There was a anair bit of discussion last week about the value – or lack of value – of promotional marketing campaigns related to cycling. On the one hand, we had the view that any kind of policy, promotional or otherwise, that purports to increase cycling levels is a good thing. On the other, we had the view that these policies are largely pointless without the kinds of conditions on the ground to enable cycling; safe, convenient, attractive and direct routes.
Those who take the former view argue that every little thing helps. Therefore every little thing is good. The phrase ‘marginal gains’ is even employed, echoing Team Sky’s strategy of improving in all areas of performance, to extract maximum benefit. By this logic, glossy promotion is a ‘marginal gain’, a boost to cycling, alongside cycleways. This view, I think, is summarised below, in the words of Carlton Reid –
Sir Dave Brailsford’s system of aggregating marginal gain is an example from cycle sport that demonstrates that great things can come from lots of little tweaks. I want brilliant, Dutch-style cycle infrastructure in the UK. I don’t want yet more ‘crap cycle lanes’. I’m not holding my breath. Nevertheless I will campaign long and hard for such infrastructure, as I have been doing for the best part of 30 years.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor was Amsterdam’s cycle infrastructure. Before we get a UK version of the wonderful Dutch National Cycling Plan there are many smaller fixes that the UK Government and local authorities could do tomorrow.
By all means aim for the big stuff, but let’s not ignore lots and lots of the little stuff. That’s why I’ve started the Twitter hashtag #nudges4cycling Some great, simple fixes have already started arriving and I’ll compile a list of these to give to the Department for Transport and other relevant Departments.
Marketing presumably being one of these ‘nudges’.
However this ‘marginal gains’ analogy is deeply flawed. Team Sky are applying the aggregation of ‘marginal gains’ while their riders are using extremely expensive Pinarello bikes, honed in wind tunnel testing, and fitted with top-of-the-range components. It makes sense to apply ‘marginal gains’ when you already have fantastic equipment.
However, it would make very little sense for Team Sky to do so if they were equipped with secondhand 1990s Halfords Apollo ‘full suspension’ mountain bikes, with flat tyres and rusty chains.
You can hire the best sports psychologists and nutritionists; you can ferry your team about in the fanciest tour buses; put them up in the most expensive hotels; manage their sleep patterns; religiously organise their training programmes; clothe them in the lightest, most aerodynamic skinsuits.
But really, if your riders are bouncing around on creaky £90 specials while the rest of the peloton vanishes over the horizon, is there any point? Indeed, it could justifiably be argued that – while the equipment your riders are forced to use is so deeply sub-optimal – employing Steve Peters to help your riders find their ‘inner chimp’ is a total waste of money.
This is, unfortunately, analogous to the role of promotion with current conditions for cycling in Britain. The equivalent of the rusty mountain bikes is the conditions we expect people to ride in; and the equivalent of Steve Peters is the promotional activity that attempts to persuade people to ride in those conditions.
The very reason cycling has such a poor image in Britain is due to these hostile conditions. It is a marginal, fringe activity precisely because so few people are willing to cycle on our roads and streets, and those that are prepared to do so choose to wear equipment that they feel – rightly or wrongly – will mitigate that danger and hostility. The image problem flows from the physical environment.
This is why marketing has failed – and will continue to fail – as a strategy to enable cycling in Britain. The conditions need to come first, then promotion needs to follow, just as you need to go out and buy the Pinarellos, before employing Steve Peters. Don’t waste your money employing sports psychologists, when your equipment is so desperately below par.
Meanwhile, marketing remains a very convenient outlet for cycle spending for those authorities who don’t wish to address the unattractive conditions for cycling on their roads. I’m thinking here particularly of Kensington and Chelsea’s Bikeminded, a glossy EU-funded promotional scheme from a borough that continues to block cycleways on its main roads.
Spending cycling money on marketing is uncontroversial, and allows many councils to pretend they’re actually doing something while failing to address the largest and most significant barrier to cycling; the unwillingness of the general public to share roadspace with motor traffic. Marketing needs to be employed when you have a product that’s actually worth selling; otherwise it amounts to polishing a turd.
Indeed, this essential point appears to have got lost in all the back-and-forth last week. Nobody is knocking the principle of marketing, any more than critics are knocking the principle of employing sports psychologists. There’s nothing wrong with either. The issue many campaigners have is one of ordering.
Just as you wouldn’t waste money on sports psychologists when your team is equipped with embarrassingly crap bikes, don’t waste money attempting to market a product you already know the public doesn’t want to buy. Develop a good one, then market that.
