In the run up to my visit to Amsterdam three weeks ago, I read In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan. I always thought that my first reference of this excellent book would be in relation to my excellent trip. I was wrong.
After Amsterdam’s Three large-scale bike demonstrations in 1974, in the summers of 1975 and 1976 bike demos became annual events that drew ever bigger crowds – 3,000 participants in 1975, 4,000 in 1976. Then in June 1977, an even larger bike demo took place. Nine thousand Amsterdammers – including a great many senior citizens and families with children – rode on a route that originated on Beursplein and ended in Vondelpark. The dense procession of cyclists stretched for two thirds of a mile.
A flyer was distributed to the cyclists at the outset of the 1977 ride. The flyer outlined the planned route and also advised how to handle anyone irritated by the demonstrations “Avoid getting into a wrangle with motorists. You don’t need to come to blows with loudmouths. There are already enough [traffic] casualties. Maybe, due to your dignified demeanour, they’ll join us next time – on a bike”. A number of obstructed motorists did bombard the cyclists with abuse. “Bastards!” shouted one motorist. “Tonight you’ll be asking for a ride again!”
A feature of the 1977 demo was a carefully coordinated stop on Museumplein, where thousands of cyclists lay down with their bikes to commemorate the 3,000 traffic fatalities suffered annually in Holland. After a moment of silence and a short eulogy, the cyclists then arose and rang thousands of bicycle bells. Then they “cycled for their lives” to the closing festivities in Vondelpark”
The above image is from the events just described and in the sublime film ‘How the Dutch got their Cycle Paths’ by Mark Wagenbuur. I had the pleasure of riding through the newly reopened bicycle path through the newly refurbished Rijksmuseum with my not so reopened or refurbished host, Marc van Woudenberg. I was already familiar with the post war years of struggle in Amsterdam and the Netherlands generally and as I coasted through this glorious piece of infrastructure looking out across Museumplein it felt deeply fulfilling that such protest and anger were not in vain. However, my experiences will have to wait.
Let’s fast forward to London, November 2013.
To say it had been a macabre month for the nations capital city would be reckless understatement. In the space of two weeks, six cyclists had lost their lives taking the death toll in London up to 14.
Although an initial vigil was held at Bow Roundabout organised by London Cycling Campaign following yet another tragedy involving a left turning HGV, sadly events even overtook that resulting in a ‘Die-In’ vigil, organised outside the headquarters of TfL by a new ‘grass roots’ campaign called Stop the Killing of Cyclists, I assume based on Stop de Kindermoord (‘Stop the Child Murders’). By the way, here is an excellent BBC World Service Podcast on how the 1973 Dutch grassroots movement got underway.
The demands [in London] are as follows:
1.The Mayor and Boroughs to spend at least the same per person on cycling provision as The Netherlands (the UK spends about £1.25 per person – the Netherlands spends about £33 per person)
2. A ban on vehicles whose drivers cannot see adjacent road-users.
3. A full London-wide segregated network to be built urgently
It got some coverage from news channels and all involved thought it to be a great success. The picture above was actually taken from the point of view of the TfL offices so it much have looked quite dramatic.
All stirring stuff.
I was therefore a little bit taken unawares when Mikael Colville-Andersen, leading bicycle and urbanism advocate, writer of Copenhagenize and direct influence for me founding the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain started writing the following tweets:
Lack of intelligent, modern advocacy is just another reason why London and UK languish in the basement of the urban cycling league.
8:03pm · 29 Nov 13
In the UK today, a couple thousand people convinced tens of thousands of their fellow citizens never to ride a bicycle again. Well done.
9:36pm · 29 Nov 13
Sub-cultural peacocking – based on protest styles hailing from early 70s – are hopefully ineffective in 2013.
9:41pm · 29 Nov 13
If you look at the two photos, you will notice that, in the Amsterdam picture, not one of the protesters is wearing a helmet, or anything reflective – just ordinary people wanting to get around by bicycle, highlighting the carnage occurring on Dutch roads affecting every citizen at the time whether they rode a bicycle or not as well as taking a stand against the city of Amsterdam being smashed up further to make more space for the motor car.
The more recent photo, of London, tells a different story. Tragic, emotive and thought provoking but for different reasons – it shows what happens when private and commercial motor vehicle dependence continues for a further 40 years unchecked at the expense of everything else from transport equality to social inclusion to health. Those that remain within the Church of Cycling become increasingly radicalised from the rest of society – a society that thinks nothing is wrong in terms of safety because the UK has an alright road safety record from the inside of a motor car and would even see cyclist and pedestrian injury and death as collateral damage in the name of ‘progress’. To the vast majority outside the world of cycle campaigning, the scene outside the TfL headquarters was of an out group, many in the expected uniform of hi visibility jackets, helmets and lycra easily picked out by car headlamp or a journalists camera flash. That picture of London allows cycling commissioners such as Andrew Gilligan to dismiss the protesters and make them look as radical as, say for example, the Republican Tea Party.
