Some misconceptions

Much as I am loath to take issue with Martin Porter – his blog is ever-excellent on the matter of the seriousness with which road crime is treated (see especially his recent post on the inadequacy of the police attitude exhibited in the BBC’s War on Britain’s Roads programme) – I feel that some aspects of his response to the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s Inquiry, ‘Get Britain Cycling’, merit a response.

Martin writes that

Segregation has a place (particularly on routes to schools) to encourage the large number of potential cyclists fearful of cycling on the roads.

I’m not sure the Dutch would recognise this description of ‘segregation’. A policy of constructing cycle tracks and paths, and minimising interactions with motor vehicles in general, is not about ‘encouraging’ the more nervous, and those who are reluctant to cycle on the roads. Dutch policy is specifically about making the cycling experience of everyone – children getting onto a bike for the first time, as well as ‘hardened’ cyclists like David Hembrow – more pleasant. In that context, cycle paths are not some kind of stop-gap compromise measure to get people onto bikes, but part of a holistic approach to prioritising cycling. It is more enjoyable and relaxing to cycle on a path away from lorries, buses and vans. This is why the Dutch build them.

Martin then argues

However segregation is no panacea and it certainly is no quick fix solution. It is often overlooked that even the Dutch do not just do segregation and that they do integration better we do.

Regarding the first two points, I don’t know of anyone who has suggested that segregation is a ‘panacea’, or indeed that is a ‘quick fix’ solution. The point about segregation, rather, is that it is specifically a necessary treatment on certain categories of roads. Currently, we have a serious problem, in that we do not segregate on roads and junctions that carry high volumes of motor traffic, or motor traffic travelling at speed (or at least, we don’t do so competently). And it is these roads and junctions that are the most significant barrier to cycling.

This is what I and many other campaigners and bloggers are so exercised about. We are not calling for cycle paths everywhere; we want them as a solution to a specific problem. Nor are we suggesting that this would be a ‘quick fix’. It is our contention that you simply cannot solve the problem of decades of stagnation in cycling levels without high-quality infrastructure that creates a high level of subjective safety; the fact that this won’t happen immediately (and why would it?) is somewhat immaterial.

When it comes to the claim the Dutch do ‘integration’ better than us, well this is certainly true too, but only because the Dutch are very careful to minimise interactions between motor vehicles and bicycles in the locations where they do indeed ‘integrate’. This is, as David Hembrow has argued, the result of a policy that aims at 100% separation. It is pleasant to cycle on roads and streets in the Netherlands where you are not physically segregated specifically because the Dutch have carefully made sure that only a small number of vehicles will ever be sharing that space with you. To repeat a point from earlier, this is about making the cycling experience of everyone more pleasant.

Next Martin writes

Potential cyclists are not fearful of the roads per se but of the badly driven motor vehicles on the roads.

I’m afraid that here Martin is confusing his own, personal experience – what makes him fearful to cycle on the roads – with the attitudes of ‘potential cyclists’. Potential cyclists do not want to cycle amongst lorries and buses, however well driven they may be. That is what they say, in survey after survey, and report after report. It is an unpleasant and intimidating experience. Indeed, this is precisely why they remain ‘potential cyclists’. Quite obviously, they have not had experience of badly driven motor vehicles while cycling, because… they are not cycling. The issue is motor traffic in general, not badly driven motor traffic.

Finally – and this is perhaps the claim I take most issue with – Martin says

Unfortunately some cycling advocates regard the calling for improved conditions for cycling on roads as heretical since it is seen to detract from their goal of segregation. [my emphasis]

Who are these people? Where are they saying this? Answers welcome.

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28 Responses to Some misconceptions

  1. You’re absolutely right, and it’s an experiment that anyone can do. Ask around amongst non-cycling friends, and the main reason they will give for not cycling is because they don’t want to ride on roads which are busy with motor traffic. I don’t think the quality of driving even comes into it – overtaking a bus just isn’t attractive to most people, nor is negotiating a roundabout.

    As for that final claim, I think it might be me and you he’s referring to here! When the CTC submitted their response to the Lambeth Bridge roundabout, we criticised them for pushing their integrated solution before a segregated one.

