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Vehicular Cycling Propaganda of the Week #2: “Give Me Cycle Space”

One of an occasional series offering a satirical look at VC propaganda.

There’s something about this long-running campaign by Cycling Scotland that really irritates me.

The original 2012 advert is a pathetic plea to drivers, asking them to follow rule 163 of the Highway Code. Unless I’m sorely mistaken, it hasn’t improved cycling conditions in Scotland one bit.

Thank you for giving me this much cycle space.” Ugh. Pathetic. “Thank you for not endangering my life.”

The biggest lie is how they pretend that children cycling to school is a normal thing nowadays, and that the cherry on the cake would be if they were given a vague amount of space on the very rare occasions that an automobile is encountered.

Note the holes in the wool they’re trying to pull over your eyes though: The car-sick housing estate the children are on their bikes in at the end, including a car parked on the footway. I expect that normally this street is full of parked cars, and that the producers of this advert had to ask people to move their cars for the filming. More propaganda.

The 2015 version goes even further, suggesting that cycling is a normal and common way for anyone of any age to get around in Scotland:

To the Dutch this advert probably looks like a normal everyday scene. But anybody in Britain knows that this isn’t based on reality. Perhaps there’s a couple of places that vaguely resemble this, but they’re few and far between.

Doesn’t even do what it says on the rusty old tin

Though for me the oddest thing about this campaign is that it don’t even communicate its message clearly. The outstretched arms seems to suggest that drivers should make sure to give an arms’ length gap when overtaking, but we know that’s actually far too close.

No actual length in feet or metres is given, the message “give as least as much space as you would give a car” is open to interpretation. Some drivers would happily overtake another car – or a bin lorry – with only a few inches clearance. They might see this advert and assume their driving is just fine.

So in short, it’s wasted time and wasted money. This sort of thing has been tried again and again for decades, with nothing to show for it as far as I can tell.

A large billboard with the words 'You can never give a cyclist too much room. If you want to keep casualties down, keep your distance'. It has a hugely stretched bike on it. Cars speed past in the foreground.

“You can never give a failed idea too many tries.” (Source: YouTube)

But unfortunately there’s a whole industry that’s been built up around this kind of crap, whole armies of people whose jobs rely on the continuing failure of their dismal propaganda, so we can expect more of the same.

There’s that saying, usually attributed to Einstein, about how repeating the same thing but expecting a different result is the definition of insanity – but when people’s wages depend on the repetition of failed ideas, perhaps that’s enough of an incentive to be cynically insane.

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A Dane’s view of cycling in Berlin

Here is a guest post written by a Danish friend of ours who came to live in Berlin for five months this year. He’s now returned to Denmark, but before he left I asked his thoughts on cycling in Berlin, and transcribed his response.

I’ve edited our chat into logical sections, and changed some words for clarity – ‘pavement’ into ‘footway’, for example. The photo captions are also mine.

On the design of Berlin’s cycleways

One of the first experiences I had with the cycling infrastructure in Berlin was when I found myself walking on a cycleway without realising. The difference between the footway and the cycleway is so subtle, they’re at the same level and almost the same colour.

It’s only when someone passes you closely or rings their bell that you realise it’s a cycleway. When my parents visited I had to constantly watch out for them, tell them when they were walking on the cycleway. It’s so difficult to tell. You see tourists every day who are confused about it, they don’t see it.

The widths of the cycleways in Berlin make absolutely no sense. Some are only wide enough for one person, and even the wider ones are still not wide enough to overtake another cyclist comfortably, so people end up using the footway to overtake. It impacts on people walking, of course, as people are cycling more on the footway.

People walking and cycling closely on a cycleway and footway in Berlin, where a pavement café doesn't help matters.

Cramped footway and level cycleway – yet space for five lanes for motor vehicles, plus a wide central reservation.

So the width, they just get that wrong. You have to give 2 metres at least, like in Copenhagen, where some places you can cycle 4 abreast and there’s still room to overtake, although it varies throughout the city.

