If you tuned into BBC Radio Gloucestershire early on Thursday morning, you might have heard the presenter discussing cycling safety.
Here’s a thought, and a suggestion, we haven’t heard before.
Something we haven’t heard before? What’s that then? Surely something fresh, thoughtful and considered on the subject of cycling as a mode of transport?
Cyclists – should you be forced to use the network of cycle paths and lanes in Gloucestershire?
Oh. Right. Not a new suggestion at all – just the same old rubbish that appears with tiresome regularity on local radio.
Eight deaths of cyclists recently, six in London, two in Bristol – a guy called Robin Carey has this thought. He’s campaigned for their use for years. He’s now challenging both his MP, Martin Horwood, and Gloucestershire Highways, to improve safety, and make the use of cycle lanes compulsory.
Wow. That’s respectful. Using deaths – deaths! - of people as a superficial basis for dragging up some local bloke’s pet peeve.
None of these recent deaths had anything to do with a failure to use cycle paths, so this is a bit like using a series of recent rapes as a trigger for asking a local man his opinions about what women are wearing, and how they should keep safe. But on we go.
[Robin Carey] says too many riders are ignoring the signs and the dedicated cycle routes, making the current system a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.
There are, of course, no signs mandating use of off-carriageway routes in the UK. As for ‘dedicated cycle routes’… well, we’re about to see the example in question. Here’s Robin Carey himself -
Landsdown Road [in Cheltenham] is very narrow there, there’s just enough space for two cars, let alone a cyclist. And then you’ve got the junction with Shelburne Road, and there’s a conflict between car and cyclist there.
One time I was coming out of Shelburne Road, turning left towards Gloucester, and nearly had a collision with a car coming the other way, because he was overtaking a cyclist.
Mr Carey turned left out of a side road, apparently without checking to see if it was appropriate to do so, and that the road was clear, without a vehicle on the side of the road he was entering. Somehow, this is the person on the bike’s fault (the overtaking driver also appears to have violated Highway Code rule 167).
This is the location.
The DJ addresses the audience.
Let me know as a motorist what you’ve seen, what you’ve observed. Do you agree? Should a cyclist stay in the lane, and actually be penalised if they come out of it? Robin says unless matters are improved, more people will be seriously hurt or killed. He’s now hoping by really getting this on the agenda, things can be improved.
Notice here that people will be ‘seriously hurt or killed’ by their temerity to come out of a cycle ‘lane’ (a generous term for what is clearly a pavement with a stripe on it) not ‘seriously hurt or killed’ by inattentive drivers. Robin Carey again -
I would like Martin Horwood to discuss with the Department for Transport the changing of the law so that the use of cycle paths where provided are compulsory. It seems to make sense, both from the taxpayers’ money point of view, and from cyclists’ point of view, and from the motorists’ point of view. I got angry because it’s not just the cyclists that get hurt, the driver… If I was involved in an accident with a cyclist who was very badly injured or killed, I get traumatised as well. I would have to live that for the rest of my life.
Yes, he really did say that.
There are clues already, but if we scoot up the road a little, we can see why the cyclist in question in this incident might not have chosen to use the ‘dedicated cycle path’, built at taxpayers’ expense.
Yes, that’s three separate signalised crossings, just to get across the junction.
Is it really any wonder he chose to use the road, even if it meant running the risk of traumatising poor Mr Carey by getting himself killed? The use of this rubbish ‘path’ ‘makes sense’ to Robin Carey, presumably only the grounds that the person on the bike would be out of his way. Sod his comfort and convenience.
This is, of course, local radio, the home of the ill-informed opinion, but BBC Radio Gloucestershire actually used this as a feature item. Mr Carey didn’t ring up spontaneously – his drivel was pre-recorded, and then used as the basis for a supposedly sensible discussion about cycling safety. It’s utter bollocks. Just a moment’s thought or reflection would establish why anyone would choose not to use a ‘dedicated cycle path’. People aren’t wilfully choosing to put themselves in harm’s way; they are making a rational choice on the basis of the relative inconvenience of using awful pedestrian-specific multiple crossings that make crossing a simple junction take several minutes. If it was good enough, they would use it automatically. People do not cycle in the road in the Netherlands where cycle facilities are provided, because those facilities are good. It’s that simple.
