[Note: There's a follow-up post, written a few days after this one, here.]
It is my opinion that John Franklin is a selfish fool who has harmed cycling in this country and endangered lives through his advice. This blog post gives my personal view of him and his work.
If John Franklin’s aim was to keep cycling as a niche activity practised by a tiny minority of confident men, then congratulations! Success! Well done! You may now stop reading.
If John Franklin’s aim was to help riding a bike become an activity which is easy for everyone — men and women, from toddlers to pensioners — then he has failed.
If you don’t know who John Franklin is, he’s the author of Cyclecraft, the guide to riding a bike on the road. That in itself is fine, as it contains good advice for riding on Britain’s motor-dominated roads (though it may sound crazy to you that riding in traffic is also aimed at children, and this is actually promoted by the government).
The problem is that he opposes a type of road design which is proven to increase cycling rates and safety and which offers a better way of life for everyone, and not just for “cyclists” either. And unfortunately for anyone who would like to go for a bike ride without battling the traffic, he is quite influential.
So I feel that his work here has ultimately resulted in parents being afraid for their children to ride a bike to school, it’s why nipping to the shops on a bike can feel like an extreme sport, and the reason that for decades cycling in the UK has remained a niche activity, instead of the mass transport option it could be. Also, he is part of the reason that, for me, a Sunday evening pleasure ride turned into a nerve-wracking endurance test from hell.
Cyclecraft, AKA Vehicular Cycling
John Franklin quite literally wrote the book on it, but essentially Vehicular Cycling describes a method of riding a bike like you’re driving a car. You dominate the lane, you flow with the cars and vans, and you are almost certainly a middle-class male aged 20-50. (You’re probably also dressed up like a traffic cone at Christmas, but that’s optional.)
You also ignore all the close-passing taxis, pretend that the driver behind you isn’t impatiently blaring their horn, and convince yourself that it’s a perfectly fine way for people of all ages to travel.
I must assume that Franklin can’t see past the end of own nose (it seems patently obvious to me why this way of travelling appeals to pretty much no-one) otherwise he wouldn’t still be ploughing the same failed furrow 25 years on. Surely it’s not hard to see why cycling like this is very unpleasant?
It’s fair to say that the vast majority of people don’t want to ride a bike amongst motor traffic. Whatever the numbers say (cycling is statistically safe) riding a bike on the road doesn’t feel safe. It’s awful, and the woman on her mobile phone who almost knocked me off by turning left right in front of me (actually hit my front wheel!) did not dispel that view. Nor did the taxi which failed to stop at the STOP sign, causing me to emergency brake. Nor did the other taxi which, annoyed because I was legally and properly riding along Victoria Embankment, decided to pass me with only centimetres distance, despite there being an empty lane he could have used (and he was turning right anyway!). And – finally for this lovely Sunday jaunt – the speeding Terravision coach which passed dangerously close to me just so it could get around the junction of Westminster Bridge Road and Lambeth Palace Road before the lights changed.
No amount of Vehicular Cycling made any of this easier or attractive, by the way, as it’s just a way to deal with the horror. The taxi driver intentionally passed too close, even though there was a whole extra lane he could have used. Cycling on the road is unpleasant, it’s stressful, and it’s the reason why nobody in Britain cycles any more.*
The real solution to our traffic problems, which John Franklin actively opposes, is proper infrastructure for bikes. It is possible, it is affordable, and all the answers are easily available across the North Sea in the Netherlands.
The Right to Ride
It’s the right to ride a bike on the road. It’s the right to ride on the busy bypass. It’s the right to ride around the big gyratory. It’s the right to ride amongst traffic speeding at 80mph. That might be a right that you don’t exercise yourself — nor do the vast majority of the public who don’t touch a bike from one year to the next — and I don’t blame you one bit. But it is a fiercely-defended right, and so it should be.
I do actually believe in the Right to Ride on the road — there’s nowhere else to ride in the UK, after all. But many of the Right to Ride faithful, John Franklin included, are also a force against everyone else’s actual right to ride confidently and safely in the real world. By opposing proper Dutch-style infrastructure, they are saying we must not make cycling suitable for everyone, as that may theoretically erode my right to the dual carriageway!
