What ‘robocars’ tell us about British cycle campaigning

There was a flurry of discussion at the end of last week about what the emergence of ‘robocars’ – shorthand for cars that automatically drive themselves, without any human input – might mean for how we design for cycling, prompted by Carlton Reid’s piece in the Guardian (and a more lengthy one on his own site).

The debate coalesced around two alternative visions of the future. In one version, eliminating driver error, and making vehicles behave ‘perfectly’, would mean that separating cyclists from motor traffic would no longer be necessary. All that effort being put in to creating safe and inviting conditions for cycling is redundant. In Carlton’s own words –

Many bicycle advocates believe we’ve started on a Dutch-style 40-year trajectory to getting segregated cycle paths almost everywhere but driverless cars will be here long before the end of that. Why build bike lanes when robocars and driverless trucks will be programmed to know all about space4cycling?

He concludes

If cars no longer kill us we will be able to use the roads again, without fear. Bike paths? Where we’re going we won’t need bike paths, as Dr Emmett Brown might have said.

The other version of the future is considerably darker.

A more dystopian [vision] involves platoons of speeding robocars making roads even more deeply unpleasant and motor-centric than they often are today. Pedestrians and cyclists may have to be restricted “for their own safety.” After all, if you knew the tipper truck barrelling towards you will automatically brake if you wobbled out in front of it, you’d have little incentive to stay in the gutter and every incentive to play one-sided chicken. Claiming the lane would take on a whole new meaning as cyclists blithely blocked robovehicles. The authorities would be put under immense pressure to stamp out jaywalking – and jaycycling

In this dystopia, anyone wishing to ride a bike would be confined to separate routes, unable to use the roads because of the inevitable consequences of vehicles being forced to stop, or slow, as people walking or cycling meander around in their way. If robotic motor vehicles are to make progress anywhere, then cycling will have to be banned on the roads.

It is hard to muster much interest in this speculation, principally because – for reasons that we will come to – it has very little relevance for the kind of policy we should be formulating on cycling. In fact, the only real source of interest in this topic is how revealing it is about the preoccupations of cycle campaigners – their inability to move on from the concerns they have always had, and their blindness to alternative realities.

The rise of mass motoring in this country pushed cycle campaigning into two specific areas of concern. The first was to resist the impudent, newly-arrived motorist, who was quickly taking over the pleasant routes cyclists had previously enjoyed (the road network that was formerly free of motor traffic). This meant objecting to calls for cyclists to be placed on a separate network, in an (as it turned out, futile) attempt to keep the existing road network suitable for anyone who might wish to ride a bike.

The second area of concern – closely tied to the first – was about getting motorists to behave; to drive slowly and carefully, everywhere, and especially around people cycling and walking. Indeed, it was strongly believed at the time that a separate network for cycling would not be necessary if the increasing numbers of motorists appearing on British roads could just be forced to comply with the existing laws. This letter, written by the Secretary of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, G.H. Stancer, to the Times in 1935 captures both these attitudes quite succinctly.

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. 

I have covered this period of history in some depth in a previous piece, an article which argued that British cycle campaigning has struggled to separate itself from these historic attitudes about retaining the road network, and about getting motorists to behave, so that separation would not be required.

And, lo and behold, it is precisely these same two attitudes that have emerged in the recent debate about ‘robocars’.

At long last, decades after that initial 1930s dream, the motor vehicles on British roads could actually be driven perfectly. Might it be the case that, in Stancer’s words, ‘it would be possible for all sections to share the highways in safety and good will’, now that driver misbehaviour could be eliminated? Or, alternatively, could these ‘robocars’ be the  winning justification for the motoring lobby’s sinister plot to push cyclists from the road, ‘for their own safety’?

It’s almost comical how cycle campaigning has failed to move on from these twin preoccupations, to the extent that, in 2013, discussion about ‘robocars’ continues to be framed in precisely the same terms that it would have been by cycling enthusiasts with large moustaches, way back in the 1930s.

To ram home the irrelevance, you only need to consider how people who cycle in the Netherlands might view the arrival of robotically-driven motor vehicles, given that the question of whether Dutch cars are driven by robots, or by fallible humans, has very little bearing on the quality of the Dutch cycling experience.

Interactions with motor vehicles are rare indeed when you make journeys by bicycle in the Netherlands, a point that David Hembrow has repeatedly made, and I have in a recent post. I cannot imagine Dutch bike riders getting particularly exercised about who is driving motor vehicles, when direct encounters with motor vehicles during a particular day can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

There’s an even more recent example in the form of this excellent Streetfilms report from Groningen.

