In the wake of the Daily Mail publishing a series of photographs of cycleways with nobody using them at the moment the photograph was taken, and asserting that those cycleways are therefore ‘lunacy’ (apparently in the belief that doing so is any more meaningful than publishing a photograph of an empty road or footway and making conclusions about lunacy) the Guardian’s Dave Hill has evidently decided to join in the fun, publishing his own photograph of an empty cycle lane above an article that applies a thin veneer of earnest, chin-stroking consideration to precisely the same tabloid arguments.
This is at the same level of intellectual endeavour as publishing a photograph of an empty bus lane on the same road, before making questioning noises about how much bus lanes are being used, and whether the new mayor ought to consider using all that valuable road space for other modes of transport.
Newsflash – a photograph of an empty bit of infrastructure is absolutely meaningless, and it remains meaningless if you attempt to garnish it – as Dave Hill does – with some anecdotes about how you hardly ever see anyone using that bit of infrastructure.
You might wonder at this point why any journalist who takes himself seriously is so eager to recycle the arguments of the Daily Mail.
Of course what actually matters is numbers and efficiency, and unfortunately for Dave Hill, all the evidence is pointing in the opposite direction. In his article he is happy to quote Transport for London’s Director of Road Space Management, Alan Bristow, when he commented that the speed of implementation of the latest superhighways was ‘suboptimal’, during the latest London Assembly Transport Committee session on congestion. But if Hill had listened to the session from the start, he would have heard Bristow saying this –
‘we are committed to sustainable transport, and walking and cycling are one of the key parts of the mix that any city must have, for moving people around. And it’s actually a very efficient way of moving people. We’re seeing a lot of activity on the cycle superhighways, and we’re getting about 3,000 people an hour in the peaks, moving along the Embankment. We’re moving five percent more people.’
Get that? Bristow is quite explicitly stating that, even at current usage levels, the superhighways have made roads like the Embankment more efficient than they were before at moving people. This is hardly surprising – 3,000 people per hour in the equivalent of a single motor vehicle lane far exceeds the ability of such a lane to carry people in private motor vehicles.
So when it comes to ‘the matter of how much they are being used’, as Hill phrases it – well, let’s put it like this. If you think cycling infrastructure is a bad idea because the numbers of users fall away, outside of peak times, you are effectively arguing that roads should be made less efficient at times when that efficiency is most needed. No amount of anecdotes about how few people cycling you see outside peak times will change that blunt reality.
None of this should be surprising given Hill’s eagerness to distribute a discredited statistic about how much road space has been reallocated to cycling in London. Nor should it be surprising that Hill’s article also covers, again, other familiar territory, claiming that the new Deputy Mayor for Transport Val Shawcross believes ‘cycling policy should not only be about servicing the existing (and rather narrow) commuter and otherwise committed cyclist demographic but properly recognising others’ interests too’ – interpreting this to mean a
pointer to a broad, consensual approach, seeking to harmonise and give equal weight to the needs of cyclists and pedestrians and to introducing new infrastructure with the greatest possible consent.
But unfortunately this is a misreading of what Shawcross actually said.
“I’m really keen the cycling work we do isn’t just about the commuter cyclists, it’s about the little short journeys, not necessarily for work. It might be mums, it might be the retired, so the local communities get the benefits of this.”
In other words, designing for cycling shouldn’t just be about commuting, it should be about designing for all other kinds of cycling trips – cycling trips by mothers, and by elderly people, for instance. When Shawcross refers to policy ‘not just being about commuter cyclists’ she is explicitly talking about making cycling itself more inclusive, and not about watering down cycling policy to create ‘equal weight with pedestrians’, a spin Hill has added himself. (Note – ‘equal weight’ with pedestrians would actually mean cycling infrastructure on every main road, lowering the level of danger people cycling have to safe to an equivalent level to those who choose to walk).
Hill has evidently leapt on the ‘commuting cyclist’ term without pausing to look at what Shawcross actually said, which is unsuprising given his evident obsession with a desire to paint cycling in London as dominated by white middle class, middle-aged men, speeding to work, a conclusion not borne out by actual statistics.
The problem for Hill is that the very best way to enable cycling beyond the allegedly narrow demographic he repeatedly refers to – to enable cycling by women, by kids, by the elderly – is to build precisely the kind of infrastructure his own articles keep denigrating. This is the conclusion of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine report he keeps tediously linking to –
In cities where cycling uptake is low, the challenge for healthy public policy is perhaps to de-couple cycling from the rather narrow range of healthy associations it currently has, and provide an infrastructure in which anyone can cycle, rather than just those whose social identities are commensurate with being ‘a cyclist’.
Building cycleways is the very best way of achieving inclusivity. Not building them limits cycling to the people who are only prepared to cycle in hostile conditions on the road network.
You might argue Hill’s position on cycling infrastructure is disingenuous. I couldn’t possibly comment.
Queuing might be a word with a French origin, but the British have a reputation for it, particularly for doing it in an orderly fashion. But our passion for queuing is, perhaps surprisingly, a relatively recent development, arising out of industrialisation and poverty in the 19th century, and especially, rationing during World War II.
I have noticed that this ‘British’ approach to queuing is, sometimes, affecting behaviour on the new cycling infrastructure in London.
The most efficient behaviour while waiting at lights is, actually, to double up, even if this appears to involve ‘queue jumping’. It’s standard practice that you will see at any Dutch junction with separate cycling infrastructure.
Two neat rows of people, making the most efficient use of the space, and ensuring the maximum number of people get through the lights on green.
Generally, I do find exactly the same kind of behaviour at the lights on similar infrastructure in London – although maybe not quite as compact.
But there are exceptions. Very occasionally I will find a queue that isn’t ‘doubled’.
There’s a particularly good example in the @sw19cam video below, at the 5:05 mark, as he emerges out the other side from Blackfriars underpass, waiting at the lights to cross onto the Embankment.
Sensibly, he decides to go right to the front, in what might be seen by some as ‘skipping the queue’. I don’t think he is, at least not in this context. Everyone should be doing this, especially at this particular location, where there is a notably short green phase.
The question, then, is why do people queue in single file, when it hampers your (and others’) ability to get through a junction? My guess is it might be partly out of politeness; partly out of a belief that, by moving over the right, you might be making a bold statement that you are ‘faster’ than riders on your left; or even that you are ‘queue jumping’.
But ‘doubling up’ really is the best way of ensuring everyone makes it through the lights in one go. Sitting at the back of a single-file queue, and adding to it, just means that you and the people behind you have got less change of making it through the lights.
So don’t be afraid to double up! You’re not being rude, you’re not pretending you’re faster, and you’re not queue jumping. You’re just helping everyone. If you don’t feel you are fast enough, you can just merge back to the left, and let everyone past as the queue disperses through the junction.
Last week a group of tireless cycling campaigners in West Sussex organised a Cycling Summit, attended by councillors, officers and influential people within the county, to hear presentations on the importance of cycling and cycling infrastructure from Rachel Aldred, Phil Jones, Mark Strong and Ranty Highwayman – names that will almost certainly be familiar to you. (You can see their presentations on the website).
It seemed the message did sink in, as much as it could. Everyone stayed to the end of the summit, and the questions from the floor were, generally, informed, and showed interest. Whether it will lead to substantive change is another matter.
And the need for change in West Sussex is urgent. In a county with a population of close to a million people, living mostly in large towns that are rapidly expanding, there is essentially almost no urban cycling infrastructure to speak of – certainly nothing of high quality along main roads. Continuing to build for mass car use is simply storing up trouble for the future, given the limited capacity of our existing urban road network to accommodate increasing motor traffic.
In this context, one unfortunate tendency on the part of councillors and officers is to assume that we are a ‘rural’ county and that therefore priorities for cycling infrastructure should be in rural areas, connecting up villages and small towns. These kinds of routes are of course important in their own right, but focusing on them at the expense of the county’s many large urban areas betrays a failure to look at the most pressing problems, and where there is most potential for cycling gains.
