Better cycling through design – how to really ‘Go Dutch’

On Friday evening Newsnight carried a very good report on the issues of cycling, and cycling safety, in London. It’s worth watching in full, if you haven’t seen it already – it’s a sensible, measured analysis of the issues, featuring contributions from Rachel Aldred, among others.

In the discussion in the studio afterwards – well done that man Mark Ames – there was a slightly curious focus on the types of bikes people are riding in London. The co-owner of Velorution, Jonathan Cole, made some noises about a shift towards continental bikes resulting in more safety –

We see a very big shift into what we call ‘sit up and beg bikes’, where you can look around, you’re not moving as fast, and you have more awareness. I think the Mayor’s office is doing a fantastic job on the infrastructure in London, but it’s never going to happen overnight. One death is too many.

Pressed on why these types of bikes might be safer, he says

You’re not down [mimics riding with head down], powering along, there’s not so much adrenalin.

Well, I’m not sure this makes much sense. On the few occasions I’ve ridden my Dutch bike in London, I am certainly full of adrenalin. I am trying to ride it as fast as I can, and trying to apply as much power as I can. Riding slowly on the roads of London rarely feels like an option; it makes sense to try and keep pace with the flow of motor traffic, as much as is possible. The same goes for riding on my ‘sit up and beg’ Brompton. Even if I set out with the intention of riding sedately, I will inevitably arrive at my destination fairly hot and sweaty. London streets make you ride fast (or at least try to), regardless of the bike you are using. You cannot relax and travel at a pace you are comfortable with.

So why should the type of bikes being ridden make any significant difference to the overall nature of cycling in London? It surely makes much more sense to see the bikes being ridden – and the style of riding – as a symptom of the physical environment, rather than as a contributing factor in their own right.

It so happens that when Amsterdamize escorted a group of us around his city earlier this year, he was riding what might be described as a ‘fast’ bike, with drop handlebars. But he was riding it in just as relaxed and carefree a way as the rest of us (on ‘sit up and beg’ bikes) – because the environment allowed him to.

A 'fast' bike

A ‘fast’ bike doesn’t have to mean fast riding

This is just one anecdote, of course, but there are many people riding faster, drop handlebar bikes in Dutch cities, amongst the great majority on upright bikes, and I cannot honestly say that the way they were riding stood out as being markedly different.

So it does not make sense to attempt to change cycling in London simply through marketing different bikes, or ‘importing’ Dutch cycle ‘culture’ (whatever that means). The conditions have to be changed first; the type of cycling, and the types of bikes being ridden, will then naturally adapt to that changed environment. Most people do not want to exert themselves all the time while riding, and so if they can ride at a relaxed pace, free from fear of motor traffic, they will do so.

This is a mistake that Boris Johnson is also prone to making. There was a telling passage in another Newsnight piece, aired earlier this year –

Anna Holligan (voiceover) – London’s self-styled Cycling Superhero [Boris] sees the Dutch bicycle culture as part of the solution for reducing congestion.

Boris – ‘They really have a totally different culture of cycling, and we’ve got to get that. When you cycle in Amsterdam, or Copehagen, or Berlin, you’re not in a great fleet of people with their heads down, wearing lycra, who feel that they’ve got to get from A to B as quickly as possible, as fast as possible. Everyone’s on big ‘sit up and beg’ bikes, they’re weaving around,  there’s a much more relaxed feel to the way the cyclists occupy the streets. And we need to get that culture going.’

To hear this, you would think that the reason people cycle differently in Amsterdam or Copenhagen is simply due to the clothes they are wearing, the bikes they are riding, and some vague notion of Amsterdammers being more ‘relaxed’ about getting from A to B more slowly (certainly not true), rather than it being a direct result of a physical environment that insulates you from motor traffic, where you are allowed to be relaxed. By contrast, in Boris World, all that really needs to be done is to transfer that kind of ‘culture’ here – to ‘get it’ – and hey presto, we’ve ‘Gone Dutch’. It’s the worst kind of lazy thinking.

So I couldn’t really agree more with this passage from a Guardian article written last week by Charles Montgomery

Responding to this week’s deaths, the mayor issued a call for more personal responsibility on the road. But this ignores the truth I explore in my book, Happy City, which is that our road behaviour is generally determined by design. Through their form, roads send us unconscious messages about how to move. Wide roads with gentle curves induces faster driving regardless of posted speed limits.

