Two futures

At the end of April, the retail consultant Mary Portas appeared on the BBC’s World at One programme to discuss how physical shopping could continue to function during the coronavirus crisis.

Portas has a bit of form for, shall we say, car-centric ‘solutions’ to high street problems, proposing the quack remedy of free parking as a response to town centre decline, and generally arguing for unfettered access by motor traffic to shopping streets, while simultaneously paying scant attention to benign modes of transport like walking and cycling. So it was perhaps no great surprise to hear her complaining about having to pay car parking charges in London boroughs during the coronavirus pandemic, while singing the praises of department stores that have converted themselves into drive-throughs, a kind of transformation that these hidebound councils are apparently not enlightened enough to adopt.

I was reminded of this episode by this excellent cartoon from Dave Walker, which manages to capture the Dystopian reality of the Portas worldview in the left panel.

At an individual level, travelling by private car is of course the safest way for you, personally, to travel around, with no interaction whatsoever with the outside world. And unfortunately it’s only a short mental leap from that insulated travel to insulated everything, with no need to exit the motor vehicle for any kind of human activity outside of the home – the car, combined with an entirely car-based public realm, as the ultimate form of personal protective equipment.

Once just a way of getting from one place to another, the car has been turned into a mini-shelter on wheels, safe from contamination, a cocoon that allows its occupants to be inside and outside at the same time.

And this behaviour is happening already, simply an accelerated form of the car-dependent lifestyles that existed pre-coronavirus. Friends meeting up in cars, graduation ceremonies in carsdrinking coffee in cars, going clubbing in cars. And these American trends have appeared in the UK, primarily as drive-through fast-food outlets have begun to re-open.

Helpfully, our Environment Secretary has even commented that

our view is that a McDonald’s drive-through is made for the social distancing situation that we are in, in that people do not leave their car.

Meanwhile, the enlightened John Redwood thinks the answer is more car parks and free parking, a view that may unfortunately be widely shared by politicians. So it seems almost inevitable that those areas of the United Kingdom that are already highly car-dependent – places where sprawl is a feature, with large, fast roads connecting up isolated housing to out-of-town workplaces, or to retail parks with enormous car parks – will slide further into that car dependence, as former public transport users shift to car use, with little incentive to walk or cycle instead.

The truth is that while some cities and larger towns were, by and large, moving in the right direction on active travel, most of the rest of the country now has a long history of stagnation or even decline when it comes to levels of walking and cycling. Coronavirus may serve to accelerate these trends, with car-dependent places becoming even more car-dependent, and (fingers crossed) cities in particular seeing further shifts away from private car use. As I write this, some councils are doing an amazing job, rapidly developing and implementing programmes of pop-up cycle lanes on main roads and low-traffic neighbourhoods. Others are sitting on their hands, waiting for cash to be handed to them from central government before they do anything (cash they may not get), while others are showing absolutely no interest whatsoever, or even being overtly hostile  to the notion of enable walking and cycling.

The reason for optimism with regard to denser urban areas is principally the volume of public transport trips that will have to be shifted onto other modes. To take the obvious example of London, over ten million daily trips were made by bus, underground and DLR last year. Many of these trips won’t come back, at least in the near future, but that still leaves several million journeys that simply have to be made by other modes.

Shifting them into private cars is not realistic. For one thing, using cars isn’t an option for people who don’t have one. Nearly a quarter of all UK households don’t have access to a car – all these people will need safe alternatives to public transport. But just as importantly, there simply isn’t the space between buildings to accommodate millions of extra car journeys in London, and in other cities. And even if we are stupid enough to try, at best we’re going to be creating millions of extremely unpleasant slow-moving car journeys, while also imposing significant costs for the people who are trying to get around by other (notably more efficient) modes of transport. We’ll also be sacrificing the enormous public health benefits of active travel. It’s an issue of economics, of fairness, and more bluntly, simple mathematics. The cars won’t fit.

We also need to think critically about how our public space is used, particularly as businesses attempt to reopen, and activity increases. Is it justifiable to continue to use the vast majority of street space to accommodate private motor vehicles (both their movement, and their and storage) at the expense of businesses like pubs, restaurants and even, say, theatres, which could spill out into the open air? Even the right-leaning Spectator magazine has recognised this conflict

The only conceivable way for pubs and restaurants to meet social distancing rules is if local authorities allow them to put tables on the streets. But like the politicians’ exhortations for people to walk and cycle to work, that will only be possible if the authorities force cars to make way for them, and to date there is little sign the government will allow anything more than cosmetic measures. It is a sign of how powerful the hold of the car culture is on public life that the narrow streets of Soho, the centre of London’s night-time economy, are still open to traffic 24/7. If you want to save the businesses, you have to ban the cars and free the space.

Again, this is set to be a crucial tipping point, with some cities and towns allocating increasing amounts of street space to open air dining and business activity (this example in Norwich may be typical), while others dive deeper into car dependence. Whether cities like it or not, further moves away from the private car are impossible to avoid if they are to continue functioning, both in terms of avoiding crippling congestion, and allowing a variety of businesses to operate profitably. 10% of all street space in London is used for parking – that use of public space is hard to justify even in ‘normal’ times, even more so when it is urgently needed for social distancing and business activity.

The flip-side of this optimistic outlook is that the places that where public transport use is light, or negligible – places which are very car-dependent – may see that car dependence entrenched, at least in the short term. This is simply because the ‘business as usual’, driving-everywhere pattern of mobility in these locations, while harmful in many different ways, is not a pressing issue when considered strictly in terms of the spread of coronavirus.

Not pleasant, attractive or sustainable – but unfortunately a way of managing coronavirus

This would be a pity. For one thing, shifting journeys away from the car in towns may be easier than in cities, principally because trips here are often shorter than their city equivalents. We should also not forget that the kinds of measures that are springing up now to deal with coronavirus – pop-up bike lanes, widening footways, creating low traffic neighbourhoods, and filtering streets – are the kinds of measures we should be taking anyway, even if there wasn’t a pandemic occurring.

There is an opportunity even in the places that are car-dependent. It’s unlikely that motor traffic levels will rise fully back to where they were pre-coronavirus – with, for instance, more home-working, and a general reluctance to travel by any mode. That means there will still be surplus road capacity that can be repurposed, even if there isn’t such an urgent need to accommodate people displacing from public transport. The package of funding recently announced by the Department for Transport – with strict conditions on how it is used, and how quickly – presents some grounds for hope, even in the most car-centric places. Space can be reallocated cheaply and quickly.

‘Portas-world’ – a vision of entirely car-based activity outside of the home – simply won’t work in dense urban areas. However, it is feasible in places that have developed around intensive car use. Whether it is inevitable or not is – as always – a matter of political will.

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The power of e-bikes

On a sunny September day last year, I headed out from the city centre of Utrecht to take a look at the town of Bilthoven, about five miles away. Despite being a fairly small settlement (Bilthoven itself only has a population of around 20,000 people, although it closely adjoins the larger town of De Bilt) the area around the station has been extensively redeveloped, with the road diverted, and a new underpass built that only allows walking and cycling.

I had arranged to meet my partner back in Utrecht city centre at midday (she wasn’t quite as interested in me in pedalling around ten miles to go and look at some cycle paths and new development!), and I was running a bit late, stopping off to take videos of roundabouts and cycle paths on the way.

