A Study of the Obvious, a Franklin-on-Your-Shoulder, and the Myth of the “Inexperienced Cyclist”

Yet another ridiculous news story has landed, this time about some students at Edinburgh University who have attached electrodes, cameras and microphones to people’s heads to see how stressed they feel riding around in a park compared to a huge, busy roundabout.

So it’s another piece of research you can file under “No Shit, Sherlock”, then. (“Do people on bikes feel stressed when faced with multiple, swirling lanes of massive trucks? There’s only one way to find out. Approve that research funding, professor!”)

But the real kicker is this: rather than use this data to identify which roads and junctions most urgently need updating with modern, cycling-friendly infrastructure, the intention is to develop a smartphone app which will then act as a mini John Franklin (or worse – John Forester) telling you to take the lane and watch out for car doors, as if it’s going to make the slightest fucking difference to anything.

I mean, come on, seriously? Does anyone really think that this will “encourage reluctant cyclists”? 25 years of Cyclecraft haven’t worked, turning it into a nagging back-seat passenger is unlikely to have any effect either.

The roundabout in the video looks awful. The real-life Franklin and Forester could stand at the side of the road, both yelling at me to take the outside lane, and I’d still choose to get off and walk. No smartphone app is that persuasive.

Are you experienced?

Why does this false concept of the “inexperienced cyclist” who needs only encouragement and advice keep cropping up? This is a prevalent idea, that people new to cycling are shrinking violets who just need some handy hints and exposure to horrific conditions to turn them into a road warrior.

Well I call bullshit on that. I’m an “experienced cyclist” but I’d get off and walk too, because I’m not so insanely numbed to danger that I’m willing to ignore it and pretend that my range of hints and tips are what keep me alive.

By any measure, most residents of the Netherlands are “experienced cyclists” – even the laziest Dutchman will have vastly more cycling experience than the average Brit – and yet I can’t imagine many of them would happily launch themselves across Crewe Toll roundabout.

A woman cycles on a smooth, wide cycleway, separated from both the footway and the carriageway.

This woman probably has more cycling experience than 99% of the British population. It’s likely that she rides a bike several times a week, and has done for decades. Does that mean she’s ready to Take the Lane™ at your nearest gyratory?

Everyone’s welcome

To add insult to injury someone from the local cycle campaign turns up to “welcome” this, seemingly because anything that’s remotely connected with bikes must be welcomed.

Has the council painted a bike symbol somewhere? We welcome it! Has the government announced £73 funding for more paint? We welcome it! Has somebody just said the word ‘bicycle’? We welcome it! Is there a dog turd which somebody has ridden a bike over, leaving the imprint of the tyre? We welcome it – because after all, it’s got something to do with cycling, so it might encourage that one extra person we need for the government to finally take notice of us! What else was the last 35 years for?

There is one aspect of this project that the campaigners don’t like though, and that’s reality. You see, this project involves people actually riding bikes in Britain, and therefore the grim reality of cycling on British roads is captured in the video footage. The campaigners fear that this might put some potential cyclists off.

That’s right, it’s video footage of the roads that’s putting people off cycling, not the roads themselves! Don’t fix the roads, just stop broadcasting footage of them, that’ll make the problem go away and we can get back to slapping the council on the back every time they mention cycling!

“This is bad enough in a car”

Interestingly, the video shows a brief clip of the research footage, where the students have transcribed what the riders were saying as they rode the route. “Experienced” cyclists’ spoken comments are shown in yellow, and comments uttered by “inexperienced” cyclists (AKA “normal people who aren’t desensitised to danger”) are shown in white.

In the article, the student claims that “the inexperienced cyclists make very emotional comments and were getting very stressed, whereas the experienced cyclists were just stating the obvious like ‘here comes another truck'”.

But looking at the short section of footage shown in the report, the “experienced” cyclists don’t seem particularly calm and collected either. They suggest a state of alertness that I’m sure not one of the motor vehicle drivers felt:

“Obviously roundabouts could be a lot better for cyclists” … “This is bad enough in a car” … “Roundabouts are pretty mental” … “Sharpish on to the roundabout while I can” … “There’s a van just behind me, he’s a bit keen to get on to the roundabout, I hope he gives me a chance” … “Feel very small compared to all these cars on this huge roundabout”

And remember, those are the quotes from the “experienced cyclists”! I don’t think any number of smartphone apps are going to fix that junction.