But that doesn’t make Andrew Gilligan right, and I have to respectfully agree to disagree with Mikael Colville-Andersen. In fact, had I still been living in London, I would have attended the event myself.
This is because we come onto yet another battleground in the wonderful, trippy wasteland of British bicycle advocacy – ‘Dangerising’. Apparently, by drawing attention to the fact that six people have died in two weeks and the death toll has already matched the previous year, it is in some way going to make cycling look dangerous, and put people off. It also, apparently, undermines the hard work that Boris Johnson, Andrew Gilligan and TfL have been putting in. Statistically, it may be a safe activity, but that only paints part of the picture.
I used to cycle to work every day in my younger years from Morden in deepest, darkest South London, to Camden Town – to be more precise, less than 50 metres from where a young woman faced ‘life changing’ injuries after being hit by an HGV last October. My commute took in such gems as the multi-lane gyratory at Vauxhall Cross. At the time it was an adventure. But I was a fit[ish], confident[ish] young male. Now I am a father and watching the age of 40 fade as it waves me slowly goodbye from the harbour edge, the thought of carrying out the same commute fills me with horror. The thought of carrying out the same ride with my 3 and a half year old boy doesn’t fill me with anything because it simply won’t happen. When I unfold my Brompton at Victoria Station to head to a meeting, I do it with the same look these days as a pensioner being cajoled onto a ride at Alton Towers, being told to stop whining as it won’t last long and might be quite fun. The facilities provided for cycling in London [and the rest of the UK] are the infrastructure equivalent of the riddles and jokes one finds in a box of Christmas crackers. Whenever I see tourists on Boris Bikes at Parliament Square and Embankment (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less), they are always on the pavement and for good reason. If they wanted the level of subjective danger presented to them on the roads, they might as well have holidayed in Syria. This is because any plans for the future are anchored to the past - the incessant need to push as much motorised traffic through a given area under the deluded belief that it means prosperity and individuality.
The people that participated in the Die-In last Friday probably had better things to do on a Friday evening and there are better ways of campaigning but it has all come down to this. Desperate times call for desperate measures. If many were wearing cycle clothing and body armour with all the reflective bits, it is because the prevailing conditions have made them do so. These are people that have had to look grateful for every poorly designed, underfunded and compromised facility that has been set before them, and then take the flak when they ignore them. 40 years of neglect at the transport table has resulted in that photograph taken from the TfL offices. Most importantly, the remainder of people in the UK regard cycling as a dangerous activity regardless of protests like this.
If things are ever going to move forward, there needs to be greater liaison with elderly groups, disabled groups, pedestrian groups and even, dare I say it, motoring groups. They need to be shown examples of what does work, and why. This goes way beyond ‘space for cycling’ but creating more liveable neighbourhoods and quality networks for all. Otherwise bicycle advocacy will continue to be framed and then discarded with ease.
My last post argues in favour of the potential benefits from traffic policing, but that – unlike the apparent bias underlying Operation Safeway – it needs to be done differently. The key point is to prioritise law and rule breaking done by those with greater potential to endanger other road users. Otherwise the bias, which is not so much against law breaking cyclists as in favour of law and rule breaking motorists, will continue. So here are some ideas:
Some of these areas are related specifically to cycling, but others have a more general relevance – which should make them more attractive. Some are referring specifically to law breaking, whereas others refer to infringements of the Highway Code only – although this can be mentioned in the kind of roadside talks the MPS has been having with cyclists about issues such as hi-vis wearing which are not legal requirements.
According to Baroness Jenny Jones MLA: “The Met now take over 40,000 uninsured vehicles off the road every year, but a 2008 estimate by the vehicle insurers body, thought there were 400,000 uninsured vehicles in London alone. “
“By 2011, around 68 people were still being injured or killed every week in collisions involving hit and runs.(failing to stop/report:RD) One of my big concerns about hit and runs is the way that it disproportionately impacts on cyclists and pedestrians. In 2010, cyclists accounted for nearly a fifth of casualties arising from hit and runs even though they account for only 2% of trips on our roads.”
A crack down using ANPR technology could push this a lot further and be popular among motorists who don’t like being hit by uninsured drivers. A crack down would also lead to more revenue from an increase in payment of Vehicle Excise Duty which would justify extra policing in this area.
On the downside, this is just dealing with an extreme minority an taking attention away from the majority responsible for most driver law and rule breaking. It can also back up the common prejudice that third party insurance paid by motorists (at least at 100%) is fulfilling a responsibility rather than insuring against responsibility.2. Other extreme bad behaviours
Motorists who can’t see where they are going (recently one in three drivers in Poole failed an eyesight test) ; drive under the influence of drugs and drink; have Alzheimer’s or other debilitating medical conditions; while banned etc., etc.