Fortunately, on my route back, I stopped at a red light in de Bilt behind a lady on an e-bike, with distinctive bright green panniers.

I say ‘fortunately’ because over my years cycling in the Netherlands, I’ve found people on e-bikes are a real bonus when you are cycling along on a human-powered bike. You can tuck into their slipstream and roll along at a fairly steady 15mph, a speed which would take some effort to sustain on a heavy utility bike if you are cycling on your own. The couple in the photograph below, pedalling along effortlessly on their e-bikes, were an absolute godsend on a baking hot day when I was struggling towards Delft along a dead straight and seemingly unending road.

There’s no need to feel guilty about drafting either, because the person on the e-bike is expending very little effort acting while they act as your personal windbreak.

On my way back to Utrecht, it turned out that I managed to get a very pleasant tow all the way back to the city centre. Here we are, just leaving De Bilt, on the quiet road that runs through the town centre (the main through-road is behind the hedge to the left).

Then along the service road that runs parallel to the main road. (Note the induction loops built into the asphalt, that almost always ensure you have a green signal as you approach these minor junctions).

And then under the famous ‘Bear pit’ junction on the outskirts of the city centre. Now on Biltstraat, heading into the centre of Utrecht, on a protected cycleway. The road here is only one-way for private motor traffic, with a two-way bus lane off to the left.

Soon after this, the lady gets away from me a bit because… she jumped a red light – a pretty minor violation given the traffic context, but I didn’t want to risk it myself. She didn’t gain much advantage from her light jump, however, because soon enough I caught her up again, right into the city centre, along the busiest cycle path in the Netherlands (if not in the world) –

Then through the large underpass that takes you straight under the sixteen platforms of Utrecht railway station –

Before our journeys separate, and she peels off to join the cycle parking at the station itself – presumably to catch a train.

We travelled 6km together, nearly four miles, and according to my GPS track we did it in a little over 14 minutes, right from the eastern side of de Bilt, to the railway station in the city centre of Utrecht.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this works out at an average speed of a fraction over fifteen miles an hour, or 25kph, the legal limit for e-bikes. We only had to stop twice – at the red light I stopped for, and she didn’t, and then to cross Vredenburg.

Given the point at which we met, she had almost certainly come from even further away, either from Bilthoven, where I started, or from Zeist. These are both around five miles away, but at e-bike speeds, only twenty minutes or so from the centre of Utrecht. Indeed, 5 miles can be covered in exactly 20 minutes on an e-bike, which means that a huge area is within a negligible cycling time of both the city centre and the train station – pretty much the whole Utrecht agglomeration (well over half a million people), as well as other outlying towns and villages.

A five mile radius circle, centred on Utrecht train station. At e-bike speeds, it would take just twenty minutes to cover this distance.

That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it – that all these people are (potentially) less than twenty minutes away from the centre of the city, and able to get there in comfort and safety, with minimal inconvenience, just by pedalling, and without any need for a car. When you consider that these trips can then be made in combination with the Netherlands’ excellent rail network, vast swathes of the country are quickly within reach to people even in apparently ‘remote’ areas. Hypothetically, the lady I was following could have come from a remote village miles away from Utrecht, caught a train to Rotterdam, and have gone from door-to-door in less than an hour.

Naturally, these benefits accrue to people on ‘ordinary’ bikes too – people like me – although 5 miles is more likely to take 30 minutes or more to cover, under our own steam. That’s an entirely manageable distance, but e-bikes will obviously reduce the effort required. It has the potential to seriously start eating into those longer car trips that are not quite so appealing by bike.

In the UK we can only dream of having the kind of comprehensive, high-quality cycling networks that surround places like Utrecht, and that enable the types of journeys described here. Where I live, we have absolutely no meaningful cycle network to speak of, and a negligible rail network. Even our former railway lines – which could serve as excellent, flat connections between towns and villages, either by bike or e-bike – have been allowed to disintegrate into bumpy, muddy bogs that are unattractive and unpleasant to use.

A section of the former Horsham-Shoreham railway line, north of Partridge Green

Meanwhile our roads are increasingly clogged with dangerous, polluting and environmentally damaging motor vehicles, travelling in the vast majority of cases short trips that could be converted to other modes.

There is no reason why we can’t match the Netherlands. E-bikes erode the argument that it is too hilly, or too difficult, to cycle, and in combination with high quality cycle networks we could have people effortlessly travelling the kinds of distances described in this post.

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When a junction turns people cycling into lawbreakers, how do you fix it?

As with many British towns in the wake of the 1963 Traffic in Towns report, Horsham responded to the coming age of the motor car with a mixture of enlightenment and destructiveness. In doing so, it largely reflected the nature of the Report itself, which presciently diagnosed the enormous problems mass motoring would present, but offered damaging remedies that essentially accommodated ever-expanding demand for driving right in the heart of our towns, alongside a more benign banishment of it from limited areas within them.

In Horsham, that destructiveness involved the construction, in several stages, of a four-lane inner ring road that now encircles most of the town centre, and the construction of several large multi-storey car parks to accommodate increasing numbers of private cars.

The red line indicates the approximate route of the four lane inner ring road, over the previous street pattern. Original map here.

Although that ring road was (and remains) a blight on the town, the area within it has fared rather better, with a fairly deliberate policy of either complete removal of motor traffic, or minimising its levels. Through-traffic is discouraged by means of a 20mph zone (one of the first in the country) combined with a winding, circuitous route through the town centre, while many other streets have been either fully pedestrianised, or part-pedestrianised.

While these changes within the ring road are largely to be applauded, the enlightened planners and councillors who implemented them sadly neglected to consider cycling in any way, shape or form. One of the biggest issues is that the one-way flow through the centre, while successful at keeping motor traffic on the inner ring road in an east-to-west and north-to-south direction, also completely excludes cycling. I’ve previously written about this specific issue here.

Another longstanding problem for cycling lies to the western edge of the town centre. Here the former main north-south road across the town (shown in green and blue in the overhead view below) has been bypassed to the west by the four lane inner ring road (in red), leaving short sections of road with a pedestrianised area in the middle (highlighted in green), that still allows cycling in a north-south direction, but in a very half-hearted and ambiguous way. In other words, it’s not at all clear that it’s legal to cycle there.

This is actually a fairly important area for cycle journeys, because as well as potentially allowing you to cycle in a north-south direction avoiding the unpleasant, fast and busy four lane inner ring road (which naturally makes no concessions to cycling at all), it should also allow journeys in an east-west direction – particularly, people coming from the north and the west to enter the town centre. All these potential routes are shown on the overhead view below.

The red lines indicate entry and exit points for cycling. To the left is the large inner ring road.

The real difficulty lies at the southern end, where a new bus station was built around twenty years ago. It lies in the middle of the red ring, above. The building itself is attractive, but once again there was absolutely no consideration of cycling when it was planned (are you sensing a pattern here?).

The area where buses arrive and depart is buses-only – so the area ringed in green, below, is a no-go area for cycling.

That means all the movements through this area have to pass through the gap between this green area and the building on the corner, which is at present a pedestrian crossing, connecting the pedestrianised area with the bus station. This is a very awkward fit for cycling.

