Tag Archives: cycling

Transport Poverty

Note: I’m really struggling to comprehend the number of comments I’m getting along the lines of “ah, well I once had to carry three hundred melons up Mount Everest, so you are wrong”.

So for the purpose of clarification: This article isn’t suggesting that every single journey made by everyone in the whole world should be made by bike. Of course buses, trains, cars and taxis all have their uses, I use them all myself.

What I’m saying is that Britain’s infrastructure over-encourages the use of buses, trains, cars and taxis and massively suppresses the use of bikes, especially for short urban journeys (which make up the vast majority of journeys that people in the UK make every day, and for which the bike would make most sense for many people).

Last week I went to an event 2.7 miles away from where I live.

My journey was entirely urban, through London’s central financial district, AKA “the City”.

There was a tube strike on, so that wasn’t an option. As a result, the buses were packed and the roads congested too. (Actually, the roads are always congested, but still.)

So I walked.

I walked past where my bike is locked up, and kept on going.

It took almost an hour.

At that time of day, the bus would have taken nearly as long – probably 45 minutes or so. But I’d have been paying for the privilege of being squashed into a crowded space for the duration.

Even if the tube had been running normally, it would have taken me 30 minutes at least, if the walking at either end was included. And again, I’d have been paying to cram into a tiny underground train with hundreds of other people.

The distance could easily be covered by bike in about 15 minutes, and yet I chose not to cycle because the conditions on the roads in this country are so awful. (As I walked along, I saw that I was right not to cycle.)

I call this Transport Poverty.

I’m not the first to use this term, but I’m going to talk about what I understand it to mean.

Choices, choices…

What are the options to British people today?

There’s public transport, which for most British people means a bus. Outside of London, buses are usually expensive (here in London it’s £1.45 for a bus journey of any length, in Leeds it’s usually £2 or £2.80 depending on distance – how does your town compare?). They can also be infrequent, especially in smaller towns or on Sundays, whereas here in the capital they are at least fairly cheap and pretty reliable.

But we’re still paying £1.45 to sit on (or stand in, or squeeze onto) a great lumbering beast of a vehicle which almost certainly doesn’t even go exactly where we want it to, and even if it does then it may not take the most direct route.

Photo of a crowded bus with steamy windows. An unhappy-looking woman looks out of the window.

Yeah, this is a great way to travel two miles. (Photo: Simon Ingram)

As Mark Treasure pointed out, a BBC News report about the tube strike showed crowds of people waiting to get on a bus whose entire route is only six miles long – and most bus passengers don’t travel from the first stop to the very last. Even if every passenger was going to the final stop, the whole journey would take only about 30 minutes by bike – and the bike takes you right to the very place you’re going, there’s no walking at the other end.

The same goes for the tube and trains. Rail travel is great over long distances, but for a huge number of shorter journeys it’s terribly inefficient.

Another down-side to public transport is that not only do you have to walk the first and last legs of your journey, but you have to wait for the bus/tram/train to arrive!

You know, now I’m describing the actions required to make a short journey by public transport, the more insane it seems.

You have a walk from where you are to the stop or station, then you have to wait for the bus/train/tram. When it does arrive it may be full to bursting, and it will stop several times at places you don’t want to go before it gets to your stop. Even then you still have to walk to your final destination.

And that’s when everything is running perfectly – when there’s some unforeseen delay it can increase the total journey time massively, and surely we’ve all missed the last train or bus at least once?

Hundreds of people cram onto an underground train

That millions of people choose to do this every day rather than cycle for half an hour, even on a perfect summer’s day, should tell you something about the conditions on the surface. (Photo: Steve Chou)

If you’re very rich then a good (almost-) door-to-door solution is a taxi, but these do cost a lot of money and are often no faster than a bus, as they have to sit in the same traffic as everyone else while you watch the meter run up your final price. It does also seem rather mad that in London we have a huge army of people driving thousands of empty cars around such a densely-packed city, looking for people who need an expensive lift somewhere.

Then we come to the private automobile – usually a car. This option is very space-inefficient as just one person can take up so much room. Wherever these vehicles are found in great numbers in urban environments, you’ll find them going nowhere fast at all. The sheer bulk of the things means that they can never be a mass urban transportation solution, as our villages, towns and cities soon fill up with them, and the freedom these vehicles supposedly represent seems bitterly ironic. Given the massive cost of owning and maintaining these vehicles, many people have to spend a good chunk of their earnings on keeping one.

A still from one of TfL's traffic-cams, showing traffic at a crossroads. One road has three lanes, the other has five. The traffic flows are blocking each other, leading to gridlock.

What London really needs is more space for bulky, polluting, dangerous vehicles. (Image via.)

I should also insert motorbikes into my list somewhere, but this is one option I don’t know much about. But while I’m sure they have their uses, and they don’t take up anywhere near as much space as a car, I’d say that they’re overkill for the vast majority of urban journeys (which are only a few miles in length). They make far more transport sense than cars in some ways, just for the space efficiency (and surely they’re more fuel-efficient, too?). I expect that, for most people, motorbikes also suffer from a poor safety image – which brings us to the humble bicycle.

The right tool for the job

For my journey today (and for a vast proportion of journeys that British people make on a daily basis) a bike would have been easily the best mode of transport. It’s certainly much cheaper than the competition (except walking), and in central London – where the cars and vans barely move at all – it would have been much faster than any other transport, too.

There’s no per-journey cost, it can take me from door to door, and it’s fast enough to make journeys across town quickly. It poses almost zero risk to other people, it doesn’t take up lots of space, and it doesn’t pump toxic fumes into the air. What’s not to love?

People using bikes for transport in Utrecht

Wow, it’s the perfect vehicle for urban journeys! What could go wrong?

But the way that Britain’s roads have been designed means that the best tool for the job is also the scariest. (And remember, they were intentionally designed that way – they’re a man-made construction, not a natural phenomenon.)

So what do millions of people do when they need to make a short journey of just a mile or two? They walk to a bus stop and wait. They flood into a tube station and wait. They sit in the traffic. Some of them even walk along the narrow footpaths and cross all those vehicle-priority minor side-streets!

Very few of them even consider using a bicycle even though it would be the fastest way of making their journey, and cheaper than everything except walking, too. But given the dreadful conditions for cycling in this country, I understand that decision completely.

Kingsland High Street in Hackney, London. A bus is stopped, and a lorry is overtaking it. A cyclist dressed in high-visibility clothing follows the lorry, and a bus follows the cyclist.

The luminous person is cycling despite the conditions here, not because of them. (This road has apparently been described as “perfect for cycling”.)

So because using the easiest, most direct, cheapest and cleanest mode of transport involves high levels of stress and fear, the vast majority of people choose to pay to sit in queues of cars belching fumes, or herd into trains and buses.

Cycling in Britain today really is that awful.

There’s a whole country outside of London

And outside of my little central London bubble, the form of transport poverty that many are locked into is that of dependence on motor vehicles.

In Leeds, where I’m from, people are locked in to car ownership, and most people feel they have no option but to drive. The buses are infrequent and expensive, and despite the acres of space available the conditions for walking and cycling are dire. I myself have felt the panic of having no car to rely on, back in what now seems like a former life. I have friends who still live there who really do feel the pain of car ownership yet feel there’s no alternative. Even for very short journeys, the car is seen as the only sensible option.

A road in Leeds which is incredibly wide. Wide enough for 8 lanes of traffic at least, even though there's only one lane each way. Most of the huge expanse of tarmac is painted with various stripes and parking areas.

Leeds could accommodate space for cycling, but it’s a matter of finding space in those narrow streets.

In any Dutch city, even in the busiest parts of The Hague, Amsterdam or Rotterdam, most people would choose a bike to make such a journey. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in that country, and I’ve covered many hundreds of miles through countryside, villages, towns and cities, without any of the stress and fear which is the norm when riding a bike in the UK.

We don’t have to live in transport poverty

If we didn’t live in a state of transport poverty, we wouldn’t even have to think twice about how to travel a mere 2.7 miles.

Dutch families on bikes on a cycle path at a junction. In the foreground we can see a teenage boy on a bike, next to him is his mother with the younger brother sat in a child seat on the back of her bike. Further away is another mother with her children in a box-bike.

This is the opposite of transport poverty. Transport affluence? Transport ease? Transport abundance? Whatever it’s called, I want it.

 

 

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Thinking big

Does the UK have the guts to do what’s required to create mass cycling? We’re good at talk, but action seems to be thin on the ground.

The trouble with most British attempts to improve conditions for cycling is that they aim to cause little or no obstruction to private motor vehicles. As a result, we’re left with seriously compromised designs.

Recently it has been reported that air pollution in Britain is responsible for many thousands of deaths, and most of that pollution comes from motor vehicles. Solving this problem will require more than just tinkering around the edges.