The same proviso as in 1 above applies – these are just iceberg tips of illegal driving. But maybe the Police would get more respect if, for example, they tackle drivers who can’t see before advising cyclists (and presumably pedestrians) to wear hi-vis without any legal or evidence base.
There are issues about how to identify offenders, but my experience is that they are revealed during routine legally justified stops by officers. And if there are problems in locating such individuals, they need to be resolved.3. Lorries
On the first day of the operation 20 HGVs were stopped and 60 offences were found to be committed, including vehicles in dangerous condition and drivers who had been working too long. About 30,000 HGVs are in use in London every day. Is it reasonable to suggest that a few hundred or so are stopped every day? Every time there are crack downs on illegal HGVs high levels of infractions seem to be revealed. The threat of being delayed, let alone losing drivers, should focus the minds of operators. Perhaps this is why the prospect of law enforcement in this area turns some of them into victim-blamers.4 . Speeding
I won’t give a specific reference here. Suffice it to say that approximately 60% of drivers admit to breaking sped limits, and the proportions exceeding 30 mph vary from about 35% to 50% at the times when lack of congestion allows them to break this law. With 20 mph areas becoming prevalent in London, and with constant debate with the MPS about gaining compliance, this is surely a key area where resources could be deployed – for the benefit of pedestrians as well as cyclists5. Close proximity issues
Here is a bit of evidence. If you read the 2008 Cycle Safety Action Plan you can see this kind of evidence.
Pages16-17: Conflict type 2: Close proximity collision between cyclist and vehicle Collisions arising from a close proximity collision between cyclist and vehicle caused 37% (121) of serious injuries and 47% (7) of deaths of cyclists. all seven of the fatalities involved a goods vehicle. This category includes the following manoeuvres (listed by frequency of cyclist killed or seriously injured):
o Cycle and other vehicle travelling alongside each other (12%)
o Other vehicle turns left across the path of cycle (9%)
o Other vehicle changes lane to the left across the path of cycle (3%)
o Cycle and other vehicle collide when both turning left (2%)
o Other vehicle starts off or pulls out into path of bicycle (2%)
o Other vehicle changes lane to right across path of cycle (1%)
o Cycle performs overtaking manoeuvre into path of right turning vehicle (1%)
o Cycle changes lane to right/left across path of other vehicle (<1% each)
This analysis reveals one of the key complaints from cyclists: drivers constantly overtake without giving enough room. Some of this can be solved by segregation, but since this is not going to be on most roads in London ( and would take a while to install anyway even if desired) there is clearly scope for addressing the issue.
“give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car (see Rules 211 to 213 and 214 to 215).”. Lengthy discussion with MPS officers indicate that there are problems in addressing this without specific distances given, but there is apparently precedent with regard to cyclist “wobble-room” being required when overtaking.
Is it really too much to expect some sort of police activity in this key area when officers have been giving (nmisguided) advice to cyclists on helmets etc. in Operation Safeway?
To be addressed by highway engineering and good quality cycle training: but opening doors without looking will still be a rule breaking threat to motorcyclists and cyclists. Section 42 of Road Traffic Act 1988 states that a person who fails to comply with the Regulations is guilty of an offence. In this case, the Regulations are Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, IS 1986 No.1078, reg 105, “No person shall open or cause or permit to be opened any door of a motor vehicle or trailer on a road so as to cause injury or danger to any person”.7. Failing to obey ATS (Red Light Jumping)
Not just cyclists. See the interesting discussion on motorists doing this here.8. Post collision investigation
Our colleagues in RoadPeace and the CTC have long argued that there is a serious problem with inadequate post-collision investigation involving injured cyclists and pedestrians.9. Car Crashes?
Here’s a radical one. How about investigating car crashes? One or more drivers is likely to have been breaking rules or laws in order to crash. The vast majority of collisions do not require reporting to the police because they do not involve reported injury – but that doesn’t mean that they don’t involve rule or law infractions. More activity here?10. Do not restrict policing to locations where collisions have occurred.
Proper assessments of danger are going to involve looking at places where people may have not been hurt or killed. By restricting policing to in this case to areas where they have a large proportion of endangering behaviour is missed out. This may be partly why a high proportion of the Fixed Penalty Notices (some 35%) have been given to cyclists.
Obviously speeding motorists are not going to be caught at heavily congested locations in inner London in the rush hour. That doesn’t mean that speeding is not a general safety problem. Indeed it may well be a particular problem for cyclists in 20 mph zones or in outer London where cycling levels are low. Just because there are few cyclists out there – often precisely because of their perceptions of danger from motorists – does not mean that this and other forms of motorist law- breaking are not problems.11. Not from a fixed position.
Use bodies like the (enlarged and changed) Cycle Task Force more to police from within the traffic.12. More of it. A lot more.
