Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Time to start taming cyclists? "In making cities fit for cycling, we must also ensure cycling becomes fit for cities". Too true. If we don't adapt as cyclists, we'll continue to be classed as "the silent menace"

Here's a London "cyclist". Look like a 'silent menace'
to you?
Andrew Gilligan, the London correspondent of The Telegraph, is a big supporter of cycling in the capital. It is a topic he has long championed at the various newspapers he has worked for. Earlier this week, he wrote a piece on his blog, which talks about the fact that there has been a decline in the number of people cycling on London's trunk roads. Andrew's piece asks whether the decline might be down to the fact that people are talking more about whether it's safe to cycle or not.

I'm not sure I agree with that particular assertion but there are a number of points in Gilligan's piece that I agree with whole-heartedly. The first of those is this: "The emphasis on safety might end up being beneficial if it creates the political space for radical improvements to the cycling experience in London."

That is exactly the point.

Those of us who do cycle in London have coalesced around the issue of safety because it is something we all feel. In fact, according to Transport for London, the majority of cyclists will go out of their way specifically to  take a safer route: "A recent study of current cyclists in London found that cyclists were willing to increase their journey time to travel on better, safer routes. Current London cyclists are prepared to travel further to cycle in cycle lanes, bus lanes, on residential roads and would travel three times further to cycle on off-road routes." No surprises there.

Gilligan also makes the point that London roads aren't as dangerous as the media has recently made them out to be. He concludes: "So we should never stop talking about safety. It is and always has been the biggest reason why people do not take up cycling. But perhaps we should think a bit more about how we talk about it."

I am going to rise to that challenge. And I think there are two issues where we need to think about how we talk about cycling.

The first of those is what we define as a 'cyclist'. In the same report I mentioned earlier, Transport for London states that "less confident cyclists will try to avoid" busy trunk roads (page 122).

I would like Transport for London to ban use of the phrase "less confident cyclist". My niece is seven. She's a very confident cyclist. But she doesn't like cycling with cars on busy roads. What would it take for her to cycle to school, the same way that half the children her age cycle to school in Denmark? Transport for London's report would imply she needs to be a fit, 20-something adult with the wits and strength to keep pace with the motor vehicles. At that point she will be a "confident cyclist". We don't design roads only for "confident" drivers. So why are solutions acceptable that are only for "confident" cyclists?

Addison Lee cycle trainer demonstrating ASL
This "cyclist" is actually a minicab driver from AddisonLee, 
being given cycle training by David Dansky

The second issue I think we need to address is what other people think about "cyclists" - in particular what those people who don't yet cycle, but might want to switch to their bikes if they felt the conditions were safe enough.

If you have time, I would echo a recent blog post by As Easy As Riding A Bike who points to the work of Dave Horton. Dave is a sociologist and over recent months has been writing a fascinating series of blog posts "Cycling Struggles" in which he interviews people about cycling, about why they do or don't cycle and about how they cycle. What he finds, is that many of us are conditioned to cycling fast because we cycle mixed with motor traffic. Mixing with pedestrians means 'slowing down'. What happens when you force people on bikes to slow down and mix with pedestrians often makes for unhappy reading.

And when I say 'force people on bikes to mix with pedestrians', I mean it the same way as Dave Horton does, namely: "The male pavement cyclist is much more likely than the model cyclist to be working-class, young, and/or non-white; whether male or female, the pavement cyclist is less likely than the model cyclist to be competitive and fit; and the pavement cyclist might be accompanying children....People [who] cycle on the pavement when they feel unable to cycle on the road."

It is the fear of pavement cycling that (I think) makes it somehow socially acceptable for David Kent, London engagement officer of Guide Dogs for the Blind to tell The Evening Standard that his organisation opposes protected bike lanes because cyclists are - in his words: "the silent menace". It makes my seven-year old niece sound like the grim reaper.