The film shows hundreds of people cycling in different locations – in the city centre, on residential streets, along cycle paths and tracks. Yet in the entire fifteen minute film, there are only five or six direct interactions with motor vehicles. What difference would ‘robocars’ make to the quality of cycling in Groningen? A barely perceptible difference, if any difference at all.

This is why the debate about ‘robocars’ and what they might mean is completely irrelevant, at least in the way it is currently being presented. For it is being argued that if motor vehicles are perfectly driven, then there is no need for separation. But this betrays the long failure of British cycle campaigning to consider the importance of subjective safety, as well as objective safety. What keeps people from cycling on the roads is not bad driving, but the sheer volume of interactions with motor traffic.

This was brought home to me on Saturday in Leicester, where – by and large – the motor traffic around us was driven pretty well (with the inevitable odd exception). It was, however, still unpleasant cycling in it, even for ‘hardened’ cyclists, even if none of the vehicles were being driven in a substandard fashion, let alone outright badly. It is fear of motor traffic in general – not fear of bad driving – that is is the major barrier to cycling in Britain, a point that appears to have been missed, again, in the ‘robocars’ debate.

The Dutch have cracked this problem, by creating a subjectively safe and pleasant environment for cycling, away from motor traffic. It doesn’t really matter who is behind the wheel.


This entry was posted in Car dependence, Cyclists' Touring Club, David Hembrow, Go Dutch, Infrastructure, Robocars, Subjective safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to What ‘robocars’ tell us about British cycle campaigning

  1. Whilst the idea of being driven around in an automated cars sounds wonderful and I can see how they could possibly reduce the amount of vehicle-on-vehicle accidents I can’t quite see how they will avoid problems with non-vehicle interactions. I mean you can outfit them with all the sensors, camera and radars in the world but none of them will be able to stop a hitting a child as it wanders out between cars or avoid the cyclist that swerves for a pothole (unless the “intelligence” enforces passing correctly that is…..).
    I think a more interesting question would be what would a fully automated personal transport system do to the number of people wanting to cycle? Without the training and licensing requirements that present a barrier to driving at the moment we are in effect lowering the bar so what’s to stop JUST children or teenagers being in a “robocar”, much in the same way that they use public transport now?

    • Angus H says:

      Perhaps though if people can do other things (like work, or fiddling about with their iPhones) while being transported by robo-car, they’ll be more tolerant of a car which drives at a slower, safer speed. The limiting factor on stopping for unexpected incidents isn’t going to be how quickly the robo-cars can react, it’s how quickly they can brake without injuring their passengers (and, to a lesser extent, how tolerant passengers will be of false-positive emergency braking). You can surely program the intelligence to leave a safer gap behind a cyclist than the average human driver currently does.

  2. TonautBrom says:

    More historic CTC-bashing. Yawn.

    • I don’t think you’ve read this properly – the focus is very much on the present day.

      • Tonaut Brom says:

        Carlton presented various possible future outcomes. You chose to highlight the one that suits your view of him and the CTC, based on history.

        Can’t we stop fighting old battles amongst ourselves? Please?

        • No, he presented two possible outcomes, and I discuss both of them, and present a different potential outcome.

          You seem to be suggesting that while some can argue that ‘we won’t need bike paths’, or that we will inevitably be banned from the roads, any response I make is infighting, which is a little silly.

  3. gilbert_g says:

    As you point out this ‘debate’ was prompted by an article by Carlton Reid. I’m afraid I feel that’s the issue. Carlton is at times more interested in self-promotion (very few posts from him don’t in some way link back to his book or one of the sites he runs) than he is in cycle campaigning. He appears to represent that grudging element in campaigning that claim to be pro Go Dutch but in reality are quite happy with the status quo. Carlton repeatedly claims that separated infrastructure “not being the answer” and when pressed will back off to it “not being the complete answer” using Stevenage as his proof. He champions tired alternatives like better training instead. This would be fine if Carlton were one voice in the many, but Carlton weilds influence, he’s boasted about how he has meetings with Ministers and is seen as something of a figurehead. I don’t think he’s advancing the cause and articles like his Guardian one about robocars are evidence of this. As the post points out, it’s a non-issue so why is it being discussed at all? Well the answer to that question is Carlton Reid.