Bollards and paint and signs, oh my!

We should be thinking big. Little nudges will achieve little.

Lambeth council has just voted to adopt a cycling policy which aims to massively increase cycling in the borough. What this will mean on the ground remains to be seen, as they already have a road user hierarchy which places walking and cycling at the top, followed by public transport, with private motor vehicles at the bottom. Yet there’s very little evidence of this policy on the ground.

A section of Lambeth council's transport plan, showing walking as top priority and cars at the bottom. Ha!

Maybe I’ve got the wrong Lambeth, or it’s an April fools joke. (Page 73 of this PDF document.)

Unfortunately the hierarchy is preceded by these horrible weasel words:

Where possible Lambeth will seek to reallocate road space in favour of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. However, Lambeth will need to work closely with all affected stakeholders to ensure that there is reasonable balance between competing modes.” (Emphasis mine.)

But that was published back in the dark ages of last year. Maybe they really do mean it this time!

If Lambeth aims to be true to its word, then we’re not talking about a bollard here, a dropped kerb there, and a few “no entry except cyclists” signs. It will take far more than this to turn Lambeth into a great place to ride a bike.

Why don’t we start here: close Westminster Bridge Road to private motor vehicles at peak hours.

This is exactly the kind of project Lambeth should now be seriously considering if it is to become London’s top cycling borough. They’ve committed themselves on paper, now it’s time to follow through with concrete and asphalt.

Why not restrict motor traffic on Westminster Bridge Road, between the railway bridge and Lambeth North tube station? Private motor vehicles are at the bottom of Lambeth council’s road user hierarchy, so why are they allowed through here 24/7 creating an intimidating environment for cycling?

This road isn’t essential, motor vehicles will be able to reach their destination by going around using other roads. Westminster Bridge Road is a busy bus route and therefore needs Dutch-style cycle paths along its entire length to be safe for cycling (there are far too many buses for ‘share the road’ to work). The section between the railway bridge and Lambeth North is narrow, so adding decent cycle paths into the current four-lane road would be a squeeze. As far as I can see there’s no other option but to remove the general traffic lanes.

This isn’t just my opinion: I’m putting Lambeth’s very own policies into practice.

An airbrushed image of Westminster Bridge Road showing how it would look with cycle paths.

It would look a little something like this. (Not like this.)

It can be done, by the way. I know Haarlem isn’t London, but that Dutch city turned a pretty horrible road into a beautiful segregated-bus-and-bike-only road.

Ding, dong, the Aldwych tunnel is dead!

I’ve been trying to figure out Waterloo Bridge for some years now. How could it “Go Dutch”? The southern end, at the Imax roundabout, is easy as there’s tons of space. The bridge itself is fairly easy too, I reckon. Remove the central reservation, narrow the lanes and make it 20mph, and I bet there’d be space for cycle paths.

But what about the northern end, where it meets Aldwych and the Strand? On the northbound side there are bus stops and footpaths which are too narrow already, and in the middle is the Strand Underpass motor vehicle tunnel. There’s just not enough space on the road. The nearside lane could be converted into a cycle path, and all private vehicles forced to take the tunnel at peak hours.

But the real solution would be to remove the tunnel altogether. The portal takes up so much room which could be used to create a proper Dutch-style junction. I know this might sound like pie-in-the-sky madness, but it is possible.

Aldwych is wide — incredibly so. The carriageway is five lanes wide. One is used for buses stopping, the next is used for moving vehicles. The middle lane, bizarrely, is used for parked taxis, the fourth lane is used for moving vehicles, and the fifth lane is for parking.

This is utter madness, the land here must cost a fortune and we use it to store parked vehicles!

A photo of Aldwych in London, showing the huge amount of space available.

This is just insane. (Google Maps)

So close the tunnel, make all traffic go around Aldwych — there’s plenty of space for that. Without the tunnel entrance and exit, there’d be space at the end of Waterloo Bridge and on Kingsway to install cycle paths.

While we’re at it, and I say this with a heavy heart, we can lose the old northern portal to the Kingsway tram tunnel. The last tram passed through in 1952! Unfortunately it’s Grade II Listed, which means it’s likely to remain. I do like the old tram tunnel portal, I especially like that the tram tracks remain, but it’s taking up very valuable space on a busy road in central London. But if the tunnel can’t be removed, then a general traffic lane on each side needs to be taken.

Whenever I go out in London, I’m amazed at the number of people travelling in cars, many of them with just a driver and no passengers. This still seems to be the main mode of transport for many people. London clearly isn’t doing enough to discourage private car use, and tinkering around the edges while maintaining motor vehicle capacity just isn’t going to change things.

We should not continue to prioritise motor vehicles. Our political leaders keep talking about how great cycling is, it’s time for them to make it safe for people to do it. They keep telling us that cycling is a priority, it’s time for them to make it so.

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After 40 years, can Leeds finally stop being the “Motorway City of the Seventies”?

Talking to people in Leeds about utility cycling is a bit like trying to explain air conditioning to Eskimos.

I don’t mean to insult the citizens of Leeds here – I was one myself for 30 car-filled years. I love my friends and family, but they have lived their whole lives in a city which has one of the lowest cycling rates in a country with one of the lowest cycling rates in Europe, so you can hardly blame them for driving everywhere and thinking that’s normal and healthy. I understand that from this position the concept of utility cycling can seem baffling and outlandish.

Nor do I criticise anybody in Leeds who uses a car every single time they leave the house. There are few genuine alternatives for most people.

The bus system in Leeds is dominated by one bus company, almost to the point of monopoly, and there is no integrated ticketing system or smart-cards in use. So if you buy a day ticket on a FirstBus bus, you can’t use it on another operator’s bus. You can buy a “Metro Day” which is a ticket issued by the local transport authority, but that costs more and isn’t widely advertised.

As there’s no Oyster equivalent either, each new passenger has to have a conversation with the driver about where they’re going, hand over cash and wait for change. Multiply this by several passengers, or even twenty or thirty people at a busy stop, and you’ll see why a bus journey in Leeds takes much longer than it should.

There’s no metro system, just regular National Rail trains. These are only of use to those who live near a station, and who aren’t in a rush. They’re not the most frequent services either, to say the least, and some of them have certainly seen better days.

The cycling modal share in Leeds is pathetic. Even the commuting share, which tends to be about twice as high as the overall modal share, is around 1%. In the student areas it rises to the giddy heights of 2%.

But this is no surprise, as Leeds City Council has for decades promoted private car use above all else. Not long before I was born, Leeds proudly proclaimed itself to be “Motorway City of the Seventies“. That was actually used as a slogan for the city! You can imagine the sort of schemes they cooked up.

The planning decisions which were made back then have resulted in a dreadful transport environment. Even driving in Leeds is no fun, as the congestion is so bad. (It’s not London, but it’s bad enough.)

Morning Has Broken

However, there is a small ray of light shining through the diesel smog. Like many local authorities across the UK, Leeds, along with conjoined sibling Bradford, is at long last rousing from its 40-year transport slumber, awakened by the delicious aroma of central government money.

The two neighbouring councils have joined forces to come up with a grand plan to create a “cycle super highway” from the centre of Bradford all the way through Leeds to the other side. (If it sounds familiar, that’s because those in charge of Leeds have delusions of grandeur and will copy everything London and Manchester does.)

Someone at the council clearly has a sense of humour, as they’ve called their bid Highway to Health. In it, they’ve used the word “segregated” which is interesting as this wasn’t even on the menu a couple of years ago, but it’s seemingly a word which no cycle plan can be without today.

It promises “segregated, safe cycle lanes, secure cycle parking and activities to encourage cycling and walking” which sounds pretty good. And looking at the plans, they’re considering something which would give those 1970s planners heart attacks: “reduce existing carrigeway to provide cycle track”.

This is actually really encouraging. There’s plenty of space in Leeds for really great cycle infrastructure (not that lack of space is ever a good reason to ignore cycling). They’ve defined two types of cycle track, one Dutch-style and one Danish-style, and they’ve got the general idea right.

Leeds' two cycle track designs. One Dutch-style with a separating kerb, and one Danish-style with only vertical separation.

Pretty good, but not wide enough. Ideally the elevation of the cycle track would always be halfway between the footpath and the road, as it is in the Type 2 diagram.

They’ve also defined what their bus stop bypasses will look like, and they look pretty good to me.

Leeds council's bus stop cycle bypass design.

Looks okay to me. They’ve got the general idea.

Part of the route has access roads alongside the main road, and these will be utilised for cycling as part of the plans. This is a great way to get a long stretch of decent cycle route, almost for free, as long as they can discourage as much motor traffic as possible by using alternating one-way restrictions and other methods.

A False Dawn?