As Baroness Jones has pointed out, traffic policing has been massively diminished over the last couple of decades. It needs to have its levels reinstated – but it has to be targeted in the right areas.Institutionalised discrimination?
From the unfortunate comments by the Metropolitan Police commissioner and other cases the approach of the MPS to traffic policing has – correctly in my view – not met with a good response from cyclists. Nor has it from those of us concerned with the wellbeing of cyclists and pedestrians as part of a programme of having safe roads for all in London.
The term “institutionalised discrimination” has been used. For those of us who have been brought up in local authorities and elsewhere in public service, the equal opportunities approaches used to address discrimination in so many areas do, I believe, have relevance here.
The point is precisely that this is not about personal malevolence or bigotry. Indeed, discussing these issues in terms of background beliefs should actually assist our discussions with the police into how a productive approach to traffic policing can be developed.
The police services have made absolutely fundamental changes in their attitudes to women, disability etc. over the last couple of decades. Many police officers are passionately committed towards reducing danger at source. Is it too much to ask that the MPS (and other forces) accept that they may have a culture which impedes progress by being improperly biased away from dealing with rule and law breaking behaviour which endangers others?
Hopefully this piece can help us all towards a more satisfactory traffic policing programme.
After a spate of cyclist deaths in London, cyclist safety is on the national agenda. For some, getting cyclist safety in the public eye is inherently good – we’re not so sure. The key issue is, after all, to do the right things for the safety of cyclists. Last week we were told that there is a “new zero-tolerance approach” with a “huge escalation” in policing involving “stopping lorries and cars and where there is unsafe driving they will be taken off the road.”
But is a blitz on unsafe driving – under what is called “Operation Safeway” in London – actually happening? We don’t think so. So what exactly is going on?Some Background: Andrew Gilligan’s response to the spate of cyclist deaths
Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan has responded to the reaction to the spate of cyclist deaths in London in an intelligent and well-argued piece :
(a) Fundamental re-engineering of HGVs. There should be no gaps between the body of the vehicle and the ground that pedestrians or cyclists can easily be pulled into. This is particularly relevant for construction lorries, industrial equipment allowed onto streets full of pedestrians and cyclists in a way no other type of device would be. Even more fundamental, the drivers should be able to detect any pedestrians or cyclists close to their vehicle, on all sides.
(b) Law enforcement with regard to numerous types of law infringement.
(c) Appropriate sentencing, using black boxes on vehicles and based on deterring rule- and law-breaking drivers and freight operators.
(d) Highway engineering
are of more importance, both for cyclists and – don’t forget – pedestrians:
2. The spate of deaths does not necessarily indicate that conditions in London have got worse. “In the first half of 2013, only three cyclists died in London – one every two months. In the recent spate, it was every two days. Are these same streets 30 times more dangerous than just a few months ago?” Exactly.
3. The rate of reported Serious Injuries is no worse than ten years ago. And SIs are a more reliable statistical indicator in London than deaths. That rate does appear to have got worse over the last few years, but it’s too early to say if this is a short- or long-term trend.
4. “The chief executive of the London Cycling Campaign wrote last week: “We want to know when the dying will stop.” Well, we can, and we do, promise to improve safety. But we cannot, and do not, promise to eliminate cyclist deaths. If that is the test the cycling lobby sets us, we, and every large city on Earth, will fail.” Good point. It is vital to measure cycling safety in a way which is different from the present convention of totting up the total number of cycling deaths. Gilligan is absolutely correct to argue for a careful way of discussing cyclist safety. Working out alternative measures of safety has been a key commitment of RDRF since our inception.
5. “I fear the furore is aiding those who say we shouldn’t encourage cycling. I’m afraid it’s scaring cyclists away.” Unlike some of the new wave of bloggers, I disagree that highlighting each incident will help us move towards reducing danger. These bursts of attention can easily be reduced to victim-blaming and false “solutions” to the problems of the safety of cyclists and others on the road.
6. “…we can’t simply slap in panic changes”. Exactly. Although this does rather contradict what seems to be happening with the policing “blitz”. (And by the way, what is supposed to “make cyclists safer at the expense of other people’s safety.”?)Some more background: Unfortunate comments by the Mayor
For some of the bloggers, the problem is essentially one of the Mayor not installing the right infrastructure, or not doing it quickly enough – points which Gilligan has made a reasoned response to.
What I think we need to look at now – with London Cycling Campaign organising a mass “die–in” today - at the end of the first week of “Operation Safeway”, is to ask some questions about the attitudes underlying traffic policing. Whatever kind of infrastructure is in place for cyclists, there will still be danger on the roads for them and other road users. The Police are a key part of the apparatus charged with responsibility for safety on the road. Their approach – and understanding what it is and how it links in with the rest of the “road safety” establishment – is absolutely key to achieving safe roads for all.