The video below shows me cycling along the line of the red arrow. This is at a particularly quiet time of day, early in the morning, so it is free of the potential conflict with people walking to and from the bus station.

It’s not even clear to me how legal this is. I take the option of crossing into the bus station and then moving across the solid stop line (the lights will only change for buses, so jumping the lights is unavoidable). The alternative is to cycle onto the pedestrian crossing, but that doesn’t seem particularly appealing either.

Short of rebuilding the bus station and starting all over again from scratch, to my mind there are no obvious fixes here to formalise cycling through this area. Perhaps a short term bodge is simply to convert the pedestrian crossing into a toucan that is at least legal to cycle onto, but then you are left with the inelegant solution of cycling off of it to join the road where the heads of the red arrows are located. Furthermore this toucan crossing would not help with cycling in the opposite direction, where people have to cycle (the wrong way!) into the bus station entrance from a signalised road junction, and then somehow ‘merge’ onto a toucan crossing which may well have people walking on it.

To demonstrate, here is another video of me on this desire line, cycling from the east, then heading north, along the line of the upper red arrow. Currently I take the approach of cycling onto the footway before the red light, to avoid conflicts with the pedestrian crossing. Although cycling in the pedestrianized area is legal, it probably isn’t on this bit of footway. But I’m not sure what else to do.

For pure north-south cycling journeys, the most obvious option is some kind of route running down the western edge of the bus station. There is a new-ish hedge that could potentially be sacrificed, and some parking bays that are occasionally used by service vehicles from the bus companies.

Here is a family walking south down the footway along the western edge of the bus station, with the hedge and the parking bay to their left.

This would solve these purely north-south journeys. However, it wouldn’t do anything to address the most of the journeys across the area, which will involve some east- or west-component, and therefore will involve the difficulties shown in my videos.

Indeed, the junctions around the bus station are an almost perfect case-study in how people cycling are turned into lawbreakers (or at least flexible rule-benders) because nobody has given any thought into how people would actually cycle through the area.

From the east, the ‘least worst’ option is to cycle on a short bit of footway (which may or may not be legal), and from the north the ‘least worst’ option is either to cycle onto a pedestrian crossing, or to cycle through a red light designed only for buses.

It’s a mess. And without a total redevelopment of the area, I’m not sure how it can be substantially improved. But any thoughts on how it might be done would be welcome! This area is important, as it is right in the town centre, and dealing with how to cycle across it in at least a legal manner needs to be solved.

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No, cycling infrastructure in London is not creating a ‘race track’ mentality

TLDR – the fact that there are people cycling fast on cycling infrastructure in London does not mean that the infrastructure is ‘creating’ or ‘causing’ fast cycling. The people cycling fast are the people who were already cycling in London, brave enough to deal with the (almost entirely hostile) road network. Instead of ‘causing’ fast cycling, cycling infrastructure actually enables a diverse range of users to cycle at whatever speed they wish to pedal at. It lowers cycling speeds, rather than raising them.


Last autumn, my partner and I cycled together in London. It was her very first time cycling in the capital. I think it’s more than fair to describe her as a nervous cyclist – while she cycled in her youth, the bike was pretty much discarded once she became a teenager, and she only started again, intermittently, several decades later, on holiday trips we took to the Netherlands.

On one of our Dutch cycling trips

Given her nervousness, the very first bit of road we ended up cycling on in London would have been an absolutely crazy choice five years ago. Upper Thames Street, a four lane canyon of motor traffic running straight through the City of London, is (or at least was) notorious for danger. The cycle courier Sebastian Lukomski was killed here in 2004, crushed under an HGV, a death that Bill Chidley identifies with the start of the politicisation of cycling safety in London. In 2008, Nick Wright was killed a matter of yards from where Lukomski died – again, crushed under the wheels of an HGV. And these horrible collisions kept happening. Again in 2013. And again in 2014. All on the same stretch of road.

But last autumn we cycled along this very same road, in almost complete safety. At rush hour.

To state the obvious, I can guarantee you that there was no way this would have happened, without the subjective and objective safety offered by the protected cycleway, which meant we did not have to cycle down this canyon, mixed in with HGVs, coaches, vans and cars. We had our own space, where we could trundle on our fully-laden Dutch bikes at a sedate 10mph, roughly the same speed as the slow moving motor traffic on the other side of the kerb.

Without that kerb, I don’t think there is any chance that this young child would be cycling along Upper Thames Street either.
Or these children.
Or these children.The crucial difference the cycleway has made is that people are now free to cycle at their own pace. Just like my partner, they can trundle along fairly slowly, without worrying about HGVs and coaches steaming up behind them. The cycleway has enabled, and will enable, people to cycle at slower speeds – the very people who would never even have considered cycling here, and on similar roads, without it.

It’s more than a little troubling, therefore, to see an emerging narrative that these kinds of cycleways are ‘creating’ a mentality of fast cycling – that their design (and even their name), are somehow fomenting or encouraging a type of cycling that wouldn’t exist if the cycling infrastructure hadn’t been built.

The latest example is a piece from Jill Rutter for Reaction. The piece makes very some sensible arguments, but has had a silly headline added (at a guess, by an editor who has previously demonstrated some antagonism towards cycling infrastructure in London), and unfortunately creates the overall impression that safe, attractive and convenient cycling infrastructure, rather than enabling nervous people to cycle, is instead fostering a problem of fast and aggressive cycling. This impression was slightly reinforced by some comments the author later made on social media.

Unlike those journalists and politicians who are opponents of cycleways and would like to see it removed, and who are therefore making these kinds of arguments about ‘racing culture’ in bad faith, it’s pretty clear to me that Rutter is sincere. She supports cycling infrastructure, wants to see more of it, but is troubled personally by the types of cycling she is seeing at the moment, and worries that it may be putting people off cycling in London.

The problem is that new cycling infrastructure is obviously not ‘creating’ a racing mentality. That mentality is created not by the few miles of safe cycling conditions that have been built in central London, but by the abject reality of the rest of the road network, which does involve mixing with fast motor traffic, and large vehicles, on dreadfully-designed junctions and roads that make no concession whatsoever to the safety of people cycling. The ‘superhighways’ aren’t the reality of cycling in London – they’re only a small respite from it.

We haven’t suddenly transplanted the Netherlands onto London. We’ve built a few miles of good stuff, in pockets here and there, often without even joining it up, and… that’s it. The aggressive, fast people we encounter on ‘superhighways’  are the people who were cycling already, the people who will almost certainly be cycling without the subjective safety offered by motor traffic-free conditions.

Plainly, we shouldn’t be musing about why we haven’t got a demographic of relaxed, Dutch-type cycling in London when we’ve barely started changing our roads. We haven’t even scratched the surface. Let’s not start pretending that the infrastructure which allows my friends, family and partner to cycle slowly, and in safety, is somehow encouraging or fostering a type of cycling that is in reality a natural consequence of the rest of the road network.

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A rebuilt gyratory that is still putting people in danger

The gyratory system around Victoria station in Westminster has been a genuinely horrible place to cycle for as long as I can remember. Getting to and from the station, or cycling past it, involves dealing with multiple lanes of one-way motor traffic, zooming off towards Park Lane, or thundering south towards Vauxhall Bridge.

