Dave Horton’s excellent Cycling Struggles series continued on Thursday, taking a look at pavement cycling, and how conflict has been created between two user groups that really should co-exist quite harmoniously. I urge you to read it (indeed, read the whole set, if you’ve got time over Christmas), because it is highly pertinent.
The particular passage I’d like to dwell on is this one –
The currently dominant transport order almost enforces styles of cycling which are antithetical to the calm, unhurried orientation towards pedestrians which would in a civilised society be normal. To survive, city cyclists often need to hurry. I doubt I’m alone in sometimes feeling almost primed to fight by my experience of city cycling. A refusal to engage in such ‘fighting’ is of course one of the reasons people take to cycling on pavements; but the fight remains, only the terrain and actors change.
Cycling’s in a fix. Mixing with cars pushes us to ‘hurry up’; mixing with pedestrians compels us to ‘slow down’. There’s work to do here; and in making cities fit for cycling we must also ensure cycling becomes fit for cities.
Our current road layouts and road conditions have created two types of cyclists; the faster, confident cyclist, able (although not always willing) to mix with motor traffic at motor traffic-type speeds. And, by complete contrast, the pavement cyclist; the person who just doesn’t feel like cycling on a certain type of road, and defaults, socially or antisocially, depending on their persuasion, to the pavement.
An awful irony is that both of these types of cyclists are quite unpleasant for pedestrians. Confident cyclists, travelling at car-like speeds, are unnverving, because they are fast and (almost) completely silent. Likewise the pavement cyclist – even the careful and considerate one – can also be unnerving. Dave Horton’s piece is very good at highlighting how the subjective perception of pedestrians – particularly vulnerable ones – is often at odds with how careful some cyclists think they might be.
Neither of these types of behaviour is all that compatible with civilised town and city centres, especially fast cycling. It is undeniable that cycling faster than 20 mph will inevitably become unacceptable on certain types of street. This is not to say that cyclists will no longer be able to make progress on these streets; just that there will have to be a trade-off between rapidity and a calm street environment.
The trouble is that a great proportion of current cyclists, particularly those in London, are precisely those types who cycle at speeds approaching 20 mph, or over, and who engage in long commutes. I don’t blame these cyclists for travelling at these speeds. Indeed, I do so myself when I am in London, or at least try to. You have to try and cycle fast, because it is urged upon you by the road environment. You simply can’t make right turns, or negotiate roundabouts, at lower speeds.
But how compatible is this kind of speed with a civilised London? We can’t simultaneously urge a calming of the street environment, and still expect to cycle just as fast as we like on any street. There will inevitably be places where cycling has to become more social, and more part of the fabric of the street. More like walking, in other words. Not walking speed itself, but a more responsible speed, around pedestrians. This is precisely the point Dave Horton makes –
Challenges lie ahead for people who’ve kept riding through the time of the car. Speaking for myself, I’ve become used to riding fast and assertively, but such riding will become less and less appropriate. I need to broaden my repertoire of styles of riding in the city, learning to enjoy slow and sedate as much as fast and furious!
This brings me to Transport for London’s proposed designs for the bus stops on the extension of Superhighway 2, through Newham.
There are a few minor things wrong with this design. The kerbs are too sharp vertically (I am told that the Superhighway planners have not heard of 45° kerbs, which is slightly astonishing), and the corners of the entry to the track are also too sharp. But the principle is exactly right. Instead of placing a bus in a recessed stop, and allowing motor traffic to pass freely, the bus will be held in front of motor traffic, while bicycles can instead pass freely. The track is in the area of the bus stop.
Why this kind of design is so important can be explained quite simply – employing it creates a stretch of road that parents will feel comfortable letting their children cycle on. Few parents would seriously consider letting their children cycle in, around and outside motor traffic on Stratford High Street, negotiating their way into a stream of motor cars to pass stopped buses, however carefully those motor vehicles might be being driven. By contrast, this design creates a high degree of subjective safety, eliminating completely complex interactions with motor traffic.
It is standard practice on the continent to arrange bus stops like this, for the obvious reason that it makes cycling available to all.
The design solves the problem of constant ‘overlapping’ between buses and cyclists; buses having to overtake cyclists between stops, and the cyclists having to negotiate their way back past the bus every time it stops. It does mean, however, that pedestrians are ‘severed’ (I use the word in inverted commas quite deliberately, because I don’t think they really should be ‘severed’ at all) from the bus stop.
This creates the perception of a problem for two distinct groups. On the on hand, existing ‘fast’ cyclists, who are worried that pedestrians will get in their way, and step without looking into the track. And on the other, more vulnerable pedestrians, who do not want to interact with bicycles, at all.
It should be quite clear that for those ‘fast’ cyclists, their behaviour will have to adapt (I include myself in this group). You will no longer be able to hammer through some parts of London. You will have to be more responsible in certain areas, particularly outside shops and bus stops. You will have to watch out for pedestrians, who will be often be unpredictable. This isn’t just about cycle tracks around bus stops; It’s is a necessary component of creating a more liveable city. We’ve ended up with a cohort of cyclists trying to act like motor vehicles, and as we tame the motor vehicle, so we will have to tame precisely these cyclists.
If Transport for London starts to create cycling infrastructure that makes cycling possible for all, then I think this transition will happen quite organically. Cycling in town and city centres will become dominated, naturally, by those who are not capable of cycling fast, or who have no desire to do so, and this will create a new standard of behaviour. Cycling fast will still be possible, of course –
This gentleman was making very rapid progress out of the city; however, I expect he moderated his speed and behaviour where pedestrians and interactions with them were more likely.
A calmer style of cycling would go some way towards adjusting the perception of cyclists by many pedestrians – particularly disabled groups – as ‘the silent menace’. You only have to look at the mock-up that Transport for London have created of the bus stop to see the difficulty; they have used an image of a fast-looking cyclist, with helmet and hunched over position, onto the cycle track. So I have some sympathy with pedestrians who are concerned; understandably, they are imagining the cyclists who currently use the roads being transplanted directly onto a cycle track, which they have to cross to get to a bus stop.
But it doesn’t need to be like this. Crossing roads and tracks with cyclists – even lots of them – is so much easier when cycling is more civilised, and on more equitable terms with pedestrians.
Enough is enough – we need to break out of the loop we are currently stuck in. Our decades-long attempt to make cycling a form of transport equivalent to the motor vehicle has only succeeded in creating hostility towards cycling from the one group with which we have most in common – the pedestrian. Seen as a fast, lycra-clad menace, or as anti-social pavement invaders (indeed, these two tropes are often blended into one), the act of cycling has unnecessarily been made hostile to walking, through bad design, and bad policy.
The Transport for London plans in Newham are a big step in the right direction; road space is being reclaimed from the motor vehicle, and an environment is being created in which anyone can cycle in comfort. Bus stops designs like this are a crucial part of that overall vision. Let’s not lose sight of the goal of making cycling a part of the humanising fabric in towns and cities, with its own space where it needs it, and with care and concern for the more vulnerable.