The notion of providing a separate, dedicated space for people on bikes, away from motor vehicles, continues to be met with opposition of a particular form.
I am not talking here about pragmatic opposition; the kind of opposition which tends to form itself around the idea that cycle tracks in this country will inevitably be substandard, or slower than the road, or blocked by too many bike users. This was, in fact, my position several years ago; I was opposed to off-carriageway provision essentially because I had no idea that it could privilege me while cycling, providing a more direct and comfortable experience than cycling on the road itself. My only experience tended to be pavement conversions, or narrow painted stripes at the side of the road. I had no real understanding of what cycle tracks would look if they were done properly, like they are in the Netherlands. It was only when I became aware of David Hembrow’s site, in around 2008-9, that my opinions began to change. (A similar conversion was undergone by a notorious east London blogger).
Instead, the opposition I am talking about takes an ideological rather than pragmatic form. It suggests that almost any kind of dedicated provision for cycling, separate from roads for motor vehicles, represents a form of surrender, and an abandonment of roads in general to motor vehicles. That Jeremy Clarkson and ‘petrolheads’ will have won, and have got all those pesky cyclists out of their way.
Subsidiarily, it suggests that the drivers of motor vehicles will then behave with greater abandon, and a greater sense of entitlement, now that the roads are ‘theirs’. It argues that when drivers meet cyclists on roads without cycle tracks – as they will inevitably do, as cycle tracks can’t be built everywhere – then they will think that cyclists are on ‘their’ roads, and will act possessively. Or – alternatively – that drivers will not be used to driving around cyclists, and may drive badly around them when they do encounter them.
These are not positions greatly supported by evidence. A minority, significant or otherwise, of British drivers already act with a sense of entitlement that the roads are ‘theirs’, despite cyclists almost entirely cycling on them, and not on separate cycle tracks and paths. The situation could hardly be made any worse. Nor is the position supported by a near total absence of hostility from Dutch motorists towards Dutch people riding bikes on Dutch roads that do not have cycle tracks. And nor would Dutch people who happen to be riding bikes (remember – 80-90% of the Dutch population rides a bike once a week) believe that they have ‘surrendered’ some nebulous right to the road, probably because most of them drive cars too, and also because the system of separate provision they have is as good as, and very often far better, than the conventional road network itself.
Nevertheless, opposition to cycle tracks in the UK, of this ideological form, persists. This opposition is not new; it has a long history, dating right back to the 1930s, a time when cycle tracks were, intermittently, being proposed alongside some arterial roads in Britain. Most strikingly, the arguments advanced at the time have hardly changed in the intervening eighty years.
The Cyclists’ Touring Club position during the 1930s is set out well in this letter to the Times written by the Club’s Secretary, G. H. Stancer, published on the 4th April 1934 –
The demand for separate tracks for cyclists is part of the campaign of motorists to appropriate public highways for their exclusive use. Have we yet got to accept a condition of affairs when cyclists have to renounce their use of the roads to escape annihiliation? If motorists do not wish to conform to a standard of conduct on public highways compatible with the safety of all other users, then it is they and not cyclists who should abandon the use of the highway, the main cost of which is borne by ratepayers. There is nothing to prevent motorists from building at their own expense private roads where they can indulge their craze for speed without let or hindrance.
Here we see the opinion expressed that cycle tracks – while being presented as necessary for safety by the authorities – are in reality part of a plot by motorists to ‘appropriate’ highways for their ‘exclusive use’; that motorists want cycle tracks because they are unable or unwilling to conform to a safe standard of conduct. In a letter published just a month later Stancer wrote of ‘hostile interests’ seeking to ‘confine [cyclists] to special paths’.
The Times also reported, around the same time, on an international conference about road safety, at which
The Cyclists’ Touring Club stated that the provision of cycle paths at the side of any of the main roads would not be with the object of giving cyclists a good path on which to ride, but to remove them from the road in the interests of motorists. The cost of providing such paths would be enormous.
These are familiar themes, still rehearsed today.