What is most troubling is that this is probably about par for the course for a good deal of the British media, who in the wake of a tragic series of deaths (repeat – deaths) have chosen not to inform themselves about the issues, about the causes of death and serious injury, and about how they can be prevented, but instead to carry on churning out the same patronising and hostile rubbish on the subject, and chosen to do so at a greater volume. Here’s just one other example – also on BBC local radio – documented by Kats Dekker.
Indeed, this same story in Cheltenham was also covered by the local paper, where the journalist responsible for writing it described it as a ‘hot topic’. No, I’m sorry, the ‘hot topic’ is people being seriously injured or killed, not because they refuse to cycle on pavements like a pedestrian, but because of seriously flawed road design, lax safety standards, and putting people into conflict with large and heavy vehicles. Stop crowbarring in your petty ill-informed vendettas into what should be a real debate about how to make cycling a safe and viable mode of transport for all. It’s grossly offensive.
Thanks to @beztweets for spotting this
The comments made on BBC 94.9 by the Met’s Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, prompted a bit of controversy over the last few days. I’ve transcribed the exchange that provoked the debate.
Nestor [presenter]: Would you ride a bike in London?
Hogan-Howe: No, I don’t think I would. I’ve never been a big bike rider anyway. But it seems to me that if you get it wrong, or the driver gets it wrong, the person who is going to pay is the cyclist. It seems to me there’s a lot of traffic, and personally I wouldn’t.
N: Do you have a view on the people who do?
H-H: Well, I think they’re brave, but of course some people don’t have the choice, economically. It’s not easy. If you’ve got someone who can’t afford to take a car into a congestion zone – and if they did, they can’t park it anyway – some people have got limited money, and they can’t pay on public transport, so I understand why take the choice, but it wouldn’t be mine.
N: Is there something that you would do? If you had your way, is there something that you would do, that you are convinced would reduce the number of incidents?
H-H: It seems to me that the strategy that is being employed is a good one, which is to try to provide a separate area for the cyclists to be in. Eventually to try and provide a physical separation. But of course London is such a big place, where cyclists have arrived all at once, you can’t expect all that to be separated… [interrupted]
N: Yes, it’s almost as though it’s all happened too quickly, and everything is reactive, and we’re trying to catch up with the huge increase…
H-H: I’m not sure that’s fair. I think what we’ve seen is that petrol’s gone through the roof in terms of cost, we’re in a recession so people’s money has gone down, people have moved towards cycles, with the Boris scheme you’ve got more cycles available…
N: That’s where people are dying, Sir Bernhard. [appears to be confusing reference to Boris Bikes with Superhighways]
H-H: Well I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.
N: On the Bow Superhighway 2, in or round it, four people have died.
H-H: Right, but all I’m saying is that I can understand why there are more cyclists, and they’ve arrived very quickly in a recession. It’s a natural thing.
N: But it’s not great if the very thing that’s put in to protect and allow cyclists has seen four of them die.
H-H: Well, of course, that’s where most of the cyclists are, so that’s where we’re getting the highest numbers of cyclists. And I’m not sure that anybody’s proved the Highways have caused it. I think…
N: But your officers have said… your very officer has said it gives people a false sense of security.
H-H: But Eddie, you asked me ‘would I cycle’, and then you asked me ‘how do I feel about other people who cycle’, and I’m trying to answer that question. So all I’m saying is I do understand why people cycle. I understand as well why there are risks in cycling. That’s the question I’m trying to answer. And at the end of the day, people do what they like – it’s a free country, it’s a free society. I’m just saying I wouldn’t. But that’s my choice, and I can afford not to.
From the comment that appeared in newspaper articles yesterday, Hogan-Howe refers only to ‘some people’ who don’t have a great deal of choice, and who cycle as a result of economic circumstances. This is in the second response, quoted above.
