A few recent examples of dreadful cycling infrastructure design in Britain all seem to have something in common. They’ve been built in ways that we would never design a road for motor vehicles.
We wouldn’t build a road for motor vehicles that had trees seemingly at random in the middle of it.
The Hackney Cycle Superhighway Forest. Cyclist seems to be trying to work out what to do https://t.co/iRBxU54Xot
— Mark Treasure (@AsEasyAsRiding) April 4, 2016
No, we would build a road with trees… at the side. Because a road with trees in the middle of it isn’t very convenient, or safe. Nor would we install advertising display boards in the middle of a road.
— Matt Turner (@MattTurnerSheff) May 13, 2016
We wouldn’t put zig-zag barriers across a road where it meets another road; zig-zag barriers that drivers have to slalom through before they join the main road.
No – the road would just join the other road normally, and we would trust drivers to use their eyes and follow the markings on the road.
Let’s say a road has to cross another road, on a bridge. Would we put zig-zag barriers on the ramp of the bridge, to slow drivers down because, frankly, you didn’t design the bridge to be driven across at a reasonable speed?
No – we’d built the road smooth and straight, without barriers, and with an appropriate design speed. Because zig-zag barriers are inconvenient, annoying, and actually impossible to get through for some users.
When a road crosses a side road, we don’t expect drivers to cross some tactile paving, entering an ambiguous ‘shared’ area with pedestrians, that loses priority at the junction.
— Katy Holliday (@KatyHolliday) March 31, 2016
No – we design the road so that it crosses the side road with clear priority, because it’s a main road.
When a road has to change direction, would we build it with sharp, angled corners?
Why is so much cycling infra designed with ridiculously sharp angles? I see this in pics from many different places. https://t.co/r1lvYvtUMm
— The Alternative DfT (@AlternativeDfT) February 27, 2016
No – where roads have to go around corners, or have to change direction, they do so in smooth curves. Because vehicles make turns in curves.
Would we ever expect drivers to get out of their cars and walk along a pavement for a bit, because we couldn’t be bothered to create an actual joined-up route from A to B?
How does Bikeminded recommend you cycle down Kensington High Street then? It, er, says you should dismount! pic.twitter.com/yZCyplZNZS
— Alex Ingram (@nuttyxander) October 14, 2013
Would we ever build a road, or a motor vehicle lane, that simply came to an END?
No, that would be ridiculous. We don’t expect drivers to simply give up; we build lanes that go somewhere, that don’t just come to an abrupt halt.
Would we ever ban driving completely on a road if a small minority of drivers behaved in an antisocial way? Of course, we’re quite happy to do this with cycling, on the basis that inconvenience is something that ‘cyclists’ should naturally expect to put up with.
Would we cram driving and walking into the same space, either on busy routes, or through junctions?
No – we don’t build ‘shared use’ routes, or ‘Toucan crossings’ for motoring and walking, because that would be inconvenient for driving. We give motoring its own clearly distinct space, with footways for pedestrians, and separate crossings.
In all these examples, the basic design principles we would employ when designing for motoring are jettisoned. Cycling is something that can be bodged in with walking when things get too difficult, something that can be abandoned, obstructed, banned, in a way that we never contemplate with motoring.
When it comes to designing for cycling, a basic rule for discerning whether you are doing a good job is to simply ask whether you would design for motoring like that. If you wouldn’t, then what you are building is almost certainly not fit for purpose.
I’m aware that there is something of a London-centred bias in our posts. Nevertheless, what Transport for London does is of special interest to transport professionals and campaigners throughout the UK: while it is the Highway Authority for only a small minority of London’s roads, it has massive influence through its funding of Boroughs throughout London. With a dire record of (in)action on sustainable transport in the UK’s central Government, London is often where we have to look for potential progress.
So when TfL has peppered its current strategy “Safe London streets: Our approach” with references to danger reduction, and called its 2016 annual conference on March 4th “Tackling the Sources of Road Danger”, it’s time to take notice. Is TfL really moving from “road safety” towards reducing danger at source?Defining road danger
For those of us in the road danger reduction (RDR) movement, danger on the road comes from the (ab)use of motor vehicles. While there may well be obligations on pedestrians and cyclists, the source of road danger is the breaking of official rules and laws by the motorised. As well as rule/law-breaking, danger from motor traffic can also come from rule-obeying drivers: in case that seems unfair, remember that the official “road safety” industry has accommodated rule/law breaking by drivers through highway engineering (felling roadside trees, installing crash barriers; anti-skid and other highway treatments etc.) and vehicle engineering(crumple zones, roll bars, seat belts, air bags etc.).
In summary: creating “Safer Roads for All” means focusing on what drivers and motorcyclists get up to. The primary focus is protecting their potential victims from rule/law breaking, although there should be allowance for pedestrians and cyclists being able to make mistakes without being punished by injury or death. Necessary measures may involve highway or vehicle engineering, or law enforcement (backed up by education and publicity if necessary). Essentially we require a culture where safety on the road is discussed in terms of intolerance of endangering others, as part of a sustainable transport policy.
TfL’s definition of road danger.
TfL refer to “the five main sources of road danger”.
