Some of you will no doubt remember the advice – quoted in the headline of this post – of the 2011 Understanding Walking and Cycling Report [pdf].
do not base policies about cycling on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists. These are a minority who have, against all the odds, successfully negotiated a hostile urban environment to incorporate cycling into their everyday routines. It is necessary to talk – as we have done – to non-cyclists, potential cyclists, former cyclists, and recreational cyclists to determine what would encourage them to make more use of this transport mode.
The Report investigated the barriers to cycling (and also to walking) in Great Britain. It did so, quite reasonably, by asking people who didn’t cycle why they didn’t, and what would need to change for them to consider a bicycle as an everyday mode of transport. One of their major conclusions – alongside the problems of the perceived abnormality of cycling, and of inconvenience – was that cycling in and amongst motor traffic was a deeply unappealing prospect to most people.
To summarise, from our analysis of the influence of the physical environment on cycling it is clear that traffic is a major deterrent for all but the most committed cyclists. Potential cyclists, recreational (off-road) cyclists and occasional cyclists are discouraged from using their bicycles for everyday urban journeys because of their fear of cars and heavy goods vehicles.
it is essential that the urban environment is made safe for cyclists. This requires the provision of fully segregated cycle routes on all arterial and other busy roads in urban areas. It is clear from the research that most non-cyclists and recreational cyclists will only consider cycling regularly if they are segregated from traffic.
The word ‘segregated’ is, I think, slightly unhelpful, with its negative connotations. A better word to use might be ‘separated’; separated by tracks on those roads with heavier traffic flows, and the use of filtered permeability and one-way systems to create a ‘separated’ cycling experience on other streets (see David Hembrow’s excellent explanation of how the Dutch employ these principles to create ‘100% separation’).
This is a point the Understanding Walking & Cycling Report makes, in a slightly less direct fashion –
there need to be effective restrictions on traffic speeds, parking and access on all residential roads and other routes without segregated cycle paths so that cyclists feel that they have a safe and convenient environment in which to travel. This could include 20mph speed limits and resident-only access by car in some areas.
The emphasis, throughout the Report, is on creating a subjectively safe environment for cycling, one in which people on bikes rarely have to mix with motor traffic. This is because, as the Report established, the people we need to get cycling do not want to mix with motor traffic. And it’s not just the Understanding Walking and Cycling Report that has found this; survey after survey [pdf] repeatedly demonstrates the basic unwillingness of the vast majority of the British population to cycle amongst motor vehicles.
I hope that the current All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group inquiry, Get Britain Cycling, will pay heed to this lesson, and engage seriously with the opinions of those who cycle occasionally (for instance, while on holiday, or on trails away from roads), or those who do not cycle, but would like to do so (my partner, and several other of my acquaintances), or those who do not cycle, and have not even considered doing so. These are the very people we need to be listening to.
Unfortunately, a serious historical problem in this country has been the formulation of cycling policy around the opinions of existing cyclists. This is not to say that their opinions are worthless, far from it; people who currently cycle have invaluable first-hand experience of the problems and difficulties that face those who choose to use a bicycle as a basic mode of transport.
However – and at the risk of stating the obvious – existing cyclists are far more likely to be satisfied with conditions for cycling than those that currently do not cycle. Most of the people who cycle for transport in Britain are reasonably happy cycling on roads that are in reality extraordinarily unappealing as a cycling environment for the vast majority of the population.
To take just one example, existing cyclists in Horsham will probably use the road pictured above quite often; it connects the town centre to the train station, and to much of the north of the town. However, I can vividly remember avoiding it like the plague when, as a teenager, I was forced to use a bicycle (my parents were away) to cycle to the Post Office to pick up a parcel. I meandered all over town using back streets, hugging kerbs, because the prospect of cycling on a road with heavy traffic, and buses and lorries, was deeply unnerving.
Through a series of happy coincidences, I kept cycling into adulthood, but I am a statistical outlier. Most people wouldn’t even bother getting on a bike in the first place, or they would have given up once they gained the ability to drive (perversely, driving in British towns and cities is a much easier and more pleasant experience than cycling in them).
It is surely the opinions of the people who are put off by the notion of cycling on this kind of road that we should be seeking out as a first priority, if we are to establish why cycling levels in Britain remain so pitifully low, and what needs to change. This is because seeking out the opinions of existing cyclists will most probably get you very different answers; answers that do not correspond to the opinions of those deterred from ever cycling on these roads in the first place.
Existing cyclists will (understandably) tend to come up with policies that will focus on improving their own subjective experience of cycling, rather than addressing the specific reasons non-cyclists give for their reluctance to cycle. Indeed, the attitudes and opinions of non-cyclists will often be completely overlooked. This is not a criticism; it would unreasonable to expect otherwise. But it is a problem.
For one thing, existing cyclists tend to be fixated on ameliorating the behaviour of the vehicles around them. They will often argue that it is cheaper and more sensible to focus on ‘changing attitudes’, and to force drivers to behave better. To impose stiffer penalties for dangerous driving; to make the driving test harder, or to incorporate cycling knowledge into it; or a system of presumed liability; and so on.
These attitudes are entirely understandable, of course; badly driven vehicles are the most pressing concern of day-to-day cyclists. If all vehicles were driven perfectly, then the cycling experience of existing cyclists would be something approaching a pleasure.
Unfortunately this approach – while reasonable and a worthy goal to aim at – ignores the overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of the population does not want to cycle in motor traffic, full stop. It is the experience of cycling in motor traffic itself that is intimidating and unpleasant; not the fact that some of those motor vehicles may be badly driven (although it is worth emphasizing that a bad experience with one of those substandard drivers can discourage people from cycling for a considerable period).