It is also perhaps natural to focus on these kinds of ‘rural’ routes because they present the least political difficulty and are also (should be) the easiest to get right – there are fewer decisions to make about reallocation of space, and fewer junctions to negotiate.
But going by a video released by West Sussex, it seems that even these kinds of routes, ones that present the least difficulty, can’t be got right. Next year it plans to build a ‘missing section’ of National Cycle Network 2, between the towns of Bognor Regis and Littlehampton – a distance of about 3 miles – along the A259. This is an important path because at present there isn’t anything any cycling infrastructure at all on this stretch of NCN2– you have to cycle on a busy A road. And it’s an opportunity to get things right, because there are only a small number of problems to deal with on that 3 mile length of road.
Unfortunately, going by the video, it seems those problems haven’t been dealt with at all well. Here’s one of them, the crossing of Climping roundabout.
A shared use path, crossing multiple lanes of motor traffic, without any assistance, close to the perimeter of the roundabout. It’s obviously hard to tell from a visualisation, but the refuge in the middle doesn’t appear to be long enough to safely accommodate a cycle either. This is pretty dreadful design – the lack of priority isn’t necessarily the issue, but the hazards involved in crossing at this kind of design certainly are.
The only other crossing of a road along this new section of route is also a big fail.
People walking and cycling are expected to go some distance out of their way to use a crossing set some 50 metres back from the junction. Why? There’s already a very long slip road for drivers to come almost to a complete stop, separate from the flow of traffic on the major road; it would be very, very easy to put the crossing close to the junction itself, with tighter geometry to keep drivers’ speeds low. Note also that pedestrians who want to cross this road have to dash across four lanes of fast motor traffic.
As for the path itself, it will be ‘shared use’, which isn’t necessarily a problem on this kind of route between urban areas. Numbers will, I expect, be low enough that separation between the two modes isn’t required, provided that this path is designed like a cycleway which people can walk on, rather than a footway people are allowed to cycle one. It’s going to be the latter, of course – see how it gives up at a minor entrance –
But I worry that the path isn’t wide enough, and won’t have a good enough surface. The visualisation appears to imply it will be composed of what looks like a bonded gravel. A path like this really needs a smooth asphalt surface, just like the road it runs next to.
And the width will be a problem, especially at this (cough) bus stop bypass.
Apparently the path will be three metres wide, but it doesn’t look like that at the location above, and in other places the usable width will be reduced by the path running alongside walls and fencing.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s good that this path is being built, and that the council is (starting) to engage with design for cycling. The problem is that, going by the design of this path where it actually has to deal with difficulties – like crossing side roads, dealing with roundabouts, bus stops, and so on – there is a serious lack of knowledge and experience about best practice. This is largely the fault of central government, which continues to fail to lead on infrastructure, providing clear guidance to local authorities to West Sussex on how to design properly. It shouldn’t cost any more to do things properly, yet we continue to see the same mistakes.
This tweet from Thames Valley Police in Windsor has attracted a fair amount of derision.
— TVP Windsor (@TVP_Windsor) September 28, 2016
Principally because what the police are ‘enforcing’ is, well, unenforceable – it’s simply an advisory dismount sign, rather than an actual restriction – but also because it’s not a particularly sensible use of resources. Lots of people complaining about something will obviously not necessarily equate to something that is an objectively high priority in terms of keeping people safe.
But the context of this ‘dismount’ sign is revealing (and thanks to @ChrisC_CFC for spotting the location). It’s Maidenhead Road in Windsor. What is immediately apparent is that all the footways along this road are shared use. The footway on the approach to the barrier where the policeman is standing is shared use –
The footway on the other approach to the other side of this section of footway is also shared use –
And the fairly narrow footway on the other side of the road is also shared use (although this appears to have recently been widened, perhaps in an attempt to ‘encourage’ people to cycle on the footway on this side of the road) –
… And, as far as I can tell, the footway between the barriers is also shared use, despite the signs advising people to dismount.
So, as usual, the picture is one of inconsistency. Councils are happy to lump cycling onto the pavement with pedestrians where they can get away with it – it’s a nice easy option that doesn’t involve making difficult choices about allocation of urban space. But of course that decision will also bring people walking and cycling into conflict with one another, particularly in busier locations.
The ‘solution’ here in Windsor seems to have been to put up some barriers and an advisory sign in the hope that people will get off and walk for two hundred metres. Obviously people won’t do that – why would they, when they have been legally cycling on footways either side – so naturally the police have been called out to ‘enforce’ dismounting ‘advise’ people to dismount.
All in all, it’s pretty dismal. If you push people walking and cycling into the same relatively small portion of urban space, you shouldn’t be surprised when conflict arises; nor should you be surprised that people are unwilling to choose to dismount on one section of footway when you have legalised it on other sections.
The responsibility for all these problems lies with the council. Looking at the photos of the road above, there really is an enormous amount of roadspace here that could be repurposed, if we were actually serious about prioritising walking and cycling, and reducing conflict between the two modes on a permanent basis.
It wouldn’t even have to be particularly expensive. The central hatching could be removed, the parking bays moved out by an equivalent distance, and – hey presto – a parking-protected cycle lane, separate from the footway, would spring into existence.
No more pavement cycling; no more dismount signs required; no more wasted police resources; no more embarrassing photo opportunities.
How about it?
On Monday the Department for Transport’s Think! campaign launched an HGV ‘safety’ campaign that has been universally panned by cycling organisations and campaigners. There’s a very good summary of the reasons why here.
The intention of the video is apparently to show the risks of ‘undertaking’ HGVs when they are about turn. But the video itself is, frankly, a mess. It initially shows an implausible situation – a lorry travelling on the wrong side of the road on a 20mph street, with a cyclist somehow managing to travel even faster on their inside.
Why is the lorry right over on the wrong side of the road, so far from the junction? I can’t think of any reasonable explanation. Most likely the driver has started to overtake the person cycling, who has then implausibly managed to accelerate and move ahead of the HGV.
This is followed by a shot, accompanied by tasteless clips of meat being chopped, of the HGV swerving across that cyclist’s path, with the cyclist still behind the HGV – which is implausible in the context of the speed difference in the (very odd) first clip.
So why is this video so implausible?
An instinctive explanation is that it is simply a cock-up, filmed by people who don’t really know how left hook incidents actually occur. The brief might have been
‘Go and make us a video of an idiot cyclist shooting up the inside of a turning HGV at speed.’
The result being this dog’s breakfast. But I think there’s more to it than that. A video that showed how left hooks actually occur would be embarrassing to the DfT.
They don’t involve lorries travelling at speed on the wrong side of the road with someone apparently attempting to ‘undertake’ them.
Instead, they occur when a previously stationary HGV has just started to move off at a junction. When someone cycling is either positioned in front of, or to the side, of that HGV, typically on state-sanctioned paint, either in the form of a crap cycle-lane, or an advanced stop line (ASL). That cyclist is either stationary in that ASL, or is arriving at the junction on the cycle lane on the inside of that HGV.
Conveniently, the DfT video doesn’t look anything like this. It doesn’t show someone who has been lulled into a making a minor misjudgement with potentially fatal consequences, thanks to negligent road design. Instead it attempts to present a scenario in which blame lies with a cyclist being an idiot, ‘racing’ an HGV and trying to shoot up the inside of it as it turns.
I commented yesterday that this Cemex video – shot from a camera on the left hand side of the lorry cab – is far more instructive about how left hooks actually occur than the DfT’s video. It’s a real-life illustration of how a combination of dreadful road design, lethal vehicles and momentary inattention can lead to death and serious injury.
At the start of the video, we see the HGV is stationary as the man cycles past it, towards the junction.