Traffic policing: Are we all in it together?
After the latest apparent problem with London’s traffic policing (a quota supposedly being set for arresting errant cyclists) British Cycling policy advisor, Chris Boardman, said that the police should be concentrating their efforts on larger vehicles.
“If you don’t have the resources to prosecute everyone who breaks the law, then it makes sense to start with the people who can cause the most harm and work down from there.”
“The bigger and heavier the vehicle you have got, the more damage you are going to do. I certainly would not let law-breaking cyclists off the hook, but they wouldn’t be top of my list.”
That pretty much sums up what a civilised approach to traffic law enforcement should be. But that is not what it has been. As we have continually pointed out , the approach taken has been to attempt to neutralise the difference between endangering others and being endangered. As with numerous “Share the Road” campaigns, there is a tendency to slot into appeasing the prejudices of those who are endangering cyclists and others. For a good current example and critique go here:Evidence
A crucial theme in “road safety” ideology is that programmes – such as law enforcement – are based on evidence. Let’s have a look at what has been happening so far in London:
According to Chief-Superintendent Glyn Jones, who is in charge of the current operation, “If you’re going to cycle in London, wear a helmet, wear high-vis, make sure your bike has the right lights, don’t wear headphones and obey the rules of the road. That way you will be a lot safer.”
The first four of these recommendations either have no or minimal evidence to back up the assertion that you will be “safer” (only one is required by law) as follows:
Headphones: no research has been done;
Lights: legally required but – according to analysis of STATS 19 reporting forms, the last annual Borough reports I looked at had the relevant code (506) as implicated in under 1% of cyclist casualties. (STATS 19 forms in London are completed by officers the Metropolitan Police).
“Rules of the road” is vague, and presumably refers to red light running – although even this seems to be implicated in a small minority of cyclist casualties. There is evidence which was gathered for the Mayor’s Cycle Safety Action Plan – which in a former role I had a part in contributing to – and it is not referred to as a base for policing in the “blitz” we are supposed to be having. There is no reference to acquiring confidence from assertiveness learned in good quality cycle training: perhaps the Met is not interested in having more of such people on the road?But should we be surprised?
If we were to follow such evidence we would be referring mainly to what motorists get up to, and risk offending the sensibilities of the Great British Motorists (or at least what these are feared to be – the reality may indicate that law enforcement would go down quite well with many motorists). Discussing this matter with traffic police officers I have been told that, as the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Robert Mark said: “Policing must be by consent” – which in this context means going along with the prejudices of those who are far more likely to endanger others than cyclists are, namely ordinary motorists.
And it is ordinary motorists who are committing most of the rule and law infractions on the road. While an extreme minority of rogue law-breakers are far worse than the average motorist, and far more likely to be involved in collisions, they are just that – a minority. This leaves us with a problem: as John Adams and others have argued, the nature of human risk-taking is such that there are always problems with road safety interventions unless there is a background cultural change. Actually having an effect on danger from motorists will require more than a “blitz”, however well targeted it is.
However, my suggestion is that part of getting the cultural change required could well involve law enforcement. It is just that it has to be properly targeted – at those most likely to endanger others, and for the benefit of safety for cyclists and other road users endangered by rule- and law-breaking. The next post gives some ideas as to what that policing could be.
I’ve run out of time to do the post I’d intended this week (tomorrow I travel to Bavaria to take part in what looks like a very stimulating Active Mobility workshop), so will instead simply note that a debate between David Dansky, head of training and development at Cycle Training UK, and me is today published on the Mobile Lives Forum (a site well worth checking out in its own right). David and I discuss why urban cycling matters, how it can best be encouraged, and differences in encouraging cycling between urban and suburban areas. (We were given tight word limits, which is why our responses are so brief.) On the same site there’s a video-conference with the sociologist Rachel Aldred from Westminster University exploring London’s ‘bicycle revolution’, so if you feel so inclined you can get a real sociological cycling fix!
Read my discussion with David (who has consistently been among the most interested, thoughtful and respectful respondents to the (somewhat contentious) Understanding Walking and Cycling research with which I was involved) here.
I’m posting below the review of City Cycling, edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, which I wrote earlier this year for the journal World Transport Policy and Practice. It’s rather long but I hope of interest to those concerned about prospects for city cycling across the world; and the more people who read and think about, and then act upon these issues, the better.
A tricky balance has to be struck in thinking about cycling’s prospects as an ordinary mode of urban transport. On the one hand, it’s good not to be all doom-and-gloom, but to offer hope that the urban world should and could make most of its daily trips beyond walking length by bicycle. But on the other hand it’s important to emphasize that cycling as a mass mode of planetary mobility isn’t inevitable and that making it happen requires ambition, commitment and work.