See also Joe Dunckley on the logic – or otherwise – of campaigning for marginal gains
5. Tile cycleway surfaces (klinkers) are not the best thing for riding on when it’s wet and autumnal. Especially not on thin racing tyres.— Paul James (@pauljames) November 4, 2014
The surfaces of the cycleways in Rotterdam are either smooth red asphalt or are made up street bricks.
Uni-directional cycleway tiled with street bricks, aka “klickers”.
Bi-directional cycleway surfaced with smooth asphalt.
The asphalt is amazing, but the bricks, when they’re uneven, or when it’s wet, then they’re “fun”. It’s a very uncertain surface.
Luckily, they’re gradually being phased out, hopefully before I end up on my arse one dark rainy night.
The website The American Conservative has published a deeply, deeply confused piece about road design, apparently inspired by the announcement the cycle ‘Superhighways’ in London will be going ahead.
The tone is set in the opening paragraphs.
toIt is perhaps the most iconic moment in urbanism: Robert Moses, the greatest power broker and central planner the American city had ever seen, squaring off against Jane Jacobs, the champion of the city’s community and author of the greatest book on urbanism ever written, over whether Jacobs’s beloved neighborhood of Greenwich Village would have one of Moses’s favored highways carved through it.
Jacobs eventually prevailed, protecting her community and signaling a shift against the city central planners who had dug up or flattened large swaths of American cities in the name of progress, urban renewal, and the automobile age. Jacobs’s victory against the urban highway is still spoken of in almost reverential tones by many committed to healthy cities and strong communities.
Until, that is, they were offered a highway for bikes.
… the effusive praise heaped on these cycle superhighways is strangely reminiscent of the rhetoric of 50 years ago used to coax cities into building the original highways urbanists so lament today.
The superficial logic here appears to be that – because highways were bad when Robert Moses attempted to drive them through Manhattan, knocking down buildings and any other structures that were in their way, any other kind of ‘highway’ must also be bad.
This is so silly it shouldn’t really merit discussion at all, but for the sake of argument let’s examine why. Moses’ highway plans involved destruction on a vast scale – it did, literally, involve flattening, along with community severance, noise, danger, sprawl, and the myriad other problems detailed in Jane Jacobs’ book.
But the ‘highways’ being planned in London don’t involve any destruction, whatsoever. They are merely a reallocation of existing road space, away from motor traffic, and towards the bicycle (and, to a lesser, extent, towards walking).
Stopping this project wouldn’t be any kind victory against ‘the highway’, because ‘the highway’ would still exist. It would be composed of four lanes of motor traffic, as it is now, instead of the proposed two or three, with more space for cycling and walking. To suggest that this kind of intervention has to be opposed by those ‘committed to healthy cities and strong communities’ on the grounds of consistency is utterly ludicrous.
Lurking behind this incoherent introduction, however, is a marginally more substantive argument – namely, that the way to get everyone to behave better, and to increase safety, is to mix everything up – to push all modes together, into the same space.
This is the broad brush argument against ‘segregation’, which makes little or no distinction between the kind of segregation employed by the motor traffic-fixated highway engineers and city planners, of the mid-20th century, and the kinds of segregation represented by London’s proposed cycle Superhighways – and indeed the Dutch and Danish national approach to urban design. (I’ve commented before on this tendency to lump in progressive attempts to separate motor traffic away from people with the ugly, hard and unpleasant designs that got people out of the way of motor traffic).
It is almost as simplistic as the argument that bicycle ‘highways’ must be bad in urban areas, because motorways in urban areas are bad. It suggests that separating walking, cycling and driving from each other is intrinsically bad, for much the same reason – because this was the philosophy of planners like Moses.
So we find the author of this American Conservative piece, Jonathan Coppage, opining that
Urbanists rightly, and often, decry [the] auto-centric legacy that yielded the streets to one mode of traffic alone. But many are also fond of their bicycle, and can’t help but be tempted by the idea of cruising along smoothly, with no cars, no pedestrians, no dangers to worry about on their commute. That is exactly what is wrong with putting highways in cities in the first place.
City streets should be in a continual conversation with the buildings surrounding them, with the people flowing in and out.
To be consistent, anyone taking this position should oppose footways, as these are, of course, a yielding of the street to ‘one mode of traffic alone’. But this isn’t what is being argued.