By blocking the building of bike paths, these people therefore prevent the majority of people from feeling safe enough to ever use a bicycle. Because this tiny minority of the population fear it will impact on their right to cycle on the road, they oppose something which would be beneficial to the other 99% of society. This is such an incredibly selfish act, and anyone who has campaigned to block the building Dutch-style cycle paths should hang their heads in shame.
Pubcraft, AKA Thugular Drinking
How about an analogy to lighten the mood?
We all have a right to enter that horrible pub on the rough estate — you know the one, full of aggressive, drunk men who stare threateningly at you as you enter. For some reason my right to enter pubs like that is not one I use often, if ever, and I can’t imagine that many other people do either. It’s just easier not to bother, I’ll go somewhere else instead.
I’m sure that maybe 3% of the nicer local characters do go into this pub, however. Maybe on match days it increases to 10% — safety in numbers, right? And perhaps there’s a book called Pubcraft which describes the best way to deal with drunken thugs, and the best way to avoid getting punched in the nightly fight.
And the worst thing is, the people who use this pub are actively blocking the building of a swimming pool nearby! Though the pool will be used by and benefit the whole community, it will mean the pub-goers can’t walk across the corner of the waste ground to get home any more! They might have to walk around the newly-built swimming pool, though they haven’t seen the designs yet so they’re not entirely sure, but this pool must be stopped at all costs! Even if we have to lie about the safety of swimming pools to turn people against it…
The Right to Reality
These rights are now, in 2012, largely theoretical. They’ve gone. The pub is, in reality, a thug’s pub, and the UK’s roads – as far as the vast majority of the population are concerned – belong to the cars and taxis and lorries and vans and motorbikes, and no amount of point-scoring or Lycra or helmet-cams are going to change that. The 3% modal share for cycling is pathetic. The war on the motorist is over, and the internal combustion engine won. I’m not happy about it, but that’s where the UK stands right now.
Yes, those who wish to use it do have the right to ride a bike on the road. The CTC and others do great work in supporting that right when it is threatened. Let me emphasise once more that I agree with the Right to Ride. But it shouldn’t be at odds with safe and convenient Dutch-style cycling provision.
Back to John
So, apart from being the poster child for VC and the anti-infrastructure branch of the Right to Ride, the government turns to him for advice. I can hardly believe it’s true, but it is.
Having read this report (PDF) I think I know why UK highway authorities turn to him for advice: it’s because he’s cheap. Well, not the man himself — I don’t know how much he charges for reports like this — but, to my mind, his recommendations are so small and don’t really challenge the dominance of motor vehicles that they must be cheap to implement. It enables councils to say they’re supporting cycling but without actually doing much to change the roads.
Franklin is clearly against having separate cycle ways — the kind that have proven to be so successful in the Netherlands — stating…
“The potential for increasing cycling through separate cycle facilities … is very limited and experience has shown that these can sometimes be counter-productive in terms of cycle use, safety and encouraging attitudes helpful to more cycling. Instead, there is a need to recognise that most cycling takes places on roads with other traffic, that this will remain the case in the future and that those aspects of road design and traffic management that deter cycling need to be re-examined and policies reconsidered.”
So despite all the evidence which proves that cycling infrastructure increases both cycling rates and cycling safety, John Franklin really is saying that cycle-specific stuff is bad and dangerous, and everyone should ride on the road with those nice, safe lorries. This includes your 5 year old niece, and your 85 year old great-grandad, by the way — it must include them, otherwise what sort of a transport policy would this be if it excluded all but the fittest and most confident?
Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics
In this article from 1999 Franklin points out that in Milton Keynes (which does have separated cycle paths, though they’re very poor by Dutch standards) there are sometimes more accidents on the “redways” (the cycle tracks) than on the roads, but doesn’t actually count the proportion of cycle journeys made on the redways as opposed to the roads. Without this information, his table of accidents is useless — the redways could carry 99% of bike traffic in Milton Keynes, which would make them extremely safe. Who knows, as he hasn’t included those numbers, just the ones that suit him.
You’ll also find that his articles often quote hard numbers rather than percentages, a statistical sleight-of-hand which can be very misleading. With the Milton Keynes data, he also splits up the roads into different types which makes the on-road accident rate appear lower, and claims without evidence that there is “considerable underreporting” of accidents on the redways. Most of the accidents on the redways are down to the faults with their design — badly designed junctions, steep slopes, etc. — than with the concept of cycle paths per se.