    But I still stand by that. If he is referring to us, it’s a bit of a stretch to say we’re opposed to improved on-road conditions. I have no opposition to it in principle, but it’s irrelevant to my goals. We won’t increase the number of bike users by making people ride on the road. Cyclists who believe that the general public will ever find riding on the road appealing are living in a bubble.

    • That’s pretty much it. I have nothing against the improvement of on-road conditions whatsoever. (Indeed, it would be quite bizarre for me not to, given that is where I cycle every day, under current conditions).

      To take the example you give of the design at Lambeth roundabout, it is, as you say, a bit of a stretch to argue that because you or I might favour a Dutch-style design there, rather than a single-carriageway roundabout with cyclists in the carriageway, we would find the latter proposal ‘heretical’. We just don’t think it’s as good, or as likely to make cycling an option for people like you. If the infrastructure is good enough, the “on-road” conditions are rather immaterial.

  2. Yes. There’s a complete disjunct of paradigms here (that’s a good use of Latin, isn’t it?). Porter thinks the ultimate objective is subjective and objective safety on roads shared with (potentially) high volumes of motor vehicles. We view that vision as a mirage: it can’t happen, for interrelated reasons of causality. You can’t ever get, as you rightly say, large numbers of people cycling on motor-dominated roads, because it’s always unpleasant (noisy, polluted, unsocial and slightly alienating) even if subjectively safe, so cycling remains a small minority pursuit where an integrationist policy is pursued, and cyclists always remain misunderstood, discriminated-against, third-class citizens, and therefore you can’t ever politically get the serious drive for safety on the roads that Porter calls for. It’s a destructive circuit, and we’ve been round this loop enough times historically to know it’s true. The Dutch and Danes, on the other hand, have a model that works.

    • Luke says:

      David, sorry, paradigm is Greek.

      But I agree with you and the original post. I’m not sure why so many people struggle with the twin ideas that (a) cycling on certain roads just is not pleasant, whether or not it’s safe, so segregation there is a good idea (b) you don’t need segregation everywhere, particularly if traffic planning has discouraged through traffic from, say, backstreets and country lanes.

  3. WilliamNB says:

    I too have immense respect for Mr Porter, and I’ve been following his blog for a long time now. However, periodically I have found myself disagreeing with him, and certainly I’m in complete agreement with you regarding the points he raised.
    My next statement may come across as unfair (it isn’t) and over-generalising (which it is, to some extent) but we must remember that Mr Porter is a dedicated “roadie” and roadies mostly campaign against segregation.
    This is the CTC’s “hierarchy of provision” (translation: we want to ride on the roads, because we’re fast, elite cyclists) all over again. Sad, really.

    • I feel the same, there are many areas of agreement (though mainly theoretical, academic points) but ultimately we have a different view of what riding a bike means, and therefore different goals regarding cycling.

      You only have to see the photo at the top of his blog to see that Martin Porter is part of a small out-group clique of sporting cyclists, and his feelings about cycling, and what makes for safe and pleasant cycling, must surely differ massively from that of the general population.

    • I am also a roadie. Just a couple of weekends ago I rode 80 miles from London to Northamptonshire, in one day, in lycra. But I’m also someone who rides a very different bicycle in ordinary clothes. Horses for courses.

      My ‘roadiness’ doesn’t stop me from appreciating the importance of Dutch-style infrastructure, suitable for all. Indeed I rather prefer the experience of cycling, as a roadie, on Dutch-quality paths to sharing the road with lorries and buses.

      • +1.
        Another Roadie here as well as an off road rider and a daily commuter in Lycra as well as a utility cyclist on a Brompton. I gain no pleasure from jostling for space with motor vehicles whether on my weekday commute or the lanes of Surrey and Kent. The segregated part of my daily commute – through Battersea Park and across Clapham Common – are always the high point.

        • Angus Hewlett (@angus_fx) says:


          In terms of my own needs as a roadie, on most of the roads I ride, I’ve relatively little to gain from segregation, and the measures proposed by Martin would do just fine. Would be nice to have more infrastructure in a few places, sure, but the lack of it isn’t going to stop me riding.