Maybe less familiar is the attitude that motorists should build their own roads for their use. Indeed, the Cyclists’ Touring Club was strongly in favour of motorway building; they sent a member on a delegation to Hitler’s Germany to look at autobahns. If these roads were not to be built, said the Club, then the existing roads would have to have severe speed restrictions.
Their support for motorways was, perversely, a form of segregation; a separation of motor traffic from cycle traffic, with motor traffic being allocated new roads on which cycles would be prohibited. Indeed, this is how the Club framed the issue, as in this extract from William Oakley’s Winged Wheel, a history of the CTC.
the idea of segregating various forms of road traffic occurred as a way of getting [cyclists] off the public highways onto separate paths: ‘for their own good’, of course! But the idea could also be applied to high-speed motorists by segregating them on special motor roads.
So ‘high-speed motorists’ would be presumed to disappear, almost entirely, from the existing roads, leaving them ‘free’ for cycling; a solution, of sorts, to the emerging problem on the roads that wouldn’t involve cyclists being ‘pushed away’ onto cycle tracks. A semantic difference, but an important one nonetheless, and one which characterised the attitude towards ‘surrendering’ of existing roads.
It is also worth noting that throughout this period, the focus of the Cyclists’ Touring Club was on getting motorists to behave better, and to drive more slowly (see the emphasis on ‘high speed motorists’), rather than on eliminating attitudinal conflict between modes entirely in a way cycle tracks would have achieved. The Times reports a meeting of the Cyclists’ Touring Club in early 1935 thusly –
Objections to special tracks for cyclists were made at a largely-attended meeting of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, held in the hall of the Royal Society of Arts, John Street, Adelphi, last evening, when the following resolution was carried unamimously :-
That this general meeting of the Cyclists’ Touring Club deprecates the view of the Minister of Transport, as indicated by his approval of cycle paths, that the segregation of cyclists is a just method of minimizing the number of road casualties, and strongly urges upon the Minister its opinion that the problem can be more satisfactorily dealt with by the rigid enforcement of the existing laws, which were instituted with the object of enabling all sections of responsible road users to enjoy the full exercise of their rights in safety. Mr. W. M. Robinson (Birmingham), member of the council, who moved the resolution, said that the effect of cycle paths would be that motorists would drive faster. Cyclists were not going to allow themselves to be pushed off the roads and segregated onto a track on the side. The only way to end the shambles of the roads, which had become a national disgrace and crime, was to lay the culprits by the heels and put them in gaol.
The ‘no surrender’ attitude in action, coupled with the belief that motorists would behave worse. The roads must be kept as they are, but with higher standards enforced on the (ever-increasing) numbers of drivers of motor vehicles using them.
At the same meeting, council member William (Bill) Oakley (later a president of the Club, and the aforementioned author) argued that ‘cycle tracks were a tacit admission of failure’ – an apparent inability to get all users to, in an uncanny echo of language still used today, ‘share the highways’, as Stancer put it in another letter to the Times in 1935.
The obviously fair solution to the problem of the roads is to take effective steps for the removal of the dangerous conduct that leads to the accidents rather than to try to remove potential victims while allowing the danger to remain. If the existing laws were rigidly enforced and dangerous conduct by any class of road user eradicated, it would be possible for all sections to share the highways in safety and good will.
There are further echos of today in the Cyclists’ Touring Club attitude to the safety of child cyclists –
Whatever the circumstances in which child cyclists met their deaths, the only just and reasonable way to remedy them was through the training of children in the principles of a wise use of the roads and by the taking of most stringent measures against vehicle drivers who endangered the lives of other people. The proper solution of the road problem should be sought, not in depriving the vast majority of vehicular users of the roads of their right to use them, but of restraining, and if necessary eliminating, the small minority who were responsible for the present evil.