When you can’t cycle beside one another you can’t be social, so cycling becomes a solo endeavour. Many times I’ve wanted to say something to the people I’m with, but have to shout it from behind. Imagine travelling in a car in which you can’t speak to any of the other occupants.

Every time a cycleway or footway is too narrow, it kills the conversation that’s going on, as people have to go single file. Until I cycled in Berlin, I didn’t realise the importance of being able to ride socially in parallel, as opposed to serial mode.

On the quality and maintenance of Berlin’s cycleways

I’ve come up with a theory that you can’t ride a bike for more than a few metres in Berlin without encountering a bump of some sort. Some cycleways are just constant bumps. My bike is now rattling due to parts coming loose on the uneven surfaces.

I really don’t understand why tiles were chosen to surface the Berlin cycleways. They’re really annoyingly uneven. It all adds up, in terms of friction and resistance, compared to smooth asphalt they take much more energy to ride on. And I can’t imagine they’re much easier to maintain. You’re basically cycling on waves – waves made of hard tile edges.

A cycleway in Berlin, where the surface tiles are coming loose, causing discomfort and danger. One tile is so uneven that the entire side of it can be seen.

People in cars get smooth asphalt to ride on, while people on bikes get loose tiles amongst many other ever-changing surface types.

On encounters with people driving motor vehicles

In my time here, I’ve come to realise that I don’t enjoy cycling in Berlin, especially after my near-death experience with a bus, followed by being cut up by someone driving an SUV.

It was a lucky thing that I was so awake and alert, and it was only because I’m so agile that I could jump off the road onto the footway when the bus almost hit me. And it was only because I was cycling slowly that there was no collision with the SUV – had I being going as fast as I often do, I’d have smashed into it.

You can’t really count on the drivers to stop here when they should. A Danish friend of mine who also lives in Berlin says that there is this culture of drivers not being aware of bikes. I would certainly approach junctions more carefully here, and be ready to stop, because I’d be the one to lose out in a collision.

A traffic-signalled junction in Berlin, where turning cars must give way to pedestrians who have a green light, but the driver has blocked the cycle route due to poor design.

The driver of the silver car has turned into, and is blocking, the cycle route. The junctions are designed in such a way that this frequently happens.

On the concept of vehicular cycling

I told that same Danish friend about Forester and Franklin and the idea of fighting for the right to the road, and he laughed out loud about it, just as I had when I first heard of it. It’s totally backwards.

He’s probably the kind of guy who – if he’d grown up in Berlin – would be a radical cyclist, fighting for that right. But it’s only good for the fast ones who can keep up with traffic. Children and old people can’t ride like that.

I guess it’s because of ignorance – you’d only fight for your right to the road when you’ve only known crap cycleways. I would probably be fighting for that right if I’d grown up here. And only if I was thinking about myself, of course.

Thinking about my grandmother, it makes no sense. She’s 81, lives in Denmark, and she cycles pretty much every day. Where she lives there’s a segregated cycleway a couple of metres away from the road.

I can only rarely remember having seen people in DK who have chosen the road over the cycleways. It could be that they were just tourists, or maybe I’m inventing that memory now I’m being asked about it.

I don’t think I’m unique, every Danish person would realise how ridiculous VC is. It’s not a thing in Denmark. It just couldn’t be.

On growing up cycling in Denmark

Where I grew up in Odense I had my own wide cycleway, it wasn’t even beside a road. That’s how I got to school – on my own road, only for cycling.

I grew up in an urban area, there’s a network of cycleways away from roads, all the way from home to school and everywhere else. We lived in two different parts of the city, and they both were connected to a safe cycling network.

I would say that Odense feels safer than Copenhagen. It’s a lot less crowded, and you’re not even near the road for the most part. I don’t think I valued it, I never thought it was unusual.

I could do things that I wouldn’t have been allowed to do otherwise, as my mum could trust me to cycle alone without worrying. As a child, while I was cycling home from school on these cycleways – cycle roads, really – I would play games in my head, it was so safe you didn’t have to concentrate hard and be hyper-alert.

It was entirely stress-free. Actually, that’s an understatement.