Overall, this book gets that balance right. Sure, there is easy talk of ‘cycling’s renaissance’ across cities such as London, Paris and New York, talk which seems too premature, too uncritical and rather naïve. But then it is more important to show things can change, even if they are changing far too slowly, than to lose hope that cycling will ever effectively be centred in our political institutions, towns, cities, and everyday lives.
No one has done more than John Pucher and Ralph Buehler to popularise the cause and possibility of city cycling, using what is elsewhere to advocate what could be at home – in north America, but also Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Over the past decade and more, Pucher and Buehler have argued that the English-speaking world should follow the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany in becoming cycle-friendly; and they have investigated and shown how it can be done.
City Cycling continues this project in an impressive way. It is academic, drawing together an international, cross-disciplinary collection of researchers who set out what needs to change for cycling to become mainstream. But it is unquestionably advocacy too. The case for cycling has already been made but it needs making again and again, and it is made persuasively here. It is glib but true to say that if every politician, policy-maker and practitioner with any responsibility for the organisation of urban life read and acted upon this book, we could move rapidly and radically towards a socially and environmentally much brighter future.
Overall the book argues for cycling to be systematically embedded into global economy and society in the same way as driving a car has over the past half-century been systematically embedded within north American, Australian and much of European economy and society. Of course this ‘centering’ of cycling must be at the car’s expense, and here it sometimes feels like the ambition of City Cycling’s lead editor and chief contributor, Professor Pucher, is ahead of some of the book’s other contributors.
For example, there is some but on the whole too little interrogation of the role of the car’s continuing dominance – ideologically, structurally, spatially – in impeding cycling. Cycling visions, strategies and actions never take place in a vacuum; they emerge from and are shaped by the context of car domination. Much current action in the name of cycling – because it is insufficient for the job of mainstreaming cycling – therefore risks merely perpetuating cycling as a marginal mode of mobility and cyclists as a sub-cultural ‘out-group’. Minor support for cycling reproduces cycling as a minority mode, and is not good enough. Only major resource re-allocation away from the car and towards the bicycle can break cycling out from its current marginalisation at the car’s expense. The better chapters here make clear that cycling thrives in places where driving is not just ‘civilised’ but more importantly deterred.
But there is no ‘magic bullet’. City Cycling argues effectively that consistent, coherent support for cycling across all sectors of society is required in order to develop a bicycle system which makes cycling, not driving, the obvious mode of short-distance urban travel. Countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany are well advanced over north America and Australia in every important respect – from allocation of transport spending on cycling, to development of cycling infrastructure, to land use and planning rules, to driver awareness and cycling education.
Nevertheless and for good reason, issues of infrastructure loom large. It now seems evident to the point of obviousness that new city cycling cannot be produced without the provision of a dedicated network of cycling routes of a quality sufficient to appeal to everyone. Pucher and Buehler’s previous research demonstrates this as the key difference between countries with high and low levels of cycling. So whilst its message is undoubtedly broader, City Cycling’s biggest impact might be in pushing us closer to consensus (a consensus which is I think established across the scientific community, but lagging across advocacy) that the two main means of mainstreaming cycling are infrastructural; first, the taming of motorised traffic to speeds which make cycling plausible even for those (the vast majority of people) nervous about sharing space with it; and second, wherever that is not (for transient reasons of political will) done (most likely on bigger and busier roads) cycling’s separation from and prioritisation over motorised traffic.
Whilst the contrasts between cycle-friendly northern Europe and car-centric Anglophone countries might seem to cry out for strong critique of the latter, the book is unfailingly polite in tone. Given much of its intended readership needs to be persuaded rather than offended, this is probably good diplomacy. It does sometimes feel, however, that the passion which surely animates advocacy of more cycling – and which helps to explain that advocacy – has gone AWOL. So one cost of diplomacy is a certain tediousness in both description (“the Netherlands is like this, the US is like this …”) and analysis (“the Dutch prioritise cycling, but north Americans don’t …”). The book’s impetus to convince more than explain also leaves some questions unasked (“But why do the Dutch prioritise cycling, whilst north Americans don’t? What are the ideological and institutional blocks and barriers, and how might they best be overcome?”). For similarly understandable reasons the book is generally upbeat (“look how cycling is growing, and look how easy it is to grow it faster!”), yet we know this is only one side of the story. There are certainly good news stories, but let us not be blind to the fact that across most of the world levels of cycling are either negligible and static, or else quite high but rapidly declining (and in those places cycling needs rescuing, not promoting).
City Cycling belongs to an emerging shift from a paradigm of cities built for and around the car, towards one which sees cars as inappropriate and bicycles as far more appropriate vehicles for cities. There is material useful to this transition here. It’s good to see Kristin Lovejoy and Susan Handy’s exploration of cycles and cycle accessories, for example. We know that many bicycles are not really fit for the purpose of city cycling, and it’s refreshing to see that recognised.
