There was a flurry of discussion at the end of last week about what the emergence of ‘robocars’ – shorthand for cars that automatically drive themselves, without any human input – might mean for how we design for cycling, prompted by Carlton Reid’s piece in the Guardian (and a more lengthy one on his own site).
The debate coalesced around two alternative visions of the future. In one version, eliminating driver error, and making vehicles behave ‘perfectly’, would mean that separating cyclists from motor traffic would no longer be necessary. All that effort being put in to creating safe and inviting conditions for cycling is redundant. In Carlton’s own words -
Many bicycle advocates believe we’ve started on a Dutch-style 40-year trajectory to getting segregated cycle paths almost everywhere but driverless cars will be here long before the end of that. Why build bike lanes when robocars and driverless trucks will be programmed to know all about space4cycling?
If cars no longer kill us we will be able to use the roads again, without fear. Bike paths? Where we’re going we won’t need bike paths, as Dr Emmett Brown might have said.
The other version of the future is considerably darker.
A more dystopian [vision] involves platoons of speeding robocars making roads even more deeply unpleasant and motor-centric than they often are today. Pedestrians and cyclists may have to be restricted “for their own safety.” After all, if you knew the tipper truck barrelling towards you will automatically brake if you wobbled out in front of it, you’d have little incentive to stay in the gutter and every incentive to play one-sided chicken. Claiming the lane would take on a whole new meaning as cyclists blithely blocked robovehicles. The authorities would be put under immense pressure to stamp out jaywalking – and jaycycling
In this dystopia, anyone wishing to ride a bike would be confined to separate routes, unable to use the roads because of the inevitable consequences of vehicles being forced to stop, or slow, as people walking or cycling meander around in their way. If robotic motor vehicles are to make progress anywhere, then cycling will have to be banned on the roads.
It is hard to muster much interest in this speculation, principally because – for reasons that we will come to – it has very little relevance for the kind of policy we should be formulating on cycling. In fact, the only real source of interest in this topic is how revealing it is about the preoccupations of cycle campaigners – their inability to move on from the concerns they have always had, and their blindness to alternative realities.
The rise of mass motoring in this country pushed cycle campaigning into two specific areas of concern. The first was to resist the impudent, newly-arrived motorist, who was quickly taking over the pleasant routes cyclists had previously enjoyed (the road network that was formerly free of motor traffic). This meant objecting to calls for cyclists to be placed on a separate network, in an (as it turned out, futile) attempt to keep the existing road network suitable for anyone who might wish to ride a bike.
The second area of concern – closely tied to the first – was about getting motorists to behave; to drive slowly and carefully, everywhere, and especially around people cycling and walking. Indeed, it was strongly believed at the time that a separate network for cycling would not be necessary if the increasing numbers of motorists appearing on British roads could just be forced to comply with the existing laws. This letter, written by the Secretary of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, G.H. Stancer, to the Times in 1935 captures both these attitudes quite succinctly.
The obviously fair solution to the problem of the roads is to take effective steps for the removal of the dangerous conduct that leads to the accidents rather than to try to remove potential victims while allowing the danger to remain. If the existing laws were rigidly enforced and dangerous conduct by any class of road user eradicated, it would be possible for all sections to share the highways in safety and good will.
I have covered this period of history in some depth in a previous piece, an article which argued that British cycle campaigning has struggled to separate itself from these historic attitudes about retaining the road network, and about getting motorists to behave, so that separation would not be required.
And, lo and behold, it is precisely these same two attitudes that have emerged in the recent debate about ‘robocars’.
At long last, decades after that initial 1930s dream, the motor vehicles on British roads could actually be driven perfectly. Might it be the case that, in Stancer’s words, ‘it would be possible for all sections to share the highways in safety and good will’, now that driver misbehaviour could be eliminated? Or, alternatively, could these ‘robocars’ be the winning justification for the motoring lobby’s sinister plot to push cyclists from the road, ’for their own safety’?
It’s almost comical how cycle campaigning has failed to move on from these twin preoccupations, to the extent that, in 2013, discussion about ‘robocars’ continues to be framed in precisely the same terms that it would have been by cycling enthusiasts with large moustaches, way back in the 1930s.
To ram home the irrelevance, you only need to consider how people who cycle in the Netherlands might view the arrival of robotically-driven motor vehicles, given that the question of whether Dutch cars are driven by robots, or by fallible humans, has very little bearing on the quality of the Dutch cycling experience.
Interactions with motor vehicles are rare indeed when you make journeys by bicycle in the Netherlands, a point that David Hembrow has repeatedly made, and I have in a recent post. I cannot imagine Dutch bike riders getting particularly exercised about who is driving motor vehicles, when direct encounters with motor vehicles during a particular day can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
There’s an even more recent example in the form of this excellent Streetfilms report from Groningen.
The film shows hundreds of people cycling in different locations – in the city centre, on residential streets, along cycle paths and tracks. Yet in the entire fifteen minute film, there are only five or six direct interactions with motor vehicles. What difference would ‘robocars’ make to the quality of cycling in Groningen? A barely perceptible difference, if any difference at all.
This is why the debate about ‘robocars’ and what they might mean is completely irrelevant, at least in the way it is currently being presented. For it is being argued that if motor vehicles are perfectly driven, then there is no need for separation. But this betrays the long failure of British cycle campaigning to consider the importance of subjective safety, as well as objective safety. What keeps people from cycling on the roads is not bad driving, but the sheer volume of interactions with motor traffic.
This was brought home to me on Saturday in Leicester, where – by and large – the motor traffic around us was driven pretty well (with the inevitable odd exception). It was, however, still unpleasant cycling in it, even for ‘hardened’ cyclists, even if none of the vehicles were being driven in a substandard fashion, let alone outright badly. It is fear of motor traffic in general – not fear of bad driving – that is is the major barrier to cycling in Britain, a point that appears to have been missed, again, in the ‘robocars’ debate.
The Dutch have cracked this problem, by creating a subjectively safe and pleasant environment for cycling, away from motor traffic. It doesn’t really matter who is behind the wheel.