The Club’s preferred solution to the emerging ‘problem’ of the roads was to train drivers and cyclists to behave better, rather than attempting to keep these users apart. Indeed, the opinions of those who voiced a preference for cycling on tracks away from roads, as a more pleasurable experience, were dismissed. This letter appeared in the Times on the 17th April, 1935 –
In view of the meeting of protest against the proposed cycling tracks reported in The Times of April 9, you may care to publish the views of a regular user of the tracks on Western Avenue. These tracks have converted what was previously a nerve-racking ride into a care-free glide, except for occasional indiscreet pedestrians. I have no objection whatever to being “segregated”, and shall use tracks wherever I happen to travel, if they are kept up to the Western Avenue standard. U suggest this is the view of most sober-minded cyclists travelling to and from work. MR MAURICE G EVANS, Tarrystone, Philip Road, High Wycombe
Stancer was quick to put Mr Evans to rights, writing in response
Mr. Maurice Evans’s letter in your issue of April 17 ignores the undeniable fact that “what was previously a nerve-racking ride” (as he describes cycling on the Western Avenue prior to the introduction of the cyclists’ tracks) was only made so by the reckless behaviour of the inconsiderate section of the motoring community.
In other words, the difficulties and problems those people cycling on the roads in the 1930s were increasingly facing were due solely to the bad behaviour of motorists; the road could be as pleasant as cycle tracks if only we could just get motorists to behave. The fact that cycling in motor traffic could be fundamentally unpleasant was not recognised by Stancer and the Club. They were demanding, as reported in 1936,
a better spirit among road-users, a higher degree of skill and courtesy, and that quality which might be summed up on the word “roadmanship”.
The ‘can’t we all just get along’ mentality that still persists today.
Stancer was most definitely a hardened cyclist. In 1910 he had cycled from London to Brighton and back in under 6 hours, a feat that would be remarkable even on today’s modern roads, and with modern bicycles. He had little interest in touring, his focus being time trialling and setting cycling records. He consistently won prizes in racing events. Even at the age of 78, he was still completing century events, and arriving first.
He was therefore hardly a person best-qualified to understand the motivations and feelings of those people who might not wish to cycle confidently in ever-increasing volumes of motor traffic, yet as secretary of the Club from 1920-45 he was a most influential figure during a critical period in cycling history in Britain. He wrote a column in the Club’s Gazette under the pen name ‘Robin Hood’, the focus of which, according to Oakley’s Winged Wheel, was usually
a vigorous defence of cyclists against repeated attempts by motoring interests to encroach on their freedom and welfare.
At the time, the Cyclists’ Touring Club claimed to speak for around 7 million users of bicycles in Great Britain. Indeed, in 1933, cycle users were in a position of relative power – at least compared to today. Bicycles still outnumbered motor cars on the road. It wasn’t even until the 1950s that total mileage travelled by motorcar in Britain outstripped miles travelled by bicycle. So the voice of bicycle users could, potentially, have been very powerful. But the interests of the Club and those millions who at the time were merely riding bicycles for transport, rather than touring, were not well-aligned.
The membership of the Club had collapsed between 1899 and 1918 as their traditional members – the upper and middle classes – increasingly abandoned bicycles for motor vehicles as a mode of ‘touring’. This was, paradoxically, at a time when bicycle use was sharply increasing in the general population, but these people who were using bicycles as a mode of transport – the lower classes in particular – saw no need to join a touring club, as Oakley writes in Winged Wheel –
The urge to travel over the hills and far away, day after day, had not yet come to them; even if it had, they could not have responded to it.
There was, therefore, no real representation of those people who rode bikes for transport. The only alternative to the Cyclists’ Touring Club was the National Cyclists’ Union, which was a sporting organisation.
By 1934, the Club was, as we have seen, strongly agitating against the cycle paths that were starting to be proposed; it was preparing pamphlets
warning against the threats of cycle-paths, proficiency certificates, exclusion from certain roads, and other steps intended to restrict and discourage the use of bicycles.
Cycle paths ‘discouraging the use of bicycles’; written, apparently without irony, in the year 1977 by Oakley.