Going by the position of the cab, adjacent to a metal post, the front of the lorry is approximately 50m or so from the junction, suggesting that there are at least five cars (or equivalent) ahead of it, waiting at a red light.
The lorry driver isn’t indicating left at this point.
It might be foolish to start filtering up the inside of an HGV here, but a combination of the the fact that the traffic is stationary, that the HGV is some distance back from the lights, and the inviting cycle lane (combined with a lack of indication) all make it completely understandable.
However, as the cyclist draws level with the cab, the HGV moves off.
And then, about a second after moving off, the driver starts to indicate left.
It seems the cyclist, perhaps without even seeing the indicators, realises that he is suddenly in a precarious situation – you can see him accelerating to try and clear the HGV, to get to safety ahead of it. This is clearly not a wise decision; the best one would have been to a complete halt, to simply let the HGV go. But it’s an understandable human mistake.
The HGV driver is accelerating hard too, and soon the cyclist is back down the side of the HGV. From this point, given the speed of both parties and their intended directions, disaster is nearly inevitable.
Abruptly, the enormous lorry forms a curved barrier around the cyclist, leaving him with nowhere to go.
It is only thanks to both parties performing an emergency stop that the cyclist doesn’t end up under the wheels.
I hope it is clear that this real-life situation is rather more ambiguous than the one in the DfT video. Mistakes are made, but they are understandable ones. Particularly, can we expect people not to cycle up the inside of HGVs when there is a cycle lane there, and the HGV is stationary, some five or six cars back from the junction itself?
And much the same is true of incidents that are actually in the news at the moment, in the wake of the DfT’s campaign. Take the case of Louise Wright, killed in Nottingham in July 2014. She appears to have filtered up the inside of an HGV, and then waited at a red light, next to it. The driver failed to check his mirrors, and was convicted this week of causing death by careless driving – the same day that the DfT campaign launched.
Or, also in the courts this week, the case of Esther Hartsilver, again killed as a stationary HGV set off from traffic lights and turned across her.
Or the case of Ying Tao, again, killed a stationary HGV set off from traffic lights and turned across her.
These cases simply do not resemble the DfT’s video. They take place almost in slow motion, the inevitable consequences of human beings making understandable mistakes in an environment why are exposed to unacceptable danger; an environment where those mistakes can, in a split second, lead to death and serious injury. Environments that even actually encourage them into danger.
We should be building environments that greatly reduce or even remove that danger. Environments that keep people cycling and HGVs separated from each other, and allow people to make mistakes without those mistakes resulting in death.
Thankfully, we are starting to see this kind of approach in a small number of locations in London; new junctions where the risk of collision between HGVs and people has been greatly reduced by signal separation of movements.
But this is only a start, and in just one city.
I see little or no indication that the same Department for Transport that is producing these videos and adverts is taking any kind of lead on safe design. Where are the national standards, guidance and advice for local authorities, so that they can replicate good examples and best practice at a local level? Where is the investment required, to reshape our roads to protect people using the modes of transport we apparently want to encourage? Frankly, where is the leadership? It’s completely absent.
The simple message of the cases mentioned here, and countless others, is – do not mix very heavy, large vehicles with limited visibility with people on bikes. Keep them separated at all costs. But, again, I see no indication that the Department for Transport is taking that message on board. The issue of cycling death as a result of collisions with HGVs continues to be framed by those with responsibility for tackling it – as with this latest campaign – as one of human failing, one of mistakes that can be remedied through ‘education’ and ‘awareness’. A totally flawed approach given that human beings will always continue to make mistakes. It’s what we do.
Beyond adverts and tokenistic measures like extra mirrors, there is no noticeable action being taken at an institutional level within the DfT to deal with these predictable deaths, that keep occurring in the same way, over and over again. That’s why these adverts are so deeply insulting.
I’m currently in the middle of writing a piece about how attitudes to residential streets being access-only for motor traffic are essentially conditioned by history. That is to say, whether people are in favour of a particular residential street being ‘access-only’ largely depends on the current nature of that street. If it’s currently a through-route, attempts to convert it into an access road will probably be controversial. But, conversely, if it’s already an access road, that status will be deeply uncontroversial.
We can take this further, and point out that attempts to reintroduce through traffic onto access roads that are currently peaceful, safe and quiet would be just as unpopular as ‘filtering’, if not more so. It’s most likely that, in the cold light of day, people are not really ‘for’ or ‘against’ filtering – they are just against change.
We’ll come to this subject in more detail next week, but in the meantime, and as a teaser to that blogpost, I thought I’d look at a specific example of ‘historical’ filtering, one that happened some time ago, and that would be controversial if it were reversed – just as controversial as if attempts were made to implement it today.
Cull Lane is a small lane in southern Hampshire, on the outskirts of New Milton. I’m familiar with it because I use it to cycle to and from my grandmother’s house, from New Milton station.
Back in the 1950s, it was just a straightforward road, running across fields.
Over time, New Milton has expanded, filling out to the orange road running east-west near the top of the map, with housing development built on other side of Cull Lane. But the way this housing has been built – and the changes that have been made to Cull Lane – are very interesting.
Cull Lane has essentially been converted into two separate sections of cul-de-sac, through a series of three closures. The first, and most obvious one, is in the middle. The other two are at the (former) junctions with the boundary roads.
The only ‘through route’ across this area is now a very twisty road, looping up and and down as it runs east-west – Holland’s Wood Drive. While it is technically possible to drive along the length of this road, its twisty nature doesn’t make that an obvious thing to do, and indeed Google Streetview tells us that is much quicker (and shorter) to use the pre-existing boundary roads.
What has happened to Cull Lane itself? Well, it is, still, a rather lovely quiet country lane, even though it is now technically part of the town of New Milton. It is rare to encounter drivers on it, and those that I do are simply going to and from their properties.
At the northern end, there is a turning area for residents. The previous connection to the main road running east-west has been ‘lost’, although pedestrian access has been retained (in the foreground).
Below, some of the new housing that was built along Cull Lane at the same time as these changes to the road network were made (note the ‘dead end’ sign on what was formerly a through route) –
The ‘severed’ middle section, where what was once Cull Lane has become a pedestrian path, with bollards to stop drivers –
The crossing of the new, bendy road in the middle of the development (again, note that the southern section of Cull Lane, visible across the road, has a ‘Dead End’ sign) –
… And the southern end of Cull Lane. This would at one time have been a straightforward junction, but now it is a turning area, with only cycling and walking access to the main road where the silver car is being driven.
These pictures were actually taken at rush hour, around 5:30pm, yet I was able to stand in the middle of the road and take them, quite happily. But without the filtering that took place here, this small little lane would actually be a busy road. It would form an obvious route from the main road to the north of New Milton (connecting with the trunk road A35) into the east of the town.
As it is, that route is not available, and this residential area is something of an oasis of calm, ‘converted’ into two cul-de-sacs.
Because all this happened at the time the development was taking place, I suspect the changes to the road were a minor detail. New residents moving into the housing would not have concerned themselves with it, because it was already like that when they arrived. But had these changes been proposed after all the development took place, it is a reasonable guess those changes would have been opposed by locals who had got used to the existing driving routes. ‘Keep Cull Lane open’! ‘No to increasing pollution and congestion on surrounding roads! And so on, with the kinds of arguments that are undoubtedly familiar to present-day campaigners.
As it is, Cull Lane is an attractive place to live, with properties for sale making a virtue of the fact that it is ‘a quiet no through road’, which may have not been the case had enlightened planners not severed it at the time of the development. The slightly longer distance locals might have to travel to exit onto main roads by car is a very small price to pay for living in a desirable, quiet and attractive area.
The only small complaint I have with these changes is that they seem to have happened at a time in British planning history when cycling was invisible. The connection in the middle, and the two cut throughs at either end, are quite explicitly signed as pedestrian routes, and I suspect I may be breaking the law by cycling along a footpath every time I visit my grandmother, travelling along the length of Cull Lane.