    • Angus H says:

      Even for those of us who fully support Going Dutch, there’s a great deal of economic weight behind robo-cars and they’ll likely be with us in the next 5-10 years. How much of the country will get Dutch infrastructure in that window?

      • fonant says:

        That depends on whether we decide to seriously invest in sustainable transport or not. We could easily have Dutch-style infrastructure in ten years in all our major towns and cities, it would cost less than the current motor-road building plans, and the Dutch have already done all the real-world research and testing of what works and what doesn’t.

        Even when robo-cars start to appear, it will be a decade or two before they are developed enough to be reasonably safe, and before older human-controlled cars and lorries are no longer seen on our roads. Hybrid cars have been around for many years, and we’ve had modern electric vehicles for a few years too. They are still a tiny proportion of the traffic, and that won’t change any time soon.

        • Angus H says:

          We could easily have Dutch infra in ten years – agree 100%. Cost less than roads – certainly! But the question is, will we?

          Even though that’s something I support, that doesn’t mean it WILL happen. So I think it’s worth being aware of other possible outcomes too. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst”.

          Robo-cars have started to appear (in the US), are being developed rapidly, and are *right now* reasonably safe across a wide range of conditions (albeit perhaps not yet the complex environment of a UK city). Hybrids don’t really solve a problem lots of people have – they’re rather expensive to buy, for one thing, and although they’re cleaner and greener, if you as an individual really care about that sort of thing (most people who drive a lot probably don’t) you can typically make the same CO2 savings by just driving a lot less and using a bicycle (or public transport) instead for the trips where a car isn’t essential. Certainly for someone that drives as little as I do (because I only use a car for trips where there’s no alternative), if I were ever to buy a car instead of renting, a £20,000 Prius would make no sense at all.. you have to drive quite a bit by UK standards – hundreds of miles a week – for the savings on fuel to add up.

          Robocars are the opposite.. they right now solve problems people actually care about (by freeing up drive time – which is two hours a day for a huge chunk of society, including many in the top income bracket – to do other things; by operating as a taxi/delivery service without the cost of an expensive human being) and may in future solve others (independent motor travel for people who can’t legally drive i.e. kids, drunks, the infirm; freeing up street space from on-street parking as most will be pool/hire vehicles; being a far more economically efficient rent-on-demand service than the likes of ZipCar; maybe, just maybe, being much safer than human-operated motor vehicles; and within a few years of introduction, being both more profitable for their manufacturers & cheaper for their users).

          I’m not saying I personally view them as a magic cure-all.. just pointing out the driving factors behind the likes of Google and Toyota throwing vast piles of money at it. They may yet hit insurmountable obstacles. Just think it’s worth being prepared for their arrival, and all the potential implications!

  4. Patrick O'Riordan says:

    I’d have thought the first application for robocars would be on motorways, maybe not fully autonomous but in a convoy system under the control of a lead vehicle. In that sort of environment, you could see a lane dedicated to robocars as you wouldn’t be able to trust human controlled vehicles from getting in the way and slowing the progress of the convoy.

    Ironically you could see the same issues arise between robot and non-robot controlled cars as between cars and cyclists… some demanding that all should share the road while people in robot cars get frustrated about those pesky human controlled cars slowing their progress by meandering all over the road.

    One difference would be that I can’t see the general public putting up with any road casualties caused by robots, while casualties caused by humans are accepted.

    • Barnie says:

      Except casualties in the media tend to already be reported against the vehicle, not the driver… Though I suspect the media would jump on the robocars anyway… it’ll make for good headlines…

  5. Barnie says:

    very interesting, but you can’t expect cyclists to stop campaigning for things now, based on things that may or may not happen at some point a few decades in the future ( when I for one will possibly be too old to cycle ).
    That’s not being stuck in the past, that’s living in the present.

    Another view might be that with hindsight, ye olde 1930s cycist campaigners actually had it right, and it’s past time that we did something about it. Might isn’t right – Design for people, not machines.

    A few omissions :-
    1) Cycling isn’t just about enjoyment, it’s also often about getting from A to B quickly. When I commute I don’t take the scenic route, I take the fastest, shortest route ( within reason ), and that means choosing to compromise on traffic I suspect you’ll find the same in The Netherlands… short journeys by their lovely cycle paths, but longer, faster journeys by road ( uncluttered by side turnings and slower cyclists ).
    2) Cycle paths often suck for getting from A to B quickly, compared to roads ( even in The Netherlands ), because you often often have to deal with each and every side turning ( arguably worse in the Netherlands where you often have traffic lights forcing you to stop, even if there’s no traffic using the side turning ).