          But, at the same time, I believe that more bikes, fewer cars is a recipe for better towns & cities, and happier & healthier people, and I’d like it to be a choice available to everyone. As far as I can see, the *only* way to bring that about is high quality “Dutch” infrastructure on all main roads.

  4. Martin Porter QC has a lot on involvement in the cyclist related world. I think he is suffering from bike user blindness. For there to be a lot more bike users on the road, we are not talking about people doing 10/20 miles each way in Lycra..but 2-3 maybe 4 miles locally in jeans or a skirt (al la the Dutch) It seems that most people.cyclists don’t see that this is the change to bike usage that forms the backbone to the next generation of cycle growth and that should be shaping the infrastructure that we are fighting for. Not very sexy though is it, routes to and from the shops for normal people on ‘boring’ low maintenance bikes with bags on them. Maybe the technology is regarded as dull and the riders ‘everyday’ but the world they help create is very exciting indeed, Segregation is the key to getting normal people mobile without a car. And that should be government (local?) led not cyclist led.
    The roads are an amazing modern evolution,, how so many different types of vehicles and interactions don’t cause carnage every day i don’t know, such speed differentials and differences in vulnerability/capability. That’s why bike users and pedestrians too, need to be protected from the ever increasing size and ferocity of the motorised vehicle and the increasingly isolated driver inside.
    The ‘sport’ and ‘transport’ issue is at the heart of a confusion that hovers over anything cycling..Two very different things, the style of riding, the technology,in the bikes and the attitude behind them. at the moment sport style dominated in the UK, Its not just infrastructure that needs to change, it is mind sets and a realisation that the bicycle scene over here in the UK is messed up, the combination of massive road building, the influence of the huge multinational shopping chains and the cycle industry’s keeness on the busy cycle shop workshop have made cycling a hobbiests passion, a weekend frippary.and a dedicated mans commuting quirk.
    None of these things are wrong in themselves, but the bicycle was once a vital mode of transport, now it’s not! the masses need to move cheaply, locally and safely. That’s why we need separation and protection to help redress the balance and provide an atmosphere into which the ordinary person will want to pedal. Not sure that Martin Porter QC gets that. You cannot fine people into safety, you cannot legislate for the huge vulnerabilities of road users. The present road situation is a cocked and loaded gun,,and its not cyclists that can put the safety on. Its a new way of thinking for all involved, ‘going dutch is not all about infrastructure. its about how the bicycle is used, even the type of bicycle that’s used.but infastructure does need to come before the other gets to flourish.
    I don’t think a lot of campaigning cyclists know what the’re fighting for, ironically i don’t think its about them,,its about everyone else. it’s just everyone else hasn’t cottoned on yet.. .

  5. The Dutch/Danish model (Danish especially) doesn’t exactly preclude “sport” cyling either- is Mr porter perhaps going a little bit “VC”?

  6. Chris. says:

    I think your article makes very coherent reading, up until the last paragraph, at which point it strikes me as contradictory.

    On the one hand, you say nobody is arguing for complete segregation from motor vehicles, but on the other you say that “Potential cyclists do not want to cycle amongst lorries and buses, however well driven they may be.”

    Doesn’t that suggest that potential cyclists are arguing for complete segregation, or at the least that pressure groups would have to be arguing for it to get these potential cyclists onto the roads?

    I was a potential cyclist (at least as far as busy roads went) until I decided to start commuting from Surrey to Waterloo 18 months ago. I personally have no problems with my route in (quiet backroads then CS7), but you have to be willing to get out and try it to find out if it’s something you can live with, or it’s going to scare you back onto the tube.

    How are people going to find out that previously tricky junctions are now segregated if, as you say, they’re taking the view that they don’t want to cycle amongst lorries and buses, regardless?

    How many of the potential cyclists out there have actually analysed their potential route and decided to remain potential cyclists based on specific issues with that journey, rather than just because it has traffic on it in general?