… I believe Johnson made his plan for London cycling with the very best of intentions, but it did not account for the psychological effects of infrastructure. We are just beginning to understand the flawed ways that all of us make decisions about risk in cities. The solution is to take a more behavioural approach, which is less about telling people how they should behave and instead building with the knowledge that infrastructure designs action.

I’m not sure this is a message Boris Johnson wants to hear, because it conflicts both with the simplistic notion of people ‘Going Dutch’ all by themselves, and with the politically easy message of preaching personal responsibility. (It’s no surprise either that Boris – according to a high-up TfL cycling representative – remains most keen on ‘promotion’ as a cycling strategy).

As I argued back in October, before this awful spate of deaths,

both Boris and Transport for London are keen to focus on mistakes by either drivers or cyclists as the reasons for deaths and injuries on the roads, and this latest response [to the inquest into Brian Dorling’s death] falls into this same pattern. Blaming people is convenient, because it means that little has to change. The roads can stay the same; no space has to be reallocated for cycling; no cycle- and pedestrian-specific crossing phases have to be added. The emphasis instead is on education and training – trading places events, posters, and more ‘awareness’ are relatively cheap and easy ways to respond, and don’t involve disruption to the road network.

That is, as it turns out, exactly the strategy that Boris came out with after the fourth and fifth deaths last week. To make noises about people not obeying the rules, and about ‘very risky’ behaviour – noises designed to shift the focus away from the cruddy way London’s roads are laid out both for people cycling, and for the people who have to drive around them (because, at least for the great majority of HGV drivers, it must be hugely stressful negotiating roads where people are all around you, and moving in unpredictable ways).

Without speculating about the causes of the recent deaths, it is a given that if you introduce lots of people on bikes onto roads carrying tens of thousands of motor vehicles a day, and expect them to share the space, and make conflicting movements, serious injury and death is inevitable. Humans are fallible, and they will make errors of judgement. And that means the focus on bad behaviour is not just unsavoury, it completely misses the point. What mistakes that are being made should not be lethal.

This is a lesson the Dutch learned a long time ago. They deliberately design forgiving environments, with the aim that inattention, hastiness and just plain dicking about should not result in serious injury or death. It’s a principle called Sustainable Safety.

Pratting about on a street in Amsterdam - possible because of  Sustainable Safety, which has removed motor traffic here

Pratting about on a street in Amsterdam – possible because of Sustainable Safety principles, which have created a safe environment through the removal of through motor traffic

We’ve arrived in a strange position in Britain where the slightest error of judgement on the part of the people who are vulnerable is legitimate reason for excusing their death. If you don’t have reflective bits on your pedals and you get crashed into by a driver, resulting in your death – well, that’s probably your fault. If you are alleged to be a novice cyclist, and a driver on the wrong side of the road crashes into you, killing you, as you wobble and fall as a result of her driving – that’s your fault too. Try to imagine the media and public reaction if you get killed on a main road in London while someone is sitting on your handlebars, like in the picture above.

So Boris’s tactic of making noises about ‘responsibility’ is actually very clever, because it buys into this background cultural acceptance that roads are places that are innately dangerous, places you shouldn’t venture onto on a bike (and to a lesser extent on foot) unless you are properly trained, clothed appropriately, fully obedient with all laws – even if doing so might actually put you at greater risk – and completely alert to all the dangers being posed to you, all the time, with ‘your wits about you’.

Activities that pose little or no danger to other people – at least by comparison with the danger posed by motor vehicles – are bizarrely framed as inherently ‘dangerous’. (Witness the BBC fixation on the red light jumping incident captured at Aldgate in the video on Magnatom’s blog here – in and of itself, virtually harmless, in static traffic, yet presented as being equivalent to the bad driving that can result in death.)

But – to take just one example – it’s almost impossible to imagine how the notion of children cycling in significant numbers would fit into this ‘safety’ discourse. Children are especially poor at judging speeds, they are easily distracted, and, frankly, cannot be relied upon to be sensible.

And the really inconsistent detail here is that when it comes to driving, we take precisely the kind of behavioural approach that seems so anathema with regard to cycling. We design out the consequences of mistakes that are made by drivers. Where there are plenty of crashes at a particular location, we describe that road as ‘dangerous’, and we take measures to reduce risk of injury or death to drivers – smoothing out a bend, or adding a crash barrier, or improving lighting. We don’t preach personal responsibility; we accept that mistakes are made, and attempt to reduce or eliminate the consequences of those mistakes, even if in almost every instance a driver was going to fast for the conditions, or made an error.