Screenshot from BBC News report, showing footage of cycling journey around a roundabout, superimposed with quotes from those cycling, such as 'Roundabouts are pretty mental'

“That’s scary, man” – you got that right!


Interestingly there is one comment, though without context, either from someone blessed with the gift of seeing the bright side of everything, or from one of those full-time cyclists who carries their bike around the supermarket and wears their greasy hi-vis to bed:

“It’s probably slightly easier on a bike, because you have a far, far better field of view.”

That’s a thin silver lining on a very dark cloud.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel-vision

Anyway, I’ll leave this Scrooge-like rant with a note of positivity, and that is this: Our message that better infrastructure is the main answer must be getting through, as the final paragraph is essentially an admission that the subject of the piece is bunkum:

“But their work has already reminded us why campaigners argue it is investment in improved infrastructure which is most likely to encourage more of us to choose two wheels in future.”

Exactly right. And with that, I wish you all the best for the season. Thanks for reading.


PS. The article claims that “campaigners point out that Edinburgh, and some other places, are already well on the way towards achieving 10% or an even higher cycle share of journeys.” Can anyone tell me which campaigners are saying this, as I’d really like to hear some justification of that patently false claim.

 

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “A Study of the Obvious, a Franklin-on-Your-Shoulder, and the Myth of the “Inexperienced Cyclist”

  1. Great post. Just one thought. I’d prefer the word “enable” in preference to “encourage”. Because with the right infrastructure which enables people to use a bike they wouldn’t need any encouraging to use it.

  2. gar

    I have nearly always got off at roundabouts, and followed the pedestrian route, pushing my bike, with the pedestrians if necessary,
    however busy the pedestrian path may be. The push bike user has that right. If the roundabout is busy it is one of the most dangerous places for the very vulnerable cyclist, on two wheels, to be.

    I gave up that kind of cycling some years ago for back roads, and forest tracks, even if it means going three miles further or taking 20 minutes longer. The non-stress of doing so makes the difference
    of cycling being a real pleasure or a thoroughgoing pain, even unto
    the brain.

  3. There is one roundabout where I cycle through it rather than avoid it or take the pedestrian route. This isn’t because I love riding round the roundabout in traffic (every time I approach it, it occurs to me that if I’m going to be knocked off my bike, this is probably the place where it will happen) but because the endless wait for the lights at the toucan crossing fills me with gibbering rage. Not a great choice https://cityexile.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/malfunction/

  4. Paul M

    On your PS, this seems to be a common local politicians’ trick – cite unnamed and unspecified individuals describing them in appropriate terms for the unsupported assertion you happen to be making at this moment. So, when a member of the New Forest National Park Authority (probably late middle aged, almost invariably a Tory, likely to be affluent and almost always hostile to cycling) says that “local residents” have expressed hostility to something for which the Authority has obtained squillions of grant money under apparently false pretences, what he (mainly, also, he, not she) means is “a few of the chaps down the golf club were bending my ear in the bar that they can’t put their foot down in the Jag because of all those cycling oiks who get in the way”.

    I am convinced that local government bodies are adept at finding a few tame Uncle Toms who they can co-opt onto some sort of consultation body, who they can then claim are “cycling campaigners”, or even more explicitly represenntatives of established cycling campaigns such as CTC or Sustrans. It is odd for example that the NFNPA redacts the names of such particupants in their cycling forum – why are they so shy of being identified?

    I know this is the other end of the country, but I can’t imagine it works much differently there.

    As to the survey, we hear plenty of gripes about the “No shit, Sherlock” type of survey, especially from the Daily Mail and its ilk, but if properly conducted, with an open mind, it can be very useful. Government does – should – respond to propoer empirical survet in a way it would – should – not respond to the “stands to reason innit” certainties expressed by loudmouth journalists and others. Of course, sadly, that is jot what mainly happens, and we end up not with evidence-based policymaking, but policy-based evidencemaking.

  5. Excellent analysis. 22 years of cycling round London and I get off and walk around Lea Bridge Roundabout at the end of my road, in paradise Hackney.