A wide asphalt cycleway flows away the camera. Grass can be seen either side, with houses beyond it. There are street lights and side-paths connecting the houses.

What stress-free cycling looks like in the suburbs of Odense, in Denmark. Unravelled cycleway through the very centre of a housing estate, with no cars anywhere nearby.

On the politics of cycling

Speaking of cyclists, I think it’s one of those self-reinforcing things. The number of cyclists relates to the quality of the infrastructure. Perhaps Berlin does better than the cycleways indicate, because so many people cycle on the wide footways, which is accepted here. You wouldn’t see kids cycling, for example, if they couldn’t ride on the footways.

I had never thought much about cycling before moving to Berlin, it was just something I had always done and taken for granted. I’m not sure if I’d have thought about it so much if I hadn’t happened to moved in with the author of this blog.

I’d have probably just not cycled much here and not really thought about the reasons why. I don’t cycle in Berlin anywhere near as much as I did in Denmark. It just feels unsafe here.

There’s a big difference in the feeling of safety, you have to be very alert when you ride around here, compared to Copenhagen. The difference is the cycleways, which in Copenhagen are protected from cars, and clearly separate to the footway – so you don’t find cars on them or people walking on them.

In Berlin, parking is prioritised over walking and cycling, it makes no sense. Just a few parking spaces are allowed to ruin the walking and cycling conditions for thousands of people. Even trees are prioritised over safe cycling!

A cycleway in Berlin suddenly narrows to around 0.5 metres wide because of a few trees. The wide multi-lane carriageway is undisturbed.

Notice how the carriageway remains unaffected by the line of trees.

In conclusion

Cycling around Berlin resembles the pod-racing scene from Star Wars.

A cycleway narrows as it wiggles sharply around a pole which is installed in its way. There are further barriers on the right too.

Go right… No, go left! Ah, just ride on the footway instead…

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Vehicular Cycling Propaganda of the Week #1

The first in an occasional series offering a satirical look at VC propaganda.

These children are being empowered to ride on this busy road – but only when dressed as builders and being shepherded by a group of luminous adults riding defensively.

Of course, we wouldn’t want empowered children cycling safely and independently by, say, converting half of that road into a physically protected cycleway. No no no, that would be giving in to the motor industry. It would mean that the cars had won.

The only way we militant cyclists can defeat the motor menace is by getting children to cycle amongst fast, heavy motor traffic.

Because it’s empowering.

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Space for Cycling and Childhood Freedom

I think that the London Cycling Campaign’s Space for Cycling message is spot-on for a cycling campaign.

Note the end of that sentence: it’s spot-on for a cycling campaign. It’s exactly what a cycling campaign should be saying to the government.

In a nutshell: separated cycle tracks on all main roads, slow down and remove through-traffic on all non-main roads. In other words, “Go Dutch”.

It’s great because the LCC is saying to the government: “We want you to create safe space for cycling, protected from motor vehicles” (as opposed to earlier campaigns with similar names, which said to drivers: “please drive carefully around cyclists” and was clearly never going to work).

But ‘Space For Cycling’ is never going to get the wider public’s support, and if you think it is then you don’t live in the real world.

A short visit to Earth

I myself don’t live in the real world but I do drop in occasionally to see how they’re getting on, and I can tell you this: these humans haven’t a clue about transport. They just do whatever is easiest, or whatever other people are doing. All that stuff we talk about every day – filtered permeability, modal shift, etc. – they haven’t the faintest idea that any of it exists.

Even when you think people understand what you’re saying, they very often don’t get it. While driving along New Kent Road towards central London recently, a close friend who has listened to me talk about all this stuff for the past 18 months suddenly said “there’s plenty of space for an extra lane here, that would end the traffic jams” and I realised: he hasn’t understood a thing I’ve been saying.

I expect he’s not alone. While my partner’s mum has been sitting and nodding at my long diatribes, she still thinks cyclists always go through red lights and ride on footpaths.

My friend who drives half a mile to the supermarket considers me to have strange and very unlikely ideas about how to get around.