One of these pamphlets was entitled ‘Making the Roads Safe’, a response by the Cyclists’ Touring Club to the opening of cycle tracks alongside roads in west London. This also contained the assertion that cycle tracks were ‘a serious threat to cycling’, and its title is clearly suggestive of keeping cyclists on current roads, and moderating driver behaviour. The agitation against cycle tracks continued after the war, with Stancer writing an article in 1946 entitled The Fallacy of Cycle Paths. Oakley writes that
Inter alia, it recorded what had happened on the Continent when cyclists had lost the right of choosing to ride on the carriageway or the cycle path.
‘What happened’, of course, was that cycling didn’t collapse in countries where that ‘right’ was forfeited, like the Netherlands; it collapsed, by contrast, in Britain, where we still have the right to cycle on roads that nobody wants to cycle on. We have the benefit of hindsight, but Stancer quite obviously got this completely wrong. He allowed his ideological attachment to ‘retaining’ the roads to blind him to the potential consequences of increased motor traffic. In 1947, at the Club’s AGM,
Stancer moved a motion expressing determined opposition to cycle-paths alongside public roads, protesting against the threatened exclusion of cyclists from the carriageways and calling for the restoration to the Highway Code of the precept that ‘all persons have a right to use the road for the purpose of passage’.
There was a keen debate. One member suggested the Club was ‘flogging a dead horse’ and that it should press for wider paths. Another said motorists were seeking to monopolise the highways and their should be no surrender of the rights so ardently fought for in the past.
As you can see from the emboldened text, even at this relatively early stage some Club members had started to recognise that the game was up; that there was no point continuing to insist on a right to use the road that was becoming increasingly hollow, and that the focus instead should be on improving the standard of off-carriageway provision.
But these voices were lost, and the following year, 1948, cyclists started being banned from some roads completely, at Southend-on-Sea, and Rowley Regis in Staffordshire, in the apparent interests of safety. Over the next decade the Club also fought vainly to retain the legal right to cycle through the Mersey Tunnel at all times, a battle that was destined to be lost (you can now only cycle through it at night, if you so wish).
By 1955 the Club’s position was stated thusly –
‘The Cyclists’ Touring Club approves the construction of special roads for cyclists and the taking over of existing roads for the exclusive use of cyclists, while at the same time maintaining its opposition to the segregation of cyclists on separate tracks alongside the public highway.’
So, new roads could be built for the exclusive use of cars; new roads could also be built for the exclusive use of cyclists; and some existing roads could be completely given over to the exclusive use of cyclists. But the partitioning of existing roads into areas in which bicycles and motor cars would travel separately was completely opposed.
The only way in which it is possible to make any sense of this position is through an understanding of the ideology of ‘no surrender’ of those existing roads; the construction of cycle tracks on them would represent an ‘abandonment’ of them to the motor car, and a ‘defeat’ for cycling. The Club viewed the claims for the safety of cycle tracks as, in reality, merely a way of getting potential victims off the road, and continued to maintain that the proper way to achieve safety was through training, education and enforcement, and ‘sharing’ of the existing roads.
This was a period in which, with a rapid rise in motor car use, road casualties were sharply increasing, while cycle use was sharply declining. But the CTC stuck to its guns about ‘raising the standard of conduct among motorists and cyclists’, apparently blind to how bicycle users were already abandoning the roads in droves, plumping instead for the comfort, safety and convenience of the motor car.
In a telling passage from Winged Wheel describing mid-1950s staffing problems, Oakley notes that
For many years it had been possible to recruit [Cyclists’ Touring Club] employees from among members of the Club who, almost without exception, cycled regularly to work. But it now became difficult to maintain adequate staff by accepting only those who were first and foremost active cyclists, and even some of the most enthusiastic riders on the staff ultimately ceased to cycle to and form work because of the growth in the volume of traffic.
So even the more hardened riders in the Club were no longer choosing to cycle to work, put off by increasing motor traffic. During precisely the same period, however, the CTC were apparently
continuing to play a significant role in educating child cyclists and winning for them a respected place in the scheme of road-users.