Unfortunately, while the general concept is a good one, they seem to have been designed by someone who drives everywhere, although they have watched that video of London’s planned cycle path along the Victoria Embankment. I doubt that those behind the plans have been to the Netherlands to see why cycling works so well over there.

(I acknowledge that these plans are a first draft, merely an attempt to get the funding, and I sincerely hope that the scheme designers take this constructive criticism on board should this project go ahead.)

For a start – and it’s a biggie – their minimum width for a one-way track is only 1.5m, and 2.5m for a two-way track! This is far too narrow, and makes me worry that the whole scheme is about to unravel. The standard minimum for one-way cycle track should be 2m (ideally 2.5m), and 4m for a two-way track. If the current widths are kept, Leeds’ cycle tracks run the very real risk of being seen as toytown infrastructure, dangerously narrow, and a waste of money.

It also looks like they’re planning for full-height vertical kerbs, which reduce the usable width of the cycle track by quite a margin. It sounds like a silly little detail, but it’s really not. Kerbs need to be suitable for safe cycling, and the standard UK road kerb isn’t good enough.

Toucan play at this game

Also worrying is the number of toucan crossings (combined cycling-and-walking crossings). They’re nearly always fiddly for bike users and confusing or unnerving for those walking. If we must sometimes put the two modes together, parallel cycling/walking crossings are legal, so why can’t we use those?

I’m not sure about their concept for when a cycle track meets a pedestrian crossing either. What happens if people are waiting at the crossing? Do bike users have to wait until the crossing is clear, or are they expected to swerve onto the footpath? Are people on foot expected to press the button then take a few steps back?

The Netherlands has solved these problems, we need to copy their designs rather than waste time and money with rubbish like this:

Leeds City Council's plans for when a cycle track passes a pedestrian crossing. A recipe for confusion.

A recipe for confusion, not fair on people riding bikes or walking.

Here’s one in action, near Leeds train station:

A photo of a cycle track which runs beside a pedestrian crossing. The cycle track gives way then disappears, only to re-appear after the pedestrian waiting area

Something is wrong here.

Well I say “in action” but this design only really works because so few people cycle in Leeds that the chances of a pedestrian meeting a person on a bike here are infinitesimally slim.

(Incidentally, the cycle tracks near the station are of a pretty high quality for the UK. It’s just a shame that they’re so very short and of limited use. Added July 2014: I say they’re good “for the UK” which is faint praise – they still have some severe flaws, as described in this Reddit conversation.)

Dutch-style junctions? We’ve heard of ’em

They seem to be having terrible trouble getting junctions right. Whoever drew these plans really needs to visit the Netherlands, as all the situations have been solved already. The current plans involve a mixture of ASLs, painted cycle lanes and toucan crossings, which simply isn’t good enough.

Again, the Dutch have existing, working solutions for all of these junctions. Why not copy them?

Detail from Leeds council's plans for the roundabout at Barwick Road and the Ring Road, where bike users are expected to use a two-stage pedestrian crossing with a pig-pen island.

I’ll be honest: this doesn’t scream “convenient” to me. (See it on Google Maps)

Do you think there might be a better solution here? Even though Dutch-style roundabouts are still undergoing trials, why not provide a single-stage straight-through crossing?

Note to traffic engineers: IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO DO A 90º-TURN ON A BIKE.

Here’s another junction:

One of Leeds City Council's junction designs, a confusing mess of paint and toucan crossings.

“We didn’t know what to do here. Will this do?” (See it on Google Maps)

I like the phrase “on and off road facilities to be provided” which is traffic planner code for “this looks hard, and we didn’t know what to do, so we’ll put ‘confident cyclists’ on the road, and everyone else will just go on the path.”

I know this junction well, and I can tell you that the proposed design is a mess. They really need to go back to the drawing board on this one. It’s really not that complicated (it was a roundabout until about ten years ago) but they’ll need to put in some cycle-specific signals to fix it. Dare they make the cars wait?

And a final junction:

A junction on York Road in Leeds, where the cycle paths turn into on-road cycle lanes

Nice cycle paths, shame about the junction. Also note lack of any facility for turning right, other than cycling across multiple lanes of motor traffic. (See it on Google Maps)

This junction really isn’t that complicated, there’s no excuse for giving up on the cycle paths and putting in painted lanes instead. They may as well do nothing and cross their fingers. Junctions are where good cycle path design is needed most!

Oh Bradford, where art thou?

I must reserve my ire for Bradford though, as they’re letting the whole thing down. Their side of the scheme looks largely to be business as usual, with long stretches of “on-carriageway cycling”. If you’re lucky, there will be a painted cycle lane.

The section below is on Leeds Old Road, which is a wide road with a painted central strip. There is plenty of space for a proper cycle track. Bradford aren’t even trying.

A section of Bradford council's "cycling ambition" plans, which provides nothing for cycling whatsoever.

Thanks for nothing, Bradford. (See it on Google Streetview)

They’re even suggesting “cycle on carriageway” at the enormous multi-lane Thornbury Gyratory, which is ridiculous and shows that they really don’t care about cycling.

The enormous Thornbury Gyratory in Bradford, where the council thinks there's no room for cycle paths.

This junction is HUGE, and all they’re suggesting is cycle lanes? Look at it on Google Maps. LOOK AT IT NOW.

Maybe Bradford is secretly hoping to become the new Motorway City of the Seventies.

In conclusion: possibly

Overall though, the scheme is a huge leap forward, and a world away from the usual cycle provision of bus lanes, blue signs and apathy (well, the Leeds side is, anyway – Bradford really needs to get with the programme). It’s physically a huge scheme too, crossing right from one end of the city to the other.

This is no complete solution, however. It’s still nowhere near the dense network of cycle paths and nearly-traffic-free streets which are required for mass cycling, and there are many details which need to be fixed.

But there are very many good points also, and the general concept is the right one – provide safe, protected space for cycling, away from motor vehicles.

With some alterations (fix the junctions, widen the tracks) then maybe – just maybe – Leeds can finally begin to leave the 1970s behind and one day become a 21st century European city.

 


 

Manchester is also up to something which is good but could be better. Two schemes, in fact – this one in the city centre and this one on Oxford Road. You can take a look and tell the council how to do it right – even if you don’t live there you can respond.

 

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Andrew Gilligan versus TfL’s love for motor vehicles

You know what? This Andrew Gilligan chap might not be half bad. I went to a talk last week at which he was the main event, and I went in full cynical miserable sod mode as usual, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Now, all the excitement about the Mayor’s cycling “Vision” has died down and is giving way to more sober scrutiny, although I wonder why we cycling campaigners weren’t cheering for Caroline Pidgeon rather than Boris all those weeks ago. (We have a voice in the London Assembly who has seen the Vision and is calling for more! Surely we should be behind that 100%?)

Having said that, I do like a lot of the language in the “Mayor’s Vision” document, which was written by Gilligan. There’s lots of bold statements about doing things right and about treating cycling as a proper mode of transport, all of which is very pleasing to the cycle campaigner’s eye. At the talk he told us that he accepts that installing cycle paths will sometimes increase journey times for motor vehicles – something which was heresy at TfL a couple of years ago, and probably remains so in certain quarters.

He was also very blunt about some of the crap cycle infrastructure which has been installed in recent years (yes, he used the word “crap”), openly admitting that much of what’s been done, and what continues to be done, simply isn’t anywhere near good enough.

But there’s also some rather less bold statements, about shared bus-and-bike lanes for example (Will motorbikes and taxis still be allowed in them? Is it fair that 50 bus passengers have to wait behind me as I ride at a casual 8mph?), and a strange faith in the power of mandatory cycle lanes (“which motor vehicles cannot enter” – ha!), but still, things seem to be pointing in the right general direction at least.

I was rather disappointed by Gilligan’s target of 5% cycling modal share by 2020, which I consider to be rather unambitious, but at least he did explain his reasoning behind this, which is that it’s a larger increase than anywhere else has managed, so a higher target is very unlikely. (Though I wonder if he’s taken the awfulness of rush-hour public transport into consideration – surely Londoners would flock to a safe, free alternative to the Central line?). I may disagree with the figure, but at least he put some thought into it unlike Edinburgh city council which picked a number out of thin air before deciding not to bother.

So even though I don’t agree with everything he says, I do like the way in which Gilligan comes across (though I suspect that’s one reason why he got the job in the first place). I think this might be because he’s a journalist and therefore skilled at communication, but also because he’s not a politician. He didn’t have to make any promises to a braying public in order to get the job, and he’s not chasing any votes in the future, so he doesn’t have to sugar coat bad news or slither his way around tricky questions. I found his honesty and candour to be quite refreshing, and I was impressed to see that he didn’t rush off immediately afterwards but instead stayed behind discussing things with attendees without even a hint of wanting to be somewhere else.