It is difficult to deny that these are driver behaviours which should be tackled. They are indeed examples of road danger, and tackling them would indeed be tackling danger at source. But, at the risk of appearing nit-picking, it is worth examining these as the specific priorities TfL has set itself. So:
Instead, “failure to comply with the laws of the roads” is restricted to cameras for red light offences, unsafe HGVs, and continuation of Operation Safeway – about which we have voiced our concerns here and in other posts.
Some problems What’s the problem? Measuring danger.
So what stops TfL from going for a full-blown RDR approach? How we actually measure danger is a key difference between Road Danger Reduction and traditional “Road Safety”. So far TfL is still basically restricting itself to working back from collisions. The question of how pedestrians and cyclists may avoid places precisely because of the levels of danger presented there is therefore missed out. We have discussed the need to measure danger differently, and would expect TfL to do more than just monitor KSIs or prosecutions.
To be fair, some TfL officers at the 2016 conference did mention the issue of perception of danger. But while TfL still highlights overall cyclist (and pedestrian) casualties rather than using exposure-based (“rate-based”) measures and targets their approach is fundamentally flawed, as explained here.
Why do casualty numbers change?
At the 2016 annual conference, Ben Plowden of TfL claimed that “we are making huge strides…in reducing casualties”. But we believe that casualty reduction occurs for reasons which are often nothing to do with official “road safety” interventions, a point made by John Adams among others.
For example, in 2014 there were 463 cyclist KSIs in London, and in 2015 385 – a decline by no less than 17%. This could be a temporary glitch with KSIs going up again in 2016, and in terms of a long-term decline this one year comparison may not seem so noteworthy. Nevertheless, there are grounds for speculation on the reasons for this decline – what happened in 2015? It is difficult to see any official intervention as responsible – none of the Cycle Superhighways had been completed, and it is difficult to identify any other change. Again, we have to consider spontaneous behavioural change by road users, not official “road safety” interventions.
A key element of the RDR approach is motor traffic reduction. There are some TfL publications that refer to a forecast (slightly) lower modal share for cars in London, but on the whole we would suggest that TfL is not embarked on such a path. Indeed at the March4th conference there was reference to “not waging war on the motorist”, which is normally code for tolerating or increasing the use of motor vehicles (along with “reconciling different demands” etc.).
Who endangers, hurts or kills whom?
A central element of the RDR project is highlighting the difference between danger to others and being endangered. The traditional “road safety” approach blurs the distinction, whereas we emphasise the point on moral and scientific grounds. As it happens, “Safe London Streets: Our approach” does focus on behaviours endangering others, which we welcome. Nevertheless, this issue could be highlighted more. In particular, more priority should be given to the biggest source of danger – careless driving (“driving without due care and attention”), with raised levels of traffic law enforcement.
“Safe London Streets: Our approach” is a step forward for Transport for London, putting it ahead of previous documents on safety on the road, and certainly ahead of other Highway Authorities. Hopefully this can be progressed into a full-blown Road Danger Reduction approach.
There’s a very good piece by David Aaronovitch in the Times (£) on how the Hillsborough disaster shouldn’t be seen purely as a result of police incompetence and negligence, but instead as the product of wider institutional failure and prejudice.
Aaronovitch identifies three contributory factors and one aggravating one’ – the three contributory factors being crumbing infrastructure and the absence of what is now called ‘health and safety’ culture; the violent sub-culture that had emerged amongst British football fans; and, finally, prejudice against football fans in general. Here’s Aaronovitch on that prejudice –
By 1989 the English football fan was pronounced, as a breed, to be scum. A presumption of guilt was made by politicians, authorities, press and by many ordinary people. So fans — all fans — became, by default, a disliked and even pathologised group. Consequently their comfort, their conditions, their civil liberties even, were regarded as moot. They could be herded, coerced, smacked about a bit sometimes, and anything could be believed about them. And then, when the bodies came to be identified, it was discovered that they were just people after all. Dads, daughters, lovers, sons.
Perhaps I’m too prone to reading a particular kind of parallel into everything I read, but this is, of course, highly reminiscent of the way ‘cyclists’ are presented in everyday British discourse – a ‘disliked and even pathologised group’ (check); subject to presumptions of guilt (check); their comfort and conditions regarded as moot (check); anything could be believed about them (check); and of course the appalling realisation that the victims weren’t ‘cyclists’ after all, but ordinary human beings.
Department for Transport research has captured these attitudes amongst the general public –
… a stereotype of cyclists in general does appear to exist among [other road users]. This stereotype is characterised by:
• serious failures of attitude, including a generalised disregard for the law and a more speciﬁc lack of concern for the needs of other drivers; and
• serious failures of competence and knowledge of the rules of the road.
This stereotype of cyclists is also linked to the fact that cyclists do not need to undertake training, are unlicensed and uninsured, and do not pay road taxes (at least not by virtue of the fact that they cycle).
Lawbreaking; scrounging; ‘they’ all dress the same and act the same; ‘they’ are self-righteous, and look down at you; and so on. I’m sure don’t need to run through all the clichés and stereotypes, the ones that are so prevalent cycle campaigners have wisely chosen to avoid even using the word ‘cyclist’ because of the negative connotations it carries. These attitudes and opinions are then used to legitimise claims that ‘cyclists’ don’t deserve any kind of ‘special treatment’ – i.e. cycling infrastructure – that would reduce risk of serious injury or death. The comfort and conditions of ‘cyclists’ regarded as moot.