The gyratory makes absolutely no concessions to cycling. If, for instance, you want to get from the station to the safety of Cycle Superhighway 3 – central London’s flagship cycle route, you have to make your way around two sides of a terrifying triangle, holding a position in the right hand lane of traffic heading north onto Grosvenor Place, before taking primary position on the left hand side as you skirt the edge of Buckingham Palace.

Cycling from Victoria to CS3

Cycle Superhighway 5 should have arrived in this area from Vauxhall Bridge, and should – quite sensibly – have connected up with Superhighway 3 in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace. However, it seems to have stalled right on the boundary of (guess who!) Westminster City Council, leaving anyone attempting to get between the two to negotiate a mile or so of unpleasant roads without any mitigation for cycling whatsoever.

Right in the middle of the Victoria gryatory stands the new Nova development. An incidental detail is that one of the buildings here won 2017’s Carbuncle Cup for the UK’s ugliest building, but I doubt that anyone cycling past has any time to assess its aesthetic qualities, given that they are busily trying to stay alive. Like Superhighway 5, this development should have represented an opportunity to make the roads around Victoria a bit less lethal for anyone attempting to cycle here. There’s even a detailed 60-page  Transport for London strategy document dating from 2014, the Victoria Vision Cycling Strategy (link opens a download automatically), which explicitly sets out the key challenges and requirements in the Victoria area, in the context of the then-Mayor’s Vision for Cycling.

However, while there have been some improvements in the area around the Nova development – in particular, widened footways, better public realm, and a surface-level crossing that has replaced a subway – it is unfortunate that, despite this golden opportunity to make some serious changes, cycling has been almost completely ignored as the roads have been rebuilt.

One of the biggest issues is that the gyratory around the Nova development has been retained. The new buildings still sit in the middle of what is effectively a giant multi-lane roundabout. The problem of trying to negotiate these roads without being diverted around hostile one-way systems remains, to say nothing of the total lack of protected space for cycling.

Buckingham Palace Road, 2017. New buildings, new footway, new trees, new road surface -the  same three lanes of one-way motor traffic.

Cycling towards the camera here remains impossible. And when the bus lane is occupied, cycling away from the camera is – while possible – an unpleasant and potentially dangerous experience.

Buckingham Palace Road, summer 2018.

4 metre wide bus lanes aren’t so great for cycling when they’re full of buses.

Much the same is true on Victoria Street, lying between Victoria station and the Nova development. Again, we have 2-3 lanes of one-way motor traffic thundering through here, exactly as before.

Victoria Street, looking east. The Nova development is on the left.

And again, this arrangement make no concession for anyone trying to cycle east (away from the camera).

Worst of all, it introduces a significant collision risk at the junction itself, where I am standing to take the photograph. On the approach to the junction, a wide bus stand narrows down significantly, leaving perhaps a metre of width between the kerb and stationary vehicles as a ‘channel’ through which people can cycle to reach an inviting advanced stop line (ASL). The area in question is indicated with the arrow, below.

Approaching the junction on Victoria Street.

That ASL looks very inviting, but getting there could be very risky indeed. There’s absolutely no guarantee that any large vehicle progressing through the junction will remain a safe distance from the kerb. Three separate examples below, taken within the space of a few minutes.


Anyone cycling up to the lights – forced into a tight merge by the narrowing of the road, and tempted to advance by a cycle lane leading to an ASL, could very easily find themselves squeezed between a lorry, or a bus, and the kerb. If any of these vehicles are turning left, like the National Express coach in the photograph below, the consequences could be lethal.

Someone has already had a very narrow escape here, taken to hospital in a critical condition after going under a left turning lorry at precisely this location.

From Get West London. The lorry is in nearly exactly the same position as the National Express coach in the previous photograph.

This is dreadful design, and it’s shocking that new road layouts this are appearing right in the centre of our capital city, with a blank slate to do so much better.

It may not be apparent from these photographs, but the footway on this corner is now very large indeed – nearly twenty metres wide, at the apex.

This is obviously a very good thing, in its own right. A left-turn slip lane for motor traffic has been removed and replaced with this footway, making the junction far more attractive for anyone walking here. But it seems extraordinary that, simultaneously, so little thought has been given to the safety of people attempting to cycle through here. They are almost literally being thrown under the bus. At a location where the building-to-building width is  30 metres, it is simply unacceptable to squeeze people cycling into a tiny space where they are already ending up under the wheels of HGVs.

Blink and you’ll miss it. The tiny, narrow and dangerous concession to cycling in this enormous space.

How can things be going so wrong with brand-new road layouts? How can we we rebuilding roads with 2-3 lanes of one-way motor traffic, without any apparent thought for cycling?

The distinct, unavoidable impression created from the new roads around Victoria is that it seems sufficient to treat cycling as a mere afterthought once the road layouts and widened pavements have been planned. Once the kerb lines have been defined, all that’s left to do is to add a painted bicycle symbol in a box just behind the stop line, and perhaps a tokenistic line at the side of the road, where there isn’t any parking, or a bus lane. Even if that might make a dangerous junction even more dangerous.

That’s just not good enough. These roads could and should have been rebuilt with protected cycleways, allowing people to travel to and from the Vauxhall area and central London in safety, or from west London towards central London. Instead they are still being put in danger, and cycling here will continue to remain the sole preserve of the fit and brave.

UPDATE

Alex Ingram points out that – in addition to the Transport Initiatives/PJA 2014 report for Transport for London on cycling in Victoria, the Victoria BID also produced a report on public realm in the area in 2015. It has this to say –

Cycling in Victoria can feel dangerous and intimidating. High volumes of traffic on the Inner Ring Road and the associated Victoria gyratory have a significant negative impact on cycling through the area. One-way streets in general are a hindrance to the desire lines of cyclists and create longer and more difficult journeys.

… Cycle routes and safety are key considerations when upgrading streets and spaces … In April 2013 a cyclist was fatally injured during the morning rush hour at the junction between Victoria Street and Palace Street. A number of minor injuries have also occurred at junctions along Victoria Street and more serious cycling injuries around the Buckingham Palace Road-Lower Grosvenor Place junction. Here the fast-flowing multiple lanes of one-way traffic include many coaches and large service vehicles which create significant hazards. Major arteries such as Vauxhall Bridge Road and Grosvenor Place are also accident hotspots.

Posted in Gyratories, Infrastructure, London, Pinch points, Sustainable Safety | 10 Comments

Instead of blaming individuals, fix the system

Doubtless many of you will have seen this video of a ‘near miss’ on the A38 in Bromsgrove, in which a child narrowly escapes serious injury, thanks to the quick reactions of a driver – a fireman, Robert Allen.

I wasn’t the only one to notice that the way this incident was framed – both on social media, and in the media more generally – focussed entirely on human actions. On the one hand, the quick thinking, forward planning and skill of the driver, and on the other, the mistakes and foolishness of the children.

Framed in this context, the only way to prevent near misses (or even serious injuries and fatalities from occurring in future) is to ensure that all drivers are as quick-thinking and careful as this one, and also to ensure that children don’t behave impulsively, and don’t make mistakes and misjudgements.

But unfortunately both of those things are actually very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Children, especially younger children, have serious problems judging the speeds of approaching vehicles, due to their difficulty in perceiving visual looming (HT AndyR_UK). On top of that they will inevitably be impulsive, fail to concentrate, or become distracted. Equally, drivers won’t be paying attention 100% of the time. They will also get distracted. They are fallible. They will not all be as cautious and as quick to react as Robert Allen. Because they are human beings, not robots.