So I want this post to be read in the spirit of constructive criticism, rather than just whinging. I’m also aware that I covered this topic in my last post, but I’m going to talk about cycle paths along main roads again anyway.

Quietways should be secondary routes

At the talk on Monday there was much discussion of the Quietways and the obstacles which will need to be overcome. One big problem is that the local borough councils control most of the roads, and therefore TfL will need their co-operation (and the co-operation of residents) to implement the Quietways.

When Gilligan was giving hypothetical of the new routes which will roughly follow tube lines, he said something like “for example, you could take the Bakerloo superhighway to Baker Street then get on the Circle Quietway to Kings Cross” as he waved his hand to the south, rather than out of the north-facing window towards the wide, thundering, TfL-controlled clearway of Marylebone Road which lay right outside the building we were in.

I understand that was just an example and that he wasn’t giving us any hints about a probable route for this part of the network – he was very careful to not make any announcements like that yet – but I got out my map anyway and looked for a possible route from Baker Street to Kings Cross which didn’t involve riding along the terrifying but conveniently direct urban motorway which is the A501 (AKA Marylebone Road and Euston Road).

The Mayor’s Vision document says that “unlike the old London Cycle Network, Quietways will be direct” but it’s just not possible here. The best I could find was the red line shown below:

A map showing two routes from Baker Street to Kings Cross in London. The direct route on TfL roads, and the complex wiggly route on local council roads.

Dangerous but direct route (in blue), or safe but slow Quietway (in red)? The dual network awaits your selection!

In his introduction to the Vision document, Boris Johnson says: “Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal, or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network, with the capital spending, road space and traffic planners’ attention befitting that role.”

Sounds great, but that red line doesn’t look like an “integral part of the transport network” to me.

The Vision’s promise of direct Quietways simply isn’t physically possible here. I strongly suspect that if the only option was a back-street Quietway, most of those hardened commuter cyclists who already cycle from Baker Street to Kings Cross will simply continue to do so along the A501. So who is the Quietway for? Surely we’re not talking about the ridiculous “dual networkagain?!

Why would TfL continue to prioritise motor traffic while keeping cycling hidden on the back streets?

Perhaps it’s because of London’s narrow medieval road system – after all, the A501 only has seven lanes for motor vehicles here and a central divider (how quaintly 10th-century!) so I guess the bike users will have to slum it where they don’t get in the way of all that very important burning of fossil fuel:

A photograph of Marylebone Road in London, which has six lanes for traffic and one parking lane.

“London doesn’t have wide roads like New York City” (Pic: Google Maps)

If Boris is telling the truth, then the only option is to take space from Marylebone Road/Euston Road and turn it into cycle path. Otherwise we’re just prioritising motor vehicles yet again (“Driving from A to B? Take the straight, direct road! Cycling from A to B? Turn right, then second left, then a dog-leg at the next lights, then left, then third right…”).

The nice thing about this is that it would join up with the much-lauded Westway bike paths and – if you’ll permit me a moment of fantasy – from Kings Cross they could easily tackle Farringdon Road, Blackfriars Bridge and Road… Sort Park Lane out too, and we have a central London circular cycle route!

This is a problem which the Quietways will come up against time and time again – very often, the only direct routes between popular locations are the big, busy roads. It’s a problem which will become particularly acute anywhere near the Thames, as nearly all the bridges are heavily used by motor traffic. Unless Gilligan has a big enough budget for two-dozen new bridges along the Thames then bikes will have to be accommodated on the existing bridges, and this can only be done by taking space from motor vehicles (or the footways – this isn’t an anti-car thing – on the western side of Blackfriars Bridge where the footway is extremely wide, for example).

It’s not an insurmountable problem, but creating safe, clear space for cycling will require the cojones to take space away from motor vehicles, which I hope Andrew Gilligan has.

A focus on Quietways means the LCC’s “Go Dutch” campaign failed

Without being prepared to put bike paths on main roads such as the A501, the Mayor’s Vision is not what we wanted. David Arditti’s Go Dutch option won the LCC’s campaign vote by a huge majority, and subsequent events have shown how popular the Dutch concept is. Even after LCC’s yellow-bellied mangling of the wording, there’s only one thing that “Go Dutch: clear space for cycling on main roads in every borough” could possibly mean – Dutch-style cycle paths along main roads. (They weren’t suggesting we all speak Dutch while being tailgated by a bus, were they?)

But that’s not what the Quietways concept is.

Don’t get me wrong – the Quietways are a hugely important addition to a proper segregated network of cycle paths, but on their own they’re not the cycling revolution we’ve been promised. They shouldn’t be the primary cycling routes.

Maybe I’m being impatient here, but I worry that the Quietways is yet another attempt at providing cycling routes without adversely affecting motor traffic in any way, and which will therefore ultimately doomed to die an obscure death on the back streets.

And maybe I’m getting ahead of myself too – Gilligan didn’t give any details about the route, perhaps even the phrase “Circle Quietway from Baker Street to Kings Cross” was just a throw-away example. Perhaps they really are cooking up something exciting for the A501. I really hope so.

I really don’t want to sound down on Gilligan, as I think he gets cycling in a way that nobody of influence at TfL has done before. But by going after this seemingly easy option of the wiggly back-street routes he runs the very real danger of repeating the mistakes of the LCN and LCN+, despite aims and promises to the contrary.

Does Gilligan have the power and influence to change decades of motor-centric culture at TfL, or is he there to use his journalistic skills to put a positive spin on lacklustre efforts?

Perhaps the real battle isn’t the one which Gilligan is prepared to enter with the boroughs, but the fight with a much bigger foe, which is long overdue. I speak of every liveable London and safer streets campaigner’s worst nemesis: TfL’s Network Assurance department.

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Bike paths along main roads are key

I’ve discovered a great new tool on Google Maps which shows the required cycle network in any city, town or village across the country!

Here’s how to use it:

  1. Open Google Maps
  2. Search for your location in the box at the top
  3. Et voilà! Your cycling network map is displayed clearly.

Here’s a bike network map for central London (I’ve removed the labels so you can see the roads more clearly):

A standard road map of London (with the labels removed)

It’s the vehicular cycling network of today, and the all-citizen cycling network of tomorrow!

Here’s how it works:

  • The green and orange roads are main routes which need good quality separated (aka segregated) cycle tracks. These roads are too busy to mix bikes with motor vehicles, especially the green ones.
  • Most of the yellow roads require separated cycle tracks, but some of them can be made one-way or be blocked from being used as a through-route by motor traffic, in order to reduce the usefulness of them and therefore reduce the amount of motor vehicles on them.
  • The thin dark lines (or white roads if you zoom in) will all be either one-way streets or filtered to make them useless as through-routes and therefore vastly reduce the amount of motor vehicles on them, and the speed limit will be 20mph or lower, so cycle paths won’t usually be required on them.

Simple, eh? How great of Google to provide us with such a tool!

I’m joking, of course, but the point I’m making is a serious one. There are many advocates for alternative routes for cycling, but the important routes are already there: they’re the main roads, the big ones which go directly from one place to another, which people are already familiar with.

So I’m not entirely convinced about the “quietways” aspect of the Mayor of London’s “Vision”  (I’m not the only one) and nor am I convinced that Hackney has cracked it for cycling.

Of course, I genuinely applaud Hackney council for the filtered-permeability measures, 20mph zones, parking restrictions and removal, and the few cycle paths which they have installed (though I doubt I’d be heard above the sound of Hackney applauding themselves) but their main roads still leave much to be desired and are generally horrible.

While 20mph zones and low-traffic streets are good in themselves (indeed, they’re an important component of a “liveable” city), on their own these measures will not enable mass cycling.

With these cheap and easy options, Hackney is going after the “low-hanging fruit” (i.e. the people who are already eager to use a bike) who will put up with inconveniences such as back-street routes. To grow the cycling rate (and demographic range) will be much more difficult – do they want children riding bikes to school, or pensioners riding bikes to the shops? Do they want people with disabilities – such as wheelchair or motorised scooter users – to be included in this transport revolution?

The problem with the “quietways-only” method favoured by Hackney is that you can’t ride very far without coming up against a large, busy road.

Let’s imagine that every single minor road and street in London had been properly traffic-calmed to a level where everybody felt safe riding a bike on them, but the busy main roads were still places full of heavy traffic where bicycles and motor vehicles were expected to mix. The “safe cycling” map of London might look like this (black lines only):

A map of central London with the main roads removed.

Hmm, these quietways are rather restrictive and disjointed. (Note that the black lines include walking-only routes, so it would be even worse than this. If only Hyde Park was that cycle-friendly!)

Not much use, is it? All the useful, direct routes with the places you want to go are out of reach. The streets which are inviting for cycling don’t go anywhere useful, and each neighbourhood is disconnected from the next by a main road. Even if the main roads could be crossed without actually cycling along them, it’s not a good transport system because the small streets are difficult to navigate.