The most recent (and typically appalling) example of this kind of stigmatisation appeared this week on the BBC, when Janet Street Porter was given a free rein to spew a stream of stereotypes. We are told that
cyclists breeze through the city with little regard for anyone else
why should cyclists get preferential treatment? What about the very young, the elderly, and the disabled?
The clear assumption here being that ‘cyclists’ aren’t like ordinary people; rather, a subset of society who stand in opposition to the most vulnerable.
Riding a bike is subject to few rules, and many London cyclists can’t even stick to those.
‘A pathologised group’. (Of course, this is in the same week that the CEO of Ryanair has said that people cycling should be taken out and shot.)
This kind of rhetoric poisons the well of public discourse to such an extent that it is contributing to lethal outcomes, just in the way the demonising of football fans as ‘hooligans’ partially contributed to disasters like Hillsborough. Just as ‘hooligans’ don’t deserve to be treated properly, with due concern for the safety, so ‘cyclists’ don’t deserve to be insulated from danger. To take only one example, witness a charming commenter who has ‘no sympathy’ for a 70 year old man left for dead, apparently because ‘they’ (and it’s always ‘they’) ‘get a kick’ riding far out from the edge. Of course.
Naturally, the sources of danger presented to ‘cyclists’ and ‘hooligans’ are very different, but the logic is identical. Just as ‘hooligans’ could be pushed around, squeezed through narrow gates, crammed onto the terraces, so ‘cyclists’ should get on the pavement, get on the road, get out of ‘our’ way, and frankly just disappear. Why on earth should ‘they’ get their own space?
And when the bodies appear, it turns out the people who are killed aren’t ‘hooligans’, or ‘cyclists’, but fathers, sons, mothers, daughters.
Just people. Not ‘hooligans’.
Someone cycling. Not a ‘cyclist’.
But attempts to stop ‘cyclists’ from being injured or killed collide, time and again, with the pervasive stereotype that ‘they’ are lawbreakers, that ‘they’ are dangerous, that designs to keep ‘them’ safe will be at the expense of ‘us’. Take the absurdity of an NHS trust – an NHS trust – launching a petition against cycling infrastructure on Westminster Bridge, apparently on the basis of a belief that ‘cyclists’ will pose a risk to the safety ‘vulnerable road users’.
The safety of ‘cyclists’ themselves plainly isn’t a consideration here; as far as Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust is concerned, anyone cycling, young or old, disabled or able-bodied, will just have to lump it on the road, because a failure to provide bus stop bypasses on Westminster bridge means people cycling mixing with heavy motor traffic. People cycling like this gentleman –
Or this lady –
Or this couple.
Concern for the safety and comfort of ordinary people is jettisoned as soon as they start cycling, because they’ve become ‘cyclists’, a pathologised group, pathologised in precisely the same way ordinary football fans became ‘hooligans’.
It’s deeply, deeply damaging, and it needs to stop.
Risk, most dictionaries agree, involves exposure to the possibility of loss or injury. Perceptions of this possibility are embedded in culture and vary enormously over space and time. One frequently encounters the contention that it is important to distinguish between “real”, “actual”, “objective” risks and those that are merely “perceived”. But all risk is perceived. Risk is a word that refers to the future, and the future exists only in the imagination. And the imagination is a product of culture.
Opening paragraph of Chapter 7 of Routledge Handbook of Risk Studies – click here for the complete chapter
If you’re a regular reader of this site and well versed in the need for a sustainable transport policy based on reducing the car-centred status quo, you won’t necessarily gain much from reading this book. But for most people – and particularly the politicians supposedly representing them – who are not, this book is a timely and concise reminder of the main problems, and what is needed as an alternative.Where John Whitelegg’s “Mobility” is more of an in depth and general critique of the cult of going further and faster for the sake of it, Wolmar’s book focuses on the UK.
Wolmar concisely critiques the road-building dogma of decades of UK transport policy – although, as he puts it, this is more a default position than an actual thought-through policy. He refers to the famous quote by Nicholas Ridley as encapsulating the road building philosophy:
“ The private motorist…wants the chance to live a life that gives him (sic) a new dimension of freedom – freedom to go where he wants, when he wants, and for as long as he wants.”
To which one might add “and how he wants”, but otherwise how much has changed since the 1970s? Wolmar traces problems back to Buchanan in an uncompromising analysis of Traffic in Towns and the doctrine of “predict and provide”.
There is a neat review of technological fixes as supposed solutions to transport problems: Wolmar makes the basic point against technological determinism that :
“The starting point…must be to ask: if technology is the answer, what is the question? What are we trying to achieve? What, therefore, are the major transport problems that technology could and should be addressing?”
Indeed. Information technology can reduce the perceived need to travel to meetings, but encourage it by increasing connectivity.
