I recently chanced upon this amazing letter, written to the British Medical Journal, almost exactly 13 years ago.
Why do school children cycle on the continent, but not in the UK?
I have been reading the responses to Douglas Carnall’s Editorial on cycling. None of your correspondents mention the factor I believe to be most important in encouraging my age group to cycle – separate cycle carriageways. I have just returned from an exchange trip to Munich, with a mixed group of eighteen Leeds 15 year olds. None of the Leeds students currently dare use their bicycles to travel to school, to friends’ houses or into town. However, when in Munich we all had lots of opportunities to cycle. All of the roads had segregated cycle paths, separate from both cars and pedestrians. I have also seen this sort of provision for cyclists in Denmark.
The German teenagers’ parents had no problems letting them take their bikes out for the day, knowing they would be safe on their journeys. This gives my age group much-wanted freedom AND EXERCISE !
Even if speed limits were reduced to 20 miles per hour (enforced at 27 mph) would you let your teenager out for the day on a bike in the majority of cities and towns in the UK ? I can only see a significant increase in teenagers wanting to (and being allowed to) use their bikes for transport if separate carriageways are introduced. These do not include the pathetic painted cyclepaths currently offered in Leeds where the roads are reasonably wide, which inevitably disappear when you really need them.
Could we send our transport planners and John Prescott to Denmark or Germany to see how its done?
I like to imagine that Zohra’s group looked like this.
A group of teenagers cycling in comfort and security; something that she and her friends wouldn’t dare to do back in Leeds, even if their parents had let them.
The letter is, almost paradoxically, both incredibly insightful and a statement of the blindingly obvious. Children do not like to cycle in motor traffic. Create the conditions that separate them from that motor traffic, and they will happily do so. Zohra and her friends were, unintentionally or otherwise, an experiment, and she was perceptive enough to realise what had made the difference. Nobody else was writing letters to the BMJ pointing out what was actually needed to make her choose to ride a bike; she obviously felt compelled to write in herself.
But direct evidence from children, stating in plain and simple terms what is required for them to feel happy about cycling to school, or to friends’ houses, or into town, simply could not do for a certain kind of cycle campaigner. Within five days, a response had appeared in the BMJ.
It is welcome and valuable to receive the viewpoint of a young cyclist such as Zohra Chiheb, who has sampled, and obviously appreciated, the situation of her contemporaries on the Continent. I am certainly glad she was able to experience the freedom of two wheels, a pleasure (and birthright, in my view) that has been denied young people in this country for more than a decade. I was lucky; I was a teenager back in the Seventies, when no one thought twice about allowing teenagers to roam the neighbourhood and even further afield on their bikes, if they so wished.
Contrary to what common sense would suggest, there are in fact problems with the German/Dutch/Danish solution of providing separate routes for cyclists. Studies repeatedly show that segregating cyclists increases their risks. For instance, in Milton Keynes during the last 11 years, 7 cyclists have been killed using the cycle paths, only 1 has been killed on the roads (1). In Berlin, cyclists were found to be four times more likely to crash off-road than on the road with the traffic (1). Cycle paths are invariably poorly engineered, they are narrow, also used by pedestrians, many cyclists ride too fast on them and junctions are anarchic. Also, where cycle routes encounter the road system, cyclists invariably lose all rights of way. High skill levels are not fostered by such arrangements.
“Cyclists fair [sic] best when they are treated as vehicular traffic”. So says American cycling safety expert John Forrester and so also says British expert John Franklin. To the inexperienced cyclist, such opinions appear nonsensical. But in fact, cycling with the traffic is not dangerous compared to other means of transport. One mile of cycling is significantly less dangerous than a mile of walking. The death rate of regular road cyclists is no higher than the death rate of car users (about 1 in 25,000 per year). And that is average cycling – there is plenty of bad cycling out there! Skilful cyclists face much better odds. An hour of skilful cycling is probably not much more dangerous than an hour of average driving.
Keeping cyclists in the traffic is the best solution for a number of reasons:
1) Cyclists have access to the same direct, well-surfaced routes as drivers;
2) Drivers get accustomed to dealing with cyclists;
3) Cyclists get accustomed to dealing with drivers;
4) Cycling skilfully in the traffic is the safest, fastest way to get about town on a bicycle;
Young people today are the victims of a decade of bucket-loads of negative propaganda being tipped over cycling; by the medical profession (until lately), by “safety campaigners”, by the media, by cyclists themselves (it cannot be denied). Young people now believe cycling is only “safe” away from traffic, and thus they lose most of the potential utility and enjoyment of riding. Young people must be taught skilful riding techniques and drivers must be made to understand that in years to come they will be expected to be tolerant of an increasing number of cyclists on the roads. This latter point is less of a problem than it might seem. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of drivers will return the courtesy of a courteously handled bike. But lower speed limits and proper recognition of cyclists’ right to safety will make the roads more inviting places for young cyclists (and older ones who have given up). Dropping the use of such words as “danger”, “accident” and “safe” is vital; try “convenient”, “healthy” and “quick”.
Ms Chiheb asks whether I would allow teenagers out to ride on today’s roads. That is a tough question, because the attitude today is that if you get hurt, you are in the wrong, especially pursuing a “dangerous” activity such as road cycling. The parents of a damaged teenager will attract the opprobrium of decent-thinking people for having been so “irresponsible” as to allow their offspring freedom. But if she and her friends are prepared to face that nonsense down and do what they actually want to do in the face of political correctness, I would suggest the following (at the risk of appearing presumptuous):
1) Dump the MTB and get a proper road bike. Since you cannot buy a practical road bike in a shop nowadays, I suggest you look about for a good second-hand 10-speed with a “male” frame. You should be able to get something quite smart for £60-£100. Make sure it has mudguards, a carrier rack, a good bell, and it must have good lights, ideally dynamo-powered with a rear light that remains on when you stop. These are expensive, but well worth it. You may need to put a female saddle on it.