    • I think the 1930s cycle campaigners did have it right in certain respects – they anticipated the damage the motor car might do to towns and cities – but they were, in hindsight, hopelessly wrong on the strategies they employed, particularly their vociferous opposition to cycle tracks, which would have maintained cycling as a transport option for short urban trips.

      Your ‘omissions’ betray a slight lack of understanding of the Dutch approach. The fastest routes in the Netherlands will often be the ‘roads’, but on cycle tracks alongside them. You will not be cycling in motor traffic on these roads.

      Nor is it true that you ‘have to deal with each and every side turning’ – signalised junctions are really quite far apart in the Netherlands, with large numbers of side roads in between where cycle tracks have clear priority. My own experience of cycling in the Netherlands is one of smooth continuity, with very few stops. To give just one example, on my most recent trip to Utrecht, I made a four mile trip straight across the city, from one side to the other. I had to put my foot down three times. That was all.

      • Compared to in London where you often need to “put your foot down” either for the sake of keeping upright at traffic lights or in a figurative means by belting along at 20mph to try and feel “safe” amongst the motorised traffic 😉 I for one would love to only have to do it for the former, however I did find it rather relaxing last night to back off the pace a little as it was so wet and racing along just wouldn’t have been much safer.

    • Your 2-point omissions section suggests you haven’t actually cycled in the Netherlands, but you’ve certainly used British attempts at cycle paths and are assuming they’re the same over there. They’re not.

      As Mark says, it’s remarkably easy and fast to travel long distances on cycle paths in the Netherlands. They have priority over side roads, and the signals often default to green for bikes. I’ve never seen anybody choose to ride on the road instead. It’s the exact opposite of what you describe, in fact!

    • Fred says:

      I just need to second the other comments about NL.

      I was taking CS2 (superhighway of death) daily a few months ago until I found a better route so I’m not one to shy away from a busy road.

      – Cycle lanes in NL are definitely fast and convenient, and wide, so so wide.
      – Cycle lanes in NL go everywhere! I never found there wasn’t a convenient cycle route going where I wanted to go.

      Only other comment worth adding: Go to NL, it’s lovely!

  6. Nico (@NicoVel0) says:

    Interesting post, but there are two points that I think should be made.
    1. Robocars would be wonderful, I know I’d be happy to use one instead of driving, but they are no solution to congestion, just like electric cars. More vehicles, whether automated or not, equals more congestion. It’s a simple equation. The only way to reduce congestion would be if those vehicles were shared, like, I don’t know, a form of public transport? And you could put the cars underground so they don’t take up road space?
    2. If we are to rely on people buying a new car, it will take a non-negligible amount of time before a significant proportion of cars on the roads are automated, on the order of decades. So pushing for infrastructure now, that could be installed in most British cities within 10 years, is still highly relevant.

    • One quick retrofit available right now is the speed limiter.

      Currently only required for HGV & PSV, but I really don’t see why vehicles should be allowed on the road with the capacity to exceed the national speed limit.

      Your smartphone can run an application to tell you the speed limit on the road you are driving on, so why couldn’t a car be retrofitted with a dynamic speed limiter, by law? Complete fitted cost would likely be much less than a set of tyres and realistically, who could object?

      • Nico (@NicoVel0) says:

        I wouldn’t mind fitting one on my car if it meant reduced insurance premium, plus no chance of speeding ticket (no that I ever got one, I don’t speed). But it still doesn’t solve congestion, and a van hitting a cyclist at 20 mph into the path of a bus is still going to hurt. This is another “solution” tinkering around the edges, when what we need is space for cycling.

    • Angus H says:

      Depends how good robo-cars really are. IF they’re as safe as claimed, 3rd party insurance cost will be zero; they free up time to do other things instead of driving; on a rent-on-demand model there’s no upfront capital cost (so no barrier to early adoptions); and you can rent a vehicle for each journey that meets the trip needs – lightweight EVs for single-person trips in town, 4-6 seater hybrids for motorway trips etc.. If/when they deliver on that promise, large-scale adoption can happen pretty quickly – depending mostly on how attached people really are to the status-symbol & living-room-on-four-wheels aspects of motoring.