I have a few differences of opinion with Wolmar. I think cost-benefit analysis is more problematic in the assessment of disbenefits than he suggests, and I think he lets John Prescott off too lightly. And on a minor point, the 1930s cycle tracks on the A4 were not “excellent”. But his main thrust is spot-on: placing the onus on politicians to get it right and concentrate on access rather than mobility:
“Any attempt at transformation needs to start with a recognition of our failings and a willingness to address them, as well as a key cultural change. That is probably the hardest bit.”
Again, indeed. Wolmar urges three principles to take us forward: firstly, we have to state what we think transport policy should be about. Secondly, we require demand management – for him this is essentially road user (motorist) charging and “soft measures. Finally he urges governmental change linking devolution with local governmental financial independence.
Getting across to the general public the idea that transport policy has to be re-framed with a full awareness of the negative effects of mobility for its own sake – and the need to control it – is vital. Wolmar’s book is an excellent start for the general reader – and for politicians who have so far been too scared to face up to their responsibilities in this area.
There was an extraordinary report on cycling safety on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (2:49:00 onwards). I say ‘extraordinary’, because it failed to focus on any sensible solutions to the problem, and instead devoted the bulk of the report to the rantings of an HGV driver – therefore, ‘extraordinary’, from an objective perspective. But sadly not that extraordinary at all in the context of the British media’s engagement with this serious issue, which all too often plumps for a wholly inappropriate adversarial take on it, pitting user groups against one another in a transparent attempt to identify blame on side or the other.
From the outset, it was clear the focus was on antagonism, rather than on solutions that are mutually beneficial. Highlighting the proportion of HGVs involved in cycling fatalities in his introduction, Humphrys said
‘Is it time to clamp down on trucks using the capital? Or, do the drivers get a raw deal?’
Or, could it be that we have a crappy road system that pushes HGVs and people cycling into the same space, which, when combined with the poor visibility that many of these vehicles have, is a recipe for collisions which will inevitably be very serious indeed? Is this not a terrible state of affairs for both the drivers of HGVs, and for people cycling? And one best addressed not by attempting to blame individuals, but by attempting to fix the system?
That’s the sort of reporting and investigation you should expect from the BBC’s flagship news programme. That is to say, looking at the problem in a serious way, and examining how to fix it – and talking to the people who are actually coming up with solutions right now.
— Joe Dunckley (@steinsky) April 20, 2016
This is the kind of thing that Transport for London are doing, on the streets of central London, where the BBC is actually located. They are re-building roads and junctions to eliminate conflict between HGVs and people cycling altogether. There’s simply no excuse for not engaging with this – not in 2016.
But instead of that engagement, we got a lazy, simplistic, one-sided and antagonistic report, from Sima Kotecha, about ‘them’ and ‘us’, one that blamed victims, that failed to recognise that even if people make mistakes (and that includes HGV drivers) the outcome shouldn’t be death or serious injury, and that failed to critically examine any kind of solution whatsoever. Here we go.
Kotecha: In London, Mayoral candidates are fighting it out for City Hall. But on the roads, there’s another daily battle. Between lorry drivers, and cyclists.
Oh dear lord, in the second sentence, we’ve already descended to ‘battle’ and ‘war’ language. This isn’t a conflict, certainly not one that anyone wants to engage in.
Driver: He’s being a complete idiot though, isn’t he. Look. He’s just sitting here. It’s just ridiculous. What am I supposed to do mate? I can’t move this 36 foot truck around. It’s a lot easier for you to move that, isn’t it.
Kotecha: Chris Parsonage has been driving lorries and buses around the capital for more than twenty years. Today he’s delivering malt to a brewery in south London, in a truck 8 feet wide, and 11 feet tall. A couple of cyclists whizz past.
Driver: The worst ones are like this guy here, the professional cyclists. They’re the ones that have got to go as fast as they can. A tiny little vehicle like that, and they’re doing 30 mile an hour. They’ve only got to hit one little pothole, and then they’re gone. You can see here in the mirror, he could easily just go, but he’s just being a complete idiot.
Kotecha: Nine cyclists died on London’s roads last year, seven of which involved lorries. All trucks in the capital now have to be fitted with sideguards to protect cyclists from being dragged under their wheels.
Yay, sideguards. How many of the HGVs involved in those fatal collisions already had sideguards? None? All of them? Hooray for investigative reporting!
Kotecha: Several large mirrors must also be installed to give the driver a better view of cyclists and pedestrians.
Are these mirrors stopping fatalities and serious injuries from occurring? How many trucks are entering London without them? Again, no answers. Just a factoid, thrown out there, stripped of any context.
Kotecha: The Road Haulage Association argues there must be penalties for cyclists who ride irresponsibly, and don’t use cycle lanes. Chris Parsonage says, for that to happen, every bike needs to have a registration plate.
Strangely no calls for registration plates for the people on foot who are also being killed and seriously injured in large numbers in HGV collisions in the capital. But at least we get a mention of cycle lanes, albeit from the antagonistic perspective of the haulage lobby.
Driver: Yes, I think they should all have some form of visible identification on them, so when they do jump these lights, and when they do cause accidents, then they can be called in to, err, answer their own questions, rather than just ride off, and never seen again.
Kotecha: Speaking to cyclists, they say that lorry drivers are getting worse.