2) Buy “Cyclecraft” by John Franklin (HMSO) or “Effective Cycling” by John Forrester. Read, absorb;
3) Start cautiously on quiet suburban backstreets and work up slowly. Be prepared to take 12 to 18 months to work up to a good skill level, and don’t be deterred if you have a crash – that’s the most important lesson you’ll ever have!
4) Always bear in mind that it’s fast traffic that is dangerous, not heavy traffic. One fast idiot every half hour is far more dangerous than a whole stream of slow-moving traffic. Congestion has slowed urban traffic and made it safer. British traffic is far more benign, orderly and predictable than it is usually made out to be;
5) Trust your own judgement; don’t listen to the hysterical claptrap about cycling being “dangerous”. Bear in mind what I said above – a mile of walking is more dangerous than a mile of cycling, but neither is really all that dangerous if you keep your wits about you.
So don’t be put off by political correctness. There’s a wonderful world of exploration out there. Just do it!
1. “Enabling and encouraging people to cycle”. Paper presented by John Franklin to the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. See his home pagehttp://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/quinze/cycling.htm
Competing interests: None declared
Frankly this makes my blood boil. Maybe it would be wrong to single out one letter in particular, but this one typifies everything that was (and still is) so desperately wrong with cycle campaigning in this country.
The evidence was there in Zohra’s letter, but it just gets dismissed. Extraordinarily, the stated preferences of a child were completely ignored, and instead a futile attempt is made to persuade her that ‘cycling in traffic’ is the best way forward.
A whole paragraph is devoted to misinformation about the safety of cycle paths, and their quality. We now know that John Franklin misled a nation’s cycle campaigners, and his statistics about the Milton Keynes Redways (which are undeniably of dubious quality) were shoddy and essentially useless. Dutch cyclists are safer – far far safer – than their British counterparts.
We also know that cycle paths need not be ‘narrow’, or ‘anarchic’ at junctions, or ‘used by pedestrians’, or that ‘cyclists lose all rights of way’ when they encounter the road system. Bad cycle paths are like that, but even in the year 2000 there was plenty of evidence that cycle paths across the Netherlands did not conform to this shabby stereotype. Deliciously, there’s also a Forester- and Franklin-esque reference to the ‘skill levels’ of cyclists being diminished by cycling infrastructure. We should remember that John Franklin thought Dutch cyclists turned around and went home when they arrived at Harwich due to their ‘low skill levels’ –
Sustrans has often cited the fact that Dutch cyclists sometimes leave the ferry at Harwich and find traffic so difficult to deal with that they go back home! Interestingly, this problem is not experienced by cyclists arriving from France, Spain or the USA. Proficiency in using roads on a regular basis is essential to maximise safety, and to maximise one’s cycling horizons. I would not like to see Britain on the slope down to Dutch levels of cycling competence.
It apparently didn’t occur to Franklin that the reason Dutch cyclists were abandoning their cycling holidays in Britain before they’d even started was simply because cycling on roads full of heavy traffic is an unpleasant experience, and one they were not expecting. Their abandonment had nothing to do with ‘cycling competence’, and everything to do with the brute reality of cycling in Britain.
But Wardlaw – so obviously an acolyte of Franklin – makes precisely the same mistake in response to Zohra. He evidently thinks statistics claiming that cycling (or rather, ‘skilful cycling’) is as as safe as walking, or as driving, are any kind of substitute for the subjective quality of the cycling environment, when all the evidence shows that it is that subjective experience that matters. It’s even there in the child’s letter he’s just responded to, but he is so blinkered he cannot even see it.
As David Hembrow pointed out in his recent interview with The Bike Show, many activities are statistically safe, but that doesn’t mean they will automatically be attractive to the general population. Sky diving might be relatively safe, but not many people will be prepared to hurl themselves out of a plane, because it is quite a scary experience. You have to engage with people’s perceptions as you find them, otherwise you are sunk; yet that is precisely what Wardlaw, Franklin and a host of other cycling campaigners were unwilling or unable to do.
This astonishing inability to account for subjective safety explains why Wardlaw thinks a mass cycling culture can be built on removing the use of the words ‘safety’ and ‘danger’ from the discourse. Even if this were theoretically possible, and cycling was never again referred to by anyone as an unsafe or dangerous activity, that wouldn’t suddenly transform the experience of cycling on roads, where you have to continually negotiate with motor traffic flowing all around you, into a pleasant one. A cycle campaigning strategy built on attempting to remove the perception of danger by words rather than by action – an actual adjustment of the cycling environment – is plainly doomed to failure.
The real problem with Wardlaw, Franklin and others is their refusal to acknowledge that other people are not like them; that other people might not like cycling in motor traffic; that other people might not be able or willing to cycle as fast as them; that other people don’t want to be persuaded that cycling is safe, they just want it to feel safe.
This refusal to acknowledge that other people might be different is epitomised by Wardlaw advising a teenage girl to buy a ‘proper road bike’ with ‘a “male” frame’. That is, the kind of bike he would buy.
A small part of me hopes that Zohra emigrated to the Netherlands and – now in her late 20s – is trundling around with her friends in perfect comfort and safety on the kind of bicycle she wanted to own, not the kind that someone told her to get so she could fit into his particular vision of cycling in Britain.