A non-cyclist's view of cycle campaigning

A guest blog post from the Alternative Department for Transport

I have a confession to make: I'm not a cyclist. At least, I don't think I am. 

I think this mainly because I don't own a bike. I ride the London hire bikes a few times a month at most (nearly always along specific low-traffic routes that I'm familiar with). I have no idea what a derailleur is. I have absolutely no interest in cycling as a sport — I've never been to a velodrome, I don't watch the Tour de France, and I didn't know who "Wiggo" was until he got knocked over. 

But on the other hand, I write a blog in which cycling features heavily. I went on two cycling holidays in the Netherlands this year. If one of my friends asks me what I've been doing recently, they may well get an hour-long lecture about modal share, recent Dutch history, and Boris Johnson's broken promises. Cycling to me is a mode of transport, albeit a much misunderstood and suppressed one here in the UK, though it has the almost magical ability to transform our lives for the better. I think it should be a safe, easy and efficient transport option for everybody at any age, like it is in the Netherlands.

I yearn to cycle!

The fact that I cycle so rarely shows how far London really is from being a city fit for cycling (to coin a phrase). Riding a bike in London so often results in stress and terror, neither of which I wish to incorporate into my daily routine.

I've read that to get modal share from 2% to 3% is pretty easy — the extra 1% of journeys are made by people who are already eager to use a bike and they don't need much encouragement. (To get from, say, 25% to 26% is more difficult, as those people are much harder to convince.)

Well, I'm part of that group of people who are easy to convince to become regular riders, the 1% who are cyclists-in-waiting, and will make up the next increase in cycling rates. I really want to ride a bike every day — I yearn to, even! — and yet I rarely do so because it's just so very unpleasant. It's nicer to walk, and it's easier to get the tube or a bus. Sure it's slower or more expensive, but there are far fewer near-death experiences. For most people, that's a reasonable trade-off.

You crazy cyclists crack me up!

Being new to this whole cycling scene, many of the things which seasoned cyclists say strike me as being either fantastically optimistic, utterly baffling, or downright insane.

One of the strangest things I've come across is vehicular cycling. I know it's a survival technique for riding on the road, but the idea that it's suitable for everybody is beyond belief. It sounds awful, and is never going to attract new people to cycling. If anything, it's more likely to put potential cyclists off for good. Every time you say "take the lane" to a non-cyclist, they hear "risk your life" and will then decide to "take the car" instead.

Similarly, the idea that we can train people to enjoy bike-riding in traffic is also quite baffling, and seems rather desperate to me. The vast majority don't even want to try it. Unless you'd genuinely be happy for your children or your grandparents to do it, anywhere and at any time, it's not the right answer.

Another strange belief is that people don't ride a bike because there are no showers at their destination. This is truly preposterous. If cycling was something that inherently involved sweating profusely enough to require carrying a change of clothes then I wouldn't consider doing it anyway, I'd find another mode of transport instead. (Also, if it were true that showers are the big thing, absolutely everybody would cycle to the gym, surely?) In the Netherlands I cycled 35 miles a day, and didn't break into any more of a sweat than I would have done walking.

I often hear it said that people don't cycle because they don't know how to do their own repairs. Again, I'm floored by this. Most people don't even get close to the stage where they're doing their own repairs. If they bought a bike and it needed repairing, they'd take it to a repair shop. The few that like getting their hands dirty would just look up on the web. (I'm one of these people — I fixed our washing machine by replacing the carbon brushes in the motor. My flatmates' solution was to throw it out and buy a new one.) Lack of repair knowledge is not stopping people from taking up cycling.

No, the main reason most people don't ride a bike is because it looks and feels too dangerous. Ask around if you don't believe me.

But cycling is safe!