And although my sister has been shown countless photos of children riding their own bikes to school in the Netherlands, she wouldn’t even consider it an option for her own daughter.

(I don’t blame any of them for thinking this way: they all live in Leeds, the motorway city of the 1970s. Actually, I’d be terrified if my sister announced that they were doing the school run by bike.)

Ah, but what about those sophisticated Londoners?

Even friends in London who use a bike often don’t understand. I find that Mayor Johnson’s just keep your wits about you mentality thrives among those who cycle in London.

And those who do support separate infrastructure very often don’t get it. When talking about Space For Cycling with a bike-riding friend, he agreed with the concept, adding “there’s plenty of space because cycle paths only need to be about a metre wide.” And this is someone who rides a bike for transport!

Okay, so I’ve laboured my point: the Space For Cycling campaign is great, but it has limited scope for wider support.

In other words, Space For Cycling is not Stop De Kindermoord.

So what’s the answer?

In short, children are the answer. Almost everybody is a parent or a grandparent, or an uncle or aunt. Everybody wants the best conditions for the next generation.

But the way we lay out our roads and streets is killing us in many ways. It’s restricting freedom (warning: Daily Mail) and causing physical harm, through collisions, poor air quality and the health risks that come with inactivity.

To get the general public on board, a campaign needs to speak to them and be something that everyone can empathise with.

What is needed is the Campaign for Childhood Freedom. I won’t witter on about it here, follow the link to read more.

I’m not criticising the LCC’s Space For Cycling campaign here, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I do think that Space For Cycling – although I support it fully – is too niche to have wide public support, and that’s what is required for the changes we all wish to see.

It’s not easy to convince people to support the curtailment of their freedom to rat-run anywhere and everywhere, and harder still to get people to see the bike as a suitable mode of transport for local journeys. But, framed in the context of the health and well-being of children, such changes may well become seen as a sacrifice worth making for the next generation’s sake.

That’s the direction which campaigning must take to reach the wider public.

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Addendum: As often happens, a commenter has hit the nail on the head so squarely that it’s worth adding to the article. Farnie has tweeted: Need to get away from the ‘campaigning for cyclists’ thing. It’s for everyone and also commented below: “Make it an issue for parents, because they are a much more powerful lobbying group than any local cycle campaign.”

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Cycling in the Netherlands picture post #4: Children

I thought this would be one of the easiest picture posts to choose the photos for, but it turned out that I had so many photos of children riding bikes that it was hard to choose which ones to show.

It’s often said that children are the pit-canaries of our society, and if this is the case then the UK has got a problem. Our pit canary lost its feathers years ago and is now gasping for air.

One of my aims with these Netherlands photo posts is to challenge those who insist that we can achieve mass cycling without infrastructure, by showing scenes that simply wouldn’t exist if the cycle paths weren’t there. I really can’t imagine any of these scenes happening on the UK’s roads!

Two young girls ride bikes home from school in the Netherlands, safely on the cycle path, away from motor vehicles.

A boy rides down a hill on a wide cycle path in the Netherlands, safely protected from the busy road.

Groups of schoolchildren ride their bikes on a safe, wide cyclepath in the Netherlands.

Three boys ride on a Dutch cyclepath, protected from the traffic on the road.

Two teenagers ride their bikes on a cyclepath in the Netherlands, protected from the main road.

A boy rides his bike across a junction in Holland.

Three Dutch kids ride their bikes past one of the many bike parking areas in Utrecht.

Three teenagers ride bikes on a rural cycle path in the Netherlands – up-hill!

Three Dutch girls ride home on a 'bicycle road' alongside the canal in the Netherlands.

Two boys riding home from school, practising riding no-handed! They are safely on a cycle track away from the motor traffic.

Two girls ride on a cycle path in Holland, beside a busy road with a tractor on it.

And of course there’s this old favourite too.

 


As this post is meant to be uplifting I recommend you ignore the following link, but if you really want to see the UK government’s equivalent vision of children cycling then click here. Just make sure you have a nearby wall handy to bang your head against.

 

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