No apparent reflection on how many of those children would wish to take their ‘place in the scheme of road-users’ at a time when the Club’s most enthusiastic members were themselves abandoning the road due to the volume of motor traffic.
Of course, as I have already said, we have the advantage of hindsight, and can see how misguided the Club’s position was throughout this period. I don’t think it would be fair to blame them for getting things wrong. The roads had been theirs, and motor cars were quite easily and reasonably seen as ‘interlopers’, vehicles that should quite properly be restrained, or given their own space. Why on earth should cyclists have ‘surrendered’ the roads – their roads – to this impudent newcomer? By the time it was fully apparent that motor vehicles were going to take over, and that cyclists would quite literally be driven from the road, it was probably too late.
What is less understandable is that the attitude exhibited by the Cyclists’ Touring Club in the 1930s persists today, despite having seen how history has turned out. That attitude continues to manifest itself in an ideological opposition to the separation of motor vehicles and bicycles on the existing road network.
We don’t have to look very hard to find the legacy of this ‘no surrender’ philosophy in action. Perhaps the best-known piece of current UK cycling guidance is the Hierarchy of Provision; every improvement for cycling is filtered (or an attempt is made to filter it) through this table of measures by prominent UK cycling campaigners.
But in the context of the history of cycling in Britain, the Hierarchy is best understood as an embodiment of the 1930s attitude; it first asks for motor vehicles to be removed from the roads, and then asks for any motor vehicles remaining on those roads to be tamed. Then, and only then – once the roads have been sufficiently ‘reclaimed’ from motor traffic – might we even consider putting in measures that ‘separate’ cyclists from motor vehicles.
The CTC’s position on the proposed redesign of the roundabout at the northern end of Lambeth Bridge is a perfect illustration of the persistence of the 1930s attitude, as applied in the formal language of the Hierarchy of Provision. While most respondents to the consultation, and cycle campaigning groups such as the London Cycling Campaign and the Cycling Embassy, called explicitly for a continental-style track around the perimeter of a (narrowed) roundabout – wide provision for cycling, alongside reduced roadspace for motor vehicles – the CTC called for something else entirely. A narrowed roundabout, without any tracks at all.
Our preferred option in this situation would be to redesign the layout of the roundabout along ‘continental’ lines – that is, with a single lane roundabout and small curve radii single exits and entry lanes.
That is, a design that would slow and calm motor traffic, but would leave cyclists in the road, mixing it with motor vehicles – their road, from which motor vehicles are expected to disappear.
There is, I think, no other way of explaining why the CTC would choose a design that would make the cycling experience more uncomfortable than a Dutch-style design than through the persistence, diluted or otherwise, of 1930s cycle campaigning logic; that the roads cannot be abandoned to cars.
The CTC’s pet theory of ‘Safety in Numbers’ also makes sense when viewed as a direct continuation of 1930s thinking. What better way to ‘reclaim’ the streets from motor traffic than by filling up those streets with cyclists once again; and how wonderful it is that we can present that as improving the safety of those cyclists at the same time. No need for any of that pesky ‘segregation’, pushing cyclists off the roads – just convince everyone to switch from cars to bikes and the roads will be made safe again, and belong to cyclists once more.
‘Shared space’ is similarly attractive to campaigners of a 1930s bent; attractive, for instance, to this cycle trainer and advocate, who gave evidence to the Get Britain Cycling Inquiry in January.
the emphasis on segregation by LCC and others is a backward step IMO. Extending and improving shared space is better
He even seems keen to apply ‘shared space’ to Stratford High Street, instead of the proposed cycle tracks to be built this summer.
perversely while some people in london are trying to make us go dutch some people in Denmark are looking a some of the shared space ideas we’ve developed in London.