The comparison of cycling with gardening makes me laugh: "You are more likely to be injured in an hour of gardening than in an hour of cycling." It misses the point in a spectacular way. The problem with this reasoning is that gardening feels safe, people enjoy doing it, and if you have a garden it needs to be done at least occasionally. When cycling feels dangerous people won't enjoy doing it — and it doesn't need to be done, you can just take the car instead, so most people do.

Or maybe it doesn't miss the point. Maybe my desire for cycling to be safe and accessible to all isn't the same as most cycle campaigners, whose goal seems to be to make on-road cycling better for the minority clique of existing on-road cyclists, and to have a bunch of arguments and statistics ready for when somebody questions them about it.

So where now?

Well I think the CEoGB is on the right track. We shouldn't be concentrating on minor on-road improvements for existing cyclists. We need to focus on what will get more people cycling, and survey after survey points to good quality protected cycle paths. If you want to grow cycling so that it is accessible to anybody of any ability, this is the only way to do it (other than by banning motor vehicles entirely — good luck with that one!). Pushing for Dutch-quality infrastructure hasn't yet been tried, but everything else has.

Cycle campaign groups are usually focussed on local matters, which I can understand but I don't think will bring about real change. It can't do — even cycling-friendly councils are often hampered by central government restrictions. Have you ever wondered why all the road signs and markings look the same, from Land's End to John O'Groats, from the 1950s to today? That's because it was designed and approved in Whitehall and distributed to the regions. If cycling infrastructure is to become successful nationwide, then the change must come from the top.

We need to demand the best from our politicians. We need to focus on the DfT, and other central government bodies, to make the changes required. We need to stop including compromises in our requests. We need to stop settling for second-best solutions. We need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel when the answers to our problems are available in the Netherlands. (They even speak English really well!)

It seems criminal to me that successive governments in the UK have sidelined cycling and walking, along with all the benefits they bring to the whole of society, even those driving cars. It sounds like an exaggeration to say that what the Dutch have installed results in a better quality of life for everybody, but it's the truth. Surely we all want the children of the UK to grow up healthy and happy?

Walking off into the sunset

So where does that leave me? For the foreseeable future, on foot, on the bus, or in the tube, and — very occasionally, when everyone else has gone to bed — riding a bike.

Until cycling feels safe, until it's convenient and easy, until I don't have to dice with death — or at the very least, be bullied by black cabs — then you won't get me on a bike more often. The vast majority of people agree with me on this.

Comments

i am a "cyclist", I watch the TDF, followed this year for a few days in France, love the velodrome and in my youth raced.

I love the mechanicals have built up and restored bikes and am a sustrans coordinating Ranger - and I agree with all you say!!

Cycling should be a means of transport, I use a bike for that purpose as well as touring and watching sport.

I have spent time in The Netherlands and Germany and other European countries and know what is good infrastructure and have seen and marvelled at the huge numbers riding, seeing a school in Assen in the Netherlands with 1000+ bike racks and over 90% of pupils and staff cycling to school some up to 10 kms is wonderful.

Your views should be sen in evey cycling magazine, newspaper and journal throughout the land.

MPs should be forced to read it and then act.

Great stuff please keep saying these things, and enjoy using a bike for its main purpose - transport.

Bob MacQueen

A very helpful perspective and it reminds me of one of the conclusions in the 'Understanding Walking and Cycling' study (Pooley et al, 2011) which was that cycling provision should be determined solely by consultation with cyclists - by definition they are the most resilient, confident and determined and have evaluated sophisticated survival strategies to cope with hostile road conditions. Its' the views of the cyclists-in-waiting which must be heard.

I take issue with your point about cycle maintenance training though. For cycling to be inclusive and to embrace lower income groups there is a need for maintenance training for those who can't afford to pay local bike shop (LBS) workshop rates. 

I was in my LBS a few Saturdays ago and a teenage boy with a puncture was asking about the cost of a new inner tube. It was £5 plus £5 for fitting. He only had £5 but didn't have the tools (nor the knowledge and skills) to pay to have a new tube fitted. There needs to be some provision, in the form of community workshops or clubs, maybe with tool banks, to help people become self-sufficient. When I grew up, it was normal for parents to pass the techniques of bike maintenance on to their children but there are now several generations of parents who have probably never cycled.