    • Angus Hewlett (@angus_fx) says:

      The majority of roads are residential, and as such aren’t much used by lorries or buses. On those that are, segregation is really the only answer – if you’re not happy with the idea of an 8 year old or 80 year old relative cycling on it, it’s not good enough to bring about mass cycling.

    • There is no contradiction – although I may not have conveyed myself very precisely!

      I was arguing that you don’t *segregation* – by which I conventionally mean cycle tracks – everywhere. They are only needed on busier roads – what the Dutch call distributor and through roads. Indeed, only a small percentage (less than 20%, I believe) of the overall distance of the Dutch road network has cycle tracks.

      Despite this, however, you will very rarely find yourself cycling amongst lorries and buses in the Netherlands. This is because roads without segregation are designed so as to not be useful as routes, except to non-motorised traffic. Motor traffic on these roads will typically only be accessing properties along it; through-traffic is eliminated. So bicycles and motor traffic are still kept separate, although in a very different way from cycle tracks. This post from David Hembrow (which I linked too in the post) explains the principle quite well.

      Regarding your latter two questions; the honest answer is, I don’t really know. What I would say is that the enormous shift required in transport is getting those short urban trips currently made by car (nearly 40% of all GB trips under 2 miles are made by car) onto bikes, rather than Surrey to London commutes (although the latter is obviously still important). In that sense I think most people will be able to take a closer look at the entirety of a particular route they might need to make, to school or to the shops, and work out for themselves that it’s now possible. People getting onto bikes for the first time probably aren’t, in general, going to be making long-ish trips into central London. They’ll be trying out riding in their neighbourhood, and will be able to work out what they can do.

  7. Angus Hewlett (@angus_fx) says:

    Most of Martin’s submission is spot-on. It’s a shame he had to (accidentally, I’m guessing) antagonize those who put more emphasis on segregation with his straw-man in #3, and a good point badly made in #4 – he’s absolutely correct to observe that the traffic, not the road, is the source of danger, but of course it’s not just the badly driven vehicles that present a problem for most potential cyclists. He could have said, for example, that he as an individual has little or no need for segregation, and so won’t discuss that area.

    • SirVelo says:

      Angus, I would actually argue that it is the road, and not the traffic, which is the problem. The design of roads, with their pinchpoints, multi-lane layouts, unenforced speed limits, when combined with the huge volume of traffic (particularly in peak hours), exacerbate an intimidating environment If I find it unpleasant (and I regularly do upwards of 300 miles a week in summer) as an experienced MAMIL to ride on the roads, what is a child or pensioner or parent with a child carrier going to feel when they venture onto the streets?

      While I agree entirely with Martin Porter in his remarks concerning the police’s abnegation of its responsibility for enforcing the Highway code by not prosecuting careless and dangerous driving, he is, I feel, mistaken if he believes that redressing this area alone will bring about a cycling revolution in this country.

      • The road use age has changed beyond all recognition in the last 30 years and governments/councils have not redressed the balance, The roads are now really for cars and lorries with people definitely put 3rd..Good road manners and safe driving are not enforceable by law, its learned and encouraged by car culture, car design and surroundings. There is a lot of fiscal and political against building a good local bicycle infrastructure and it will take a brave government to implement it, its not where the short term big money is, but it will spark a revolution on our high streets and communities for sure. Whilst the roads are used as they are, its never going to be good for your people or our people lifestyles…ultimately society goes down hill. car culture is the tip of a very big and consumer led society…..or is that a bit deep….just invest and make it easy for me and the 8 or 80 year old to cycle (or walk) to the shops/library/community centres without fearing for his/her life…… not too much to ask is it.

    • Tim says:

      This is a bit like, “it’s not the fall that kills you, it’s hitting the ground at the end”. Playing with words, and not very helpful.

      Martin essentially said (excuse paraphrasing) segregation is OK for kids going to school. Certainly it is useful for that particular group (amongst many others) but this is missing the point.