Quite how a six lane road is turned into an amenable environment for cycling by making it ‘shared’ is not clear. (We should remind ourselves that shared space is simultaneously popular with many motoring enthusiasts, who want to see the removal of restrictions and controls on the use of their motor cars, as well as amongst those cycling advocates who want to use it as a way of encouraging more ‘sharing’, and indeed ‘taming’ of the motor car). Once again, the only credible motivation here must be an underlying refusal to ‘surrender’ the road to motor vehicles.
Both Safety In Numbers and ‘shared space’ are often allied to what might be described as the rallying cry of ‘assertiveness’; that if you are cycling on the road you should take your place in traffic, and show the drivers of motor vehicles who is boss; to ‘own the road’. If you hold this view, it is probably quite natural for you to think that all any other person might need to cycle like you do is training, experience, and confidence. You might also think that those who don’t wish to be ‘assertive’ in this fashion have issues, or are weak-willed. Consequently cycle tracks away from motor traffic would, hypothetically,
A simple Google search for ‘we have cycle lanes; they’re called roads’, or similar expressions of the same sentiment, will quickly find you plenty of modern devotees of the 1930s attitude that the roads are ours, and need to be reclaimed by assertiveness, pushing cars away. To take just one example, (the first I clicked on – there are many others), we find in this thread a comment about the London Cycling Campaign –
“Go Dutch” is disgustingly defeatist, in my view. We’ve got superbly wide and smooth paths to cycle on already. They’re called roads.
The same author writes that less confident cyclists
should be ENCOURAGED to use the primary position (at danger spots). Cyclists can increase in confidence through training and riding sometimes with a more confident cyclist. My 75-year-old mother is a case in point. But also I accept that part of this encouragement needs to come from a drop in the speed and numbers of motor vehicles, and better behaviour from motorists. This requires some changes in law and policing.
Just as G.H. Stancer was maintaining eighty years ago, the author thinks roads are unpleasant to cycle on solely because of the bad behaviour and speed of motorists. If only we could address that, then people would cycle on them.
Unfortunately – just like Stancer did – the author has ignored, or overlooked, the central message that the vast majority of ordinary people prefer to cycle away from motor traffic, and have no interest in trying to tame it by cycling in it, or by fanciful ‘traffic reduction’ schemes that will apparently get rid of cars by making them hard to use, but without offering people a meaningful or attractive alternative.
We can even see what our roads would look like if we did manage to turn the clock back and reduce the speed and volume of motor traffic; we have videos of London in the early 1930s.
What percentage of people would actually prefer to cycle in that kind of environment, as opposed to their own space, free from interactions with motor vehicles? Surely only a tiny one.
This is no way to reclaim the streets from cars; it didn’t work in the 1930s, and its certainly not going to work now, when car use is even more deeply embedded, and when the voice of cycle advocacy is weak, weaker even than it was in the 1930s. We need desperately to move on from this tired, eighty-year-old fixation with opposing the creation of dedicated space for motoring alongside dedicated space for cycling. If we continue to remain stuck in the past, we will not succeed in our ultimate goal of creating civilised urban areas.
Dutch towns and cities are calm and pleasant places precisely because they have separated cars away from bicycles and pedestrians. Yes, they may have ‘surrendered’ the ultimate right to cycle in the middle of some categories of roads, but this was a right that very few people wished to exert; and nor would they wish to do so, when you can cycle on these roads in far more comfort, and with much greater speed, in your own dedicated space.
And the bigger gain from this Dutch system has been the creation of town and city centres almost completely devoid of motor traffic, achievable because they have given people an alternative way of arriving in those areas to the motor car. Safe, comfortable and direct routes by bicycle, free from interactions with motor traffic.
The Dutch are still reclaiming space from the car in each and every one of their towns cities; they are able to keep making these gains because they have enabled the bicycle as an alternative mode of transport for the vast majority of the population.
We should embrace these lessons, instead of repeating the same talking points over and over again; talking points that are getting on for being a century old. The record is stuck. It needs to change.
Thanks to Carlton Reid, whose excellent historical piece provoked me into digging out some of the ideological positions taken towards cycle tracks, and David Arditti for his typically thorough and detailed analysis of the legacy of this period