This is what cycling through Hackney feels like to me. There are some fine streets, but you’ll frequently come up against horrible motor vehicle-dominated thoroughfares. It’s not a network, it’s a patchwork.

Main roads are the main roads for many reasons: They are the direct routes from A to B. They have the shops, the pubs, the dentists, etc., which people want to visit. They offer social safety, in that they’re well-lit, visible and busy.

Similarly, the back streets are quiet for a reason. They’re not direct routes to anywhere. They’re mainly residential, with few locations people wish to visit. Late at night they can be largely deserted, which leads to people fearing to use them.

A photograph of a dark, empty, spooky street

“This quietway might be a little too quiet…” (Photo: Sereno Casastorta)

Why should people be relegated to fiddly routes through small streets just because they’ve chosen to ride a bike, while people driving cars have the most convenient, easy and direct routes?

Furthermore, if we really are planning for huge increases in cycling, why should these quiet residential streets be over-run with people on bikes? Can they really become a safe place for children to play if they’re also rat-runs for thousands of bike users who have no more connection with the area than a taxi cutting through from one station to another?

As far as I can see, cycle paths along main roads is the headline. Filtered permeability and 20mph zones are great, but they’re just the support act. Without dedicated bike paths on the main roads these streets are nice but disjointed fragments which will do little to encourage more cycling.

Most of the major roads in London could easily support decent cycle paths, and I suspect that’s true for much of the UK also. (Certainly, it is the case in Leeds.) It may be a politically difficult step to take, but it’s a necessary one if cycling is to become a serious transport choice for everyone.

 


If you’re wondering how I made the custom maps, I used this.

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An open letter to Aaron Rosser and TfL

I wrote this a few days ago, but I thought it might become irrelevant after the big announcement on Thursday.

But I see now that this message is actually more relevant than it was before.

To Aaron Rosser, TfL Cycle Superhighways project manager, and all at TfL who are involved with designing facilities for cycling:

Hello Aaron (and others at TfL),

We don’t know each other, but in my life as a transport campaigner I meet many people with whom I discuss transport issues. (Some of them even know my secret identity as the writer of this blog!)

Not too long ago at a road safety event I met someone who told me they’d had a good conversation with you about the Cycle Superhighways project. Don’t worry, my source was quite complimentary about you!

I’m told that you were very happy to discuss any aspect of the new CS designs, and that you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your work, which is great to hear. Of course, you have to work within restrictions beyond your control, from both inside TfL and out, which can limit your options. I was also told that you’re mildly embarrassed by the grandiose name for the project — it certainly gives you a lot to live up to!

Apparently, if you were given a blank cheque you’d go nuts with great cycling infrastructure all over London. I’m very pleased to hear this, if it’s true. You sound like a great person for the job.

But then one little morsel of information shocked and disappointed me: You haven’t been to study the infrastructure in the Netherlands?!

Please say it ain’t so! I really don’t see how anybody can be considered a suitable person to design cycling infrastructure if they haven’t studied the Netherlands, any more than someone could be considered an expert on Elvis Presley without ever having listened to his records.

Apparently, you’re planning a trip to Paris to see what’s going on there. This is good – Paris is a large city which has already begun responding to calls for better cycling infrastructure. But this, to stick with my Elvis analogy, is a bit like our supposed expert listening to the Pet Shop Boys’ version of You Were Always On My Mind without having heard Elvis’ recording.*

I’m sure TfL would like a trip to New York too – why not! As a London tax-payer, I endorse it. Please do visit New York, to see how they have transformed Times Square from a motorway into a pleasant space by removing motor traffic — then come home and do the same to Parliament Square and Piccadilly Circus. But visiting New York to study bike facilities is like listening to Gareth Gates’ version of Suspicious Minds instead of the definitive rendition.*

What I’m getting at is this: If you want the real deal, you’ve got to go to Graceland to see The King – by which I mean go to the Netherlands and see David Hembrow. I can’t recommend this guy highly enough. He’s had an enormous influence on the thinking of many UK cycle campaigners, many of them undergoing an epiphany which changed them from committed Vehicular Cyclists into dedicated Infrastructuralists (that is a word now!).

He’s had this effect in two ways. The first is his blog, A View From The Cycle Path, in which he calmly and clearly explains why Dutch infrastructure works so well. He deals with many of the myths and rumours about the Netherlands and shows why the country’s success can be replicated elsewhere. The blog has been hugely influential.

The cycling infrastructure movement in the UK would be nowhere near as strong as it is today — and I sincerely doubt that the Mayor would have been making any announcements about cycle paths — had it not been for David’s work.

Many dedicated people have been campaigning along these lines for years, some since the 1990s, but David’s blog showed thousands of us what good cycling infrastructure looks like, and how great it can be to live somewhere where cycling is a normal, every-day transport option for everyone.

The second way in which David has influenced many people is his Dutch cycling infrastructure study tours of Assen and Groningen, explaining how it all works and why it works — something which is difficult to fully understand unless you can see it in action, and see how everything joins up. Reading the blog is great, but the study tour gives you the real detail you’ll need if London’s investment in cycling infrastructure is to be spent wisely.

He is the right person to go to, because he was an active cycling campaigner in Cambridge for many years until he had his own ‘road to Damascus’ moment and emigrated to the Netherlands about five years ago. As a British cycling expert living in the world’s top cycling nation, he has a uniquely clear viewpoint which you are unlikely to find elsewhere. Like many cycle campaigners and urban planners, I have been on the tour and I can honestly say that it is time and money well-spent.**

I returned to London with a fresh set of eyes — I can see how the decades of poor design continue to harm the city, and how it could be massively improved. It would be a wise investment for TfL to send a team on a study tour with David.

Now, my source says that you’ve been provided with details of the study tour, but I’ve asked David and he says that nobody from TfL has been in touch. I have to ask: why? Is it too expensive for TfL to afford? Is the Netherlands not as glamorous as Paris?

You might think that a town such as Assen and a small city like Groningen have few lessons for London, but that would be a short-sighted view. Assen in the 1970s was just like many UK towns still are today, with streets full of parked and queued cars and “no space for cycling”, and yet it has been transformed into pleasant, safe, liveable place. With the London plans including the excellent concept of specific areas designed as “mini-Hollands” the lessons of Assen and Groningen are very relevant to London.

If you do want a big city experience with a wide river and skyscrapers, spend a day or two in Rotterdam. The conurbation stretches the equivalent of Ealing to Greenwich, and Holloway to Tooting. But this is merely a suggestion for further research, it is not a substitute for David’s thorough and information-packed three day tour.

If you’re going to do your best work then you really need to arrange a study tour with David. It’s a scandal that you hold this position and yet have never studied Dutch cycling infrastructure. That your bosses gave you the job with such a gaping hole in your CV, and haven’t even sent you to see the Netherlands, shows their lack of knowledge of what’s required in London over the next few years.

I’m not trying to be horrible to you here, I’m really not. I’m just trying to underline how much you’re missing out on. I think your own personal career, and London’s future, can benefit greatly from a few days with David in Assen and Groningen – so do it for yourself, but most of all, do it for Britain!

You can get from London to Rotterdam in under 4 hours with Eurostar via Brussels, or it’s a relaxed 9 hours or so by train then ferry, through the day or overnight, and there are flights too, of course. The Netherlands, which is #1 for cycling however you measure it, is right next door! There’s no excuse for not going to see it.

And if TfL’s really that skint, we’ll have a whip-round.

All the best,

S.C.

 


*Okay, so Elvis wasn’t the first to sing these songs, but you know what I mean. One thing I’ve learned while writing this article is how many of Elvis’ songs were cover versions!

**I hope David Hembrow isn’t embarrassed by the flattery here, but I’m telling it like I see it. I have no financial interest in selling study tours! My only goal is to improve Britain’s streets and roads.

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The road to Hell is paved with ASLs

Whether you call them Advanced Stop Lines and Advanced Stop Zones or prefer the more casual-sounding ‘bike box’, they all amount to the same thing: a piece of crap.

I believe that the real reason for their existence is not to make cycling safe, as you might think, but rather to get cycling campaigners to shut up. Neither of these goals has been achieved, of course.

ASLs make sense in that perfect, ideal world where the Highway Code is set. There, humans can all be trained and/or forced to behave perfectly at all times – a bit like North Korea, or Stepford.

Image from the UK government's Highway Code, showing ideal use of a bike zone at a traffic light junction. So perfect!

The Highway Code’s idealised version of the UK. There are more people on bikes in this image than there are in the whole of West Yorkshire.