But having listened to the whole interview (and from the whole passage above), it’s pretty clear that economics is the only reason Hogan-Howe seems to be able to give for people riding a bike, as people pointed out to me yesterday. Whether this is just because he was put on the spot, or because he hadn’t really thought things through, I don’t know, but it’s fairly clear that there are plenty of people in London who ride despite the fact they could afford to travel to work in different ways. Hogan-Howe has now clarified his comments, and conceded this point.
But it’s quite interesting to examine why Hogan-Howe might have made the assumption he did, and why he could only think of people cycling because, essentially, they had been forced into doing so.
I think the answer lies in his other comments. He doesn’t want to ride a bike in London because he doesn’t feel safe. He is worried about the consequences of inattention, and mistakes, which will have serious consequences for the person on the bike.
Now of course we can say that it is Hogan-Howe’s responsibility to make London’s roads safer, but there are many things beyond his control, particularly the layout of the roads. Even with much greater enforcement and stiffer penalties for driving, people will still make mistakes on London’s roads, and as they are currently configured, that will have serious detrimental consequences for the most vulnerable parties. On this particular point, Hogan-Howe is right, and I don’t think it makes sense to criticise him on it. He just doesn’t feel subjectively safe. Nor is it right to criticise him for choosing not cycle.
Hogan-Howe’s feelings about cycling on London’s roads probably go a long way towards explaining why he made the assumption about people cycling through economic necessity. Cycling in London does not look attractive to him; consequently it is easy for him to assume that people cycle because they are forced too. (This is not to deny that cycling in London can usually be pleasant for many people).
Indeed, this points at an explanation for the wider cultural assumption that cycling is ‘for poor people’. Most people in Britain are put off by the thought of cycling on roads full of busy traffic. It is something they wouldn’t dream of doing. So when they see someone on a bike, it is a quite natural assumption (if usually an incorrect one) on their part that the person cycling has somehow been forced into doing so; that there are negative factors pulling them into cycling, rather than positive factors attracting them to it. That they can’t afford a car, for instance, or because they can’t afford petrol.
Perhaps Hogan-Howe’s comments are most interesting for what they suggest about wider British attitudes to cycling as a mode of transport.
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.
A good indication that a design for cycle traffic is compromised is if there have to be signs attempting to tell you how to use it.
This example – where the Superhighway 2 Extension meets the Stratford Gyratory – fits the bill perfectly, with a curious squiggly route, directly you up onto the pavement, then across two signal-controlled crossings.
The sign below is on the approach to the Vauxhall Cross gyratory, on Harleyford Road. If you want to cycle to Westminster, well, it’s quite straightforward, you just go right (somehow finding your way across three lanes of fast traffic going the same way as you), back the way you were coming from, right again, then left. What could be simpler?
And a final example is these proposed signs for a junction in Manchester, spotted during a presentation at the Birmingham Cycle City Expo earlier this year.
The junction has trams passing through it, and so the idea is to get people to cycle on the pavements away from the left arm of the junction entirely (hence the red crosses running through a bike symbol on the signs). That makes turning right coming from the arm at the top of the picture ridiculously long-winded.
The engineers giving this presentation were, I think, a bit embarrassed about the signs they were asking us to consider. The basic problem seems to be that cycling wasn’t considered as a mode of transport at the time the plans for this junction were being drawn up, and consequently any routes through the junction were inevitably going to be an afterthought, fitted in around the margins, with confusing signs attempting to limit the damage. Amsterdam has plenty of trams, and manages to avoid having to put up silly signs like this for people cycling, because the routes you take through junctions while cycling are obvious and intuitive. Tram and cycle conflicts are avoided through proper design, not by attempting to persuade people to take circuitous and illogical routes, through signage.
This is much the same story behind the ‘right turn guidance’ issued by Transport for London on Superhighway 2, covered here. Here’s how to do a right turn, as suggested by the TfL explanatory video -
Who on earth expects to make a right turn by cycling beyond the junction, and then looping around through 270 degrees, before rejoining the carriageway? These signs are symptomatic of a failure to take cycling seriously. They should not be necessary if the designs are right.