Also good are the three chapters exploring cycling in different sized cities – the small, medium and mega. Cycling is sometimes dismissed by critics as more appropriate to smaller than to bigger cities, whose populations (they say) should travel by transit not bike. So it’s a neat bit of advocacy as well as analysis to break cities down by size, and discuss prospects and strategies for cycling at each scale.
The most fascinating glimpse into cycling is provided by the penultimate chapter exploring cycling in four ‘mega cities’, London, New York, Paris and Tokyo. The first three have seen much pro-cycling hype (and sometimes hysteria) and large increases in cycling, albeit from very low bases. In contrast cycling in Tokyo seems prey to benign neglect, yet it is by far the most successful ‘cycling mega city’, with relatively high modal share (16.5% of all trips we are told), demographically relatively evenly spread.
This chapter correspondingly begs the more detailed kind of cultural investigation which is necessarily absent from the book, but which is nonetheless well worth pursuing. One of the book’s big policy pushes is towards dedicated cycling infrastructure, something now being pursued in London, Paris and New York but not Tokyo. So that using Tokyo as a model of best practice in this chapter might almost undermine the main advocacy push of the book as a whole. (It would be a shame, but unsurprising, if the case of Tokyo were used by opponents of dedicated cycling infrastructure.)
Tokyo’s apparent ‘success’ suggests the importance of closer study of how cycling is actually practised – how do people cycle there? How fast do they tend to go? We know quite a lot about cycling policy and practice in north America, Australia and Europe, but what about cycling policies and practices elsewhere, including Japan about which it seems we know too little? Furthermore the book is silent on the two countries which arguably matter most for the future both of city cycling and our planet – China and India. This is fair enough – City Cycling makes no claims to inclusivity or universality. But the more global perspective which the case of Tokyo provokes raises potentially disturbing questions; ‘just what is cycling?’; and ‘what do we want it to become?’.
City Cycling’s desire to persuade more than explain is both its biggest strength and its greatest shortcoming. Thus my hope is that it’ll be read more by people who need persuading of the case for cycling than those seeking to understand it. But even were that to be the case, I have some concerns.
In its rush to show how cycling’s promotion is compatible with a range of bureaucratic policies, and how inserting cycling effectively into the city is mainly about technocratic expertise and practice, there’s an evacuation of politics from City Cycling. There are two elements to this evacuation of the political: first, it prevents the book asking some tough questions (to do with continuing neo-liberal capitalism) about why cycling continues to be so marginalised despite it making so much sense; and second, what disappears from most chapters is what I would assume is the authors’ beliefs in the bicycle’s capacity to make the world a better place
To finish let’s look briefly at each of these in turn.
First, if cycling is so good, why aren’t we all cycling yet? If the arguments are so strong and persuasive, what’s stopping us? Answering such questions requires political, economic, social and cultural analyses both of continuing car (and oil) dependency and of cycling’s continuing marginality. Across the USA, Australia and UK it remains the case that the advocacy of cycling is tolerated, and demands for greater investments in cycling are granted, only so long as they don’t threaten the car’s centrality to everyday life and/or they fit with emergent neo-liberal discourses around livable (for the white, affluent, middle-classes) cities. So only outrageous, extraordinary demands for cycling – demands which test the limits of the car system – have hope of breaking us (even cycling’s advocates) out of unwittingly reproducing cycling’s marginality. Until we learn how to do this, mass city cycling – cycling as the main vehicular means of urban transport – remains a pipe-dream.
Second, should cycling promotion become a technocratic exercise, simply about inserting more cycling into the city-as-it-is for the latest, most fashionable set of policy reasons? Is cycling’s main contribution to make our bodies, businesses, streets and economies more ‘effective’ and efficient? Is more cycling enough, or do we want something more? I don’t know about you, but I want something more. Cycling, and thus the bicycle, is not ‘merely’ a bureaucratic and technocratic insertion into the city as it is, with all its injustices and inequalities (to do with class, gender, race, age, ability, locality and so on). Cycling, and thus the bicycle, is also potentially, at least in part, a disruption to that city, and so something which enables the city to be re-made in more socially and ecologically just ways. So demands for city cycling should not only be ridiculously bold but also unapologetically critical. Who are we encouraging to cycle? White, male, middle-aged commuters? Not good enough! What about – for example – kids, people who need to ride wider-than-average machines specifically adapted to their needs, people travelling as a group (who’ve every right to travel as sociably as people within a car)? I think people advocate for cycling because they recognise its capacity to improve the world in a strong, qualitative way; I agree; and I think that we shouldn’t sell either ourselves or cycling short.
All this is perhaps less a criticism of the book than a critique of what cycling might become if left purely to the work of books such as this. This book is important, but it’s not enough. It can form only part of a broader struggle.
