it a surprise that many women might drive to and from Dorking railway station, when the pedestrian underpass beneath the A24 – connecting the station to the town – looks like this?
Is it a surprise that people might not want to cycle or walk through badly-designed underpasses like this one in Stevenage?
I’m sure there are countless examples across the towns and cities of Britain of walking and cycling routes like this – poorly-designed, barely used, not overlooked, and frankly scary. Not to mention the standard stingy walking paths between British housing developments, that almost seem an invitation to a mugging.
If people feel the need to drive because they don’t feel socially safe walking and cycling, that is a very bad thing, and certainly not something to be welcomed, especially by the people who should be responsible taking responsibility for addressing those issues. The social safety of the environments we walk and cycle in – how safe they feel to us is the responsibility of councils and government.
Social safety is recognised in the Netherlands as being an important element of whether or not people choose to walk or cycle, as this excellent post from David Hembrow explains.
For social safety:
So the walking and cycling environment in the Netherlands is designed to feel safe. ‘Attractiveness’ – which covers social safety – is one of the five main elements considered in designing cycling infrastructure. That means that cycling infrastructure is built to a high standard, to ensure that wherever people are walking and cycling about, they feel safe, regardless of the context.
That means underpasses that are open and wide.
It also means that cycle routes should be well-lit, overlooked and (perhaps most importantly) good enough to be used in sufficiently high numbers.
I’d like to think our Secretary of State for Transport would take action to address the root cause of the problem, not applaud people having to resort to a mode of transport that will often make absolutely no sense in urban areas, in order to ensure their own safety.
4. Salmoning (going the wrong way) appears to be a common & an accepted thing, especially on the uni-directional paths on wide boulevards.— Paul James (@pauljames) November 4, 2014
It’s a little surprising when you suddenly come face to face with a bike coming the wrong way along the cycleway and you have to duck back into the stream of bikes hopefully without cutting anyone up.
It actually turns out to be less of a problem than you’d think, the single direction cycleways on the wide boulevards that make up the city are wide enough for easy passing. Salmoners mostly seem to be taking shortcuts in places where they’d otherwise have to cross the road twice rather than travel a short distance the wrong way on the wrong path.
I fully expect that these salmoners know what they are doing, it’s quite hard to accidentally end up going the wrong way. Junctions always push you in the correct direction by using curved versus square corners, a square corner is just hard to turn around and so your subconscious knows that it’s not a correct way to go. Even when you get to the end of a bi-directional path, the centre white lines and the curbing stop you from accidentally turning into a salmon.
I follow the Amsterdam-based photographer Thomas Schlijper on Twitter, mainly for his excellent photographs of street life, and cycling in particular. He’s well worth a follow.
This photograph of his, from a few weeks ago, caught my attention.
It shows the Haarlemerplein, a square to the north west of the city centre, with highly visible (and very new) cycle infrastructure, just completed. The name rang a bell – it’s the same square where the same photographer took this beautiful picture, back in May.
Slightly intrigued, I thought I’d see what this area looked like, before these improvements. Thanks to Google Streetview’s archive feature, we can see the state of roads and streets here, prior to the changes being put in place.
Looking southwest on Korte Marnixstraat (the street at the bottom right of the aerial view above), there was a poor cycle lane and ASL on the east side of the road, and nothing at all, on the west side -
This has been replaced by fully protected cycle tracks, on both sides of the road. The parking also appears to have been removed.
The north-west approach (over the bridge in the bottom left) had poor (by Dutch standards) cycle tracks.
Has become a wider, kerb-separated cycle track. Again, at the expense of a motor traffic lane.Perhaps the most remarkable change has come on the south-eastern arm, in the square itself, where a fairly grotty narrow road, shared with motor traffic (note the token British-style ASL) -
These kinds of changes aren’t particularly exciting – certainly not as eye-catching or newsworthy as a fancy bridge, or a solar cycle path. But they encapsulate the way Dutch cycling success is built upon continual improvement, and maximising the safety, comfort and convenience of cycling as a mode of transport.
This junction wasn’t even particularly bad before – certainly many junctions in the UK would benefit hugely from the kind of physical separation, with separate signalling, that was already present. But it’s been substantially improved, regardless. Indeed, every time I visit the Netherlands, I am struck by how quickly many of the paths, routes and tracks that I had used on my previous visit have been upgraded. This path to the university area – the Uithof – had been widened and resurfaced, with lighting, when I visited last year. Given the numbers of people using it, it really does need to be this wide.
The Dutch aren’t standing still – they are continually refining and enhancing (and adding to) their already excellent network. Meanwhile British towns and cities don’t even have a network at all, or, at best, a piecemeal one.