So the only realistic way of preventing these kinds of incidents from happening in the future is to design the danger out of the crossing. We can’t rely on human beings not do stupid things, or to not make mistakes, because it’s not who we are. The only rational response is to minimise the chances of collisions occurring in the first place, and to minimise the severity of those collisions if they do happen. The alternative – attempting to get children to behave properly in the context of this type of crossing – is nothing more than applying the flimsiest of sticking plasters to a gaping wound.

If we look at the location, it’s a little bit ambiguous whether the posted speed limit is 60mph or 70mph, because the crossing is at exactly the point where two lanes (60mph limit) become a four lane dual carriageway (70mph limit).

But whether it’s 60mph or 70mph doesn’t really matter – as Ranty Highwayman observes, either way, these are still very high speeds for children to be processingespecially where drivers will be distracted by the process of merging back down to one lane in the in the oncoming direction, or focused on accelerating up to 70mph as they move into two lanes from one in the facing direction.

On top of that, we have the pedestrian barriers – presumably installed with the intention of stopping people from cycling straight out into the road – acting to steer anyone cycling up to the crossing into a position parallel to the road, where any oncoming motor traffic will be directly behind them. 

Rather than naturally facing that oncoming traffic, children (or anyone else cycling here) will have to look right back over the shoulder to process it. Frankly the entire layout is a recipe for casualties, which the ‘Sign Make It Better’ warning does nothing to fix (not least because it’s only about 50 feet from the actual crossing – not a great deal of help when it comes to alerting drivers of the potential danger).

I’m not sure when this road was built, and the period in which it was thought this was an appropriate type of crossing for a road of this context – but it’s far from unique.

There are several similarly lethal crossings of 70mph dual carriageways in West Sussex, usually the result of existing routes or lanes being severed by the construction of new roads and bypasses, with absolutely no consideration given to the safe passage of people walking and cycling across them. I can think of at least three on Horsham’s northern bypass, which was built in the late 1980s. Below is just one of them.

There’s housing behind the trees on the left hand side of this location, and a railway station a couple of minutes’ walk down the lane to right. It’s not only the danger that is infuriating – it’s the fact that people could be walking and cycling, easily, to and from these locations, but have these horrendous barriers put in their way. The road simply shouldn’t have been built like this – it should have had underpasses integrated into it during construction, to allow people to cross it freely, and in safety.

The Bromsgrove example is perhaps even more pressing, however, as the road is a clearer example of severance – with housing on both sides of the road. If the A38 were a Highways England road, then under the IAN 195/16 standard (which I’ve covered here) a grade-separated crossing would be a mandatory requirement for a 60mph limit. If that’s not possible, then the speed limit should be lowered, the motor traffic lanes should be narrowed significantly, and the crossings should involve clear sightlines, with only one lane crossed at a time. Something like this kind of thing, which I saw on a distributor road in the city of Zwolle.

There are no signals; this is just a simple priority crossing, with cycles having to give way to motor traffic. However, only one lane has to be crossed a time, motor traffic speeds are much lower, and the visibility is excellent, for all parties. This really isn’t rocket science.

If the council wish to retain a 60mph limit, or four lanes of motor traffic, then that obviously means that human beings should be separated entirely from the road, to insulate them from the increased danger that attempts to cross such a road at-grade would involve. An underpass is the obvious answer in that traffic context.

That would plainly be an expensive undertaking, but really there’s no other safe way of addressing the severance posed by a multiple lane road with such a high speed limit.

Obviously I don’t know the local situation, but I suspect it may be much more appropriate to ‘downgrade’ the road to an urban distributor, with single lanes in each direction, separated by a median, and with a much lower speed limit. That would allow the ‘Zwolle’ type of crossing to be employed, and safely. But there are many other places where that is impossible, or at least undesirable. The Horsham example is one location where the traffic volumes and road context – an explicit bypass – should really necessitate grade separation.

To a large extent, we’re reaping the harvest of decades of road-building and planning with little or no thought for the safety and convenience of anyone who wasn’t in a motor vehicle – people cycling and walking along these roads, or attempting to cross them. It’s going to be difficult and costly to undo that damage. Perhaps it’s not surprising, therefore, that we all reach for the superficially easy option of attempting to change human behaviour, rather than changing the system, when we’re confronted with incidents like the one in Bromsgrove.

Posted in Safety, Subjective safety, Underpass | 17 Comments

You don’t solve design problems with bells

There’s recently been some silly-season noise about making the use of bells compulsory in our newspaper of record, The Times.

This story seems to have been based entirely on five written questions from the MP Julian Lewis.

The non-committal response from the Minister has been spun into a story; the Minister in turn dismissed it.

But let’s (charitably) take this seriously, just for a moment. What does ‘mandatory use of bells’ actually mean? Am I supposed to ding every time a pedestrian hoves into view? In a town or a city, my bell would be ringing relentlessly. Let’s also bear in mind that plenty of people will object, often quite aggressively, to the ringing of a bell, interpreting it as akin to the honking of a car horn. A basic starting principle – before any of this nonsense ever gets anywhere near legislation – would have to involve getting some basic agreement and consensus about what people actually want and expect, when it comes to a form of audible cycling warning (or even whether they want people making a noise at all). It you can’t get the general public to agree, which I would imagine is more than likely, then there’s no point even embarking on legislation in the first place.

In any case, the general issue of bells, warnings and ‘silent rogue cyclists’ is symptomatic of basic design failure. I’ve probably cycled at least 500 miles in the Netherlands over the last five or six years. Not a huge amount, but enough to get a good flavour of the country. In all that distance – in cities, in towns, through villages, across the countryside – I can’t honestly remember ever having to ring my bell to warn someone walking that I was approaching. Not once.

A large part of that is probably down to the fact that people walking in the Netherlands are – understandably – fully aware that they will encounter someone cycling quite frequently. In general, it’s unwise to assume that, just because you can’t hear anything approaching, nothing is approaching – and this is especially true in the Netherlands. Being aware of cycling is just an ordinary part of day-to-day life, because everyone cycles themselves, and because they will also encounter cycling extremely frequently.

However, I suspect my lack of bell use is also due to the fact I rarely ever come into conflict with pedestrians, because of the way cycling is designed for. Unlike in Britain, where walking and cycling are all too frequently bodged together on the same inadequate paths, cycling is treated as a serious mode of transport, with its own space, distinct from walking.

No need for bells here, to warn people you are approaching

I don’t need to ring my bell to tell someone walking I am coming up behind them because we’re not having to share the same (inadequate) space. There are of course many situations in the Netherlands where walking and cycling are not given separate space – a typical example below.

However, these will almost always be situations where the numbers of people cycling, and of people walking in particular, will be relatively low. In practice, these paths function as miniature roads, marked with centre lines, and used by low amounts of low-impact traffic. Pedestrians treat them as such, walking at the sides, and the dynamics of path use are obvious and well-understood. If demand for these paths increases, such that people walking and cycling begin to get in each other’s way, separation of the two modes becomes a necessity. It is all blissfully rational.

