The environment and legality

There’s an interesting piece by London’s Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, in today’s Evening Standard. It’s actually pretty good. The focus of the article is, broadly, compliance with the law by cyclists, and by motorists. It has a silly headline about women being nice, and men being full of testosterone, which doesn’t correspond at all to what he has written, and I think can only be explained by the Standard’s keenness to get some pictures of young women on bikes at the top of the article.

I do think he is overstating the issue of bad behaviour by cyclists somewhat. I have pointed out here, many times before, that this is an issue of perception – frequent bad behaviour by motorists goes largely unnoticed, because is habitual, common and background, while bad behaviour by cyclists is more glaring, and observable. Motorists speeding around London, or parking on double yellow lines, or failing to yield while turning into side roads, is so common that we don’t even notice it; someone on a bike moving along a pavement, or passing through a red light while you have a green man to cross, is something we observe far more readily, and contributes to the perception of cyclists, as a group, being somehow ‘lawless’.

However, unlike most articles on this subject, Gilligan is careful to avoid suggesting that that offences by motorists and cyclists are somehow equivalent; indeed, he quite rightly points out that the very reason we don’t impose such strict controls on the use of a bicycle is directly because the user of a bicycle has far less potential to harm others than the driver of a motor vehicle.

We can’t enforce against cyclists jumping red lights and pavement riding in the same way as we can with motor vehicles, because bikes don’t carry numberplates. The reason they don’t, and motor vehicles do, is that when a motor vehicle disobeys the law, the consequences are usually more severe than when a bicycle does.

Gilligan subsequently makes an even more important point, and one which I wish to expand on here.

We also think the new infrastructure we’re putting in will improve cyclist behaviour. Removing one-way streets and gyratories will cut the incidence of cyclists riding the wrong way or on pavements. Giving cyclists defined space of their own will reduce conflict between them and pedestrians. One of the best ways of stopping people cycling on the pavement is to give them better places to cycle on the road.

That is exactly right; and I think this point can be framed even more broadly.

British roads and streets are designed, and set out, in a way that rewards and prioritises driving, and simultaneously penalises cycling and walking. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the people flouting the rules are those whose journeys have been made unnecessarily arduous, circuitous or dangerous, and that the people who are apparently obeying the rules are those for whom the rules have been written.

By contrast, when it is driving that is made difficult, and cycling and walking the obvious and easy thing to do, the only lawbreaking is carried out by motorists. East Street in Horsham provides a textbook example of this kind of environment. It’s a ‘shared space’ street, which it is illegal to drive down, or park on, unless you are loading on the street (and using the bays for that purpose), or if you are parking on the street (again in the marked bays) with a disabled blue badge. You can only drive in one direction; cycling (and of course walking) is allowed in both directions.

There is no lawbreaking by cyclists on this street, because there aren’t any laws for them to break. There is, however, an awful lot of lawbreaking by motorists, because the rules are not in their favour.



These two cars were parked in a loading bay at about 8pm in the evening recently. They’re plainly not loading; the owners have simply decided to flout the rules, driving illegally onto the street, and parking illegally, because they can’t be bothered to walk from further away.

Similarly, on another evening, only one of these cars was legally on the street.


Another example. Because the street is only one-way for motor vehicles, accessing it is  difficult from the town centre – it involves driving some distance around a one-way system. So you will often find drivers flouting the rules, going the wrong way up a one-way street.



You even see HGVs doing this, as another Horsham cyclist discovered.

And the bollards at the eastern end mean delivery drivers have to find somewhere to park, so they can load in. Usually that means blocking the pavement, rather than walking from somewhere less obstructive further away.

DSCN9733All this bad behaviour is a simple consequence of the rules not working for motor vehicles any more. There is absolutely no lawbreaking by cyclists in this location, however, because the rules work in their favour. There are no rules for them to break.

This is, by and large, how urban environments designed for cycling work. I rarely see lawbreaking by cyclists when I visit the Netherlands, because there’s no real incentive to do so. The system works for them. This video, by Mark Wagenbuur, illustrates this quite well.

Hundreds of bicycles passing through a signal-controlled crossing, in just four minutes, yet only a handful of people jump the lights. Why is compliance so much greater? I don’t think it can be explained by any cultural difference, or by greater enforcement. Anyone on  a bike in the Netherlands knows that their journey is safe, easy and convenient, and that jumping lights purchases no extra safety, or advantage in time or comfort. The road system is designed around their needs.

There’s no cycling the wrong way up one-way streets, either, because these streets are always designed to allow two-way cycling. And to make a blindingly obvious point, there’s no pavement cycling in the Netherlands, at all, because there’s always a far better alternative for cycling than the pavement.

Screen shot 2013-06-10 at 12.42.13

By contrast, pavement cycling is very often the only way of reasonably making a journey by bike in Britain. IMG_1418

Sometimes its explicitly allowed, sometimes its explicitly forbidden, and sometimes it falls into the middle ground of being quietly tolerated. At the recent Hackney Cycling Conference, I was told by a London Borough Cycling Officer that some cycle lanes along a notoriously cycling-hostile busy road in his borough did not need to be of a better standard (they are currently awful) because the police were quite happy to allow people to cycle on the pavement.

The problem in a microcosm.

This entry was posted in Andrew Gilligan, Bollards, Car dependence, Horsham, Infrastructure, London, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The environment and legality

  1. parimalkumar says:

    Excellent post which neatly lays out why road/infrastructure design is so important in influencing on how the users use/abuse the road.

  2. Great stuff. Not long ago I was trying to conceptualise this kind of thinking with a Venn Diagram that lines up all the abstract conditions that promote happy, effective, legal and socially approved behaviour on the streets (or frustrate it). Your practical and sensible approach does a far better job. (it was this one)

  3. Nice post – the flouting of the rules by drivers shows that in those circumstances, walking and cycling have the precedence they should and as a consequence, the driver is the visitor to their space.

  4. Fred says:

    I agree about the headline, I think the article itself is pretty well balanced. Considering the audience & the average understanding of cycling issues, there’s a limit to the amount you will change people’s minds in one article. Acknowledging people’s perceptions (even if you don’t fully agree) is part of showing that you’re listening and is necessary to build consensus. Sounds a bit wishy washy but if everyone were cyclists there wouldn’t be a problem, so we need to connect with non-cyclists too.

    I think the point about it being easy to obey the rules when they’re set up in your favour is totally right, not just in cycling but in life generally! Linking it what I’ve said above, this would not be a good on to hit the motorists with, it’s bound to make people defensive and that’s when they’re least receptive.

  5. PaulC says:

    Thoroughly agree with all of this. I think the status of cyclists as an out group is still underestimated. My local newspaper regularly has letters foaming about minor infringements by cyclists, although simple observation on any local street will reveal far more casual law breaking by motorists, with all the inherent dangers to life and limb. Despite the rules being written in favour of the motorists, it seems many still can’t be bothered abiding by them.

    Our town centre bans cyclists from mixing with pedestrians, but allows motor vehicles in the same space. This is due to a botched attempt at pedestrianisation whilst still allowing vehicles access to load/unload, and access to car parks. This leads to the perverse situation, and I have witnessed it, of cyclists being shouted at by the police for cycling in the town centre whilst motor vehicles are still driving there. Bizarre.

    My other point concerns expectations. It seems to be expected that cyclists should all obey every rule. Why cyclists are expected to be law abiding angels at all times when motorists and the public in general don’t apply the same expectations to themselves never ceases to amaze me. Compare anti cyclist rants to comments on the average ‘speed cameras are unfair’ article. For me, this just confirms that cyclists are still perceived as an out group.

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