That’s it! Go on, poke the lorry driver. Stir the pot of antagonism.
Driver: No, I think that’s ridiculous, like, the emphasis is always put on the lorry driver all the time, and, no, you’ve been with me now for a couple of hours, and you’ll see some absolutely ridiculous things that cyclists do. But they’re never held responsible for it, because they just cycle off to wherever they’re going, and nothing can ever be done about it.
Result! ‘I heard cyclists say that you smell’. ‘No way! They smell much worse!’. Public service broadcasting, at its best.
Kotecha: The main mayoral candidates say if they’re elected, they’ll ban lorries from driving in London during rush hour. London Cycling Campaign, which is calling for better conditions for cyclists, says all lorries should have panoramic visibility, so they have no blind spots. It says installing special cameras and kit in all HGVs would be a significant step forward.
Do we get to speak to these campaigners? No, instead we’re going to talk to ‘a cyclist’ who is apparently more than happy to continue engaging in the ‘war’ and antagonism narrative of the report.
Cyclist: It feels as if it’s like a battle for a lot of cyclists.
… Oh good grief…
Cyclist: I understand it in one sense, but I don’t understand the response by battling back, with traffic.
What? How does this work? How does someone on a bike ‘battle back’ against an HGV?
Kotecha: Derren is cycling to work. Helmet, and hi-viz jacket on.
Evidently it’s important to establish to the radio audience that Derren is ‘a good cyclist’ and that therefore his opinions are worth listening to.
Cyclist: I’ve been knocked off a couple of times. But that’s in twenty years of cycling.
Kotecha: What would you say to those lorry drivers who say that you manoeuvre in and out, that you cut across them when they’re turning, so they can’t see you in their blindspot?
I’d say that sounds like a structural problem that can only be resolved by designing the roads in a better way to separate HGVs and people cycling. But I don’t think that’s the kind of response Kotecha is angling for.
Cyclist: It’s really unfortunate we all get painted with the same brush. A lot of us are responsible cyclists. You know, I’m a driver as well, so I know how difficult it is to see cyclists.
By implication, the way to stop deaths and serious injuries is more ‘personal responsibility’ from scofflaw cyclists.
Kotecha: The blame game between the two sides goes on.
Ah, my favourite! Blame game! Which side are you on? Trucks or cyclists? Who will win? Boo! Cheer!
Kotecha: But as lives continue to be lost, and more cyclists hit the roads, attracted by green issues and fitness…
‘Green issues and fitness’. A great insight into the level of engagement there.
Kotecha: … pressure mounts on the Mayoral candidates to make a difference in one of the world’s busiest cities. Here’s Chris Parsonage again.
Driver: If every cyclist was an angel and stuck to the Highway Code, and stuck to their cycle lanes, everything would be perfect, wouldn’t it. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
A charming note to finish on – if only cyclists behaved, everything would be fine, but ‘they’ don’t, so the carnage will continue.
Guess what. It’s entirely unrealistic to expect everyone to be ‘angels’. We’re humans, and we’re fallible – we’ll all make mistakes, and a sizeable minority of us will be dicks, serial lawbreakers, whether we’re on a bike, or behind the wheel of a car or an HGV.
That’s why it’s frankly pointless (as well as utterly tedious) to attempt to apportion blame on one user group or another, because we’re all people. The solution to danger on the streets isn’t some stupid ‘blame game’, trying to find out who is most responsible for the problem, but structural, a top-down approach to the way roads and streets are designed and used, that separates people from danger as much as is possible, and ensures danger is minimised where encounters do have to occur.
That’s the kind of reporting that a public service broadcaster should be engaging in, not the kind of inane drivel the Today programme audience was subjected to this morning. It can and it must do better.
The biggest barrier to cycling uptake is the physical environment. Survey after survey, study after study, shows that it is road danger – and in particular, the unwillingness to share roads with motor traffic – that prevents people from cycling. When that barrier is addressed – even on a temporary basis in the form of events like Skyrides – cycling suddenly materialises, thrives and flourishes, quite naturally.
By contrast, we should be deeply sceptical of claims that the way individuals behave or dress while cycling has any bearing on cycling uptake. That behaviour, the way people dress, and the way the current cycling demographic is skewed towards men and away from the young and the elderly, isn’t the problem, merely a symptom of the actual problem. Or as Beztweets puts it, ‘a product of the true barriers to participation, not a barrier itself‘. Sure, opponents might like to score what they think are easy points about lycra, about middle class men on bikes, about bad behaviour, and so on, but these aren’t barriers to cycling for ordinary people. The demographic we are after won’t even identify as ‘cyclists’ when they happen to use a bike for sort trips.
In any case, it’s futile to attempt to address these alleged barriers while road conditions essentially guarantee this kind of skewing, both demographic, and in clothing and behaviour. And you can’t win. Forgo ‘safety equipment’ to appear normal, and you are branded as irresponsible. Wear ‘safety equipment’ like hi-viz and helmets, and you are branded as a weirdo. The kind of cycling behaviour that’s normal in countries with high-quality cycling environments – the kind that’s alleged to change hearts and minds here – is just as easy fodder for haters as things that are conventionally moaned about, like lycra. Wearing dark clothes (also known as ‘ordinary clothes’), no helmets, no hi viz, cycling with young children, wearing headphones – just mark them on on your bingo card, alongside ‘Spandex Taliban’.