But here in the real world, inhabited by imperfect and fallible human beings, people on bikes still get killed when the traffic lights change, and an ASL does nothing to help a bike user who arrives while the traffic is already flowing. They’re often ignored by drivers too, the police don’t enforce them. Unfortunately, all this means that ASLs have become another endless battle in the War On The Roads™ and some cycling activists spend a large amount of time trying to convince drivers – and the authorities – to respect them.

It does annoy me when I see drivers pull up across the ASL. Of course, I have no problem if, say, an ambulance causes the flow of traffic to stop and the lights change to red leaving a car stranded there. But so many people drive up to a red light and over the first white line right into the bike area. Some drivers even drive across both white lines and into the pedestrian crossing or junction beyond!

I’d argue that if you’re unable to bring your vehicle to a halt before reaching a clearly marked position on the road, you really shouldn’t be operating such a machine at all.

A van is stopped at a red light, completely within the 'Advance Stopping Zone' for bike users.

This van has very neatly stopped within the ASZ, note the centimetre-accurate alignment. Maybe the driver mistook it for a parking space?

ASLs are not good infrastructure

But for all that, I don’t really care. I’ve been asked to sign petitions to get the police to enforce the rules. (Which would be nice for a change.) But really, I won’t waste my time polishing a turd, and neither should you.

Improving ASLs is not what cycling campaigners should be spending their time on. It would be like, say, environmental campaigners asking Shell and Esso to use a nicer font in a lovely shade of green. Or perhaps it’s more like a slave asking for the chains that bind them to be chrome-plated.

What I’m saying is that the ASL is a pretend friend to a bike rider. They’re there as a kludge, a poor compromise between total motor dominance and calls for cycling infrastructure. They’re rubbish. Yes, I know that drivers should stay out of them, and everybody should follow the rules, but it’s a distraction from the bigger picture. The whole argument is worthless.

Nobody is waiting for ASLs to be enforced before they take up cycling. Nobody is saying “if only there were more areas at traffic lights where I could sit in front of growling motor vehicles, I’d take up riding tomorrow!” In fact, I reckon the idea of sitting on a bike in front of a large motorised vehicle is one of the key points which prevents more people from using a bike for transport.

Two people on bikes wait in the ASZ at a red traffic light. Immediately behind them are buses and cars.

A rare instance of an ASZ relatively free of motor vehicles. Does this attract people to cycling? “Ooh, lovely, a painted area which allows us to position ourselves in front of heavy vehicles! Let’s do this every day!”

Don’t waste your time campaigning for this rubbish to be enforced or improved. Don’t ask for nicer chains, demand their removal!

There are very few places where an ASL is appropriate, yet the UK is covered in the damned things. There are already tried-and-tested solutions for junctions which don’t involve mixing up motor traffic with bikes – or mixing bikes with pedestrians, as is the current fashion in the UK. Pedestrianise London has a good article covering the right way to do these things so I won’t write about them here.

Sure, they have a few ASLs in Cycling Heaven – ahem! – I mean, the Netherlands. But they’re not common, and are considered an old-fashioned design. Any infrastructure geeks going visiting the Netherlands will find themselves pointing at them excitedly – “Ooh! There’s an ASL, just like at home!”

When the Cycling Revolution™ comes, ASLs will be the first against the wall

The worst thing about ASLs is that they’re designed for very low levels of cycling. Sure, one or two bikes are fine. Maybe even five or six. But what happens if twenty people were to arrive on bikes? What about fifty? Where are they all meant to go?

A birds' eye photo of a UK road junction with an ASL. All vehicles are positioned perfectly, no motor vehicles have entered the ASZ. But the ASZ can only hold around ten bikes, and there are twenty in shot, overflowing up the left-hand side of motor vehicles waiting.

Is the UK ready for the Cycling Revolution® or are we designing roads for cycling shares of, ooh, say, about 2%?

The photo above shows pretty much an ideal situation for a junction with an ASL. There’s a wide cycle lane and no motor vehicles have encroached beyond the stop line. But the ASZ is already filled with about ten bikes and is overflowing into the cycle lane, where another ten people on bikes are waiting in the van’s blind spot. The ASL does nothing for these people.

Why are we designing infrastructure which cannot handle more than a dozen people on bikes? The design is so weak, it’s proof positive that the government has low cycling targets, because the infrastructure they’re putting in simply can’t handle more than a very small number of people on bikes.

But imagine if the orange van was a lorry – should all bikes wait behind it? What if the ASZ looks clear and the lights change while passing the lorry? What’s the goal of this infrastructure? Suddenly it’s all rather confusing.

Or even take a look at the Highway Code’s idealised image of how an ASL works at the top of this post. Note that even in their perfect world’s green-ticked scenario, there’s a bike on the left-hand side of the left-turning car. Even if that bike moves to the front of the ASZ, what happens when a fourth or a fifth bike arrives? The system just can’t cope with more than a few bikes.

How large would the ASL have to be to cope with the doubling of cycling which London is expecting?

An altered photograph showing a junction with an extremely long (20m or so) ASZ, to demonstrate why ASLs aren't compatible with large numbers of people cycling.

Mmm, roomy.

So that’s why I don’t like ASLs, and that’s why I want rid of them.


 

If you’re not convinced by my arguments, feel free to try one of these other esteemed bloggers: the Davids Hembrow, Arditti or Brennan, and also Paul James, Freewheeler or Londonneur.

 

Update: And there’s more, from NI Greenways, Cyclegaz and WillCycle. Thanks to Stripymoggie, Mark Skrzypczyk and WilliamNB in the comments below for these links.

 

Also, I just noticed this comment which I made on David Hembrow’s blog in May 2012, making the same point. I must have been mulling this over in my mind for quite some time!

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Cyclists, you have a language problem

Don’t worry, MAMILs, I’m not saying that you all have speech impediments! In this post I’m musing on what the English word “cyclist” means. This one word covers such a wide range of concepts, some of which might cause confusion or even hostility towards cycling campaigns, and I think it’s perhaps a toxic word which should be avoided. (If this all sounds a bit airy-fairy to you and you’d prefer to see photos of infrastructure and stuff instead, I can recommend my first ever post.)

What is a motorist?

The word ‘motorist’ is used to describe a person who uses a car for transport.

It isn’t used to describe someone who races cars professionally — that’s a driver. The word ‘driver’ is also used to describe other kinds of professional motor vehicle operators: lorry driver, taxi driver, limo driver.

Equally, it’s not used to describe a bad driver. Like the Eskimoes and their (apocryphal) hundreds of words for snow, we have many ways of describing motorists who break the rules. Boy racer, amber gambler, drunk driver, road-hog, tailgater – these people are never described merely as ‘motorists’ .

So the word ‘motorist’ is used to describe the large and disparate mass of people who drive a car in an acceptable way.

What is a cyclist?

In a recent BBC news item about a sign in a library in Australia, Lance Armstrong was described as a ‘cyclist’. (Okay, as a “disgraced cyclist” but still.) So perhaps the word ‘cyclist’ describes a sports-person who races bikes professionally? Like this guy:

A professional sports cyclist racing on the Tour de Suisse.

This person is a cyclist, just like you are! (Photo: Tambako the Jaguar)

But then we also have this article from the Eastbourne Herald headlined “Helmet saved my life, says cyclist” about 59 year-old grandmother Linda Groomes, who was hit by a car while she was crossing a road pushing a bike — not riding it but pushing it! (Hat-tip to Mark for that gem of an article.)

So a cyclist is anybody who rides a bike at some point in their life? Hmm. Seems a bit broad that, especially as Linda Groomes may well also drive a car, which she was also not doing at the time of the collision, yet they didn’t call her a ‘motorist’. I assume she was wearing a coat, but she wasn’t described as a ‘coat-wearer’ either. How often must one ride a bike to be a ‘cyclist’? Once a week? Once a month? Once a year?

So both Lance Armstrong and Linda Groomes were described as a ‘cyclist’ despite using their machines for very different purposes.

Well, Linda always wore high-visibility clothing and a cycle helmet, so maybe ‘cyclist’ means anyone who rides a bike seriously or responsibly? Like this woman:

A middle-aged woman riding a bike.

This person is also a cyclist, just like you are! (Photo: Richard Masoner)

But wait! What’s this? Plain clothes cops in Cambridge target cyclists riding through red lights or on pavements, and Hundreds fined as police launch crackdown on pavement cyclists.

Also Plea to new police commissioner to tackle problem cyclists, and if you’re still not convinced, Police warning over cyclists who ride at night without lights.

So ‘cyclist’ is also used to describe people who rides a bike aggressively or irresponsibly? Like these guys:

Two teenage boys ride aggressively along a busy footpath on a shopping street.

These two young men are cyclists too, just like you are! (Photo: Pete Boyd)

So, a ‘cyclist’ is a person who rides a bike sometimes — anyone at all, whether they’re riding it or not, whether they’re a professional sportsperson or a middle-aged grandmother or a youthful scofflaw — that is a cyclist. That’s a pretty broad brush if you ask me.