All so true, although I fear you're preaching to the converted.

I hope you don't mind if I relate my experiences as a regular urban cyclist visiting two capital cities in 2012, and trying cycling in both.

London.  I hired a Barclays hire bike from a rack near Euston on my own.  Very cautiously made my way along some back streets to Regents Park to have a ride around in a less intimidating environment.  There were a few people cycling along Euston Road but it was incredibly busy and didn't look much fun.  On getting to the park I was disappointed to discover all the thoroughfares through it were either roads with motor vehicles on or paths which had big "NO CYCLING" signs, unlike the parks I know in Manchester.  The only exception was The Broadwalk, where cycling is apparently allowed as part of an extended trial.  Finally I got to try my Boris Bike out for a few minutes before cautiously picking my way back towards the station.

Copenhagen.  I hired a bike with a child seat for my three year old daughter, as did my wife who was six months pregnant at the time.  All three (four?) of us spent an enjoyable two days exploring the city by bike, including a ten mile round trip to the beach.  Actually, in many ways cycling was much easier than walking any distance, although the beach trip was a bit chilly!

It saddens me to think how poor we are in this respect in the UK.  Especially now I see the London Royal Parks website's "Fall into Autumn" banner; an idyllic scene featuring two silhouetted cyclists , daddy carrying junior in a child seat.  At heart we know that cycling is great, but we don't know how to make it happen. :(

-Switching tack back onto vehicular cyclists, I sent a friend a link to your "Franklin and Forester quotes" post.  After "the Wiggins incident" he commented that Bradley obviously hasn't quite mastered the 20mph sprint speed which could have enabled him to tackle that traffic situation.

Good read, thanks.

Reminded me of an online chat I had the other day when I asked the Go Dutch people how they handled the fact we have more hills in the UK. Was instantly told how much fun hills are, the joys of downhill, and concertingly that we only imagine the hills, and netherlands is as hilly as we are.

If I wasnt a cyclist I would have turned off and gone back to my car. 

I agree that segregated is the way to go for mass take-up of cycling as I hear the exact same comments in my discussions with the unconverted.

Yours is the viewpoint least heard, and most needed in any campaign

 

 

Oh I so wish I could think that Boris, or the biggest bananas in TfL and DfT, or every member of the Cabinet and Shadow-Cabinet, might read this, and get on with acting on what you suggest. So much sense in what you say. But even if they don't, thanks for providing such good arguments for disagreeing with the 'vehicular cyclist'  approach to things. It will help as we creep towards some kind of consensus about what's needed to provide a more encouraging environment for cyclists.

Irena

I think I know how you feel.  I have ridden bikes most of my life though I would never have styled myself a "cyclist".  However, I only took commuting in 2006, as my commute would take me over Blackfriars Bridge and until that time the road layout there, with a cycle lane sandwiched between two fast-moving traffic lanes, looke like pure suicide.

And indeed it was, with the second victim, Vicky Mcreery's death leading to a radical redesign of the bridge which finally made it look like it might be safe.  Three traffic lanes were rediuced to two, of which one is a bus lane, and a 2.5m mandatory on-road cycle lane was laid along the edge.  Unlike many cycle lanes, this is largely respected by motors, although occasionally motorbikes infringe it to creep around the side to getinto (and infringe) the ASL.

I got off to a fairly good start, gaining confidence to the point where I was willing to tackle most things.