Even if – by some miracle – we could get everyone who rides a bike to behave perfectly, at all times (and that would be a genuine miracle, because people who ride bikes are human beings, and human beings are idiots) that’s still not going to make a difference, because the haters will just move on to something else. Flagging up ‘behaviour’ is simply the easiest deflection tactic to hand.
All that said, however, I do think there is a genuine marketing problem with cycling in Britain. The way cycling is represented in visualisations of road and street changes; the kinds of bikes that are sold in shops; the way it is associated with sport and exercise; the way it is presented as a hobby; the emphasis on personal responsibility as a response to hostile roads and streets; the way ‘safety equipment’ is pushed onto people – all things that are relatively easy to change, and that could make a big difference to public perception.
One of the biggest indicators that this is a serious problem is the prevalence of what I would call the ‘not everyone can cycle, cycling isn’t practical’ canard. This is the argument that cycling won’t work for ‘ordinary’ people – people who don’t want to get sweaty or wear special equipment, or ‘rubber knickers’; people who have to cycle with children; people with disabilities; people who are elderly; people who have to carry shopping, or a briefcase, or any kind of load; and so on, ad infinitum.
Nobody would make any of these kinds of arguments about walking.
These are absurd claims, and yet they are routinely made about cycling, and measures to enable cycling. Why is this? Because walking is an easy, everyday mode of transport (at least, relatively easy) that people don’t think twice about engaging in. Cycling, by contrast, appears to be complicated, strange, difficult, sporty. People who make these claims about the impracticality of cycling simply aren’t aware that cycling could work them, and that’s a failure of explanation, a failure of message, and a failure of marketing.
Of course, as I stated at the start of this piece, the main reason for this problem of perception is a road environment that limits cycling to a subset of the population, and limits people to buying faster bikes, and wearing athletic clothing, in an attempt to adapt to the conditions. Cycling very often is complicated, difficult and unpleasant, thanks to the way roads and streets are designed. But at the same time we are getting straightforward, easy things wrong, and actually reinforcing those image problems.
We need to reframe cycling as enhanced walking, or (to use a phrase others have coined already) Wheeled Pedestrianism. In other words, it’s pretty much the same as walking, but just an extension of it, a version of walking that allows you to go further, to go faster, to overcome disabilities, to carry loads, and frankly, to have more fun.
It’s straightforward and easy – you can do exactly the same things you would do if you were walking, just with the advantage of wheels.
I suspect the general public has no idea that cycling could actually be this easy; that it involves nothing more complicated than walking, once you have the right cycle. If roads and streets are designed well, as they are starting to be in London, it’s a tremendously easy, enjoyable and painless way to cover relatively large distances, distances that would be a chore (or even unthinkable) to cover on foot. It’s just about making life easier, not about virtue, or healthiness, or exercise.
Just rode from Parliament Sq to Broadway Market in 35 mins on a very very heavy old post bike. New CSH helped. No delays. Stunning evening.
— James Holloway (@JamesNonchalant) April 19, 2016
Just cycled with a work colleague to a meeting in Berkeley Sq from City. In 11 minutes. Also dodging a goose. pic.twitter.com/SBbaXHJg6x
— cyclistsinthecity (@citycyclists) March 29, 2016
This message about the essential straightforwardness and utility of cycling is not getting through to the general public. As this blog observes, perhaps the best cycling advert in recent years still manages to make cycling look niche, and a bit odd, a specialist activity that looks like hard work, requiring equipment, exertion and effort.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the car industry that manage to make bicycle adverts with the same kind of selling power as, well, car adverts.
Cycling shown as a fun, easy and painless way to get around. What’s not to like? The United States is managing to do a good job too, selling bicycles with quite overt nods to the weird image of cycling that most ordinary people are subject to.
Or take a look at this (slightly wacky) Japanese video marketing a bicycle specifically for use while wearing a kimono –
It captures the essence of transport cycling; travelling around as if you were walking, but at a faster speed. No hassle, no equipment, just the enjoyment of travelling around.
We also don’t sell bicycles that enable this kind of cycling, the kind that looks like walking – robust, everyday, upright bicycles, maintenance-free ones with mudguards and chain guards that keep your clothes neat and tidy, with built-in carrying capacity, and practical features like integrated dynamo lighting and wheel locks that make it incredibly easy to transition from walking to cycling, and back again. I regularly see this kind of thing –
And it’s so needless. The bicycle actually becomes a hindrance because it’s not practical, and yet bike shops are still full of bicycles that – like this one – simply aren’t suitable for everyday transport cycling. I appreciate that the market for practical bicycles might be tougher – they will of necessity be more expensive than your bog-standard mountain bike or hybrid – but markets can be created (that’s what advertising is for) and for these bikes to even be sold in the first place they have to be visible to the public, and that so often isn’t the case.