      • Nico (@NicoVel0) says:

        Like the Spartans said to Philip II of Macedonia: if. I think you are vastly underestimating the infrastructural and legal changes that will have to happen for this to be possible. In the meantime, cycle infrastructure is a sure bet.
        Also, insurance = 0? I don’t think so, it’s just that the bill might be sent to someone else, who will then pass on the costs to you (+ management charges of course).

        • Angus H says:

          Third party insurance is primarily insuring against the driver’s own mistakes. Hence its enormous variation in cost for different kinds of driver.

          I don’t underestimate the scale of the changes required, but nor do I underestimate the wealth of Google, Toyota, Amazon etc., nor the sheer economic value of peoples’ time that is currently wasted driving (whether that be deliveries, cars or taxis).

          But, certainly, I don’t see the arrival of robo-cars as a reason not to campaign for cycle infrastructure.

          • michael says:

            “But, certainly, I don’t see the arrival of robo-cars as a reason not to campaign for cycle infrastructure.”

            Given that the way these things pan-out can often be ‘path-dependent’, it might make it even more important. If such infrastructure isn’t developed before this happens it might then be too late!

            • Angus H says:

              At the risk of sounding a bit VC about it.. the same applies to the understanding of >>what streets are for<< – that's likely to inform the debate even more than infrastructure or lack thereof. In as much as, if residential streets are understood to be places for "people first, cars second" there's likely to be a consensus for very low speed limits for robot vehicles on such roads – perhaps even less than 20mph. Again, if robot vehicles work out, and people are rational in the economic sense (neither of which I take for granted), the vehicle in most common use in towns should be more golf buggy than VW Golf. Extremely energy efficient, but little in the way of impact protection. If you can do other things while it takes you from A to B, a top speed of 15mph is entirely tolerable for town trips – especially if they're able to negotiate junctions better than conventional cars & so spend less time waiting at the lights.

          • Patrick O'Riordan says:

            There’s quite a long discussion of the insurance implications of robocars here:


    • I don’t think people will need to buy robocars in the same numbers as they do with normal cars to have access to them. Car clubs, such as Zipcar, would be far more attractive if the car could come and pick you up and then drop you off. You’d only need to pay for the time you’re using the car, unlike currently with Zipcar, where you have to pay while it waits for you to come back after shopping or whatever. The overall cost would be significantly lower then the cost of owning a car. And with no driver to pay, much cheaper then taxis.

      • Agree. Looking into my crystal ball, I see the first applications of robocars will be for automated taxis. If I were a betting man (or had the capital to invest), I’d be all over the upcoming JohnnyCab service market.

  7. inge says:

    Robocars or not, people will still sit on their arses in a metal box. Or is it possible to fit those cars with rowing machines and hometrainers? It’s depressing to read how much energy and time let alone money are NOT spent on a decent and safe infrastructure for all kinds of traffic and all kinds of people .

  8. michael says:

    It’s possible that how this works out depends crucially on what the physical road-conditions and/or social attitudes are before it happens. That is, the Netherlands might go one way, with robocars and a separate human-scale infrastructure existing side-by-side, while the UK ends up with a scenario of gelatinous blobs with atrophied legs being ferried around in bumper-to-bumper traffic with all pedestrians and cyclists alike being banned from public throughfares.

    Its also possible that, as with other AI applications, it turns out in reality to have major stumbling blocks that means it never really goes mainstream. There’s always the problem that robots lack the background, contextual, knowledge of the meaning of things and events that humans (even, God help us, drivers!) possess. That might turn out to be a difficulty in certain rare but critical circumstances.

    • Angus H says:

      I reckon they’ll resolve that by halting the vehicle, and have it sit there for a few minutes til a remote human operator (probably in a big control centre in another country) takes over.

  9. Nico (@NicoVel0) says:

    Another thing I have come to realise. To get the most benefit of robocars (in towns at least, long-distance travel is another set of complications), you would want them to be electric, so that they could retreat to charging stations whenever necessary. You wouldn’t want automated petrol refuelling stations what with the fire risks and the CO2 emissions, and don’t get me started on the problems with hydrogen.
    So you’d have to build a network of recharging points, which will require opening up the roads, laying big electric cables, and of course making sure the electric network can supply the extra juice (currently it can’t). This will not happen without heavy government funding, and will cost a hell of a lot more than putting in Dutch-design cycle lanes.