Nevertheless, I think this is a very interesting example of how ‘closures’ of roads can be invisible and uncontroversial if they happen under particular circumstances, and if they have been in place long enough for anyone to even remember the road being configured in any other way.
The death of a woman in Reading earlier this year – and the inquest into her death – has prompted me to write something about Puffin crossings, which to me at least seem to have been a factor in that collision.
Lauren Heath was killed on a Puffin crossing as an HGV driver advanced through the crossing. It still isn’t clear whether he moved while the signals were still red, or whether the green signal had appeared while Lauren Heath was still on the crossing. She was in the driver’s ‘blind spot’ – allegedly, because the driver had failed to properly adjust his mirror.
But one of the factors in her death appears to have been the lack of far side signal at the Puffin crossing. As she walked up the road to cross, she saw motor traffic waiting at a red signal, and started to cross in front of it, without the far side indication of whether or not it is safe to do so, as is the case with more traditional, and familiar, Pelican crossings.
Here is a similar example of a Puffin crossing in Horsham. Walking in this direction, towards the lights, as Lauren Heath would have done, I can see that they are red. But there is no far side signal – the only indication of whether or not it is safe to cross is the small yellow box on the signal post itself.
To look at this box involves rotating through 180°, looking back the way I’ve come. The signal for whether or not it is safe to cross is not in line with my direction of travel.
This is what Lauren Heath would have had to have done, but failed to do – she just assumed that the lights would stay red, and without the far side signal, she had no indication that motor traffic might be about to set off as she walked across the crossing.
We know that humans will make mistakes like this, and I don’t think Puffin crossings are designed to mitigate human fallibility. The lack of the far side signal is a big problem; it means people have to look at a small box in an unnatural position, rather than relying on line of sight in the direction they are travelling.
To be clear, Puffin crossings do have some advantages over Pelicans. For one thing, I like the way that, thanks to detectors, the signals will stay red for motor traffic while people are still on the crossing – it means people who are slower do not have to hurry, warned by a flashing red man. Puffins, again thanks to detectors, also ‘reset’ if people push the button, and then cross before they get a green man – it means motor traffic isn’t held unnecessarily at a crossing when nobody is waiting to cross.
But there are other problems with them, not just the lack of far side signal. They can be deeply ambiguous. Walking up to this crossing, it is easy to assume that the green man applies to the crossing ahead, in the background. Right?
Well, no. That would be wrong. This green man applies to the crossing 90° to the left of my field of view. This crossing, with the same box in the foreground –
Walking across the crossing in the first photo on the assumption you have a green man would actually bring you into conflict with motor traffic.
Here’s a similar (and much worse) example from Sheffield.
— The Ranty Highwayman (@RantyHighwayman) March 15, 2015
The counter argument is, of course, that far side signals can themselves be ambiguous if there are multiple crossings in the line of sight, signalled differently. For instance, people might interpret a green for the section of carriageway on the far side of the road as an indication that it is safe cross the near side section of carriageway, which may have a red. I nearly got caught out in precisely the same way at this dreadful crossing outside the Gare du Lyon in Paris, which had a green on the station side, but a red to prevent people crossing the other half of the carriageway.
But the answer to this is really don’t build ambiguous, staggered crossings! Mitigating them with Puffins – which might still be open to ambiguous interpretation – isn’t really the long-term answer. Pedestrian and cycle crossings should be straightforward, without stopping and starting halfway – design them so people can cross the road, in one go. Puffins are really just polishing a turd.
Another problem with Puffins is that the signal box is easily obscured, because (with good reason) people stand right next to it.
This is often mitigated by adding another signal box on to the same pole – but again this problem wouldn’t arise at all with high, far side signals.
And one final annoyance with Puffins is that if you are approaching them on a bike (at a Toucan crossing with Puffin signalling) the lack of far side signal means you have to stop, and look at the box, in a way you wouldn’t have to with conventional signals. They interrupt progress.
So I’m really not a fan of Puffins, at all. One silver lining is that Transport for London don’t like them either, because they prevent the use of pedestrian countdown. While Puffins do have some good features, I would really like to see them integrated into the more traditional, conventional and intuitive far-side signal design.
September 14th is Cycle to Work Day, an event which reminds me that a large proportion of the focus on cycling in Britain – and of the attempts to persuade or enable people to cycle – is on travelling to work.
This focus is, perhaps, unsurprising. For transport planners and engineers, ‘the commute’ presents the most difficult problems, given that is when peak demand for use of transport networks occurs. Fixation on commuting is understandable given that pressure on networks is much lower at other times of day, when other kinds of trips tend to be made.
Although cycling obviously doesn’t place as much pressure on the road network as motoring at peak times, it forms such a small proportion of trips in this country it only really becomes ‘visible’ at peak times, even in places like central London. Again, this makes it more likely that we will fixate on commuting – flows of cycling are concentrated at the periods when people are travelling to and from work, and that therefore seems to be the only kind of cycling that is occurring, or could occur. During the middle of the day, away from places where infrastructure has started to be built, cycling is essentially non-existent. That absence of ‘everyday’ cycling makes a focus on commuting more likely.
The ‘visibility’ of cycle commuting also derives from the fact that its levels are generally substantially higher than overall cycling mode share. The London Borough of Hackney’s much-quoted census figure of 15.4% of trips to work being cycled stands alongside an overall cycling mode share of just 6-7% for all trips in the borough.
So it is likely that cycling to work figures will be around 2-3 times higher than the general cycling mode share across Britain.
As Rachel Aldred argues, this disparity is mostly likely due to ‘route sensitivity’ –
It seems like people are fussier about cycling environments when they’re not commuting. This makes intuitive sense if you think about it. When I’m riding to work, I know my route extremely well as I ride it most working days. I’m travelling on my own, so I only have to worry about my own safety, not that of any companions. I know where the dodgy bits are, where I need to concentrate super hard. I know the timing of the traffic lights – whether I have lots of time to get through or not. I know the hidden cut-throughs I can take to make the journey nicer. As I’m travelling with the peak commuting flows there’s often plenty of other cyclists around, creating a greater sense of subjective safety.
But it’s also down to the fact that groups of people who don’t work – children and the elderly – are themselves much less likely to tolerate more hostile cycling environments than people of working age. This also applies to the fact that women – who we know are, similarly, less traffic-tolerant than men – are less represented in the working population. That working population is preferentially composed of people who are more willing to cycle.
For all these reasons, commuting is the lowest-hanging fruit of cycling trips – the easiest of all the kinds of trips to enable. But focusing on commuting is really not good enough for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest one is that commuting – while high profile – only forms a very small proportion of all the trips we make. In London, it’s just the bits in blue in the chart below.
The chart clearly demonstrate that commuting or work-related trips (in dark and light blue) are a small proportion of all the trips Londoners make. For under-16s and over-65s, commuting is essentially negligible, and even for 25-44 year olds, work-related trips are only around 30% of all trips made.
The picture is much the same at a national level – I’m grateful to Katja Leyendecker for crunching the numbers in the National Travel Survey and producing the results –
Just 16% of all trips are commuting, with a further 3% ‘business trips’. So again over 80% of all trips we make are not travelling to work – they are trips to school, or for shopping, or to visit friends, or for entertainment. The kinds of trips that make up daily life. Focusing on commuting – the routes commuters take – will necessarily miss out all these other kinds of trips.
I have heard it said that designing cycleways in London will only see them becoming increasingly clogged with lycra commuters. But I don’t think that is what will happen at all. A dense, high-quality network of cycle routes will see cycling increasingly dominated by those 80% of trips that aren’t commuting.
The kind of trips that are not being cycled at the moment. Children going to school. Parents going shopping. Teenagers going to visit friends. Cycling to the pub. And so on.
