The recent discussion on the ibikelondon and City Cyclists blogs about carriageway narrowing, and how it can be dreadfully unpleasant for cycling, started me thinking about precisely why these new arrangements are so awful.
Beyond the fact that it makes it difficult or dangerous to filter through stationary motor traffic, it requires cycling bang in front of those motor vehicles to prevent dangerous overtaking. For people who are fast and confident on a bike, this isn’t necessarily too much of a problem. But I think it’s a big problem for people who don’t want to cycle fast, or aren’t confident, and don’t really fancy the idea of cycling slowly in front of buses, lorries or vans. These people will cycle next to the kerb, where some of these vehicles will inevitably squeeze past them, with little room to spare – just as intimidating and scary as cycling in front of them.
A useful way of considering the issue is to ask whether a person would be comfortable walking in the space they are being forced to cycle in. I think this is a very reasonable comparison, not just because many people are in practice not capable of cycling at much more than walking speed, but also because the ability to choose to cycle slowly is an important indicator of the comfort of the cycling experience. A commenter on Danny’s blog hits the nail on the head (while discussing the City of London’s bizarre opinion that segregated tracks would lead to an increase in cycling speeds) –
If I’m cycling with traffic I speed to keep up with it for my own safety and to meet the expectations of motor traffic around me. With physical segregation I am no longer trying to get ahead of traffic for my own safety at junctions.
If the City of London creates proper physically segregated tracks I automatically will cycle in a more relaxed way and at slower speeds as I no longer need to keep up with traffic. I feel less stressed which will affect the speed at which I cycle. It really is that simple.
So – if walking in the street would fill you with dread, or unnerve you, then it’s not an appropriate place to cycle. Cycling will not have mass appeal, and will be limited in its attractiveness to those who are capable of ‘meeting the expectations of motor traffic’.
To take just one example of the recent fad for carriageway narrowing – Pall Mall – I wouldn’t want to walk in front of vehicles here.
So it is highly unlikely anyone who cycles at or around these speeds would want to cycle here. It’s not relaxing cycling on this street even for me, a confident and experienced cyclist capable of cycling at more ‘appropriate’ speeds, because I am constantly aware, like Danny’s commenter, that I have to ‘keep up’, and position myself correctly.
And there are more extreme examples. I wouldn’t walk in the road here.
I won’t walk, and a huge swathe of the population won’t cycle, in this road. If it’s not fit for an adult male to walk in, it’s not fit for children to cycle in, or the elderly, or anyone who just wants to cycle slowly.
I wouldn’t walk in the road here, either.
Exactly how it would feel for most people if they happened to be forced to use these roads on bicycles.
So the net effect is that cycling on these roads has, for all practical purposes, been designed out of existence – it only appeals to the small minority who are willing or able to cycle on the terms of motor vehicles.
There are, of course, streets in Britain where people feel reasonably comfortable walking in the road.
This same approach gives us clues as to why bus lanes are not appropriate cycling environments, and why cycling is more likely in some shared space environments than in others. Bus lanes are not for walking in, and nor are some shared space environments (for instance, the busiest section of Exhibition Road), unless you are especially bold.
By contrast, the reason why cycling in the Netherlands is so wonderful is that the cycling environment there is universally one where you can comfortably walk, if you wanted to.
Walking in the road here – mixing with that lorry – would not be pleasant, and once we have established that, we already know that cycling on that road has minimal appeal in the general population. By contrast the cycling environment would be a pleasant place to walk, and consequently has appeal for anyone choosing to ride a bike.
The Dutch cycling network is configured to these standards. Wherever you go by bike, you could quite easily stop and walk in precisely the same place, without difficulty, whether that street or road has cycle tracks, cycle lanes, or nothing at all.
You can walk comfortably where you have to cycle – and that explains, very simply, why cycling in the Netherlands is available to all.
Note that I am not suggesting that cycling infrastructure should be designed for walking, or for cycling at walking speeds. It should be able to accommodate all users, travelling at whatever speed they wish (within reason!), just as Dutch infrastructure does currently. Instead I am merely arguing that a very useful test of whether you are creating an inclusive environment for cycling is to consider how appropriate that cycling environment would be – hypothetically – for walking.
Would you walk there?