The way roads and streets are designed remains the primary barrier to cycling. No matter how well cycling is marketed, no matter how convincing a case we make for its essential usefulness and practicality, and how it’s just a different form of walking, people simply won’t do it if it involves struggling with a hostile environment that looks and feels (and almost certainly is) dangerous. But there are simple things we can get right, particularly the way cycling is presented and framed as a mode of transport. This certainly isn’t about asking individuals to dress differently, or to cycle differently – I think that’s fundamentally illiberal, as well as pointless. Instead it’s about the message sent out by people with power and responsibility, and by people with an audience. It’s starting to change – to take just one example, I think councils are doing a better job when int comes to visualisations, including ordinary people cycling, rather than ‘cyclists’ – but there’s an awful lot more that can be done.
Last month I was kindly escorted along Quietway 1 by Sustrans, to take a look at the route – which was still under construction in a number of places at the time.
The route runs from Waterloo to Greenwich, and is reasonably direct – although not as direct as the main roads in this area, particularly the Old Kent Road.
Quietway 1 is talked about as being one of the better examples of the Quietway programme, which has come in for a fair bit of stick, even from TfL’s Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan –
Quietways should have been quicker and easier than Superhighways and junctions to build. They are on much lower-traffic roads and involve far fewer significant physical interventions. But they have been slower and more difficult.
By next month, we will have delivered four segregated Superhighways on some of the busiest roads in London. But on the Quietways, despite more than three years’ work, no route will be complete by the time the Mayor leaves office. This is partly due to flaws in the way the programme is run and partly to differences between some boroughs and TfL/City Hall over quality.
Quietways are supposed to be direct routes running on low-traffic back streets. They are meant to include filtering (bollards or other blockages) to reduce motor vehicle rat-running where necessary; full segregation wherever a route has to use a busy main road; and safe, direct crossings where the route has to cross a busy junction, road or gyratory. This is not always happening.
Some Quietway routes (in build and proposed) represent a step-change in quality from the old London Cycle Network. But most, so far, do not.
It was an interesting experience. I’d say in terms of length, the route is about 80-90% there in terms of quality, and is one of those Quietways that Gilligan might be identifying as a ‘step change’ from the old London Cycle Network (although, notably, Quietway 1 seems to make use of some existing LCN routing). The connections are mostly good, and cycling from Waterloo to Greenwich was a placid and enjoyable experience for the most part. But it’s the remaining 10-20% that presents the problem – particularly, a handful of streets that haven’t been ‘filtered’, and where motor traffic levels are just too high for comfortable sharing of the carriageway, and also a number of junctions where careful thought is needed about how to improve the cycling experience.
Most of those streets with the high traffic levels appeared to me to be at the Waterloo end of the route. Great Suffolk Street – below – had some traffic calming that obviously wasn’t doing anything to discourage people driving through, in numbers.
It was either on this street, or a similarly busy one nearby, that we were honked at by a driver for having the temerity to cycle side by side, preventing him from overtaking. That’s not the sort of thing that should be happening on a genuine cycle route. Traffic levels just shouldn’t be this high; if they’re nice and low, side-by-side cycling is easy because drivers will be able to overtake easily too. These streets just didn’t feel like somewhere I’d be happy cycling with my partner; too much traffic, too many drivers hurrying somewhere else.
Crossing the A3 (Borough High Street), you find yourself on a street that has been filtered, and that made an immediate difference to the quality of the cycling environment. Unfortunately, while the filtering is good, the filter itself definitely isn’t, an absurd double zig-zag that was easier to bypass on the footway.
This really isn’t good enough for a quality cycling route. I have no idea why it’s still here, but evidently residents’ opinions have won out over the might of Transport for London and Southwark.
From this barrier the route jinks left onto Globe Street, which was also already filtered, but has been ‘prettified’ as part of the Quietway scheme with some paving and a central median.
It seems churlish to complain, but the new design has narrowed the usable cycling space on what was already a street that was a dead-end to motor traffic – and you could also argue that there are better uses for hard-won cycling money than paving.
The crossing of the A2 (again, already a filter in place) has been tidied up, with some angled islands that make it easier to cycle into the side roads from the main road.
You’re then onto Tabard Street, which has a curious treatment – a (contraflow) cycleway southbound (which we used) but nothing northbound, with some humps in the road.
This really was a very quiet street, at least at the time we were cycling here, so perhaps a better treatment would have been some filtering, without any need for the cycleway. Tabard Street runs directly parallel to the A2, and seems to be very quiet already, so restrictions on through traffic, while allowing two-way cycling, would have been more appropriate. There wouldn’t be any need for humps, either.
The next part of the Quietway was the best part – a series of quiet residential streets, all filtered, and all connected up with good paths.
This was an area with large amount of car parking, both on- and off-street (and presumably relatively high car use) but the streets felt safe and comfortable to cycle on.
It was a good illustration for me of how car parking doesn’t need to impact on cycle provision if the streets are filtered properly, and vice versa – car parking and car use can go hand in hand with these kinds of measures that make residential streets pleasant to cycle on.
From here we joined a new path that runs around the Millwall football ground, which was really good – well built, smooth and wide. Unfortunately, however, this will be closed on home match days (basically, to separate home and away football fans from each other) and the ‘diversion’ route seemed pretty sketchy.