Building cycling infrastructure will not mean more of the same kinds of trips by the same people we see now. It will broaden out cycling beyond the narrow commuter-centric demographic that currently exists.
I strongly suspect it will also change the way cycling looks. To take just one example, people taking their children to school, then going off to meet friends, or to go shopping, are much less likely to faff around with cycle-specific clothing and equipment than your typical commuter. While it might make sense for a commuter making a specific trip with somewhere to change and to store cycle-specific equipment, that choice of cycle equipment, and changing in and out of it, is just too much effort for a linked series of short trips interspersed with other activities.
It also means that commuting periods themselves will be more diverse – composed not just of people going to and from work, but also people going to and from school and college, going to after-school activities, going out for an evening, and so on.
Building cycleways along, say, Euston Road in London will not lead to more of the same types of cycling we see now. It will lead to these kinds of cycling demographic shifts – trips by the children who live in the area, by parents, by elderly people, by people cycling to visit friends, and so on. Genuine mass cycling.
Only a small proportion of trips are commutes. We need to examine why all the other trips aren’t appearing, and plan and design to enable them.
I started snapping these photographs about a year ago, mainly inspired by hostility from councillors to the notion of cycling in the town centre. Department for Transport funds, won by West Sussex – which could have made a small difference to the quality of the cycling environment in Horsham – were not put to any good use, and indeed were actually used in a futile attempt to keep cycling out of the town centre.
So the idea of the photo blog is to show that people getting around by bike are, essentially, just ordinary people – citizens of the town like everyone else.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149174641772
While there are what I hesitate to call ‘hardened’ cyclists in the town – the people who (somewhat understandably) dress up in protective equipment, and cycle on main roads without thinking too much about it – I have, for the moment, focused on a broader range of users, essentially to counteract the stereotype that ‘cyclists’ are an odd outgroup, whizzing around, and putting people at risk.
Cycling levels are very low here – cycling to work in the 2011 census was below 3%, and at a guess the overall cycling share will be a fair bit lower than that. But what I see is, essentially, suppressed demand. There is no group of people who are not cycling in Horsham; all groups are represented, particularly the old and the young.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149218118162
‘Cyclists’ here clearly don’t fit any neat stereotype – they are just ‘us’.
But the problem is that they are only present in very small numbers. And the reasons for this are also clear from the photographs. A large proportion of the people on the blog are breaking the law in some form. They are cycling on pavements, or in pedestrianised areas, or the wrong way down one way streets.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149694713292
These are people who are cycling despite the conditions. They aren’t criminals – they’re just people trying to get from A to B in the safest way possible. Their lawbreaking would disappear if the environment was designed to reward their choice of mode of transport, rather than ignoring it altogether.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149672037732
These are also people who aren’t really ‘cyclists’. They are wearing ordinary clothes; they are just using their bike as a tool; they are cycling for transport. Their cycling is just an extension of walking.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149669982702
In that sense, they are remarkably similar to the kinds of people you see cycling in Dutch towns and cities. They just look like pedestrians. The major difference from Dutch cities is instead the types of bike being used. Mountain bikes – really ill-adapted to urban utility cycling – dominate in Horsham, and that means people are carrying their items on handlebars, or in bulky rucksacks.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149125347422
Helmet-wearing – and hi-visibility clothing – is also notably low amongst this form of utility cycling. It’s clearly just too much of a faff for people who are meeting up with friends, or going shopping, or cycling in to town. This is a difference from commuters, who have a fixed routine and are more likely to add clothing and equipment to it.
Unaccompanied teenagers don’t wear helmets, nor do most adults.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/148876089907
The exceptions are young children, especially when accompanied by adults (young children have to do what they are told), and adults when cycling with their children, presumably because they feel they have to set a good example.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149671902222
But in general cycling looks remarkably normal. There are even small clues that the people cycling around town aren’t just cycling around for the fun of it. Cycling is a helpful tool for them, one that makes their daily life a little bit easier.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149125271872
Horsham is a relatively compact town, with around 60,000 people within two to three miles of the town centre. It’s flat and temperate, and has a high proportion of children (who of course can’t drive). My personal view is that cycling levels could, and should, be enormously high in the town. The photographs here demonstrate that potential. I see young children, teenagers, women and men of all ages using cycles to get about, despite the obstacles in their way. The environment should be designed to support them, and to reward their behaviour. Doing so would open up cycling to everyone, not confine it to the current minority willing to put up with inconvenience and hostile conditions.
The photograph below is one of a number I took on my last visit to the city of Utrecht. It’s a fairly ordinary Dutch scene – just some everyday cycling in an urban area. But in the foreground we can see quite a telling detail – two children, cycling side by side, chatting to one another. They look utterly relaxed; not worried about anything, talking without a care in the world, despite cycling on one of the busiest streets in Utrecht city centre. They don’t have to worry about motor traffic here; the only concern is really allowing other people to pass them, which is easy on a cycleway of this width.
Side-by-side cycling is, of course, a completely normal activity across the Netherlands.
It happens everywhere – not just on cycleways and cyclepaths, but also on roads.
Every time I have cycled with someone else in the Netherlands, I have been able to spend the entirety of the journey beside them, talking to them.
Side-by-side cycling isn’t a specifically Dutch trait – it’s a natural human instinct to want to be beside someone, looking at them, rather than stuck behind or in front of them, only able to talk by yelling, craning your head around. We don’t walk along, line astern – we walk side-by-side, and of course cycling should be no different. We want to be sociable, and to engage with the people we are travelling with.
The reason side-by-side cycling is so common in the Netherlands, therefore, isn’t the people. It’s that the environment allows it. Either cycleways that are separated from motor traffic, and that allow other people cycling to pass easily, or genuinely low motor traffic streets that are shared, but easily allow drivers to pass people cycling side-by-side, without inconvenience. It’s not hard to understand why people will cycle socially on a street here –
… But not on these streets.
Of course, on genuinely quiet streets, British people will cycle side by side, and we will also start to see side by side cycling on busy streets where good quality cycling infrastructure has been built. All the examples below are on the new Superhighways in London – CS6, CS3, and CS5.
Again, all these people just look relaxed, and happy. The environment allows this kind of cycling.
So perhaps the most important thing about side-by-side cycling, from a campaigning perspective, is that it is a good indicator of a quality cycling environment, be it a cycleway, or a street. If it isn’t happening, on either a main road, or on an allegedly ‘quiet’ street, then there’s almost certainly something wrong with the cycling environment.
A few months ago I attended the Hackney Cycling Conference, and heard a presentation by Robin Lovelace, entitled Cycling and transport policy: embedding active travel in every stage of the planning process.
Unsurprisingly – given the title – there was an interesting section of the talk on how weakly embedded walking and cycling is within the Department for Transport. In particular, Robin focused on the board structure of the Department, showing precisely how small a priority these important modes of transport are within it. He used the equivalent of the chart below, which has of course changed following the cabinet reshuffle.
Out of all the people shown on this chart, just one civil servant – highlighted right at the bottom – has explicit responsibility for walking and cycling.
We can see this more clearly by zooming in on this bottom left section.
Tellingly, ‘Local Transport’ is itself embedded within the ‘Roads, Devolution and Motoring Group’, and even within ‘Local Transport’ walking and cycling comes right at the bottom – not even mentioned explicitly by name, instead bundled up as ‘sustainable accessible travel’. It really is the lowest of the low.
Given this structure, is it any surprise that walking and cycling garner so little attention and such low levels of investment, despite their fundamental importance?
— Mark Treasure (@AsEasyAsRiding) June 10, 2016
The priorities of the Department for Transport also emerge from the imagery they use. This stock photo – spotted by @AlternativeDfT – appears frequently on their website.
— The Alternative DfT (@AlternativeDfT) December 14, 2012
Amongst other things, it has been used for road safety announcements –
… and, amazingly, even for an announcement of Local Sustainable Transport Funding.