But, I am getting older, and more apprehensive about the conditions.  I don't have the sprint speed capability so beloved of John Franklin, and I really don't think I can keep up 20mph, especially on a Brompton, except when it is downhill.  I feel I am gradually being exiled from London roads as I lose my nerve little by little.  There are still plenty I can use, mainly side streets, but this inevitably necessitates a fair bit of zig-zagging through the one way systems, especially in toxic Westmonster where cycle contraflows, like mandatory or segregated cycle paths, are almost entirely non-existent.  At the moment I am faced with a dilemma because my route from Blackfriars to Waterloo, which used to pass along Upper Ground on a fairly quiet route (and a NCN route) has now been diverted along Stamford St via the junction with Blackfriars Road, and I can't find any really satisfactory way of avoiding that.

I'll probably get by for the handful of years for which I forecast I will still be working in London, but unless something major happens soon, it is going to come to an end.

I think we bicyclists (I prefer the American term) really need to stand on our hind legs and snort more.  After all, other lobby groups with much less deserving cases - free car parking advocates for example - seem to get somewhere by bellowing stridently and writing to their MPs or councillors or vicars or whoever else it is they write to.  I know people will say we don't really have a single vision of how things should look (and see my footnote on that) but I do think there are certain unifying themes we could start with while we work out the detail:  we are also "roadtaxpayers" and it is time we got something back for our taxes, and; it is time to give the lie to the nostrum that "network assurance" is the be-all and end-all of transport planning.

ps:  review in CTC "Cyclist" magazine of "Effective Cycling, 7th Edition" - "John Forester is an American Author...but writes that his major influence was CTC's George Herbert Stancer.  Effective Cycling is a thick book aimed at the beginner cyclist.  It covers a lot of what John Franklin writes about... but with additional detail on ....campaigning.  I was very interested by his conclusion that even cyclists appear to have bought into the motoring lobby's efforts to restrict cyclists"

PaulM

You may be right that segregation will be the only way to convince the terrified British public to get on their bikes for day to day transport. It just seems like a very expensive way to tackle misconceptions, even deeply held ones. 

The fact is that cycling on our roads now isn't the hardcore extreme sport most people percieve it as. Dr Harry Rutter, lead author of the recent NICE report says-

"All activities carry a risk. For some reason there seems to be strong focus on the risk of injury associated with cycling. Clearly, when deaths do takes place that's tragic, and we need to do all we can to avoid them. But I think there is a perception that cycling is much more dangerous than it really is.

This focus on the dangers of cycling is something to do with the visibility of them, and the attention it's given. What we don't notice is that if you were to spend an hour a day riding a bike rather than being sedentary and driving a car there's a cost to that sedentary time. It's silent, it doesn't get noticed. What we're talking about here is shifting the balance from that invisible danger of sitting still towards the positive health benefits of cycling."

So, before we commit to total (and currently unaffordable) segregation shouldn't we come together and give a strong, honest and united message to the nation? If that fails to get through then maybe we have to resort to tarmac and concrete to shift opinions. What is for sure is that as long as cycling advocates keep arguing with eachother we are unlikely to convince anybody of much at all. 

DonM

"The fact is that cycling on our roads now isn't the hardcore extreme sport most people perceive it as" Quite right BUT it is considerably more dangerous that the Netherlands - In 2009, the latest year available, the fatality rate for cyclists in the Netherlands was 9 per billion kilometres, less than half that in Britain (21 in 2009).

There is the additional point that somehow cycling in the UK is made to look "different" - if it isn't a "hard core extreme sport", why do so many cyclists dress up as though it is? Cycling is a minority transport choice in this country and I suspect that the image of cyclists as wierdos in fancy dress doesn't help! The Dutch get around this by selling bikes that are suitable for the job - riding in normal clothes to do normal things, proving well maintained segregated routes and paths so people don't get covered in road grime so cyclists - even children - can dress normally and arrive clean and safe.

We are campaigning to make cycling available to everybody from 8 to 80 (and beyond!) so we must acknowledge that frankly a massive part of the population is effectively disenfranchised because they physically can't use the "vehicular" cycling techniques that may keep them safe on much of the road network.