We need to create an environment where people - any sort of people - feel that cycling is a safe, sensible way to get about. And to achieve that, we need to accept that cycling cannot be the domain solely of those of us already "confident" enough to mix with the cars, leaving everyone else to play hopscotch with their bikes on the pavement.

There's a deal to be struck. The Mayor, the boroughs and Transport for London need to create a safe, convenient and continuous network of routes for people to cycle on. Whether that's by creating protected space for cycling on main roads or by linking quiet or traffic-free streets.

And in return, all of us need to encourage cycling to be about everyday people, doing everyday things.

This is exactly the point that Mark Treasure makes in his blog post and I think he's absolutely right:

"It should be quite clear that for ‘fast’ cyclists, their behaviour will have to adapt (I include myself in this group). You will no longer be able to hammer through some parts of London. You will have to be more responsible in certain areas, particularly outside shops and bus stops. You will have to watch out for pedestrians, who will be often be unpredictable. This isn’t just about cycle tracks around bus stops; It’s is a necessary component of creating a more liveable city. We’ve ended up with a cohort of cyclists trying to act like motor vehicles, and as we tame the motor vehicle, so we will have to tame precisely these cyclists."

At times, I am a fast cyclist. I am training for a race at the moment, as it happens. But I also cycle to the supermarket.I cycle to work. I cycle to the cinema. These are all very different types of 'cycling'. Ultimately, all of these types of cycling need to be accommodated but that might mean making some compromises. Should I be able to train for racing through central London, for example? I wouldn't expect to practice racing a car through central London.

There is a whole series of dilemmas and debates around these sorts of issues but, ultimately, they all revolve around finding a place for cycling that everyone can buy in to, not just people who already cycle. In his post on the Telegraph's website, Andrew Gilligan suggests we need to think about changing the language around cycling. I think he's right. The language we need to find around cycling is about making cycling something that works for most people all across the country. And to achieve that, we will have to think about what cycling should look like in our towns, cities and villages.

I'll leave with the words of Dave Horton that echo this point well: "There’s work to do here; and in making cities fit for cycling we must also ensure cycling becomes fit for cities."


  1. Good article. If the current road conditions bred the "fast cyclists" then surely better infrastructure that allows safe cycling for everyone will change their behavior as they will no longer have to fight with motor traffic.

    For the record, as a "fast" cyclists I already look out for unpredictable pedestrians.

  2. If you put in the infrastructure and change the road environment, you get a wider range of people riding and that is what will drive the change. That has been the experience in places which now has high levels of cycling.

    But until you change the road environment, you will only get the bold and the reckless cycling. The key is changing the road environment, make it safe, instead of telling people to protect themselves. The current approach is to tell people they have to wear protective gear, Hi-viz and helmets, is a part of the problem, not the solution. It is time for change...

  3. I think we need to focus our campaign so as to win hearts and minds. At the moment most motorists have a knee-jerk anti-cyclist reaction to anything we say despite the overwhelming strength of our argument for safer conditions.
    The Dutch focussed on their children being killed. We can't do that as it is so dangerous to cycle here that few children are allowed to cycle.

    If we managed to convince parents and their children that they deserved better than this then the demand for children to have the freedom and independence to cycle safely could become unstoppable.

    Once sufficient children are able to cycle to school everything else would fall into place.

    1. maybe you could do a bit more towards dispelling the road tax myth and help drivers better understand how roads are funded.

    2. There are any number of myths which motorists subscribe to; eg all cyclists jump red lights, cyclists cause traffic jams, pedestrians are safe except for pavement cyclists, cyclists cause their own deaths on the road,etc. Motorists love to attack cyclists about these things and they believe them because they want to.
      The anti-cycling motorist loves attacking cyclists and will find any excuse to do so and has no interest in understanding anything they say.

      I am suggesting another strategy which might be more effective.

    3. "If we managed to convince parents and their children that they deserved better than this then the demand for children to have the freedom and independence to cycle safely could become unstoppable.