The junction shown in the photograph is Tower Gateway, right by the Tower of London. It is a particularly revealing choice, because while the photograph shows motor traffic smoothly flowing across the junction, it is a truly dreadful environment for walking and cycling.
To take just one example, let’s imagine we wanted to walk from the left of the photograph, to the right – from the north side of Mansell Street, to the Tower of London. You might imagine you could just cross the road in one go – the green arrow. But as it turns out travelling this short distance actually involves eight separate pedestrian crossings.
This is how pedestrians are expected to cross the road at a junction the Department for Transport has chosen to illustrate its role. Needless to say the cycling environment is, if anything, even worse – a vast expanse of tarmac, shared with HGVs and heavy traffic, somewhere only a small minority of people would even consider cycling in the first place. The east-west superhighway does now run across the top of this junction – with improved pedestrian crossings to the west – but that’s about it. Anyone cycling here has essentially been abandoned.
This isn’t just any junction; it’s a junction in the heart of our capital city, a place teeming with people. It’s somewhere that walking and cycling should be explicitly prioritised. But instead people walking and cycling here are treated with contempt – marginalised, and ignored. And this is the image of transport that the DfT is using.
The priorities that this junction embodies are an exact parallel of the board structure of the organisation. Cycling and walking as an afterthought, if that, the very bottom of the heap when it comes to consideration. And this is how the Department of Transport will continue to function, without institutional change. Still stuck in the past, still focused on prioritising motoring at the expense of sensible, space-efficient ways of making short trips, the kinds of trips that form the bulk of all the trips we make.
Last month I took the opportunity to cycle along the Leeds-Bradford cycle superhighway, kindly escorted by Martin Stanley of Leeds Cycling Campaign. While London’s cycling new infrastructure is hitting the headlines, there are other projects taking place elsewhere in the country, of which this is one of the more high profile (albeit for perhaps not all the right reasons).
Indeed, I did go with very low expectations – I’d seen the pictures being shared on social media and on blogs of what can only be described as very poor infrastructure. And it has to be said that the route between the two cities is not of a high quality, certainly nowhere near as high as the routes being built in London. Perhaps a lower level of quality might be expected given the lower level of expertise and investment, along with some ‘higher order’ problems we’ll come to in this post. But what was particularly frustrating for me wasn’t actually the low quality. It was the inconsistency. Some sections have been built and designed reasonably well. But other sections – dealing with identical problems – have been bodged, and bodged badly, which left me wondering why a more consistent level of quality couldn’t have been achieved.
We’ll come to these issues, and others, in the post, but all the same I did come away from the day cycling to Bradford and back feeling a little positive. This was, perhaps, just because the sun had come out in the afternoon, on what had started as a miserable day. But mainly I think it was because, despite all the flaws of this northern ‘superhighway’, I had managed to travel by bike between the two cities in some comfort, and with a reasonable degree of safety. Roads that I wouldn’t even have considered cycling on for pleasure, and would have struggled to justify cycling on for practical purposes – fast, busy roads – now have somewhere that it feels safe and comfortable to cycle, for the most part, and for all the flaws. That means cycling is a possibility, not just for more confident types like me, but for everyone else.
Despite the route only just having opened – and despite the bad weather earlier in the day – we did see people starting to use the cycling infrastructure. Not in huge numbers, admittedly, but enough to indicate that there is potential to shift and change behaviour, and the way people travel about.
So, the good news is that there is now a long route consisting almost entirely of protected infrastructure, that could open up cycling as a mode of transport for ordinary people.
The bad news, however, is that the quality is patchy, and in places actually quite dangerous. As I’ve mentioned already, the frustrating thing is the inconsistency, in that good design and build quality was interspersed with bad. I’m not sure why this was the case; it might be the inevitable consequence of having to build what amounts to quite a long route from A to B in a short space of time, with a fixed budget, starting essentially from a very low base in terms of experience, knowledge and expertise in building cycling infrastructure – a problem I suspect that is pervasive across Britain, just because there is so little good stuff, and so few people building it. It also seems to stem from what I have heard is a reluctance to impinge on driving in any way along this route, which means that compromises on quality will be inevitable.
The reluctance to give even an inch to cycling from motoring led in many places to quite comical outcomes.
The photograph shows that, alongside a six-lane road for motor traffic, not only will users have to swerve around traffic light posts right in the middle of the cycleway, they will then have to deal with a ‘door zone’ (indicated by the pale surfacing) created by new parking bays installed on the road – parking bays that didn’t exist before, and that, if in use, will actually block in people parking legitimately off the carriageway. In the context of such an enormous road this is very thin gruel indeed, especially when we consider that on the opposite side we have to put up with just a shared use footway.
The bus stop bypasses are definitely one of the more serious problems. Some of them are again just comically bad, absurdly narrow for one-way cycling, let alone two-way cycling.
At one of these stops, I heard a couple of men waiting fora bus grumbling about how ‘they hate cyclists – they’re even on the pavement now’ as we rolled past, and it was easy to understand the source of their annoyance, given that we were almost trundling on their toes, by design.
In most of these cases, the failure to design a proper bus stop bypass, with adequate space for all users, seems to have flowed either from the aforementioned reluctance to take any space from motor traffic, or to spend any money adjusting kerb lines, or both – with, frankly, very silly results.
The surfacing was also frustratingly bad. While very smooth in many places, other sections had a dreadful surface, that looked like it had been shovelled in and patted down – usually next to a beautifully smooth road surface.
Why could some parts be surfaced well, and others not? Did some contractors just not care?
Another problem with inconsistency – and a more dangerous one – is the design of many of the side road treatments, where the cycleway (either in uni-directional, or bi-directional form) crosses side roads. This was where the inconsistency was particularly stark. Some were designed reasonably well, with at least some degree of visual continuity, and the kerbs only stopping at the junction, ensuring that the geometry for drivers is reasonably tight.
But far too many junctions appear to have adopted a design technique that involves simply stopping the kerbs some 20 or 30 metres before the junction, dumping you out onto a cycle lane, which felt horribly exposed.
This is, I suspect, the dead hand of LTN 2/08 informing design, with its recommendation that cyclists should be ‘reintroduced to the main road’ before a junction, passing the junction ‘on the carriageway’. Presumably the intention is to ‘reintegrate’ anyone cycling with motor traffic before the junction, but in reality no ‘reintegration’ or ‘reintroduction’ will take place. You are just left at the side of the road with no engineering or design to slow or modify the behaviour of drivers turning across your path. It’s bad, and dangerous, we simply shouldn’t be building junctions like this in 2016. We need continuity, clear priority, and design that slows drivers, and makes them careful. Not this.
There are other (admittedly less serious) problems with visual continuity at side roads. Treatments that could work well are undermined by markings that still suggest people cycling should yield, when they shouldn’t.
Other mistakes point to a lack of experience in how to design for cycling. One stood out for me, shown in the photograph below.
Here the cycleway (on the right) could merge into the cul-de-sac, a low traffic environment that could very easily form part of the route. Yet instead the designers have opted to continue the cycleway on a tiny, thin stretch of pavement on the right, sandwiched between parked cars and fast motor traffic only a few feet to the right.
Signs telling you where to go are helpful – but not when they are positioned right in the middle of where you actually want to cycle.
Again, this points to a lack of experience in considering the specific needs and requirements of cycling as mode of transport, along with designing a cycleway that bumps up and down for every single residential entrance, leaving a corrugated cycleway!
One final, major problem is the town centre of Stanningley, about halfway along the route. Here there simply isn’t room for cycling infrastructure, so in brute terms the town has a motor traffic problem. There’s too much motor traffic on the high street, especially given the town has a bypass.
This motor traffic problem hasn’t been resolved. Instead the road through the town has been given a nice new gravel-infused tarmac surface (tellingly, the smoothest tarmac of the entire Leeds-Bradford superhighway!).