This is an area with what seemed like a high percentage of HGV movements on the main roads – there are industrial units, recycling centres, and a large incinerator. Plenty of tipper trucks thundering around, and dustcarts from several London boroughs. Along one of these roads – Surrey Canal Road – we were well-separated from the carriageway on a shared path (absolutely fine, not many pedestrians here), but the junction and minor side road treatments really aren’t good enough. They’re dangerously ambiguous, especially given the type of vehicles using them (and the way they’re being driven).
There’s a crossing of a busy roundabout where it is explicit you have to give way (I think that’s correct, again, given the volume and nature of the motor traffic here), but it would really help if there was an island in the middle to simplify the crossing.
It’s too much to look in several directions at once trying to gauge when you can cross both lanes on an arm of a busy roundabout – doing one lane at a time would make things a lot easier.
At the time we cycled the route, nothing had been done at the fairly horrible junction of Surrey Canal Road and Trundleys Road. The cycle route has to get across these roads with motor traffic coming from multiple directions, to enter a park. It will be interesting to see how this problematic junction is resolved.
From this park (Folkestone Gardens), there’s another attractive cut through under the railway line to Childers Street.
But Childers Street itself – a residential street – felt like another of those roads near the Waterloo end of Quietway 1 that seemed to have people driving through, and too many of them for a comfortable cycling experience.
The other part of Quietway 1 that deserves comment is the strange crossing of Tower Bridge Road.
This is, frankly, a bit of a bodge, involving shared use footway, and people cycling being forbidden from turning right (or left, depending on which direction they are coming from) onto Tower Bridge Road from the Quietway route.
The reason for this bodging is, essentially, that the cycle crossing and the pedestrian crossing right next to it run at the same time, but are ‘separate’. You’re not allowed to cycle across a pedestrian crossing when pedestrians have a green, so that’s why the turns are banned. Meanwhile, the shared use is to get people onto the cycle crossing, which has to run ‘separate’ from Webb Street, which still has motor vehicle entry permitted.
It got me thinking about how the Dutch might resolve this kind of problem. I thought about it for a while, and realised that basically the Dutch wouldn’t get themselves into this kind of problem in the first place. They wouldn’t be trying to join up a ‘cycle route’ across a main road where the side streets don’t line up. The side streets would just be ordinary, residential side streets, and there wouldn’t be a need for a dedicated cycle crossing, because this wouldn’t be ‘a route’. People would be cycling along the parallel and much more direct main roads just to the south and the north, the A2, and the A2206, if they want to go anywhere.
So this fudge on Tower Bridge Street is actually a useful illustration of some of the fundamental problems with routing cycling along back streets in an attempt to avoid main roads. Back streets will encounter major roads, and it will often be very difficult to square the circle when a major cycle route on a minor road meets major road. The problems with implementation of Quietways might actually point to a bigger problem with the concept as a whole. A better role for this kind of programme might be to focus on addressing individual problems, or missing connections, that have been executed well on Quietway 1 – small paths between estates, tunnels under railway lines, paths around football stadiums, and so on – rather than on trying to join these connections up into a ‘route’. It might be called ‘Missing Connections’, instead of ‘Quietways’, for instance. (Or something more catchy).
The overall structure of a cycle network would then be a separate programme, consisting of developing cycling infrastructure on main roads, alongside a strategy of reducing motor traffic to acceptable levels on residential streets. Some of these streets will then organically form parts of sensible (but not ‘official’) routes that develop spontaneously. It’s something to reflect on, certainly, when we look at the differing levels of success (and ease of implementation) of the ‘Superhighways’ and ‘Quietways’ programme to date.
Letter in Telegraph, 17 April2016
Environmental groups’ failure over HS2
SIR – It is now very clear indeed that the hugely expensive HS2 project is fundamentally flawed; yet it continues to make progress towards delivery in spite of compelling evidence justifying its cancellation.
Its passage has been assisted by two important factors that are as problematic as the project itself. The first is the failure of both governmental and non-governmental supporters to change direction on the basis of evidence. The second is the dramatic transformation of so-called environmental groups.
The Campaign for Better Transport, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Greenpeace have assisted this extremely environmentally damaging project at every stage.
These groups have betrayed their members as the project will, without question, add to greenhouse gas emissions, seriously damage the countryside, destroy woodland and generate levels of noise greater than those set in World Health Organisation community noise standards.
This marks a serious decline in the legitimacy of these environmental groups. It can be seen as a huge loss in a democracy constantly struggling with the excesses of government policies that emphasise the importance of the environment but in practice contribute to its degradation.
The environmental movement has embraced the old maxim, “if you can’t beat them, join them” – and we are all the losers.
[former Board member of Transport 2000 – now the Campaign for Better Transport
Emeritus Professor, University College London [and member of the original board of directors of FoE]
Senior Fellow Emeritus, Policy Studies Institute
[independent transport planner]
The letters pages of the transport professionals’ fortnightly, Local Transport Today, have recently carried an unprecedentedly long correspondence about the statistical analysis of the effects of speed cameras. We welcome in-depth statistical analysis of “road safety” interventions such as cameras. However, our take on how results should be interpreted – and indeed, what “works” actually means in the overall context of reducing road danger over time – is different from most of the participants. Here is our contribution to – and comments on – the debate: LTT 695