Contrast that with Britain, where ‘cycle routes’ will often be nothing more than putting up blue signs to allow cycling on existing – often quite busy – footways.

It isn’t hard to see why people walking will not be expecting cycling in these kinds of environments. It looks like a footway; feels like a footway. It is a footway. So users who are cycling then have to decide how best they approach someone from behind.

  • Do they ring their bell?
  • Do they try to make a noise with their bike?
  • Do they call out? And if so, what do they say?
  • Do they try to glide past without any noise at all?

Bear in mind that there is absolutely no consensus on which of these techniques is preferable to people walking. Some people hate bells, because they think it implies they are being told to get out of the way. Some people don’t like noises, or calls, and apparently prefer the clarity of a bell, and what it signifies. Some other people might be deaf.

As you cycle up behind someone, there is obviously no way of knowing how that particular person will react, and what they will prefer. It is entirely guesswork.

My own technique is usually to approach, slow down a bit, and hope that the person gradually becomes aware of my presence. If they don’t, then I usually say ‘excuse me’. My bell is reserved for occasions when someone is stepping into the road without looking, or similar situations where I can foresee a potential collision occurring.

A short snippet below, on a path I use on a daily basis.

I can see that the two girls are aware that I am approaching, but I slow down in any case, until I am sure. The woman is not aware, so again I slow down, and have to use a verbal ‘excuse me’ to let her know I am there.

This probably isn’t perfect. Maybe there is a better way. But really, I don’t think there even is a ‘perfect’ way of dealing with these kinds of minor conflicts. They are all flawed. You are going to startle someone; you are going to do the wrong thing without even realising it; you  are going to annoy someone. It’s unavoidable.

But the solution to this problem is not MOAR BELLS or MANDATORY USE OF MOAR BELL. The basic issue here is crap cycling and walking environments. Every single location where people are being expected to use bells (or some other form of audible warning) will be one where cycling is not expected; where someone cycling is having to share the same space as someone walking; where there is not enough width for the two modes to peacefully co-exist. Bells are not the solution to this problem. Better design is.

The path in my video above is only a couple of metres wide, and has to accommodate cycling and walking in the same space. That’s just a straightforward recipe for conflict. If you think the answer to that conflict is bell legislation then you don’t care about cycling, and frankly you don’t really care about walking either. I don’t want to be cycling at little more than walking pace, having to ring my bell every few metres. I doubt people walking want to be having to deal with that either. I certainly don’t when I am on foot.

Let’s stop dribbling on about bells and instead ensure that our walking and cycling environments work for both modes, with clarity about where people should be and about expected behaviour, and with comfortable space for everyone.

Posted in Inclusivity, Infrastructure, Social safety, Subjective safety, Walking | 23 Comments

Westminster Bridge bus stop bypass, revisited

In case you had forgotten, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust spent over £10,000 of NHS funding in an attempt to prevent ‘floating’ bus stops being built on Westminster Bridge (a detail uncovered by Tom Kearney).

This was part of an orchestrated campaign against the bus stop bypasses from hospital management. They sent out press releases to the Evening Standard, with quotes from their chairman –

Sir Hugh Taylor, chairman of Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS trust, said: “We believe that TfL’s plans for cycle lanes and so-called ‘floating’ bus stops on Westminster Bridge pose risks to both pedestrians and cyclists. We are particularly concerned about the impact on patients and carers, especially the elderly, disabled, and families with children in buggies and wheelchairs coming to Evelina London Children’s Hospital.”

They started a petition against the bus stop bypass design – garnering just over 1,000 signatures. They added news items on their website. They organised protest events.

Further FOI requests revealed this entire strategy may have originated with the local MP Kate Hoey, who wrote to the Trust in April 2016 suggesting a campaign against the bus stop bypasses would be

‘a great opportunity’.

Those same FOI requests contain a hilariously revealing admission from the Trust’s Secretary and Head of Corporate Affairs –

‘I don’t think we’ve any evidence [floating bus stops] are unsafe – even though we think they are’

Despite not having any evidence, this same individual was simultaneously claiming that 

‘The Trust is very concerned that Transport for London’s plans for the cycle super highway and “floating” bus stops on Westminster Bridge are dangerous’

The whole curious affair is covered in detail by both Cyclists in the City and by Paul Gannon.

Fast-forward a year to 2017, and it turns out that Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust…. aren’t actually opposed to bus stop bypasses at all, and drop their high court challenge. Construction started in the summer of that year, with zebra crossings across the cycleways at the bus stop islands. The official opening of this southbound section (in front of the hospital) was in the autumn.

That means these bus stop bypasses have been running more-or-less normally for around eight months now. Has the predicted danger and chaos ensued? To give a flavour of how these stops operate at busy times, I filmed them earlier this month, at 5pm on a Wednesday. I stood here for forty minutes (until my phone battery ran out). The following video shows every single person who cycled (or scooted) past the bus stops between 5 and 5:40pm – around 100 people. The cuts don’t hide anything – they’re simply those periods when nobody was cycling past.

As you’ll see if you watch the entire video, it is very, very mundane. The vast majority of people cycling past do so without any interaction whatsoever – when interactions do occur, they are at slow speed and involve negotiation. This is hardly surprising. People cycling have an interest in not colliding with other human beings – they will injure themselves in doing so. While filming these clips I kept on having to remind myself that an NHS trust objected so strongly to something that is frankly pretty boring.

Nevertheless there are some moments that are worth commenting on.

  • The very first clip (0:13) shows someone overtaking someone slower, by using the bus stop island. There was nobody standing on the island at the time, so nobody was put in danger, and I doubt this manoeuvre would have been attempted otherwise. This is, however, one reason why I think it was a mistake to build the cycleway so narrow (1.5m, and with high kerbs) – it prevents overtaking, and more importantly it removes ‘negotiation space’ as people step onto the zebras, or accidentally step into the cycleway. In a misguided attempt to slow people down, I think the narrowness of the cycleway here actually makes matters worse.
  • From 4:38 onwards there’s a good example of some interaction on the zebra crossing.
  • 7:14 – probably the fastest cyclist of the clip.
  • At 7:25 a woman looking at her phone accidentally steps into the cycleway and stumbles. The man cycling seems to have anticipated this happening and is already steering around her.
  • From 9:16 we see an elderly woman in a hospital chair being wheeled across the zebra, to the island, to a waiting taxi. (Incidentally the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association claimed in their consultation response that “segregated cycle lanes will make it difficult to load people in wheelchairs and other mobility impaired people – this will be a particular problem outside St Thomas’ Hospital.”)
  • From 9:26 there is a minor near miss, as a woman steps into the cycleway without looking. A collision is avoided by the man cycling anticipating, and stopping. (There were a number of other minor incidents like this with people stepping into the cycleway without looking, but none were anywhere near as close as this).

I don’t think we can learn too much from all of this because I was only here for forty minutes. I know that Transport for London have been conducting more extensive rolling video surveys of the new zebra crossings on CS6 and on CS2, which will provide much more comprehensive analysis. However, this was a busy period of the day, at a time when lots of people were coming and going to get on buses. Just under a hundred people cycle past in this period too.