And the junctions in the town have been replaced with some very superficial hints at ‘shared space’ in roundabout form, a design that offers very little comfort to anyone cycling or walking. We saw an elderly lady hesitantly and very nervously attempting to cross the road here. To my mind a series of zebra crossings on the desire lines at the junction would be much more useful, and more beneficial to cycling too than the current half-hearted markings that are something of a free-for-all.
But really the problem is one of an excess of motor traffic – putting down nice, village-ish markings on what remains a very busy road won’t turn your town into a nice village, nor will it actually help people trying to get about within it on foot, or by bike. That motor traffic needs to be diverted onto the bypass, with access retained for residents and people visiting shops and properties.
More broadly, this fudge hints at some of the underlying problems with creating a high profile ‘route’ between two cities in a short space of time, given the inevitable problems of experience and expertise, combined with constraints imposed by councils unwilling to adversely impact drivers to even the slightest degree.
I came away from my visit to Leeds and Bradford with very mixed feelings. Positively, the route demonstrates that things can happen in other towns and cities across Britain, away from London, which attracts so much attention. Infrastructure can be built that will open up cycling as a mode of transport to people who might never have considered it. And there is at least now something established on the ground along these roads, good in places, bad in others, but something that can be improved upon.
On the negative side, the Leeds-Bradford cycleway demonstrates to me the need for clear, strong leadership in design, investment and implementation, to ensure that money being spent on cycling isn’t wasted on poor (and even dangerous) designs that will inevitably have to be fixed at a later date, as I suspect is true for a good deal of the route. It also demonstrates the need for clear political leadership at a national and local level, leadership that makes the case for modal shift, is willing to make tough choices in favour of it, and to face up to objections.
One of the most commonly heard myths about cycling and the Netherlands is that of ‘flatness’. Namely, that the reason cycling level are so high there – and so dismally low in Britain – is because the Netherlands is a flat country.
There are many reasons why this isn’t a very good explanation. In particular, it can’t account for why flat parts of Britain, areas just as flat as the Netherlands, have next to no cycling. Nor can it account for why hillier parts of the Netherlands have cycling levels far in excess of anywhere in Britain.
Both these problems of explanation point to the fact that ‘hilliness’ and ‘flatness’ are not important factors behind why cycling is so regular, everyday and ordinary in the Netherlands, and so rare and exceptional in many parts of Britain.
What really matters – and what really explains the difference – is the quality of the cycling environment. The Netherlands has a dense cycling network, of nearly universal high quality, that allows everyone to make journeys from to A to B in safety, in comfort, and with ease, almost entirely free of interactions with motor traffic. Most of Great Britain has nothing like this; it therefore has very little cycling.
There is, however, a crucial distinction to make here. In pointing out that ‘hills’ really aren’t the reason that cycling levels differ so wildly between the Netherlands and Britain, I am not arguing that hills make no difference at all. Hills are, of course, hard to cycle up. Cycling up a slope is more onerous than cycling on the flat.
So hills are a barrier, of a sort, to cycling. This is indisputable. They just aren’t a very important barrier, relative to the difference in the quality of the overall cycling environment between the Netherlands and Britain.
And much the same is true for other kinds of barriers to cycling. There are, undeniably, cultural barriers to cycling. Immigrants to the Netherlands cycle less than born there; they will often come from countries where cycling is much less normal, or even possible. It naturally takes time to adapt, to start using an unfamiliar mode of transport. Even so, immigrants to the Netherlands cycle a lot more than people from their countries of origin, and far more than people in Britain. (For instance, the cycling mode share for Moroccan immigrants to the Netherlands is 11%). So, again, it seems that this barrier isn’t particularly important, relative to the quality of the cycling environment.
Curiously, these issues are often approached from completely the wrong perspective, in that barriers to cycling are presented as reasons to do nothing. For instance, I’m sure we’ve all heard the argument that, because it’s too hilly in x town or city, people won’t cycle, and there’s therefore no point building any cycling infrastructure. Or, it’s too wet here. Or too hot. Or too cold. Some other people present different levels of cycling between ethnic groups as an argument against building cycling infrastructure – that because white people cycling more than those of ethnic minorities, cycling infrastructure cannot be that important.
By contrast, to my mind, these kinds of barriers mean we should do more, not less. In hilly areas, for instance, we should make sure that the cycling environment is even better; we should provide every assistance to people who want to cycle. If ‘hilliness’ is a problem, then it should be balanced out by a cycling environment of even higher quality.
Likewise, if there are cultural barriers to cycling, then we should strive for much higher quality cycling infrastructure in areas where these barriers exist. Painted lanes (or nothing at all) will be much less persuasive at encouraging ethnic minorities to cycle than comfortable, safe and attractive cycling environments.
When confronted with issues like underrepresentation of women in politics, or the way in which places at top universities are still disproportionately taken up by people from weather backgrounds, we don’t shrug our shoulders about alleged ‘cultural barriers’, and suggest that these ‘barriers’ are reasons in and of themselves to reduce the amount of action required. We should do everything we can to break down those barriers.
Precisely the same is true of barriers like weather, culture, and hilliness. If we think more cycling is desirable, but there are obstacles to participation, then those obstacles themselves should not be seized upon as reasons for inaction. On the contrary; they should compel us to adopt even higher standards, to make cycling as comfortable, safe and desirable a mode of transport as possible.
At the FreeCycle event in central London on Saturday, there were, of course, large numbers of people wearing helmets and hi-viz tabards – not least because the latter were, as always, being handed out to participants.
But as I cycled around the event during the course of the day, I began to notice a distinct phenomenon. Something dangling from people’s handlebars.
These were people who had set off from home with their cycle helmets, and then, on arriving in an environment which plainly felt very safe, decided those helmets weren’t necessary, and took them off (or perhaps didn’t even bother to don them at all).
Sometimes the helmet didn’t go on the handlebars. Those with practical baskets found a use for them.
Or the helmet was tucked onto a rack.
Even children could be seen cycling around with their helmets visibly discarded.
Including ones who were passengers.
This discarding of ‘safety equipment’ extended to the hi-viz bibs too, which were taken off and wrapped around handlebars…
… or pushed into baskets.
Or maybe not even worn in the first place.
By the end of the day, the amount of neon yellow in the crowds of people cycling around had noticeably diminished (at least, that was my impression).Maybe this shedding of helmets and bibs was, in part, due to Saturday being a reasonably warm summer’s day, the temperature prompting people to discard items that were making them hot.
But more importantly, all these people cycling around in an environment free of interactions with motor traffic felt safe enough to discard the safety equipment they had either been issued with, or brought themselves. They even felt safe enough to let their children do the same.
This is why I think focusing on what people are choosing to wear isn’t really an issue that cycle campaigners should get too exercised about. What they are wearing is a response to their environment. If cycling feels unsafe, then it is not surprising that people will readily adopt items of clothing that make them feel safer, be it protection for their heads, or jackets that they think will make them more conspicuous and ‘visible’ to drivers. A sea of helmets and hi-viz is not a personal failing on the part of people wearing them; it’s a symptom of a failure to provide safe conditions for people to cycle in.
Concern that individuals are making cycling look dangerous through the clothing they’ve chosen to wear is therefore totally misplaced. Don’t blame these people. Blame the conditions they are responding to, quite rationally – those conditions that they encounter on a daily basis, that make them feel that safety equipment is even necessary for what should be the simple activity of riding a bike.
When safe and comfortable conditions are provided – environments free from interactions with traffic danger – then safety equipment will start to naturally melt away. It happened in a few hours on Saturday; it will happen anywhere the same conditions are replicated for everyday journeys.
A consistent theme that you will encounter in campaigning circles – and indeed amongst the wider public – is that British people ‘hate cyclists’, or ‘hate cycling’. The explanation here must be that there is something genetic, something innate in the British character, that flares up at the sight of a bicycle, or someone riding one. That we’re culturally disposed to find a certain mode of transport annoying and irritating, along with its user.
