‘Taking the lane’

The Guardian have a piece up on their bike blog addressing the awkward question of ‘primary position’ – a topic I have previously addressed here and here. In both my pieces, I accepted that assertive road positioning is, in general, the safest way of negotiating Britain’s roads on a bicycle. However, I felt – and still feel – that there are two major problems with the ‘primary position’ technique. The first is that – while the technique itself is designed to discourage reckless and stupid manoeuvres by motorists – it will, in a minority of instances, increase the danger posed to a cyclist by reckless and stupid motorists. Instead of squeezing past a ‘gutter riding’ cyclist through a pinch point with a foot to spare, some homicidal lunatics will insist on squeezing past an ‘assertive’ cyclist at the same pinch point, and this time there will be mere inches to spare, if that. The author of the Guardian piece describes precisely this experience -

While writing this blog I “took the lane” on an east London road as a lorry approached in the other direction. The driver behind overtook anyway, passing within 30cm of my front wheel while honking his horn.

The second, and I think more general problem, is that it is a strategy that is completely alien to the vast majority of British road users. As I wrote in my initial post 

No-one seems to have told U.K. drivers about it [the primary position]. Putting yourself out in the middle of the road can, in my experience, appear to some drivers as an act of deliberate provocation. They don’t have a clue what you are doing.

And it is indeed this cluelessness that lies behind another kind of unsavoury incident reported in the Guardian piece -

Hannah Widmann, a 26-year-old London student, took “primary position” at traffic lights when a driver behind started using her horn. Hannah said: “When I pulled left [from primary position] after about 25m, she had lowered her windows and her kids were screaming at me, using incredibly offensive terms.

Charming. Cycle Of Futility reports a similar experience of primary-position-induced road rage (this one with the added bonus of Metropolitan Police ignorance about primary position – a seemingly widespread ignorance, that I touched upon here, and that is also discussed in the Guardian piece itself). And I also included my own experience of an enraged motorist, who gibbered about my being ‘in the middle of the road’, despite there being totally inadequate space to pass me safely. The cycle trainer David Dansky, quoted in the Guardian piece, acknowledges that this lack of understanding is a problem. But – somewhat optimistically – he seems to believe that the problem will magically disappear -

 You still get drivers who don’t understand, but as more and more people get on their bikes you get more understanding from drivers.

More and more people get on their bikes? Is this really happening anywhere outside of central London? I don’t think so. And even where there are more people on bikes, I don’t see a corresponding increase in ‘understanding’ from drivers, as countless youtube videos of cut-ups and close passes in London will attest. But uncomfortable truths – like the fact that people aren’t getting on their bikes, at all, in Britain, precisely because of the hostile road conditions – don’t seem to penetrate the relentlessly sunny outlook of those like Dansky, who seem to think that the best way to achieve a mass cycling culture is to continually emphasise the positive in the vain hope of attaining the numbers required to get the ‘understanding’ or the ‘safety in numbers’ that will sustain a virtuous circle of improving conditions for cyclists. The fact that we aren’t getting anywhere, and haven’t been for decades, doesn’t seem to penetrate. Dansky is of the opinion that London’s ‘success’ as a ‘cycling city’ is due to ‘persuasive’ measures – promotional attempts to convince us that cycling in London is fantastic. His comments are reported in this Crap Waltham Forest piece-

it is exactly the measures Dave [Horton] is sceptical about that have contributed to London’s success as a cycling city. Transport for London’s behaviour change programme includes the congestion charge and a raft of adverts on billboards and TV promoting cycling using positive images of people riding in London, many without cycle helmets.

London can, in no reasonable sense, be described as a ‘cycling city.’ In fact it compares extremely poorly to pretty much every western European city I have visited.

Is this what we’ve been reduced to? This is hype triumphing over substance, both in strategy and outcomes. I am more than slightly fed up with the apparent refusal to acknowledge that conditions for cycling in Britain are intolerable for the vast majority of people, and also with the refusal to veer from a strategy of building a mass cycling culture by encouraging people to have the ‘confidence’ to venture into traffic, with its attendant dishonesty about how wonderful it is to cycle in our towns and cities. I am a confident cyclist, and I find cycling stressful and unpleasant. The simple truth is that we are never going to reach the ‘tipping point’ of numbers where safety and understanding increases by just training people, or by mounting glossy advertising campaigns. Neither makes the actual experience of cycling pleasant, relaxing and  convenient. We need to adjust the environment itself – not lie about it, or train people to cope with it.

One small crumb of comfort, I suppose, is that however bad things are in the U.K, they are certainly not as bad as in New Zealand – one place you certainly do not want to take a ‘primary position.’

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5 Responses to ‘Taking the lane’

  1. Kim says:

    At the end of the day the problem is that there are too many drivers, with their belief that the Sacred Driving Licence gives them a greater right to use the roads than anyone else. We need to get a cultural change, making bad driving social unacceptable, so that the roads can be safe for all. On roads with high volumes of traffic, we also need separated infrastructure, but this by its self is not enough, we need the culture change to really make the roads safe for all.

  2. When I was a kid, I used to cycle to school in New Zealand. Not many children do that these days.

    The points you make are all quite correct. Cycling will never be mainstream while the potential for this sort of incident is around every corner.

  3. You’re completely correct. I said much the same here, in case you missed it.

    A feature which now makes this whole issue so difficult to “take on” is that there has developed an industry, dependent on public money, of Bikeability-style cycle training, of which Dansky is a representative, in whose interests it is for government not to take the measures that will really achieve a mass cycling culture, for their work would be made redundant in a Dutch-type environment. So these people talk training and promotion up, and infrastructure and environment down, because that suits them and their public paymasters very well. It makes it easier for government not to tackle the hard issues like reallocating road-space and redesigning junctions because they can just say “We are promoting cycling, look at all the money we are spending on training”.

    I believe this training culture therefore gets in the way of developing a mass cycling culture. It is not even a step in the right direction, it is antithetical to what we need. We need to make riding a bike “as easy as riding a bike”, not something that requires assertiveness training.

  4. Quite agree. Being assertive on a bike, and “taking the lane”, is putting yourself deliberately in the firing line, and playing “chicken” with motorists. This may well be the only way to ride a bike on the UK’s roads, but I worry that as more cyclists become trained to do this, we’ll see more aggression from motorists. This is an arms race. We need disarmament on our roads.

    I wonder how long it’ll be before someone offers “cycle training with self-defence” classes?

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