Just because there are problems with cycle paths in Milton Keynes doesn’t mean that all cycle path designs are bad (do I have to mention the Netherlands again?). I don’t think any cycle path campaigner is suggesting we use Milton Keynes as a blueprint.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that John Franklin is an evil man — that would be ridiculous — but I believe him to be a misguided and ideologically blinkered man. I agree that poor cycle lane design does more harm than good, and he rightly criticises the atrocious white lines and green paint that successive UK governments have had the gall to suggest is cycling infrastructure.
He isn’t entirely immune to the charms of the Dutch, either. In this document (PDF) from 2009, in addition to describing the UK’s current dreadful infrastructure, he includes a photo of a good quality Dutch cycle path and writes:
“…not to say that cycling infrastructure is never appropriate. However, there are probably few aspects of traffic engineering where getting the detail right is so important. The Dutch example [in the photo] shows how cycle tracks should be. A decent verge, centre lines, a good and unobstructed surface and a separate footway for pedestrians. Good forward visibility, no close vegetation and signs to warn of all hazards are also important as, of course, is safety and ease of use at junctions. A cyclist should at all times expect to receive a similar level of service to that on a road.”
I almost fell off my chair! John Franklin supports Dutch-style cycle paths! But then I read the rest of the document, and realised that it was just a brief out-of-character moment for him. (I imagine he felt a bit dizzy while writing it.) Apart from that, it’s the usual diagrams of bad junction designs which the Dutch stopped using in the 1970s, and quotes from bodies not renowned for their cycling expertise (is the Viennese state known for its bike paths?) backing up his foregone conclusions. How can he look at what the Dutch have and yet still oppose it in the UK?
(Maybe I should have ignored the rest of the PDF, focussed on that paragraph and written an article all about how John Franklin loves separated cycle paths? Seems to be the done thing, after all!)
He ends the above document with two quotes. The first quote is from another John F — his US equivalent John Forrester, similar in both name and ideology — stating the usual treat-bikes-as-cars bullshit which is so absurd that I’m not going to repeat it. The second quote is from Ernest Marples, a former Minister of Transport, though instead of backing up John and his stateside twin, it is surely an endorsement of the Netherlands’ approach to cycling:
“If you make conditions right, there’s a great future for cycling. If you make them wrong, there’s none.”
Which country got it right, and which country is doing it wrong?
I believe that the anti-infrastructure policies that Franklin promotes are responsible for the high cycling death toll on Britain’s roads.
I think only the insane would prefer using a bike as transport in the UK over the Netherlands.
I have to assume that John Franklin is a selfish idiot. He doesn’t seem to care whether people ride a bike or not, just so he can keep selling his stupid book and telling councils that people on bikes should mix with motor traffic.
The same goes for others who would deny us proper Dutch-style cycle paths, despite it being obvious that the Netherlands’ solution is better.
To those of you who would defend Franklin and his anti-infrastructure stance, answer me these questions:
- People in which country make more journeys by bike, the Netherlands or the UK?
- Which country has the most cycling infrastructure, the Netherlands or the UK?
- Which country — the Netherlands or the UK — has a 89% national average cycle-to-school rate, and which country has a 1% national average cycle-to-school rate?
- In which country — the Netherlands or the UK — is it considered normal for nine year-olds to travel independently by bike?
If you can answer these questions correctly, then you must know that Dutch-style infrastructure is right, and John Franklin is wrong to oppose it.
To finish, I would like to say once more — and I really mean this, from the bottom of my heart — fuck you, John Franklin.
* While “nobody cycles any more” is obviously not technically true, it’s true enough: Similarly, around 3% of UK households don’t have a television, but if someone said “everyone has a television” it would probably go unchallenged, as an accurate enough generalisation for common discourse. Funnily enough, 3% is more or less the number of people who ride bikes, see p7 and p12 here for example.
Note, added 20:45 – Before you comment, may I reiterate here that I’m not against Vehicular Cycling or the Right to Ride (both are currently essential when riding a bike in the UK). I am against VC and RtR being the only options, at the expense of proper infrastructure: filtered permeability, lower speed limits, etc., in addition to cycle paths.
Update, 30th July 2012: I corrected the Netherlands average cycle-to-school rate from 95% to 89%. Impressive and far ahead of anywhere else, either way.