It’s profoundly depressing. The one glimmer of hope is that we have a living, breathing example of the benefits of this kind of design, right on our doorstep, and a template for how to do it.
3. “Give way from the right” takes a little getting used to, especially when it appears to be optional to some people.— Paul James (@pauljames) November 4, 2014
Unlike in the UK where at an unmarked junction you give way to whoever is deemed to be going straight on along the more major of the intersecting roads, in the Netherlands you always give way to traffic coming from the right.
And unlike the UK where unmarked junctions are few and far between due to our love of white paint, they are the default on access roads and quite common on distributor roads in the NL.
1. At road junctions, drivers must give priority to traffic approaching from the right.
2. The following exceptions exist to this rule:
a. drivers on unpaved roads must give priority to drivers on paved roads;
b. all drivers must give priority to tram drivers.
Trams are the exception, you don’t mess with trams.
What this means is that there are times when you are travelling straight on along a road but you have to give way to anything turning right from a sideroad into your path.
This has the effect of slowing traffic travelling along the road at junctions as they act like unmarked reverse priority mini-roundabouts (although in practice they are marked with a speed table).
When it comes to bicycles, it appears that either some cyclists and drivers don’t understand this rule of the road and inappropriately yield (or don’t yield) for each other, or it’s just that some drivers expect cyclists not to yield and so will wait for cyclists even when they actually have the right of way. This causes a little ambiguity sometimes, although usually with everyone yielding for each other rather than the other way around.
Urban Design London have recently released some new guidance (in draft form), entitled the ‘Slow Streets Sourcebook: designing for 20mph streets’. This manual – like other ones I have commented on recently – has revealing design recommendations for ‘cyclists’.
These are the kinds of recommendations that show the authors are only really thinking about ‘cyclists’ as the people who are cycling already, not anyone who might want to ride a bike – from a very young child, to someone in old age.
To take just some examples from this guidance -
Carriageway widths below 3m encourage cyclists to take up the ‘primary’ position in the middle of the carriageway, making it more difficult for vehicles to overtake cyclists. [my emphasis]
Whether being used as a mobile roadblock is something the person cycling would actually enjoy is, it seems, not considered. Likewise, I doubt the authors of this passage reflected on whether it is reasonable to expect, say, a young child to take up a position in the middle of the carriageway in response to it being 3 metres wide.
And, in a longer passage -
There are a variety of ways to indicate that the priority lies with cyclists and/or pedestrians and that drivers should slow down. Segregating or separating suchusers from vehicles may dilute their influence on driver behaviour. Therefore when thinking about designing for sub-20mph behaviours, integration may be the optimum choice. However, when designing with cyclists in mind, their needs should be fully considered to ensure that they are not put at risk.
Integrating cycling into narrower carriageways can encourage all road users to engage better with each other. This can also help retain a constant, but slower, traffic flow. This treatment is shown with a bicycle sign painted on the carriageway. Care is needed when designing junctions to ensure cyclists are visible and not ‘squeezed’ by turning vehicles.
There are some photographic illustrations of these kinds of designs.
Unfortunately the narrow carriageways which ‘integrate’ cycling in this example – note the helpful bicycle symbols ‘encouraging’ people to take up the primary position – also appear to be rather busy in this particular location.
TfL run five or six bus routes along this road, in addition to the seemingly copious private motor traffic. Is ‘integration’ here really something we should be aspiring to? Is this the kind of environment that will appeal to people who currently don’t feel willing or able to cycle in Britain?
I doubt it. In truth these kinds of designs are a way of integrating existing cyclists into the road network; they are not conceived with the needs of those people who aren’t cycling in mind. Consequently they will do little or nothing to address the problem of Britain’s cripplingly low levels of cycling.
Of course, it’s hard to think outside the box; to think in terms of the people we need to get cycling, rather than the tiny minority of people who are currently bold enough to venture onto our hostile roads. We still tend to think of ‘cyclists’ and ‘cycling’ in terms of the people already doing it.
Without wishing to single any particular comment out, there was a delicious recent example of this way of thinking below Diamond Geezer’s detailed blogpost about the proposed Superhighway 2 upgrade between Aldgate and Bow roundabout.
A busy cycle route yet I did not see any cyclists in your photos.
Well…. duh! The reason there aren’t ‘any cyclists’ is because the road in question is, well, atrocious.
This upgrade is needed precisely because there aren’t any cyclists; because it’s a hostile, scary and actually lethal road, even for those few who are brave enough to cycle on it. Yet ‘John’ appears to believe that proposals to build cycling infrastructure along this road are unjustified, because very few people are cycling there at present.
This kind of thinking is understandable from members of the public, who simply don’t see cycling as a potentially universal mode of transport, because they are not surrounded by evidence that it is. They need to be persuaded otherwise, to be shown how cycling could work for everyone, if we invested in changes to our roads and streets.