Calls for presumed liability also fall into this category. As someone who rides a bike on Britain’s roads on a daily basis, I am, as it happens, very keen to see drivers held more accountable. Presumed liability would have saved me the cost of repairing my bike after I was driven into by a motorist in 2011, for instance. However, the idea that people who currently don’t cycle are holding out for subtle changes to the insurance claim system is completely fanciful. Presumed liability will not ‘Get Britain Cycling.’
Likewise, existing cyclists are keen on 20 mph limits as a ‘solution’ on busier roads to get more people cycling. Reducing the speed differential between themselves and motor vehicles makes cycling easier, and less hazardous. But again, just as with attempting to get drivers to behave better, it fails to engage with the reasons why people don’t cycle; that they simply find the idea of using a bicycle amongst motor vehicles unpleasant. When I cycle in London, I doubt motor traffic around me will often exceed 20 mph by a great deal; however, that low speed does little to lessen the impression of a deeply hostile cycling environment.
Likewise, there are 20 mph limits in Horsham (indeed, one of the first 20 mph limits in the country). One of these roads with a 20 mph limit, however, is not a pleasant place to cycle at all, even for me, because it is regularly choked with motor vehicles, and you have to ‘share’ and ‘negotiate’ with lorries and buses; (usually) well-driven lorries and buses.
Many existing cyclists also state a preference for bus lanes over cycle tracks. Indeed, this has even been formalised into Department for Transport guidance, LTN 2/08 -
Bus lanes are generally popular with cyclists… They are often preferred over offroad facilities as a result of the advantage of remaining in the carriageway and therefore having priority at side roads
However, you also have to share bus lanes with buses; buses have to come past you between stops, and you have to cycle out and around them when buses are stopped. Bus lanes also don’t really help you to make right turns at busy junctions. This is to say nothing of taxis, motorcycles, and other vehicles you may have to share bus lanes with outside of peak hours.
For all these reasons, bus lanes are quite scary places to be for those who don’t currently cycle; they are certainly not an appealing prospect. Dutch and Danish cycling advocates would regard it as ‘inhumane’ to put cyclists into the same space as buses, for instance. Bus lanes will not ‘Get Britain Cycling’. But unfortunately some existing cyclists cannot understand the reluctance of the general public to cycle in bus lanes, and fail to see the rationale behind cycle tracks that bypass bus stops, arguing that wider bus lanes will be sufficient. These cyclists insist that ‘they are traffic’ when the idea of being forced to become ‘traffic’ is precisely what discourages most ordinary people from cycling.
Another favourite of some existing cyclists is the employment of training as a means of bringing about cycling in the general population. Now I think training is important; it should almost certainly form a part of the school curriculum, as it does in the Netherlands. If children are going to end up cycling in large numbers, we should provide them with some instruction on how to do so.
However, some existing cyclists – some influential ones – seem to view training (or ‘confidence’) as a substitute for the infrastructure that provides a subjective impression of safety. These are people who view cycle tracks as a place for the less able, or for those who wish to build up their confidence before progressing to their natural home on the road itself. These cyclists argue that, rather than providing cycle tracks – which they see as places for the less confident, places where they can ‘spend months practising’ – the same ‘results’ can be achieved in just a few hours of training. Astoundingly, these arguments may even be presented to the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group inquiry this week.
I’m not quite sure why these individuals hold this opinion. Perhaps it is because they themselves cycle confidently, and get into less difficulty than those who are unable or unwilling to cycle confidently. So, in their minds, they have made a connection between confidence and the smoothness of the cycling experience. More confidence = less problematic cycling.
Unfortunately, such an attitude fails to appreciate that cycling amongst or in front of motor vehicles is simply not an activity that most people want to engage in, regardless of how much ‘confidence’ we can instil in them. It is nowhere near as pleasant as cycling away from motor vehicles, and consequently, because cycling away from motor vehicles is not available as an option, these people walk, drive or use public transport. They will not be brow-beaten into finding this kind of cycling a pleasant experience.
I could go on. Some existing cyclists are advocates of the creation of ‘shared space’ instead of cycle tracks on busier urban thoroughfares (even, bizarrely, in the context of the Superhighway extension on Stratford High Street). Others think bicycle crime is a serious barrier to mass cycling (it isn’t). I even heard showers at work being raised as an issue at the first session of the Inquiry last week.
These are all problems that existing cyclists want addressed; they get sweaty cycling to work; or their bike is stolen; or they get overtaken closely by a motorist; or a motorist took a slightly unnecessary risk. But they are not even on the radar of the people who might want to cycle to school with their children, or might want to cycle to the shops, but have no option to do so because of hostile, car-oriented street design, that force them to cycle amongst motor traffic.
I would desperately like to see these kinds of people giving evidence to the Get Britain Cycling Inquiry; people like this 50+ year old lady in Richmond, or the lady mostly confined to pavements on her trike, or the schoolchildren who love to ride their bikes, but never cycle to school. In many ways their views would be of far more relevance and importance than the well-meaning usual suspects, who seemingly continue to miss the elephant in the room – the general reluctance to cycle around motor vehicles.
I really hope this Inquiry does not spend an inordinate amount of time discussing issues and policies that would have, at best, only a marginal influence on bringing about mass cycling, and pays attention instead to the factors that the Understand Walking and Cycling Report identified, by actually talking to the people we need to be talking to.