    • Angus H says:

      EV charging points are already happening – and in the short term, if the grid can’t cope, there’s nothing to stop petrol stations providing their own generating capacity (solar and, eugh, diesel).

      The amount of grid capacity you need depends hugely on what the vehicles look like. A single-seat electric scooter can run on less than 0.5kW (though 1kW is more practical), a single-seater Twizy 45 is 4kW, a two-seater Twizy 80 is 13kW, a Smart ForTwo 30kW, and a ForFour 50kW. So even within the class of very light vehicles, there’s absolutely enormous variation in power and energy consumption. (A typical family car is 100kW, plus or minus, a typical cyclist sustains maybe 200W output – 1/500th the energy consumption albeit comparing average with peak).

      • Nico (@NicoVel0) says:

        They are happening, but they are not automated and will need redesigning. If you want robocars to operate on a truly efficient basis you’d want them to be able to go back to base to recharge independently. And the UK already is heading for an energy generation shortfall (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-19842401), even without more electric vehicles taken into account. Once more, I’d love to see them happen, but I think the lead time is going to be decades.

  10. Sarah says:

    The idea that people are put off cycling by the sheer volume of traffic on some roads rather than by bad driving makes perfect sense, but only with regard to roads with high traffic volumes. Of course good driving alone cannot make busy main roads very attractive to cyclists. Of course I avoid some busy main roads because the levels of noise, pollution and risk they present are subjectively too high (for me; it’s subjective).

    But what about quiet roads? Surely bad driving can make quiet routes unattractive to cyclists? I do a lot of my cycling on roads that are quiet. Some are so quiet that drivers can completely forget that they need to be prepared for occasional encounters with other road users. Cycling is subjectively very pleasant and very safe on these routes until the one driver one does meet on a long empty stretch of road turns out to be a confirmed moron. Or homicidal. Or both.

    On a lunchtime cycle in August, I was cycling up a steep hill on a narrow but very quiet rural road with a fairly rough surface when I was overtaken VERY closely by a large white van. This was the only vehicle to pass me on the entire stretch of road between one village and the next, but the overtake was spectacularly ill-timed and poorly-executed – too close, too fast, on the steepest pitch of a steep hill, and only yards before the crest of the hill. The driver insisted on squeezing past just before the spot where the road widens, the gradient eases and safe overtaking becomes easy.

    That kind of driving can put people off cycling even when the volume of motor traffic is very, very low. It didn’t put me off cycling because I was able to place the incident in the context that I have now been cycling on roads for 30 years and have never actually been struck by a motor vehicle (while cycling.) I was also able to persuade myself that the incident was quite untypical for the area where I live: the driver was from abroad, as I found out when I caught up with him a mile or two down the road and he apologized and promised to be more careful in future.

    I hope he IS more careful in future, because I don’t see segregated cycling infrastructure ever being a priority on this bumpy country road that gets so little traffic that two-way motor traffic is only catered for at passing places. Driver behaviour is what makes a difference on roads like this.

    I realize that “As easy as riding a bike” is not intended to be mainly about the joys and tribulations of cycling in isolated rural areas. At the same time, however, I don’t think it’s fair to rubbish the thinking of campaigners past and present just because they haven’t come to conclusions they might have reached had they only done more of their cycling in the likes of London, Utrecht, Leicester or Groningen. For those of us who often cycle in less urban surroundings, finding quiet and subjectively safe roads is often simple. Finding objectively safe, idiot-free roads can be more of a challenge, or a lottery. Hence the perfectly logical calls to do more to tackle poor driving – logical to me, at least, in the light of experiences like the one detailed above, but also in the light of the fact that strict health and safety standards are routinely demanded and met in other sectors – why not on the roads?

    • Tonaut Brom says:

      Well said Sarah. Unfortunately anything said by anybody at anytime, past or present, that merely suggests any slight deviation from the idea that all of the UK must be exactly like the Netherlands in as short a time as possible will not be tolerated.

      • michael says:

        That seems an unnecessarily sullen remark to me!

        Personally I am overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Dutch ‘school’, but the reality is we are stuck in a lousy situation and nobody can possibly know, apriori, for sure, how to get out of it in the immediate future. Given which, I don’t see anything wrong with having a diversity of approaches, as, even if we have the real-world example of the Netherlands, we still don’t know how to get from here to there, nor do we know for sure what the relationship is between the physical facts of road layout and the cultural and political factors that determine driver and voter behaviour.