But a failure to ‘think outside the box’ is far less acceptable from politicians, councillors, engineers and transport planners – the people we are relying on to bring about the changes in cycling levels that they all say they want to see. This broader failure is displayed in a hostility to cycling that only makes sense when you appreciate that the objector is thinking in terms of ‘cycling’ as it is now in British towns and cities; something for fast (usually male) adults, or for anti-social yobs.
The town where I live has an unspoken policy of keeping cycling out of the town centre as much as is humanly possible, apparently on the grounds of it introducing danger and uncertainty to ‘pedestrians’. Their attitude betrays that they plainly aren’t thinking about these kinds of Horsham residents when they consider cycling -
Instead they are thinking only in terms of the cyclists they encounter when they are driving around the town’s roads – people striving to travel at the speeds of the motor traffic that surrounds them. The councillors are not thinking outside the box.
The Royal Parks in London appear to be exhibiting a similarly close-minded view of cycling; in their response to the East-West Superhighway consultation (see this more detailed post from Cyclists in the City), they argue that Serpentine Road (among other roads and routes in Hyde Park) is
not suitable for larger volumes of cyclists because of the scale of other use such as including event activity and vast pedestrian movements
Given that the Serpentine Road looks like this
this objection really shows that the Royal Parks are thinking of ‘cyclists’ in terms of a stereotypical lycra-clad horde, tearing through the park, rather than as the kinds of people you see cycling on very similar routes in Amsterdam’s equivalent park, the Vondelpark.
Finally, here’s an example from New Zealand of a new ‘cycling’ scheme, built around catering for existing demand, rather than for the people we need to reach.
… let’s put it this way. I always know if a cycleway has been designed right. The #NinjaPrincess is my expert in such matters. She is one of the customers whose needs should be considered most highly when such infrastructure is being designed and built.
… It is certain that every box in the performance specifications, set by the traffic engineers, has been ticked. But that is no guarantee that it will be a design that is conducive to the wider range of the 8-80 demographic. There is a difference between surviving and flourishing.
So while I don’t pretend to have the expertise of the traffic engineers who have installed this new infrastructure, nor do traffic engineers have the same valuable world view that the #NinjaPrincess possesses. It would be nice to think that her view has some value in the process of designing and building cycleways.
Well, exactly. I have my own ‘Ninja Princess’ – my own barometer of whether a scheme that purports to ‘encourage cycling’ will actually do so. My partner. She can’t drive, so cycling can and should fit her like a glove for the short trips she makes in urban areas. But she doesn’t cycle where we live. When we go on holiday to Dutch cities, she’ll leap on a bike; likewise, when we find traffic-free trails in places like Bath or Bristol, she’ll pedal for ten, even twenty miles, without even realising it.
But please don’t try to ‘integrate’ her into carriageway like this. You will fail.
She doesn’t want to be ‘integrated’ – she just wants to feel safe and comfortable.
If we’re serious about increasing cycling levels in Britain, shouldn’t we listen to people like her? Think outside the box of existing demand.
The appalling story of Victoria Lebrec – the young woman who was seriously injured by a left-turning lorry at the junction of St John Street and Clerkenwell in Islington in December last year – features in the Evening Standard today. She has lost her left leg, but as the article describes, she is very lucky to be alive. As Tom Konig states in the article -
Had she suffered her injuries two years ago, she wouldn’t have made it to hospital, which is a testament to the pre-hospital team that went to her.
What is remarkable is that if Victoria had been cycling through this junction at the same time last year, or even as late as July 2014, this collision would in all probability have not occurred.
Why is this? From September 26th 2013 until August 2014, St John Street was closed so that water mains could be repaired before the Crossrail machines tunnelled through the area. For nearly a year, in other words, St John Street had a form of ‘filtered permeability’, with no through traffic.
This was the state of affairs at the junction where Victoria was seriously injured in August 2014, just three months before her collision -
Streetview has captured a woman cycling westbound across the junction, towards Farringdon, just as Victoria was. The road into which the lorry turned left across her was, at this time, closed to through traffic, and had no HGV access.
Some argued that this closure should be retained once the works were completed, but the street was reopened to motor traffic in early August, meaning that people cycling were, once again, exposed to the danger of left-turning HGVs, on what is one of London’s busiest cycling routes. It’s not as if this kind of incident is exceptional – another woman was killed by a left-turning HGV at precisely the same location, just nine years ago. As the Evening Standard article describes, it is only advances in medical care that avoided the same outcome last December.
I’m not quite sure what rationale Islington employed in returning to the status quo after a whole eleven months with the road closed, but I wonder if they accounted for the likelihood of near-fatal collisions like this one, and their devastating consequences. Is it a price worth paying?