Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The other 49%: Why we need mothers, children and grandparents on bikes. And why TfL doesn't want that to happen.

"Motorists, cyclists and pedestrians in London are all being encouraged to Share the Road - the title of a new and ongoing Transport for London (TfL) campaign, launched by the Mayor of London today." 

That was back in 2006.

But the messaging is still pretty much the same. There's bugger all about cars or other motor vehicles having to "share the road" in reality. They're bigger, fastier and noisier than a pedal cycle. Try changing lanes on your bicycle across a five lane race-track at somewhere like Vauxhall Cross and then tell me that sharing the road works in practice. It doesn't. With some exceptions for a few cyclists who like taking on cars at their own game, most people don't really like the idea of taking on five lanes of motor vehicles racing past them at least 10mph over the speed limit as they wobble from one lane to the next. 

So, it's most entertaining to look at the Cycle Hire safety tips see what's changed since 2006. 'Share the road' has sort of slithered off into 'protect yourself against motor vehicles'. Look at the Cycle Hire safety advice here and you'll notice  that every single recommendation is about how you, the cyclist, are obliged to make sure you stay out of the way of other road users that might cause you serious damage. So we have this list of things not to do:
- Be careful around Lorries, which have numerous blind spots, and never pass them on the left just before, or at, traffic lights - Don't get too close to parked cars - Watch put for other vehicles and pedestrians and give clear hand signals to show your intentions - Make yourself seen at night by wearing reflective or fluorescent clothing 

And so the reality of 'vehicular cycling' in London really means - stay out the way of parked cars, out the way of moving lorries, out the way of moving cars, out of the way of pedestrians. And while you're about it, dress up like a traffic light to make sure none of these people can miss you. Fabulous. I can hardly wait to hit the road.

So let's remind ourselves how 'not get too close to parked cars' and how to 'never pass lorries on the left just before, or at traffic lights'. Here's a typical rush-hour example. The junction between Queen Victoria Street and Blackfriars Bridge.
Friendly cycling for a 10-year old at Queen Victoria St
There's an advisory bike lane. But lo, there are cars parked in the bike lane. On the hatchings as well as in the bike space, in fact. I'm sure that's probably not legal, but never mind. If you cycle in the advisory bike lane, the cars just around the corner of this image actually take up the entire cycle space. The fact that these cars and vans are here every single night doesn't seem to bother anyone. But remember folks, especially the novice vehicular cyclist, Transport for London urges you: "Don't get too close to parked cars". Build the infrastructure, TfL, and then maybe we won't have to get too close to parked cars. Either that or enforce those hatchings properly. Your police forces are keen enough on targeted 'illegal' cycling. But traffic wardens rarely patrol at night around here. So what's illegal parking becomes perfectly sanctioned in practice, even if not technically 'legal'.


While we're dodging the parked cars, we also need to remember not to pass large vehicles on the left hand side, especially when we're near traffic lights or junctions. Well, look at that! I know there aren't any lorries in this picture but there are plenty of coaches and lorries using this junction any time of the day. And the road layout is specifically designed to encourage you to cycle to the left of these giants.

There's a complete disconnect between the PR guff and the reality in London. The reality is that people feel unsafe around too many motor vehicles when they are on their bikes. Same way they would if they were pedestrians in the middle of the road. David Hembrow bangs that point home again and again, possibly at its best here where he talks about subjective safety and then need to feel safe on a bike. To feel you don't need to be constantly thinking "I would like to cycle but I'm scared of the traffic".

It was a comment on the LoFidelity Bicycle Club that got me thinking about this today, the first comment on this article here that talks about how we need a group of mothers to start moaning about this sort of thing. Imagine a scene of mothers and their children standing in front of this junction. And then demonstrating to the willing press a couple of 10-year olds trying to navigate their way between what that nice lady over at TfL's road safety team is telling them about how to stay away from parked cars, not undertake lorries at junctions and so on while they confront the reality of what TfL builds on the ground. Either that, or how about we have a bunch of elderly cyclists, let's say your and my grandmothers, cycling gently through this scene here, wobbling to the left hand side of some HGV racing at 45mph down Queen Victoria Street to catch the lights. Because that's the reality of what it's like to cycle here. And that's why you'll never see a gaggle of 10-year olds or of 70-year olds for that matter, pootling down here on their bikes.

Over at the London Cycling Campaign, there's a whole debate raging about space for cycling. Whether that space should be segregated; aside from; or just part of the vehicle flow.  The fact that after decades of campaigning, the LCC doesn't know what form of cycling it wants, is slightly troubling. And, although he's talking primarily about a different cycling organisation, the CTC, I think LoFidelity does an excellent job here of dissecting a similar issue by querying why the campaign groups that represent cycling, don't really know whether to support vehicular or segregated cycling.

The thing is, vehicular cycling is what we've got now. And it's because of vehicular cycling that most people who cycle in central London aren't 10-year olds or 70-year olds. They're youngish adults, generally (but by no means always) male, generally wearing specialist cycling kit. True, the Boris bikes are beginning to change that but I have begun to feel more and more that we get a certain type of cyclist because we have a certain type of cycling infrastructure and a certain set of rules.

Those rules are rules of the road that completely and utterly favour the motor vehicle, force the onus of 'road safety' on to the cyclist and then institutionalise insane road infrastructure like this junction approach that utterly contradicts everything the same authorities bang on about when they dish out safety advice.

As someone who works in the City wrote to me today about the plans for Cheapside which I previewed here last week: "The carriageway has been narrowed by 40% which must surely make conflict between bikes and cars more likely.  The occasional islands no doubt will encourage aggressive overtaking of bikes with a  sharp pull-in-front to avoid whacking a nice new granite island kerb..... I can see some virtue in a structure which ensures that once behind a bike,  motors must stay there (even if the reverse is true), although that doesn’t seem to me to help novice riders who don’t feel comfortable with the idea of occupying the lane – they will get squeezed like lemons – and I am much more interested in them than in vehicular cyclists."

I couldn't agree more. There's no reason that 49% of people wouldn't cycle in London if the conditions were right. Those are the people we all call 'novice cyclists' at the moment (and more on that concept another day). I'm going to 'out' myself as also being much more interested in those 49% of would-be cyclists than in the handful of us who already brave London's streets at the moment and put up with the conditions of vehicular cycling. I think cycle campaigning should be about the other 49%. Because it's only when they join us, with their 10-year olds and their 70-year olds, that anything is truly going to change here. 

So, back to that TfL statement at the very top. I don't have a 10-year old son or daughter. But if I did, I'd be saying 'boll-cks' to sharing the road. And I'd be thinking something like this: I'm not having my 10-year old cycle down there any more than I'd want my granddad cycling down there. If that's the sort of infrastructure and rules of the road you get when you say 'share the road', then you can take a running jump. There's nowhere on that road for them to cycle and feel safe, so I'm just going to get in my car with them instead. I'd like us all to cycle. But you've made it feel safer for us to get in the car.