City Cycling should push city cycling, and is to be very highly commended for that, but it raises more questions than it answers for future cycling research. This is no bad thing; cycling research, much like cycling advocacy, is part of the cycling system we need to establish and maintain in order to first make and then keep cycling normal.
After a week where cyclist safety in London has hit the headlines, it might seem strange to look at this issue. I was pleased to represent the RDRF at the Bow roundabout protest organised by the London Cycling Campaign addressing issues about danger to cyclists and pedestrians there.Spot the RDRF Chair at Bow roundabout protest (Photo London Cycling Campaign)
But actually the comments by the Commissioner of Transport for London on this subject – bike lights, that is – tell us a lot about the way “road safety” is thought of. Here are his comments:
“I think the interesting thing is the safety record of the Barclays cycle hire bikes is very, very good and I’ll tell you why. Because they’re big, they’re quite slow and they’ve all got lights on the front and the back and the lights flash all the time – and actually, I wish every cyclist in London had decent lights on the front and the back.”
So let’s look at the evidence:BARCLAYS HIRE BIKES
I have written before at some length about the safety record of people using these bicycles. Now, the record might not be as good as I (or Sir Peter Hendy) make out. Nevertheless, they don’t seem to have a worse record than that of other bicycles being used in London, or as bad as some feared.
The reasons, as I and others – apart from Sir Peter – have suggested are:
By contrast, Sir Peter suggests that injury and death to users is reduced because Barclays Hire Bikes:
According to the latest figures compiled by Transport for London (for 2012), about 28% of London’s casualties arise from incidents occurring during the hours of darkness, the same as in 2011. In 2010 , which one can assume was roughly similar to 2011, 22% of pedal cycle casualties occurred during hours of darkness. In other words, using the usual “road safety” conventions, collisions for cyclists are less of a problem in hors of darkness than for other road users. Now, I am not saying we should follow this convention. All the differential indicates to us is what we know already – cyclists are less likely to tarvel in hours of darkness compared to hours of light compared to other types of road user. It just suggests that there may be no reason for looking specifically at these kinds of collision in particular.
The real issue is:2. How significant is the non-use of cycle lights in collisions involving cyclists?
The best thing to do is consult the “contributory factors” as specified in the completion of STATS 19 forms by officers of the Metropolitan Police Service. As professionals know, these are limited by being the opinion of the investigating officer arriving at the scene of the incident after it has occurred. Nevertheless, it is the one source of evidence the authorities (such as Sir Peter’s transport for London) have, and in my view gives a good base – easily accessed by professionals through ACCSTATS – to inform us.
In this case, the relevant factor is number 506:
506 Not displaying lights at night or in poor visibility Poor visibility includes twilight or other poor light conditions and/or weather related conditions (e.g. rain or fog). Includes cyclists riding at night without lights as well as motor vehicle driver/riders who have failed to turn on their lights (whether intentionally or not).
This can be easily searched for, so I took a quick look (and it can be done quickly) at the last year’s Pedal Cyclist figures for the Borough I have been working for. The usual confidentiality applies, so I am keeping some of the information vague without changing any of the relevant statistical details. I can say that in a Borough with just under the average number of cycling casualties for a London Borough for 2012 (at just over 100), the total number where 506 was included as a contributory factor was – one, or under 1%. Also, the proportion of incidents occurring in hours of darkness was actually over the 22% figure quoted in section 1 above at 27%
Of course, at this low level in other years, or in other boroughs, the number might go up. I would urge colleagues working in other boroughs – or stakeholders such as the local branch of the LCC – to try to look at this figure. Again, it really does not take long to access.
But there is more to it than this. The MPS have made a commitment to include factors not just on a “tick-box” basis, but if they believe they were actually contributory. In the one case I looked at there were other factors involved which I would have through more relevant than the non-use of bicycle lights.
So:3. What is the real significance of use or non-use of bicycle lights for cyclist safety?
If the use of lights seem to be of marginal relevance to cyclist safety on the brightly lit streets of London, why is it that their non-use can arise such ire? Why are they regarded as being of such importance?
Of course, I am not suggesting that cyclists should not use lights. And there may be situations on unlit paths, particularly to alert pedestrians, where – apart from the legal requirement – they are more than advisable. All I am doing is what I have been suggesting in the last few posts (here, here , and here ) on Hi-Viz arguing that the stress on cyclists and pedestrians buying lights or Hi-Viz can act as a diversion from what needs to be done for real road safety – safety for all road users.
Safety issues are always culturally defined, essentially expressing power interests often – as with all ideology – without being aware of it. Recommendations for achieving safety on the road are often, if not always, picked out of a hat as what is thought to be “obvious”. We need to see them as not obvious at all – instead confirming the prejudices that bolster the current inequitable status quo.
At the very least we should expect that Sir Peter Hendy – probably the most important transport professional in Britain – makes his judgements based on some real evidence.