      Once sufficient children are able to cycle to school everything else would fall into place."

      i think this is the best strategy and one that is easy to sell. I used to live in Amsterdam, and all my colleagues there had cycled to school alone or with friends from the age of 8 or so, and as teenagers had had so much more freedom than our british teenagers experience, because the safe cycling network meant they could cycle to meet friends, go to the movies etc... with their parents having peace of mind and not having to operate a free taxi service for their kids. the school run as we know it in the UK is essentially non-existent over there.

      as schools prepare to return for the new term, it is worth pressing home this message. good cycling facilities=more freedom for kids and less of a hassle for parents (as well as other drivers, it can't have escaped peoples' notice how much quieter roads can be in rush hour during school holidays).

      Most adults in the UK are or will be parents at some stage, surely there is an easy message to convey about the benefits of proper cycling infrastructure?

  4. There are times when it helps to tailor one's cycling to the surrounding traffic: slower amongst pedestrians, faster amongst cars and so on. But it does seem unfair that the onus is on bicycle users to adapt to a range of unsuitable situations. These should be the exception, not the rule.

    It is NOT acceptable to be forced onto roads which only the fastest and most confident cyclists can hope to negotiate safely due to the way that they, and the interface with cycle paths, are designed. It is also NOT acceptable to be forced onto mixed-use footpaths which are just that: footpaths. In the latter case we can't make full use of the bicycle, either because it's too offputting or dangerous to pedestrians - or simply because there isn't room on the path for two cyclists to pass. Constant stopping, slowing, walking and dismounting is required in either case, and the supreme advantage of the bicycle as an efficient and speedy way of covering short to medium distances is lost. It becomes at best a bag-rest for shopping, at worst an ungainly impediment to walking.

    To complement our meagre collection of useful bits of cycling infrastructure, I would like to see more creative use of existing roads, e.g. where "rat-runs" (esp. those which go past schools) are bicycle-only at certain times. Then maybe at some point, the decision might be made to move the most suitable roads over to non-motorised (and emergency) use only. I have seen one or two examples of this which appear to work well. However, it probably works best in residential areas where the reduction in traffic noise and hazard is a welcome by-product of the cycle route. Unfortunately this kind of solution needs a sensitive choice of location, sound design, and intelligent political support. Santa has, so far, been uncharacteristically stingy with those particular gifts.

  5. Oh come on. How about not picking on cyclists? People have been finding excuses to pick on cyclists ever since the car appeared - and will continue to do so.

    No, it isn't cyclists that are the problem.

    And if you are going to pick onthem/us, you can pick on careless pedestrains - and as for the blind - how about all the visually impaired people behind the wheels of cars? We all have responsibilities...

    Also, I'm fed up being told I'm bold or reckless because I ride a bike, and particulalrly fed up when people think that this somehow means I accept motor violence.

    Dr. Robert Davis , Chair Road Danger Reduction Forum

  6. And as a corollary to the point that 'we need to create an environment where people... feel that cycling is a safe, sensible way to get about', the reason for the more unsociable aspects of cycling is precisely because of the lack of such an environment. The 'fringe' aspects of cycling have been nurtured by those very people in authority with responsibility for designing our towns and streets since the 1950s. If people complain of the 'silent menace', it is only the menace created by previous generations: planners, politicians, councillors, in fact society at large is complicit, a society that never made cycling normal, mainstream, safe, and neglected it. "Bad cyclists" they say? Well, they created them.

  7. Essentially I agree with your thrust. And the key to all this is consistency of cycle provision. If there were a continuous network of consistent quality, you could adopt a consistent riding style appropriate to your surroundings, and appropriately considerate to pedestrians, children, blind people, whoever else is using the space.