Instead a concurrent argument is made about ‘segregation’ being unsafe -
Segregated travel lanes make people feel comfortable by separating them. They make them feel safe. And that can make them especially dangerous… Exposure to all the dynamism around them can in fact keep them aware of their surroundings, and keep all the users of a street honest
Likewise, consistency here would involve arguing that footways make people feel safe, and that people walking should be exposed to the ‘dynamism around them’, to ‘keep them honest.’ But no. Apparently it is only bicycle traffic that doesn’t merit its own dedicated space on busy roads.
No sane author would attempt to suggest mingling pedestrians in with motor traffic on a road like the Embankment is appropriate, either on grounds of aesthetics or safety. Because it is a thunderous road carrying tens of thousands of motor vehicles a day, including coaches and lorries. Yet this is apparently the place for people on bicycles.
This is the confused world of the ‘shared space’ advocate, who insists that the ‘correct’ approach is to mix cycle traffic with motor traffic, citing ‘powerful examples’ of shared space that aren’t in the least bit shared –
London already has powerful examples of the power of “shared space” on its busy Kensington High Street, which ripped out many of the protective barriers and warning signs as an aesthetic renovation that was subsequently followed by a drop in accidents. To give bicyclists their own carve-out would be a step backwards in the revitalization of the city, not forwards.
Unfortunately Kensington High Street has footways for pedestrians, kerbs, and a highly distinct road, for motor traffic.
And despite all the bleating about keeping people ‘alert’, and ensuring they don’t drift into complacency on busy streets, there is apparently is no consideration of how attractive it is to cycle on these roads mixed in with motor traffic, not just for the tiny minority people currently willing to do so, but (more importantly) for the vast majority of people who wouldn’t dream of doing so.
The ‘vision’ – such as it is – has no conception of broadening out cycling beyond the current 1-2% share of trips in cities like London. Instead it involves using existing cyclists as a form of sacrificial lamb, in a deluded attempt to keep drivers in check by putting hazards in their way.
It’s an approach to road safety and road design completely divorced from reality.
So, one of the main argument against cycle tracks is that they place the cyclist into the “left hook zone” at junctions. A cyclist going straight on is in danger of being hit by a left turning motor as the road positioning of the cyclist can not block the path of the motor vehicle before it makes its turn unlike a cyclist in the primary position in the main carriageway can.
Cycle tracks are of course used successfully in other parts of the World, so lets look at how the Dutch solve these problems and how we can apply this learning to the UK. The devil is as always, in the details.
At junctions, between major and minor roads, when we don’t need anything beyond give way priority and we have space, we bend the cycleway away from the major roadway to create a turning space between the two.
If we’re talking about the junction between a major road and an access road or driveway, then we continue the cycleway onwards unabated along with the pavement and make the gateway to the access road be the one to yield and deviate.
Let’s say you have a road profile that looks like this, with a cycleway and a footway on each side of the street separated from the roadway by a buffer/lamp post/traffic sign/rubbish bin/whatever space:
Then when it comes to allowing access from the roadway across the cycleway and footway, this is the profile that the Dutch build:
The first thing to notice are the steep curbs that require cars to cross the cycleway and footway at a walking pace. First the curb up from the roadway onto the buffer space, secondly the curb up from the cycleway onto the footway, and finally the curb down from the footway into the access road.
Not only is the angle from the road into the gateway extremely tight, but the vertical deflection is uncomfortable at anything above walking speed. Combine these two factors together and you pretty much guarantee that motor traffic moves slowly across the cycleway and footway.
Next notice the buffer space. This is used along the length of the street for the following:
Very useful, and multi-purpose, depending on the location along the street. The rule seems to be, if there’s nothing more important, throw in some space for parking.
So as you can see, this buffer space is supremely important to the makeup of the street.
In the UK, we often place the buffer space in the centre of the road between the traffic lanes. I guess the idea is that the most dangerous type of collision is the head on crash as the impact speed is potentially twice the speed limit, so if you can separate these vehicles you can lessen the likelihood of these occurring, when in fact what you do is encourage faster moving traffic.
Last year, Stop the Killing held a protest at Elephant and Castle following the death of Abdelkhalak Lahyani, who had been killed in a collision with a left-turning HGV at the junction shown in the photograph below. Both he and the lorry were emerging from the junction at the bottom of the picture, and turning left.
The purpose of the demonstration was to illustrate that this collision need not have happened; a cycle track could have been constructed across the apex of the corner, allowing left turns to be made by people without coming anywhere near HGVs.
But the curious thing is that left turns by bike are already possible like this, at this junction – which remember is relatively new, only a few years old.