The design is not perfect. As I’ve already mentioned, I think the cycleway is too narrow, which will create problems. The bus stop islands seemed to cope with the number of pedestrians at this busy time, but they could (and should) be wider. To my mind the road here is still ridiculous wide – four lanes, with hatching, and an island – and I really think some serious consideration should have been given to narrowing the road to three (or even two) lanes, and indeed restricting the types of motor traffic allowed to use the bridge to buses and taxis only, which already dominate the traffic composition in any case. That would have allowed much more space for pedestrians, for people cycling, and for bus users.

But even with these problems, it is hard to see what all the fuss was about. My video shows forty minutes of pretty benign interaction (or non-interaction), and even when things go wrong and people behave badly or make mistakes, there are no consequences. Perhaps most importantly of all, the whole video shows buses and cycles flowing freely, without coming into conflict with one another, or impeding each other. Both modes benefit. It’s a stark contrast to the previous situation, where anyone cycling on the bridge had to mix it with these large vehicles.

The footway on the left here was also ‘shared use’, with people allowed to cycle on it, so the new arrangement is yet another improvement in that respect, clarifying where people cycling should be, and where they are expected.

It does seem extraordinary to me that these proposals received so much attention and outright hostility, while the road network across London remains such an unpleasant, dangerous and pedestrian-hostile environment – where ‘green man’ pedestrian signals still do not exist at busy junctions (and are blocked (in 2018!) on the grounds of modelled delay); where zebra crossings are so scarce; where people face massive delay and staggered crossings trying to cross even one arm of a junction. My hope is that as more and more of these types of bus stop are built, so the evidence base will build too, and we (and NHS Trusts) can start to focus our attention on the more pressing problems instead.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Complacency

The Netherlands is a wonderful country to cycle around, with a dense cycle network made up of motor traffic-free paths, low motor traffic access roads, and protected cycleways, all of which allow you to make door-to-door journeys in complete comfort and safety. That doesn’t mean, however, that everything there is perfect. There are many streets and roads across the country which are still poor. Dutch cycling infrastructure did not fall out of the sky; it had to be built, and many places are still waiting, even in the centre of famously cycle-friendly cities.

An unpleasant cycling environment in the centre of Amsterdam

In other places, there are compromises – clearly inadequate cycling environments, that are difficult to resolve. Again, just as with the UK, there are competing demands for road space. While in most Dutch urban areas those demands are resolved in favour of cycling and walking, there are streets where it is genuinely difficult to fit walking, cycling and major bus routes into the same space.

A major bus route into the city centre of Utrecht has to briefly share space with cycling

These poor streets should not to be used as examples to copy simply because they are ‘Dutch’. While thousands of people cycle every day on the street shown in the photograph above, even though it is shared with a significant number of buses, that does not mean that this is a good situation, or good practice that should be transferred to the UK. In reality this is a serious gap in the network. People are only cycling here because the rest of the network across the city is so good, good enough for them to tolerate sharing with buses (and some private motor traffic) for a few hundred metres.

The Dutch are also capable of making mistakes. It’s not always perfect, and sometimes it’s very silly – just as bad as anything in the UK.

A cycleway with a right-angle bend that then joins a bus corridor, again at right angles, in a new development in Delft

Again, this is simply bad. It’s an obvious mistake, made by someone who hasn’t considered how people cycling actually move about.

But worse than all these kinds of poor examples are the new designs in the Netherlands that take cycling for granted. The Netherlands has a tried-and-trusted formula for ensuring that cycling is a comfortable, safe and pleasant experience, with standard design templates that work extremely well. However that template sometimes get jettisoned, with depressing results. Like at this roundabout (or ’roundabout’) in Winschoten, in the province of Groningen in the north of the Netherlands.

Roundabout design that works well for walking and cycling in the Netherlands is well-established. One of the basic principles is that cycling – whether with priority or without – passes on a cycleway that is at a larger radius from the annular ring for motor traffic. This means that there is a waiting area for motor traffic to enter the roundabout, while keeping the cycleway clear, and also that motor traffic can exit the roundabout, and yield to cycle traffic, and pedestrians crossing on zebras, without blocking the roundabout.

A ‘standard’ Dutch roundabout with perimeter cycleway, with priority

These principles have been abandoned with this design. Motor traffic completely blocks the passage of people walking and cycling as people queue to enter the roundabout.

More dangerously, drivers exiting the roundabout are not meeting people walking and cycling at a perpendicular angle, as they are forced to do with the conventional, established Dutch roundabout designs. Instead they have to look sideways, or backwards over their shoulder. As people observe in the video, this is hazardous.

These drivers are having to look sideways to see if their passage off the roundabout  is clear. With a conventional Dutch roundabout any potential conflicts would be directly in front of them.

This roundabout design also fails to separate cycling and walking, lumping them together on an unclear shared paving surface. Walking and cycling are different modes with different requirements, and should be treated separately, especially at such a busy urban location. Pedestrians also lack the clear unambiguous priority of a zebra crossing.

In short, the design is ambiguous, dangerous, and unpopular. As the councillor observes in the video, it is better that ’roundabouts look the same. Because then you know where you stand.’

So what has happened here? This is an enormous space, with clearly enough room for a perimeter cycleway, and for separate walking space, with zebra crossings. Indeed, this new layout – built in 2014 – has replaced a roundabout with perimeter cycleways (albeit not very good ones). To my mind, it looks like a classic example of style over substance – an unusual hexagonal design with ‘shared space’ motifs like reduced delineation between modes appears to have proved more attractive to the town than the tried-and-trusted (yet rather mundane) basic Dutch roundabout.

There’s even a rather depressing comment below the video in Dutch, roughly translated as

… in the UK they are testing free junctions, just a whole lot of space and no signs and all … what has happened is that everyone drives more calmly and in percentage terms the number of crashes has fallen sharply

 This commenter is apparently unaware that in the UK, ‘shared space’ – with limited signs, clutter and delineation – arrived as a sexy, foreign concept… from the Netherlands itself! 

There are similar problems with sections of this recent road re-design in Oost-Souburg, in Zeeland – right at the opposite end of the country.

Photo from here

While parts of the road have excellent new cycleways, this section appears to have designed for cycling with shared use footways with no clear priority at side roads – the kind of awful approach we see all too often in the UK. Just as with the roundabout, cycling has effectively been ignored in the design, lumped in with walking, with both modes designed for in an ambiguous way. Again, there’s no shortage of space, but aesthetics appear to have been more important than functionality.

But although cycling levels are high in the Netherlands – certainly compared to the UK – cycling there doesn’t ‘just happen’. People can and will change their mode of transport if it becomes too difficult, too dangerous, too inconvenient, or too unpleasant.

Although the story of cycling in the Netherlands is partly a historical accident, the current levels of cycling in the country simply would not have been maintained without serious, concerted action, action that made it a viable mode of transport for everyone at a time of rapid expansion in the use of the private motor car. As David Hembrow argues, cycling should not be treated with complacency. It is not ‘in the blood’, or innate to the Netherlands, just because everyone cycles, or because there is a long history of cycling in the country. It can, and will, decline if it is not cared for.

While older parts of the Dutch road network are still waiting to be redesigned to make cycling safe and attractive, and while mistakes in designs can happen, it’s troubling to see cycling effectively being ignored in new Dutch road designs, and well-established, proven principles of road design being ignored or abandoned.