Bikes aren’t the problem, it’s those bloody cyclists

This causes a problem, as English doesn’t have an alternative word to be used for people who use a bike responsibly. This is very nicely demonstrated by an article in the Cambridge News which features this quote, which is so good I’m going to present it to you in burgundy, with a large, bold typeface:

“I am now anti-cyclist, even though I am a cyclist.”

What does that even mean? I was once mugged by two guys who walked up to me – am I now anti-pedestrian, even though I walk? My car was once hit by a car whose driver wasn’t looking properly. Did I become anti-motorist, even though I can drive? I was once insulted by a man. Should I become anti-man, even though I am a man? It just doesn’t make sense in any other context.

Note that the headline is “bike crash victim hits out at cyclists” – at cyclists. As the word covers people who ride a bike for sport, and people who use a bike responsibly and considerately, she is surely hitting out at all of them. Even you!

It doesn’t say she’s anti-bad-cycling, or anti-pavement-cycling, nor is the government blamed for failing to provide better infrastructure for bikes which would massively reduce pavement cycling. She blames all cyclists – even though she claims to be one herself. (And never mind all the people who are killed or injured every year by human beings using larger, heavier machines to move at speed when they should stop instead.)

I’m not having a go at her for being understandably upset about what happened to her (ignoring a stop signal and causing injury to someone is unacceptable, whatever the vehicle) but she’s fallen into the trap of blaming a whole group of people for the sins of a few. (She also goes on to say that it’s not “local cyclists” but “foreign students” who are guilty – people from other countries are another good out-group to blame if you’re angry and confused and don’t understand the issues fully.)

You cyclists are all the same

I’m reminded of a helmet-cam video (which I can’t find now) where the driver of a 4×4 cuts up the cyclist who is filming, and at the next red light the cyclist asks the driver to explain himself. The driver says something like “you bloody cyclists, I’m sick of you, always speeding around Richmond Park,” to which the cyclist replies “but I’ve never even been to Richmond Park!” It doesn’t matter though, says the driver “you cyclists are all the same.”

So the word “cyclist” is tainted beyond use, as when you use it you have no control over what the person hearing the word is thinking. They might be thinking of Uncle Frank who loves tinkering with gears in his shed, or they might be thinking of the yobs in hoodies riding aggressively along the high street. Or they might be thinking of Lance Armstrong. The definition is too loose.

A cartoon from Private Eye magazine. Two normal middle-aged people riding practical bikes for transport, one of them is saying "It's such a shame, Lance Armstrong has stigmatised us all."

A photo of a cartoon in the current issue of Private Eye, Britain’s leading satire magazine, read the news months before the papers get to it, available in all good and some bad newsagents, a bargain at £1.50, why not subscribe it’s even cheaper then, please don’t take me to court! The current issue has at least one more Lance Armstrong joke, maybe two, so go buy it.

(To go off on a tangent for a moment, I once read an article about Apple’s tight regulation of its App Store and someone had left a comment accusing Apple of being “socialist”. To me that sounded odd – Apple are definitely a very capitalistic corporation! What was meant was “Stalinist” as in the tight, unquestioning control which a powerful overlord might exert, but in the USA both words are synonyms. Marx has lost control of the word ‘socialist’, and it now means bad things whether he wanted it to or not.)

I would recommend that cycling campaigners – and, indeed, US socialists – to avoid the word wherever possible.

Introducing the bike user

Myself, I never identified as a cyclist anyway, mainly because it refers to enthusiasts and scofflaws. (Although I know that all those “cyclists dismount” signs are aimed at me when I’m riding a bike…)

I’m just somebody who uses a bike. A bike user. I use a bike for transport. That doesn’t make me one of those cyclists!

Example 1.
Q: “So you’re a cyclist, like Lance Armstrong.”
A: “No, I’m not really interested in sport. I just use a bike to get to work.”

Example 2.
Q: “So you’re a cyclist, a professional sportsperson who competes in bike races?”
A: “No, I’m Lance Armstrong. I just use a bike to get to my pharmacist.”

It doesn’t always work, but there is usually a way to avoid saying ‘cyclist’. I also like ‘person on a bike’ which although it’s more cumbersome than ‘cyclist’ as I don’t think it has quite the same negative connotations.

Maybe we could invent a new word – ‘cycler’ for example – which could be used to describe somebody who uses a bike casually. (I always think the ‘-ist’ ending makes any word sound like it’s describing a specialist.)

Cycling is not just for cyclists

Another problem with the word “cyclist” is that it is any new measures designed to improve conditions for riding a bike are said to be “for cyclists” or “to benefit cyclists”.

Even some of cycling’s most prominent ambassadors do this. (I’m not having a go at anyone here, this is constructive criticism, I love you all dearly!)

“We need better cycling infrastructure, improved safety on our roads for cyclists”Julian Huppert MP

“Boris Johnson urged to double spending on cyclists”The Times

“The Times has made it OK to talk about providing infrastructure for cyclists”Carlton Reid

Wikipedia describes LCC as “lobbying for better conditions for cyclists in London.” (LCC itself seems quite cautious about the word.)

And just so nobody thinks I’ve gone soft on Scotland since last week, here’s STV describing Pedal on Parliament: “Their hopes were simply to remember those who lost their lives on Scotland’s roads and to call for more provision for the nation’s cyclists.”

The problem with phrases like these is that they suggest that people who aren’t ‘cyclists’ won’t benefit from any of this stuff – and that’s a hell of a lot of people who will think they are being left out.

As everyone reading this blog will already know, improvements to our roads and streets will benefit children, parents, students, workers, the elderly, people with disabilities – these changes will make the country better for everyone, not just the irrationally hated, disparate minority of people collectively (and hopefully formerly) known as ‘cyclists’.

 


 

I also have my doubts about ‘segregation’ and ‘segregated’ used to describe a cycle path protected from motor-vehicles. It definitely carries negative connotations in the USA – very negative, I’d be surprised if it’s used there at all – and even though the UK never had the racial segregation like the USA or South Africa did, I think there’s still some stigma attached to the word. Perhaps separation/separated and protection/protected are better, more positive-sounding alternatives?

Update: In the comments, dedicated has been suggested too. I’ve heard this before, and it’s a good word which is probably better at getting the speedy commuters on board than ‘separated’. In the USA they also use ‘buffered’ to refer to a specific type of cycle lane which has a painted buffer between the bikes and the cars.

Also, while it lasts, check out this bit about the Lance Armstrong scandal on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe – “the news asked anybody on or near a bicycle about it“, because everybody who rides a bike is into sports cycling, right?

 


 

After publishing this article, I was looking at my stats and saw a link from a similar article on a cycling website in New Zealand — it turns out someone down under was having the same thoughts as me, albeit a couple of weeks earlier!

 

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Cyclists, you have an image problem

Note: This piece is about how cycle campaigners present themselves, and therefore cycling, to the media and the public. Maybe that’s not clear, or maybe people comment without reading the article, but I don’t want to hear about your daily commute in the dark from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

Also, there are comments from people behind Pedal on Parliament and LCC’s Big Ride, and David Brennan (AKA Magnatom, and one of the organisers of Pedal on Parliament) has written a post with his thoughts on this, all of which are well worth reading. I was never having a go at these events themselves as they’re both great things – PoP is especially impressive, 3000 people on their first ever rally – I was merely using them as examples. See my second footnote for more.

The vast majority of British people never touch a bike from one year to the next. They know nothing about riding a bike except what they hear from the mass media, and the general anti-cycling background noise of the UK.

So what do you think goes through their mind when they see coverage of bike campaign rallies such as Pedal on Parliament or London Cycling Campaign’s Big Ride?

London Cycling Campaign's 2012 rally, called the Big Ride. Thousands of people on bikes are attending, but very many are wearing helmets, high-visibility clothing, and lycra.

Love London, Go dress like a builder? (Photo: Mark Ames)

Pedal on Parliament rally, 2012 in Edinburgh. Thousands of riders, many of them wearing sporting clothing or high-visibility clothing.

Pedal on peloton? (Photo: Neil McManus)

Both rallies were a sea of helmets, high-vis, and Lycra. (Are those men wearing special cycling sunglasses too? Those do exist, right?)

Why would anybody choose to wear these garments while riding slowly along a closed route which is free of motor traffic? It sends out completely the wrong message. It says that if you’re thinking about joining The Cyclist Gang then you need to go and buy special equipment from a specialist shop. It says that you always need to carry a helmet and a tabard around with you, and maybe some special gloves and funny glasses. It says sweat and fear. It just smells wrong.