The short strip of cycle lane (or track) visible in the photograph above, which appears to end at the traffic signals, actually merges, ambiguously, into a large area of shared use, right around the corner. Of course, the only indication that this is ‘shared use’ is a small blue sign on a lamp column, as well as some tactile paving. That blue sign can just about be seen above; it’s clearer on Streetview.
This shared use ends around the corner. No cycling is allowed on the footway beyond this point. There’s a dropped kerb to allow people to rejoin the carriageway, and tactile paving, again, to denote the end of the area of shared use.
So it is entirely possible, and legal, to bypass the signals at this junction to turn left, and to avoid ‘hooking’ conflicts with HGVs.
However this is not entirely obvious to anyone waiting at the signals – the area just looks like a pavement, and not the sort of place someone should be cycling. Likewise, the entry point to the ‘shared use’ is via the short strip of cycle track on the footway; not particularly intuitive to enter, and once you remain on the carriageway, you can’t mount the kerb easily.
This could have been designed properly; cycling legally around the corner could have been an explicit part of the design for this junction, rather than a vague bodge which isn’t easy to enter and exit, and puts people walking and cycling into conflict. Perhaps something like this arrangement in the city of Gouda, which I’ve flipped to a British left hand turn –
If the Elephant and Castle junction had looked something like this, Abdelkhalak Lahyani would have been using this cycle bypass, and would not have come anywhere near the HGV that killed him. He could – of course – have used the pavement ‘bodge’, but if it doesn’t like somewhere people should be cycling, or cutting through, he – like many other people – waited at the lights, on the road, with fatal consequences.
It doesn’t make any sense to allow people cycling to behave in a way that will keep them safe, but then not make that option explicit. Why bodge it?
Fast cyclists, eh.
Whizzing around; speeding through; belting around corners; appearing out of nowhere; tearing along.
At twenty miles an hour, even. Sometimes.
Twenty miles an hour.
Hang on. Twenty miles an hour? Twenty miles an hour? Isn’t that the kind of speed society conventionally considers to be quite slow, at least when it comes to motor vehicles? Witness the frothing that presents itself any time a borough, town or city wants to lower a speed limit from 30mph to 20mph.
30mph is seen (rightly or wrongly) as a reasonable, normal urban speed; yet this is the kind of speed that ‘cyclists’ – even the fittest and most powerful – will struggle to attain under normal circumstances. Equally, 20mph for motor vehicles is seen as an acceptably slow speed, yet 20mph on the flat requires serious effort from someone cycling.
So is there really such a thing as a ‘fast cyclist’? How can it be the case that cyclists are considered ‘fast’, when they will almost always be travelling through areas dominated by motor vehicles travelling within the speed limit, yet at greater speed? (Sometimes much greater). What’s going on? Does it even make sense to refer to cyclists as ‘fast’ in this context? If cycling on the road at well under 20mph isn’t ‘too fast’, why should it be ‘too fast’ on cycle-specific infrastructure?
One of the most recent examples of the employment of ‘fast cyclists’ was in this press release from Sustrans about a new bridge in Bristol.
The project will coincide with the first installation of new lighting technology which is used in Copenhagen to encourage faster cyclists to slow their pace. The “green wave” lights will coordinate with the signals at the crossroads on Coronation Road so that cyclists flow more smoothly through the junction.
It turns out that the purpose of the lights is really just to pace people to the traffic signals (at what speed, it is not stated) rather than, specifically, to slow down ‘faster cyclists’ – so this is a poorly-phrased paragraph (and misleading about the purpose of this lighting in Copenhagen). But it fits with a general atmosphere in Britain of blaming people for cycling ‘too fast’ for a situation, attempting to slow them down, without any apparent assessment of why it makes objective sense, in urban areas, to slow down anyone cycling to a speed far below 20mph, when 20mph is the minimum speed limit for motor traffic.
What is really the issue is not speed; it’s poor design. It’s paths that are too narrow to safely accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, in the numbers that are using them. Witness the attempts to get people to ‘behave’ on the Bristol-Bath railway path – ‘anti-social’ issues that simply would not arise if the path was wide enough, and had a separate footway.
It’s poor sightlines, and pinch points, and sharp corners, that bring people into conflict, and necessitate the use of awful barriers and chicanes in an attempt to get people to moderate their speed.
Rather than designing paths to accommodate a range of cycling speeds, paths in Britain are, sadly, often designed for walking speed, and then impediments and obstacles are put in people’s way once it turns out that the natural cycling speed of most people is much higher, and consequently problematic.