Posted in placefaking, Safety, Sustainable Safety, The Netherlands | 8 Comments

From the specific to the general

Imagine a grim, appalling, but unfortunately all-too-common scenario. A primary school is under attack from a deranged gunman. Shots have been fired, and the gunman stalks the school corridors, looking for children to kill. In one of the classrooms, a nine-year-old child is cowering under his desk with his teacher, both hearing the approaching footsteps of the gunman.

As the gunman opens the door to their classroom, we freeze time, and imagine two possible alternative scenarios. In the first, both teacher and pupil are unarmed and defenceless. In the second, the teacher has a firearm, which he has in a holster.

Given these specific circumstances, I’m sure most of us might consider it would be better – at that specific moment – for the teacher to be armed with a gun, than to be unarmed and defenceless. With a gun, he might, at least, be able to surprise the gunman, leaping up from his hiding place and firing several rounds at him, incapacitating him. That would certainly be better than the alternative of being effectively powerless as the gunman enters the classroom.

So, given these specific circumstances, we could reasonably think that is a good idea for a primary school teacher to be armed with a gun.

But would any of us then draw the conclusion that it is a good idea to arm primary school teachers in general? Just because our particular teacher might benefit from having a gun in the specific circumstances of a gunman approaching him down a school corridor, do we then think it makes sense to for all primary school teachers to be equipped with an easy-to-access handgun, throughout the school day?

That – to me at least – actually sounds like a pretty dangerous idea, even if I might have agreed that it would definitely be better for the teacher to have a gun, than to be unarmed, under the specific conditions of our thought experiment. I certainly wouldn’t be easily persuaded that the ubiquitous arming of primary school teachers is consequently a good idea, and I would also be resistant to accusations of being inconsistent.

This is because there are lots of reasons why arming primary school teachers is a bad idea. Those reasons don’t become any less compelling if a primary school teacher might benefit from a handgun in a classroom when the school and its pupils are actually under attack.

To make this even clearer, we could go further and imagine the nine-year-old child is alone in the classroom as the gunman approaches. Again, we might agree that the child having easy access to a handgun at that specific moment might be a good idea, while being appalled at the notion of all nine-year-olds arriving at schools equipped with handguns.

Anyone who is arguing that arming primary school teachers (or nine-year-old children) is a good idea in general, based on a specific, isolated scenario like the one outlined here is effectively performing something amounting to sleight of hand.

Logic.

It’s a pleasingly simple argument that unfortunately misses out all the reasons why arming nine-year-olds with guns when they go to a school might not be a good idea (negatives), and that also misses out all the other ways we can potentially stop nine-year-olds from being shot (positives).

But of course many people in the United States do actually think like this, at least when it comes to arming teachers. Many schools think it’s a good idea for teachers to be armed. For these people, the potential negatives of teachers being armed aren’t being considered, or are outweighed by the persuasive argument that teachers would then be able to protect themselves once an attack is already underway, something they would not be able to do without a gun. Likewise one powerful way of reducing the likelihood of children being at risk of being shot at in the first place – gun control – is completely unthinkable for a large swathe of American society.

We wouldn’t employ this kind of logic in Britain, would we? Perhaps the closest analogy might be knife crime.

Logic.

Unpersuasive, right? While we might agree that a teenager being attacked with a knife would – in those specific circumstances – benefit from a stab-proof vest, we wouldn’t think that all teenagers should therefore be walking around in stab-proof vests, or even just those teenagers in areas with particularly high knife-crime. The correct response would be to take positive steps to prevent teenagers from being stabbed in the first place, rather than fitting them all with cumbersome protective equipment – while also taking into account the direct negative consequences of having to wear that protective equipment.

The examples don’t even have to involve violence.

Logic.

Just because we accept that a pedestrian directly under a falling brick would be better off with a hard hat, we shouldn’t then be compelled to accept that all pedestrians should therefore walk around wearing hard hats. We’ve missed out all the other potential ways we can stop bricks striking people on the head, and all the potential negatives of compelling people to walk around with hard hats on.

And yet. And yet. It is precisely this form of argument that is, unfortunately, extremely common in discussion and debate around cycling safety in Great Britain (and indeed across much of the world).

Logic.

Certainly, if I was cycling along and I found myself confronted with a motor vehicle heading unavoidably towards me, I may think that – under those specific conditions – some polystyrene might lessen my chances of injury. But as with all these examples here, that would be a poor basis for arguing that anyone cycling around should always wear a helmet. Doing so misses out all the positive ways we can stop people being hit on the head by motor vehicles, and all the negative consequences of forcing people to wear helmets when they want to cycle somewhere.

The problem with all these forms of argument is what Jack Elder calls – in this excellent Twitter thread that inspired this postthe conflation of the specific with the general. (Click to expand the thread)

 

Something might be a good idea under specific, exceptional circumstances, but that’s not a sound basis for suggesting it’s therefore a good idea in general. The aforementioned sleight of hand involves removing that distinction.

This photograph from a recent academic conference on emergency medicine managed to attract 129 retweets, and was shared many more times, by doctors, nurses, students and paramedics, all agreeing with the expressed sentiment that cyclists should definitely wear helmets, at all times, on the basis of the statistics shown in the chart.

Doubtless, in the specific circumstances of people suffering an injury serious enough for them to be admitted to hospital, those injuries could well have been less severe if they had been wearing protective equipment. But is that a sound basis for arguing that all people should wear protective equipment at all times? It most certainly is not. It ignores all the sensible ways we should be preventing injuries from happening in the first place, and ignores all the negative consequences of compelling people to wear protective equipment at all times in an attempt to mitigate serious but rare injuries.

It would be reasonably easy to draw up a similar chart showing the proportion of people admitted to hospital after being injured by falling objects who suffered various forms of head injury, split between those people who happened to have been wearing a hard hat at the time of their injury, and those who weren’t. The ‘hard hat’ group would likely have suffered a smaller proportion of the listed injuries than those people who hadn’t been wearing hard hats. It would be ridiculous, however, to draw the conclusion from that chart that people in general should always wear hard hats. We would have made the mistake of  thinking that because personal protective equipment might reduce the chances of an injury occurring among the population of people who have already been admitted to hospital, personal protective equipment should therefore always be worn – without asking any reasonable questions about

  • how those injuries occurred,
  • how they could have been prevented,
  • whether compelling people to wear protective equipment might have negative unintended consequences,
  • or indeed whether compelling people to wear personal protective equipment has any effect on injury rates at a population level.

We can speculate about why it is helmet-wearing among people cycling that is repeatedly subject to this superficial level of argument. My hunch is that – among other possible explanations – it originates with a failure to conceive of ways in which we can prevent, or lessen the severity of, head injuries to people cycling around, beyond strapping helmets to them. We simply can’t imagine a world in which people cycling around don’t suffer the risks posed by motor traffic, or a world in which cycling could be a genuinely low-risk activity.

Consequently, if we think exposure to motor traffic danger is somehow inevitable, immutable, our responses to cycling injury are inevitably going to be limited to protective equipment. In this sense, our response is analogous to the gun control debate in the United States, where for some people the idea of reducing or even removing access to guns among the general population is effectively unthinkable. Consequently, for these people, guns and the danger posed by them are also inevitable, so much so that arming teachers becomes the only logical response. We shouldn’t be constrained by our failure to imagine alternatives.

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