    The problem we tend to be faced with is that we have poor provision where there is a constant, schizophrenic swapping over of environments, where the planners of cycle routes such as the LCN or Superhighways have at one moment expected cyclists to be jousting with 40mph traffic through complex junctions, the next moment diving on to narrow pavements shared with pedestrians, the next waiting at a Toucan crossing, the next going down some slalom underpass with as many obstructions as possible that was never designed for cycling, the next weaving in an out of parked cars and avoiding traffic-calming features on a minor road, the next cycling through a park, the next moment on an urban motorway again. The problem is that some of the links are so poor and positively dangerous that you are still excluding all but the fittest, bravest and most aggressive people from cycling, and you are then intermittently expecting saint-like behaviour from them when they are directed into completely different environments.

    The key to solving this, it seems to me, is not trying to push cyclists off into space nobody else want much, Sustrans or LCN-style, but giving us proper, dedicated, wide, unobstructed cycling space on main roads – what the Superhighways should be, in fact. Then cyclists would know where they were, and everyone else would know where they were supposed to be. Fast cyclists could get to their destinations fast, and slow cyclists could go slow, highways would act as highways, and then you would have your home-zones and shared spaces and whatnot, which would be different, would be out of the through-traffic system for both cars AND bikes. But we tend to get a bit confused about this in this country, and think that these "calmed" spaces are appropriate for the transport cycling infrastructure, which they are not. It's all about appropriate, consistent planning for the result you are trying to achieve.

  8. This is from the LCC: The development of cycling facilities must always be seen as a step towards creating a high-quality network. And then from you we hear about the development of a continuous network of consistent quality. But neither you nor the LCC have indicated which routes should form part of this network, nor are you prepared to explain how the development of this network should proceed: network first, and then a separation of functions (top-down), or isolated bits of quality infrastructure first, and then join up the pieces (bottom-up)?

    If I have understood what you are saying correctly, all residential areas would be restricted to access traffic only. Golly gosh, David. Last year, I needed to go from Hackney to Belsize Park at least once a week. Could you please suggest an alternative route to this one?

  9. Taming cyclists?! I am at a complete loss to understand what you have against cyclists training for racing in Central London and your comparison with racing a car betrays a lack of comprehension of the relative speeds and masses of each. There is no problem riding relatively fast AND looking out for pedestrians as long as you do not compel cyclists onto routes inferior to the roads we currently use. There is a significant number of long distance commuters whose journeys would become completely impractical if you make them slow down by putting them in closer proximity to pedestrians.
    It would be a mistake to suppose that fast cyclists do not matter as they will cycle anyway and their interests can therefore be completely disregarded.

    1. Martin, that's a rubbish comment written - I hope - in haste.

      I'm not saying any of these points. I can be a fast cyclist and I'm not saying 'fast' cycling doesn't matter. That's why I specifically say there are different types of cycling but I am also stating that I think there needs to be a discussion about whether we want to or even whether we can accommodate all types of cycling everywhere in central London. And your comment suggests you haven't taken that on board (or that I've expressed it particularly badly)

      I am also saying that, yes, it might be necessary to accept slower cycling speeds in some areas. If we're going to see people like my mum or my niece and hundreds like her taking to cycling through the centre of London then, I'm sorry, but some other sorts of journey may become impractical on some routes.

      These things are all relative but your comment suggests you want everything, everywhere. Reality is that if we want to encourage mass cycling, that can't possibly happen and it's going to involve some give and take. Fast cyclists are part of that mix but, yes, in some places you can't design in all sorts of cycling. You have to decide what each road is going to do and how it's going to work for cycling.

      As for racing a car, I could just as well have said I wouldn't expect to do 500 metre running sprints down the South Bank on a sunny afternoon.

  10. I can only presume that blind people in Amsterdam and Copenhagen and Munich and Berlin live in constant fear of the silent menace.

    All road users have responsibilities. Clearly that includes cyclists. But to highlight our irresponsibility is entirely disproportionate to the damage we do and the danger we inflict on others.

  11. Time to start taming cyclists? "In making cities fit for cycling, we must also ensure cycling becomes fit for cities". Too true.


  12. Although safety is one of the primary concerns when dealing with day-to-day activities, bringing up the issues about cycling leds cyclists and people who are interested in this activity rise to the challenges they can meet on the roads.

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