It’s awful, and it’s still happening. As I type this, a brand-new walking and cycling bridge is being installed over the A24, the bypass around Horsham. It will have TWO sets of slalom zig-zag gates on the ramp.
Why is this? Simply because the bridge has not been designed properly; designed to accommodate people’s natural cycling speed. It will have a ridiculously tight, Alpe d-Huez series of mini hairpin bends at the bottom of the ramp.
This ramp has come ready-made with obstacles attached to it, to slow people down, all because it has not been designed to accommodate normal cycling speeds in the first place. It’s as simple as that.
The vast majority of the people cycling in the Netherlands will not be getting near speeds of 20mph for everyday cycling. However, a minority will be (and may exceed that speed), and the infrastructure is designed in such a way as to accommodate those higher speeds, and to mitigate potential problems. I’ve set out in a previous post how this works; designing for the bicycle as a vehicle capable of speed.
More broadly, this is the kind of design that is good for cycling regardless of the speed at which people are travelling. The corners will be smooth, with sufficiently large radii, to make turns a pleasure, rather than an inconvenience. And conflict will be avoided, even at higher speeds.
It makes cycling a pleasurable experience; there aren’t obstacles in your way, corners are not sharp, and momentum is not lost. Journeys are smooth and easy, be they on the flat, uphill, or downhill.
By contrast, cycling in Britain appears to continue being accommodated within pedestrian-specific infrastructure, and is then hobbled to reduce the speed of people cycling to walking speeds.
The problem, therefore, is not with ‘fast cyclists’, but with completely inadequate design.
Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, Michael Dugher, gave an interview with the Mirror in December, which attracted a fair bit of attention, principally because it resembles a transparent attempt to court the ‘motorist vote’ (whatever that may be) – presenting Labour as being on the side of ‘the motorist’. It included all the usual antique soundbites – ‘cash cows’, ‘war on the motorist’, and so on – as well as the miserably unambitious suggestion
If car drivers switched just one car journey a month
Switched not to walking or cycling, but to buses or coaches. Walking and cycling were entirely absent in this interview, as Caroline Russell pointed out in this excellent response piece.
But there was one detail in this piece that I confess I missed when it first appeared, and I’m grateful to Katja Leyendecker for pointing it out. Dugher argued -
When people demonise the motorist it’s offensive. Look at the huge increase in women drivers. That’s been a great thing. It’s about women’s independence and it’s about safety. Often women choose to drive when it’s dark because they feel safer.”
Now it is true that many women will opt for the car to make trips when it is dark, because they feel safer within a motor vehicle, than outside it. (Indeed, I suspect this is true for a number of men too).
But absent from this analysis is the role of government in designing, building, maintaining (and policing) environments in which people feel safe when they travel. The role of ministers like Michael Dugher. I don’t think it’s a ‘great thing’ that women who may not even want to drive are forced to do so because the streets on which they should be able to walk or cycle are socially unsafe. In fact I think that’s a pretty appalling thing.
To take an example, is it a surprise that many women might drive to and from Dorking railway station, when the pedestrian underpass beneath the A24 – connecting the station to the town – looks like this?
Is it a surprise that people might not want to cycle or walk through badly-designed underpasses like this one in Stevenage?
I’m sure there are countless examples across the towns and cities of Britain of walking and cycling routes like this – poorly-designed, barely used, not overlooked, and frankly scary. Not to mention the standard stingy walking paths between British housing developments, that almost seem an invitation to a mugging.
If people feel the need to drive because they don’t feel socially safe walking and cycling, that is a very bad thing, and certainly not something to be welcomed, especially by the people who should be responsible taking responsibility for addressing those issues. The social safety of the environments we walk and cycle in – how safe they feel to us is the responsibility of councils and government.
Social safety is recognised in the Netherlands as being an important element of whether or not people choose to walk or cycle, as this excellent post from David Hembrow explains.
For social safety:
So the walking and cycling environment in the Netherlands is designed to feel safe. ‘Attractiveness’ – which covers social safety – is one of the five main elements considered in designing cycling infrastructure. That means that cycling infrastructure is built to a high standard, to ensure that wherever people are walking and cycling about, they feel safe, regardless of the context.
That means underpasses that are open and wide.
It also means that cycle routes should be well-lit, overlooked and (perhaps most importantly) good enough to be used in sufficiently high numbers.
I’d like to think our Secretary of State for Transport would take action to address the root cause of the problem, not applaud people having to resort to a mode of transport that will often make absolutely no sense in urban areas, in order to ensure their own safety.