But this is obviously a very superficial explanation. It doesn’t provide any account of the origins of that hatred and annoyance, instead, only asserts that it exists.
The reason people actually hate cyclists is, in fact, because we’re in the way. It’s that simple. Cycling is hated not for what it is, but because it causes inconvenience and hassle.
All the other complaints flow from this central problem. ‘Cycling two abreast’, ‘cycling in the middle of the road’, ‘weaving’, and so on, are all manifestations of this root annoyance at being impeded.
I was reminded of this the other day when I spotted someone expressing annoyance about cyclists in pretty much the same way.
Except, of course, that this person was himself using a bike! He was expressing frustration at being ‘held up’ by other Superhighway users in exactly the same way drivers express annoyance – the ‘casualness’ and the ‘non-helmet’ use are, as with driver complaints, merely a garnish, an attempt to reinforce the notion that people in the way are incompetent or irresponsible, and not ‘proper’ users of a road, or a cycleway, unlike the person being held up.
Nobody likes to be held up, whether they are walking along a footway that’s blocked by a crowd of people, or cycling on a cycleway where other users are getting in your way and not letting you get past, or driving a motor vehicle. It’s an innate, human characteristic.
So at root the problem of ‘cyclist hatred’ is really one of space. The reason it flares up so often, and appears to be so ubiquitous, is because cycling doesn’t have its own dedicated domain, and is consequently constantly rubbing against other incompatible modes of transport, with predictable results. This is equally true for cycling on footways, which is just as potent a source of annoyance as cycling in front of motor vehicles.
Take these people, and transfer them onto a system where they are not in the way of either motorists or pedestrians, and all the grounds for hatred disappear.
Likewise all these people here – cycling on Blackfriars Bridge – are on a separate system to drivers and pedestrians, and consequently all parties are benignly indifferent to each other in a way that would not be possible if they were pushed into the same space.And this kind of separated approach is of course universal in the Netherlands. The Dutch system of ensuring that roads without cycling infrastructure are only used by motorists for access purposes means that – even on these roads where cyclists aren’t physically separated – motorists aren’t held up, because there aren’t many other motorists to cause problems.
It is of course true that these kinds of design approaches also reduce frustration between motorists. In ensuring that these inappropriate residential streets cannot be used as through routes, we prevent rat-running and antagonism between drivers trying to battle their way, often against opposing motor traffic, on narrow streets.
So the solution to hostility between users of different modes – and indeed amongst users of the same mode – is not pleas for tolerance, or attempts to get us to ‘share the road’, or to ‘respect each other’, but one of design. We can’t engineer out basic human frustration. We can engineer streets and roads where that frustration doesn’t even materialise in the first place.
One of the nicest things about cycling along the Embankment (apart from the new cycling infrastructure, of course) is… the greenery.
This is particularly obvious as you approach the Houses of Parliament from the north. As the bend of the river unwinds, the Palace of Westminster gradually reveals itself through a lovely forest of trees as you near Parliament Square. And you really notice the trees as this happens.
I have to say I wasn’t too aware of this on the few occasions I dared to cycle here before this cycling infrastructure had been built. Frankly, I was probably too busy worrying about drivers, and working out where the next potential hazard was going to come from, to properly engage with the scenery. Now, every time I cycle along here, I can relax and fully appreciate the difference these trees make to the urban environment. They are a softening, calming and sheltering presence that add greatly to the beauty of the city.
The Embankment is, unfortunately, something of a rarity for London though. Far too many roads and streets are not this well-endowed with trees, or indeed have no street trees at all. Blackfriars Road is also lovely to cycle on, thanks to a similar combination of cycling infrastructure and greenery.
But you don’t have to look very far in London to find streets and roads that are barren.
They’re usually barren for a reason – most of the street width is being used to accommodate the flow of motor traffic. Trees literally don’t fit, not without some repurposing of street space.
But even roads and streets that have recently been rebuilt are devoid of trees.
This is even true for roads that now have cycling infrastructure. For instance, it looks like a big opportunity has been missed to plant trees as part of the rebuild of Farringdon Street.
By contrast, it strikes me that trees are an integral part of new street layouts and roads in Dutch cities like Utrecht. They are planned for, and it just happens.
Indeed, reviewing my photographs of Utrecht, I’m struck by how universally green the city is. All of my photos have trees in them, without me even noticing at the time.
The city centre is full of trees.
New developments have trees in them.
New street arrangements carefully retain existing trees, and make a feature of them.
Older cycle paths are, of course, accompanied by street trees – you can usually date them by the age of the trees. A few decades old, in the examples below.
And, naturally, cycle paths in the countryside around Utrecht are framed with trees.
There’s a practical, pragmatic reason for much of this effort – trees help to shelter people walking and cycling from the elements, be it wind, or rain, or sun. A dense line of trees really does make a difference if you are battling a crosswind, and it can stop you getting sunburnt, as well as keeping the worst of the rain off you.
But within urban areas this greenery is vitally important for aesthetic reasons, to soften the urban environment, and to make it calmer, more pleasant and attractive. I’m wondering why opportunities to include them in new road layouts in London – and perhaps elsewhere – are still being missed. Is it cost? Is it an unwillingness to allocate street space away from motor traffic, for these purposes? Or is factoring in greenery something that simply doesn’t appear at the design stage?
We seem keen enough on greenery that we’re apparently willing to spend £180m putting trees on a bridge in the middle of the river – so why are we failing to incorporate greenery into new roads and street designs whenever the opportunity presents itself, as well failing to add it to existing roads and streets?
It seems that Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust are still pushing their extraordinary petition to block safe cycling infrastructure design on Westminster Bridge, apparently on ‘safety grounds’.
Concern is obviously fine, but the problem here is that GSTT are arguing against bus stop bypasses – even going so far as to threaten legal action – while conspicuously failing to suggest any reasonable alternative design to the one being proposed by Transport for London. And there’s a very good reason for this.
There isn’t any reasonable alternative.
If you don’t build bus stop bypasses – putting the bus stop on an island, with cycling routed between that island and the footway – you are left with two options.
The first is what I would call ‘business as usual’; mixing people cycling with buses and heavy traffic on the road.
This is far from acceptable even for existing users, let alone for the non-cycling demographic that we should be building cycling infrastructure for – children, the elderly, and so on, the kind of people you rarely see cycling in London, because the road conditions, and because of the lack of cycling infrastructure like that being proposed by Transport for London on Westminster Bridge. The people who want to cycle, but can’t, because of conditions like those shown in the photograph above, and who do when infrastructure is provided.
— Lambeth Cyclists (@LambethCyclists) July 1, 2016
Just for clarity, three people have been killed or seriously injured cycling on this eastern section of the bridge since 2006, including a woman in her fifties, who was killed in January 2006.
The other alternative, if we don’t build bus stop bypasses, is simply mixing cycling with walking on the footway. As it happens, this is currently the existing situation on the footway outside Guy’s and St Thomas’.
I don’t think this is acceptable at all; it’s not acceptable for people with visual impairment, or indeed for anyone walking or cycling along here. It’s not good enough. People walking and cycling should be separated from each other, on the grounds of both safety and convenience.
And that’s it. Those are the only two alternatives, if you refuse to build bus stop bypasses. You either expose people cycling to unacceptable levels of danger on the carriageway (while simultaneously limiting cycling as a transport option to the existing narrow demographic willing to cycle in hostile conditions), or you mix them with pedestrians on the footway. There is no magic solution that is waiting to be discovered.
This is why Guy’s and St Thomas’ posturing on this issue is deeply silly. There is no alternative. So instead of trying to block bus stop bypasses altogether, they need to work constructively with Transport for London on ensuring that the design of the bypasses is as safe for all potential users as is possible.