  8. Max says:

    A quick thought experiment: suppose that the roads and the levels of motor traffic using them were just as they are now, but there were no drivers, all motor vehicles being fully automated like the Google self-driving cars. These vehicles would have sensors giving them better powers of ‘observation’ than the most skilled human driver; would never get distracted, sleepy, or drunk; would never be in a hurry, or angry; and would follow the rules of the road to the last letter. Would you feel (subjectively) safe cycling in such an environment, no matter how (objectively) safe the conditions might be? If not, why not?

    • That’s a good thought experiment. At a rough guess, I’d say it would feel subjectively safer to cycle on roads with automated cars. The knowledge that the cars would not act in an aggressive manner would be reassuring.

      However I don’t think it would feel as subjectively safe – or indeed, generally as *pleasant* – as cycling away from these vehicles. When a train comes through a station, I like to stand back as much as I can, even though there is no realistic chance of the train hitting me. It just feels better to put more distance between myself and a fast, heavy object.

      Much the same would surely be true of cycling amongst automated vehicles, travelling at a greater speed than me, and with greater mass.

    • Corey says:

      I, too, have been thinking about this issue lately. My fear is that, because computer-driven cars would negotiate objects at higher speeds with no margin of error, there might be an attempt to “optimize” roads to accommodate these vehicles even more. As injury and fatality rates would decrease for pedestrians and cyclists, there would be continually less resistance to an increase in speed limits and mechanization of traffic signals.

      Also, you’d have people who would alter their lifestyle to incorporate the option of doing daily tasks while commuting, likely pushing driving mode share as high as possible. I could imagine many individuals would simply choose to live in RVs and vans, telecommuting while constantly roaming from one business meeting to the next.

      All of those grandiose scenarios aside, I don’t imagine being a pedestrian or cyclist among these driver-less cars would do much at all to increase subjective safety. A giant, high-velocity object is still intimidating.

    • SirVelo says:

      Let’s be honest; for most of us, there would always be the fear lurking at the back of our minds that the sensors on these cars could fail; and then what? Until, you had a proven 100% reliability record the subjective feeling would be one of distrust.

    • @angus_fx says:

      If said automated cars were to still have airbags, bumpers and enclosed cabins then I wouldn’t set much store by their engineers’ claims of objective safety.

    • I think it would probably feel safer, but would not make cycling more convenient. You would still be stuck with the same gyratorty systems and road configurations that consistently marginalise cycling.

  9. Koen says:

    Here in the Netherlands we have a problem with high-speed scooters and mopeds using the cyclepaths, within city limits that is. Outside of these it’s mandatory for them to ride there. Now why would fast scooters and mopeds WANT to ride on cyclepaths, even when its compulsory for them to use the road? Because they’re faster, safer and more convenient of course. I agree fully with the point you’re making here: the aim is for safe conditions for cyclists and pedestrians overall, and there’s a whole range of solutions. Bicycle training and paint don’t even amount to a mere two percent of total cyclist safety in the Netherlands, is my estimate.
    Subjective safety has two sides, of course. There’s the behaviour of the driver, and my own behaviour. Trains, for instance, rarely veer out of their path to hit someone along the tracks. Yet i would not be comfortable riding close to trains, as I might hit a bump, or a gust of wind or suction from the train might draw me under the train’s wheels. I just wouldn’t feel safe. So safety records may show it’s doable, but you would need provisions anyway. Even more so when dealing with kids, elderly or handicapped people.

  10. Fred says:

    Where did you get such briliant commenters? I’m much impressed.

    The funny thing about separated infrastructure is that everyone wants it–save for the VC nuts and the people who actually build the roads. When people learn about how inexpensive it is, they feel cheated even if they never ride a bicycle. Everyone wants cyclists to be safe, obviously, save for a few local sociopaths. Everyone knows that cycle tracks works, once they learn that they are possible.

    Here in San Diego, we have many VCers who control the discussion, and who are just being put out to pasture as more sane minds prevail. However, it seems as if the local politicians need to stand up to the nay sayers and not let a few individuals squash what the vast majority want and what 100% of the populace will benefit from.

    Thanks for the post, but please don’t say “segregation” as in the US,, it reminds of our post slavery apartheid instead of wonderful Dutch infrastructure and this linguistic accident is being exploited to give those who plan for cyclist’s safety to be racists. 😦

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