        The only thing I do know is that I find the more elitist, macho, proponents of vehicular cycling (the type for whom cycling is apparently entirely about displaying manly technical competence and assertiveness and who believe that if you aren’t young, fit and fast you shouldn’t be using a bike at all) to be completely alienating. Apart from that I would say I’m not entirely certain of anything.

    • michael says:

      What I don’t understand is how you propose to change driver behaviour.

      Perhaps we can agree that it would help a lot to have the laws of the road properly enforced and to have real penalties for idiotic and selfish driving? But even then the problem is the lack of political will to do it, because motorists as a group have a lot of political power (and I think they are now, just about, a numerical majority). And juries and judges and law-makers alike seem to approach the issue of lethal driving with the thought of ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’ – identifying more with the perpetrator than the victim, because they are often awful drivers themselves.

      With respect, you seem to be using the word ‘education’ as as if it were a kind of magic. While drivers might be more courteous in some other countries (that seems a debatable, and debated, point, and I don’t have the experience to decide the truth of it) I don’t know that you can just replicate deep cultural differences through ‘education’.

      Many drivers _know_ what the considerate way to drive is, they just don’t want to do it. Many of them simply hate cyclists. They are also often under huge economic pressures that mean they are always in a desperate hurry (white van men and small-to-medium-sized-lorry drivers in particular). In my experience some of them border on sociopathic, and are just as aggressive and threatening outside of their vehicle as in it!

      These are deep factors that can’t just be cured with ‘education’.

      I don’t know what the answer is either, which is why I personally would rather concentrate on changing the physical environment within which these drivers operate. It just seems a bit easier to know what to do in that respect.

      • michael says:

        I may be being unfair, as in fact you didn’t use the word ‘education’! But I have the impression that that is the concept you are referring to,

      • Angus H says:

        I think you’re a being bit unfair on drivers, as well as perhaps underestimating the scale of the problem. Most are considerate in the context of the social norms relating to road behaviour. Those social norms are basically, get out of the way of the car; if you’re traveling below the posted speed limit, you’re commiting a moral wrong if you inconvenience anyone who wants to go faster.

        There’s an interesting philosophical/technical debate to be had as to whether that arrangement is optimal for anyone other than oil companies, but it took 100 years from the dawn of mass motoring to arrive where we’re at today; looking at the way many London commuters behave *on foot* as soon as space for movement is in any way contested (yes, be-suited men who knock small children flying when running for the bus, I’m looking at you..), challening established social norms is likely to be a long and uphill battle.

        • michael says:

          Well I have found that many drivers go beyond that in terms of aggression – e.g. I’ve more than once had white van men and boy-racers expect me to dismount and get out of the road so they can continue to drive the wrong way down a narrow one-way street.

          But its certainly true that bad behaviour in inner city areas is in no way limited to drivers – its just that drivers by definition have a weapon with them.

          Perhaps that is the difference with Sarah’s experience – maybe in rural areas the key issue is that there’s never going to be much in the way of dedicated infrastructure, and the bad drivers are bad due to thoughtlessness rather than aggression..while in urban areas there is always going to be conflict and aggression as well as a non-negligible proportion of slightly deranged people – and so what is needed is a physical environment that keeps that conflict to a minimum and limits the damage the anti-social can do.

          Different solutions for different contexts.

  11. Fred says:

    It seems to me this conjecture is being bought up by people opposed to proper cycling infrastructure and is a pointless diversion from the real issues affecting cycling in the real world. However it is also an admission of defeat in the battle of ideas. They cannot make a persuasive argument based on what actually happens in reality so they resort to this kind of hypothetical ‘what if’.

    Driver-less cars are a classic techy ‘magic bullet’ and is unlikely to prove as wonderful or arrive as soon as some people think. Just try watching some old episodes of Tomorrow’s World.

    Even if they were as perfect as is conjectured (and they won’t be), there is still a very strong case for segregated cycle lanes. In any case there are factors beyond the control of a driver-less car which would still mean there would be accidents involving driver-less cars.

    The fact is that in addition to subjective safety concerns, sharing roads will HGVs and fast moving traffic is deeply unpleasant even if driven perfectly. I know the ‘unpleasant’ argument is a more difficult one to make, but the reality is that if we want all sorts to take up cycling in this country we need to make it a whole lot more pleasant to take the bike than it currently is – just look at how jammed car free areas can get with bikes on a nice day.

  12. Pingback: In the way | As Easy As Riding A Bike

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