Look at the bottom photo, from Pedal on Parliament. The guy holding the camera in the middle of the photo stands out like a sore thumb, a lone bike user in a crowd of cyclists. (Lookin’ good, whoever you are!)

Events like these are a great opportunity to show the public what casual, stress-free bike riding for all could look like, but instead they perpetuate the stereotype of cycling as requiring special equipment and preparation. Maybe UK cyclists are just so conditioned to the dreadful conditions on our roads that they forget they’re wearing a helmet and hi-vis, even while taking part in a traffic-free rally calling for a system which would make these items unnecessary.

If we’re trying to send out the message that riding a bike is for anybody and everybody, this isn’t the way to do it. All that special equipment just reinforces the common view of “the cyclists” – a homogenous out-group, a cliquey club for wormelow tumps, a strange day-glo religious sect. By dressing this way cycling campaigners are falling into the trap of the stereotype, and the newspaper reader thinks “look, here’s some of that crazy Cyclist Gang, now they want more money for their weird hobby!”

Wearing these clothes also backs up the belief that they are essential, and anyone riding a bike without all this safety equipment is wrong to do so. Every time there’s an article in a newspaper about cycling it will be accompanied by a photo of people with hi-vis and helmets, and this becomes normal and expected. Therefore anybody riding a bike without a helmet and while dressed in their normal clothes becomes unusual and questionable, and in the event of a collision “they’ll only have themselves to blame.”

Mark Treasure riding on a motor-free cycle path alongside a beach, in bright clear weather. He is riding in casual clothes and wearing a trilby.

Look at this reckless maniac! (Photo: Joe Dunckley)

I’m not saying that everyone should dress like they’re attending a job interview, but do cycling campaigners really have to dress so outlandishly? Can’t we just wear our normal clothes to demonstrate that riding a bike doesn’t have to be a dangerous chore or an extreme sport?

For me, one of the beautiful things about the bike is that you can just unlock it, hop on it, and off you go. But all this special gear suggests that riding a bike is an inherently dangerous activity for which you’ll have to spend time getting dressed up for. Using a bike should be an easy transport option for everyone, and if it involves all this extra hassle then people will choose to jump in the car instead, without stopping to don any special safety-wear.

Maybe cyclists enjoy the smell of a nylon tabard? Maybe there’s a sexy thrill to pulling on that skin-tight lycra? Maybe the helmet gives them special superhuman powers? I’ve no idea, as I’ve never worn any of those items.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not having a go at the good people behind PoP or the Big Ride. These events show the wide level of support and push the agenda to those people in power. (Whether they work or not is another matter…) I know that the organisers can’t dictate what attendees wear, but maybe they could request people to wear their normal clothes? Maybe promote it as a themed rally – the theme being to dress like a non-cyclist! [Update: It turns out that LCC did – see Mike Cavenett's comment below]

This is what Going Dutch looks like – people riding bikes for transport while wearing everyday clothing:

Rush hour in central Utrecht, Netherlands. Many people of all ages riding bikes in their normal clothes, without the safety equipment deemed necessary in the UK.

Why not dress up as one of these people?

So the next time you go to a bike rally, even if you’ve ridden 30 miles in your Cyclist Gang costume to get there, do us all a favour and put the high-vis and the helmet in your bag before the cameras start rolling.

(And to those of you who attend these events in your everyday clothes, I salute you!)


Footnote, added 21:14, 23rd January 2013: I’m pretty sceptical about the ‘bad weather’ excuse for all the hi-vis on the Big Ride. I suspect that even had it been warm and sunny, there would have been just as many people in safety-wear.

Have a look at these images from the LCC’s Blackfriars Bridge flashride in October 2011

It’s dry and mild – plenty of people in shirts and jumpers – and according to this weather site the temperature was in the teens.

The second photo – five adults not even riding bikes, just standing there – has three helmets, one tabard, and 1.5 pairs of fluorescent cycle clips. (Although it looks like Caroline Pidgeon may have stashed a tabard in the basket, and kudos to the mother with toddlers in the bakfiets!)

I know the LCC tried to counter this image on the Big Ride, so this isn’t criticism of LCC or any other campaigns, but of cycle campaigners generally.

Everybody is free to wear whatever they want. It’s no skin off my nose if you dress up like a Christmas tree, but you’ll have to accept that it’s a very unappealing image to the eyes of the majority, non-cycling public.


Footnote, added 01:56, 25th January 2013: Also, for clarification, I was using the Big Ride and PoP as examples of a wider phenomena.

Here’s a random selection found by searching Google and newspaper websites for “cycle campaign” and the like: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17.

Perhaps I should have included these in the article.

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Britain can do it!

My last post — the one about bus stops — turned out to be very popular for some reason. Thanks to all who shared it, and hello, new readers!

One thing that I discovered as a result of that post is that bus stop cycle bypasses already exist in the UK — they’re not a new thing, they’re just very rare. (Do they even have a more concise name? I think I’ll call them BSCBs.)

Here’s a new example in Brighton:

A bus-stop cycle bypass in Brighton. The bus stop is on a pedestrian island between the cycle path and the road.

New BSCB on Lewes Road in Brighton. (Photo courtesy of Mark Strong)

Three cheers for Brighton & Hove City Council for installing this, and for the cycling advocates (including Mark Strong) who pushed for it!

There’s another photo here. I don’t know what the rest of the road looks like for bikes, but this is much better than the old design, which can still be seen on Google Maps:

A photo of the same bus stop before the cycle bypass was installed. Buses crossed the cycle lane to pull in, and people riding bikes were expected to pass stopped buses on the outside.

If you prefer this then you’re insane. (Photo: Google Maps)

The old design really is awful. Buses have to cross the cycle lane to get to the bus stop, and bike users have to overtake a rumbling bus (which will almost certainly not be stopped perfectly within the bus stop, but sticking out across the cycle lane). That’s not going to convince people to start using a bike for transport.

I also received word (thanks to Ambrose White) of a BSCB in Sheffield:

A bus-stop cycle bypass in Sheffield.

A BSCB in Sheffield. (Photo: Google Maps)

It’s rather odd that this exists at all, as the road it’s on is very wide and yet there’s only a poxy advisory cycle lane for the rest of its length. (At least, that’s what it looks like on Streetview, maybe it has changed since.)

But this BSCB does the job pretty well. I like that the cycle path is red, which alerts pedestrians. And the priority is unclear but well marked, too – there are bike icons (as well as the red surface) which tell pedestrians that they’re crossing a cycle-path, but there’s also a give way which warns bike users to be careful of pedestrians. It looks fairly decent to me.

Either way, I know that one place which is never pleasant to be is on the right-hand side of a rumbling bus.

(Stop press! I found another BSCB example on CycleStreets.)

Cycles and buses and lights, oh my!

While I’m on the subject of Dutch cycle infrastructure which can be done in the UK but rarely is, here’s a traffic signal bypass:

A rare example of infrastructure which enables a bike rider to continue while motor vehicles are held at a red light. This is possible because the cycle path runs to the side of the lights, and a bike user is not interacting with the conflicting flow of traffic.

“Bloody cyclists, always riding through red lights! Oh…”

As Mark Wagenbuur explains, bike users heading straight on at a T-junction aren’t actually interacting with the junction so there’s no reason to hold them at the red light. (They should give way to, and merge with, bikes coming from the right, however.)

And it turns out there’s lots of other Dutch touches around the UK, too. Here’s an example of a “free left” in Cambridge, combined with separate signals for bikes heading straight on:

Traffic lights in Cambridge, with a bypass for bikes turning left so they don't stop. Bikes going straight on are held at a red signal while motor vehicles turning left have green to go, and vice-versa.

It’s a bit too British, but Dutch enough. (Photo: Google Maps)

So bike users turning left aren’t held at the signals (but they must give way to traffic coming from the right, ideally the bike lane/path would continue around the corner), while bike users going straight on have their own traffic lights. When the bike lights are green, motor traffic in the left-turn lane is held at a red signal. When the left-turning motor traffic gets a green light, straight-on bike traffic is held at a red. So no conflict – they’re segregated in time.

Again, it’s odd that such good infrastructure exists here at all (though it could be better). There’s nothing behind the camera but to regular vehicle lanes, and the only way to turn right is to get into the right-hand lane (one thing which I’m sure puts off many would-be bike users). But it’s still an improvement over the usual UK habit of ignoring bike users altogether.

So it seems that almost everything we desire is already legally possible in the UK, but there’s often just not the knowledge or the will to do it. If the DfT produced clear national guidelines on how to provide these facilities – and made them mandatory, too – we would start to see them appearing all over the place.


 

Sorry, Northern Ireland — this post should have been called “The UK can do it!” I’d change it, but once WordPress has sent out the feed to other blogs, Twitter, etc., it causes all sorts of problems. At least I didn’t just say “England” though, eh?

 

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