  6. fred

    ‘risk-tolerant’ and ‘risk-averse’ are probably more accurate descriptions than ‘confident’ and ‘less confident’, or ‘experienced’ and ‘inexperienced’ in terms of predicting behaviour…

    here’s some confident cyclists: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bbt4Uu3NQYg

  7. There’s no doubt that cycling in Edinburgh is more popular than anywhere else in Scotland. According to census data, cycling to work increased from 3.1% in 2001 to 4.8% in 2011 (source: http://www.spokes.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/1401-Census-Edinburgh-travel-analysis-PIB_No_1_Jan_14.pdf, breakdown by electoral ward here: http://celiamac58.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/census-statistics-on-method-of-travel.html). According to the leader of the council, this has since increased to 8% (http://www.spokes.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/PH-Jane-notes-Spokes-Public-Meeting.pdf).

    The public counter on Middle Meadow Walk seems to register about 2000 bikes a day, which is far greater than the pathetic numbers at the other counters scattered around the country (http://www.bicyclecounter.dk/BicycleCounter/BC_Scotland_BC1.jsp). Traffic counts by Spokes on selected roads during the morning rush hour also demonstrate an increase in cycling, both in terms of the number of cyclists and as a proportion of the total number of vehicles (http://www.spokes.org.uk/wordpress/documents/technical-and-research/spokes-traffic-counts/). Edinburgh is also the only Scottish local authority where car ownership and driving to work are in decline.

    So there is a sense in which Edinburgh can be said to be getting it right – but only relative to the truly dire situation everywhere else. My impression is that Edinburgh has a very low level of bicycle traffic. I also happen to think that the conditions on the streets are even worse than in Glasgow. One thing you never see is year-on-year statistics on the modal split for all journeys. I doubt cycling is more than 2-3%. It is not going to be 10% any time soon. But I suppose it’s possible that even the halfwits at the City of Edinburgh Council might manage to bump the journey to work share up by 2 points over the next 6 years, and it will then be possible to claim “success”.

    • Geoff

      I think the census data is misleading as it relates to Edinburgh residents. I guess there are a lot of non Edinburgh residents who commute into Edinburgh, often by car, and cycling to work in Edinburgh as a percentage of all commute journeys into Edinburgh will be less than 4.8%.

  8. Jitensha Oni

    Good stuff. “Mummy, can I cycle to school by myself tomorrow? I’ve downloaded this app from Edinburgh Uni.”

    In addition to what carsickglasgow writes you can also get a rough idea of general usage from YouTube videos. Sara Dorman links to some of Edinburgh on her DeadDogBlog

    http://deceasedcanine.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/a-rather-boring-slightly-ranty-post.html

    There don’t seem to be many other riders around on those, though plenty of cars and pedestrians. If that were Kingston-upon-Thames I would expect to see 3 or 4 cyclists per kilometre on a bad day off-peak and that’s where commuter mode is a measly 4 % (2011 census). Edinburgh looks less than that.

    From a personal perspective, I don’t generally have much of an issue with traffic, roundabouts etc resulting from thoughts of pessimistic “what-if” scenarios, that is, what you might call “subjective stress”. In ordinary day-to-day cycling, what stresses me is actual experience of bad driving such as the 60 mph close pass, people shouting “get out of the middle of the road”, a face full of half-eaten sandwich etc (all have happened). Let’s call that “objective stress”. You might include noise and high pollution levels in that. The amount of objective stress that one experiences cycling on-road in the UK seems significantly higher than in most European countries even in the absence of much infrastructure (France for example).

    Clearly, training and experience will help alleviate subjective stress, and I’m all for measures such as every school teaching cycling (including when to get off and walk), and even a helping-hand app for guidance, but the objective stress will remain. For me the two are distinct, and should not be conflated, as frequently seems to be the case. Recognition of a difference is implicit in your final quote, but if it were made more explicit and hammered into political consciousness I think we could make more rapid progress.

    Summary. Treat the subjective stress and the objective unpleasantness will remain. Result – few extra cyclists. Treat the objective stress and there’s probably no need to treat the subjective. Result – many more cyclists. Of course I favour good-continuity protected bike lanes on busy roads and cycle-friendly paths through junctions as the solution. YMMV.

  9. I know this roundabout well as I had to drive in to the Western General Hospital many times this past year. It’s scary to negotiate in a car, I would dismount if I were cycling, or go another route altogether. It seems irresponsible to ask people to cycle through it for the sake of research.

  10. Reblogged this on koenigal86 and commented:
    Exactly. I can’t think of a single Birmigham ring road roundabout out of those without underpasses, for instance, where I wouldn’t feel safer walker or cycling on the pavement (if it’s empty enough).

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