Geoff

The best bike is a used bike!

Hi Don, 

Thanks for the comment, although I disagree with you on both your main points! I hope this doesn't come across as confrontational, but as the author of this article I'd like to try to explain why infrastructure is the way forward. 

Firstly, cycling infrastructure is not unaffordable. Increasing cycling rates saves the country money -- especially on health. (The health costs associated with poor air quality and lack of exercise are many billions per year, in addition to the human suffering.) The government of the Netherlands has demonstrated time and time again that cycle infrastructure is a worthwhile investment which pays back more than it costs, and very quickly too.

The £1bn per year which is required may sound high to you and me, but it's less than 10% of the transport budget and is peanuts compared to the average motorway widening project (see the spiralling multi-billion M25 widening costs for example). That £1bn would cover the whole of the UK by the way -- as opposed to the M25 widening which only a relatively small number of people will ever benefit from. 

Secondly, we've already tried cycling "promotion" and "encouragement" over the past 30 years and it's had no effect. For decades there was pretty much exclusively the promotion of riding on the road, and the associated training, and it has failed spectacularly. If you were to suggest that as a message to the nation in 1982 then you might have a point, but we've been there and done that now, it's long been time to try something else. 

Because telling people that they will be fine riding a bike down the ring road just isn't going to work. I know it sounds fine to you, but to the average person it sounds like suicide. Even if it's statistically safe, it's a very unpleasant and immediately danger-filled activity, whereas taking the car is a much nicer and easier option -- even if it's making you slightly fatter every time you start the engine. You don't feel that heart attack 30 years away when you're nipping to the shops in the car, but on a bike you feel all those close-passing cars and vans in a most acute way. 

In the Netherlands, taking the bike is the nicer, easier option. We have to make it that way here if cycling rates are to increase. 

Our poor safety rates are worse than we think anyway, as cyclists are a self-selecting group, so they're not representative of the whole population. The vast majority of cyclists in the UK are fast, confident men aged 20-50 who can handle riding on the road. If we want the same wide demographic of cyclists that the Netherlands has -- male and female, frail and strong, from toddlers to geriatrics -- then we can't expect all those people to be happy taking the lane or tackling a gyratory. As Joe Dunckley puts it: it's only "safe" [in the UK] because the most vulnerable (children, elderly...) don't do it.

Have a look at these photo posts I've been doing, which show every day scenes of calm and normal utility cycling in the Netherlands. Can you really imagine that happening on the UK's roads?! The mother and child overtaking a bus on Clyde Street in Glasgow? The kids with the dog riding along Euston Road in London? The woman with her shopping taking the lane on Regent Road in Manchester?

Best regards, 

S.C.

 

The Alternative Department for Transport - http://departmentfortransport.wordpress.com/

Hope you don't mind but I've tweeted your photo blogs  - they are fantastic examples of why I want Dutch infrastructure!

Geoff

The best bike is a used bike!

Hi DonM,

let me give you an example of why promotion will never work. I commute to work and take the kid to nursery by bike (+trailer) nearly every day, and have been promoting the idea of using a bike to get around to my wife. So she's been exposed to the fact that cycling is safe (no accident in ~3 years), quick, healthy (lost my paunch!) and fun.

She is fit, active and not easily intimated (black belt in Taekwondo, used to compete internationally), and doesn't have a driving license, so you'd think that's a slam dunk for cycling. Yet when I offered to buy her a bike she took one look at the streets round where we live (Brent), paid attention to how cars/vans/taxis/lorries/buses interact on the road, and went "no way Jose".

If she thinks it is too dangerous, there is no way you'll get more people like her cycling with fancy posters and a bit of paint on the road. Give those people and their elderly relatives/children subjectively and objectively safe routes to go places they want to go, and they will cycle without you needing to do any promotion at all.

Get a bike and give it a short. It is good for everyone... I had theb same views before being one. cheap car parking Luton