We should apply these principles consistently, even if the consequences are dire for motor traffic flow in towns and cities. The simple truth is we shouldn’t tolerate streets where errors result in death or serious injury. At root, this is a problem of environment, not of behaviour. That is the Mayor’s responsibility, and he should not duck it.

This entry was posted in Boris Johnson, Bow Roundabout, Cycling policy, David Hembrow, Infrastructure, LCC, London, Omafiets, Promotion, Sustainable Safety, The Netherlands, Transport for London. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Better cycling through design – how to really ‘Go Dutch’

  1. Just seen the piece on iPlayer. I’m struggling to determine what planet Jonathan Cole was on frankly, was he trying to turn the debate into a marketing opportunity? I’d love to be able to ride in the carefree, relaxing, Rebecca Hubbard manner he describes. Sadly in the combative and adversarial roads of Britain it isn’t an option. When I’m having to take primary at a pinch point with a belligerent, mobile wielding tipper lorry inches from my back wheel, I’m going to do my best to pass the obstacle as swiftly as I am able. What a tangential waste of airtime. Well done to Mark Ames though.

  2. Matt says:

    Have road layout/environment changes really had the biggest impact on road casualties? I’d have thought greater impact has been through improved vehicle design, better treatment of casualties and improved driver behaviour (partly through education). This being the case you can see why
    policy makers might think that this is the approach to take with respect to cycle safety. I agree this is flawed and is a consequence of seeing all road users as just that and not distinguishing between different groups.

  3. tombharrison says:

    Good article. 2 points:
    A) The first picture shows how compact the pavements are in “cycle-able” cities. When Boris etc says there is no space for segregation, we need to be re-thinking the whole street, carriageways and pavements. The CS7 on Clapham Rd is a great example of incredible wide pavement. Clearly some space could be taken from this, as well as narrowing carriageways, or removing lanes entirely to make room for bike tracks.
    B) It never fails to bemuse me that Boris wants to make cycling more relaxed but then designed the superhighways specifically to cater for a pelaton and MAMILs as shown by this:

  4. Christine jones says:

    It’s design, no doubt about it. Within the design is consciously restricting who can use it and when. Apart from the odd courier van parked in a cycle lane, most commercial through traffic is banned from cities in holland, they have roads that take them to their destination without going through the centre. In the UK somebody still likes the idea that the Vogon driving a tipper will stop at a shop and buy something on his way through.
    Utrecht is so uninviting for private traffic, people avoid it and use the park and ride or bike in with everyone else. That’s why you can hear someone stirring their coffee as they sit chatting in a terrace.
    London used to have that vibe, unless you really need to take a car into London, don’t. That should be the message, and then you can say there’s plenty of room for cycle provision.
    If they bought all those miserable houses next to the A406 in north London and built a proper ring road, they could keep a lot of traffic out. As it is, if you are unfortunate enough to have to drive in London, and have to use the 406, you better hope there’s something good on the radio, or take an audio book with you. Such a waste of time and air quality.

  5. Andrea says:

    I agree, Cole’s intervention was either cheap marketing or another sort of victim blaming.
    And I totally agree that the design of London’s cycling infrastructure makes riding slow feel unsafe.
    However, I do feel that the choice of bicycle and clothing also has an effect on people’s behaviour on the road, both riders and drivers.
    City bikes do not need to be ridden slow; Copenhageners are frequently polled on why they cycle: Speed of getting from A to B always comes on top; they all ride pretty swiftly.

  6. “At root, this is a problem of environment, not of behaviour. That is the Mayor’s responsibility, and he should not duck it.”

    Absolutely. I wonder how likely it is that he won’t duck it however after that appalling finger wagging exercise last week. Remember how slow he was to back down when he quoted some completely spurious statistic claiming that cyclists were responisible for most accidents they were involved in?

    For somebody who’s keen on preaching personal responsibility in others, it would be great to see him demonstrate some more himself.

  7. paul gannon says:

    Whilst I agree with the overall thrust of the argument that installing high-quality cycle network infrastructure is the key policy I would not dismiss too lightly the argument that the type of bike can have an influence on cycling style.

    I had to wait for an hour and a half in central London on a recent early evening & ended up watching the large number of cyclists using Hyde Park (near Marble Arch).

    I could not help noticing very markedly that ‘fast’ cyclists tended to be those with drop handle bar bikes, no mudguards or carriers, but who did sport lycra clothing & helmets. ‘Slightly slower’ cyclists were more likely to have straight handle bars, carriers, mudguards, wore less lycra (with more normal clothing) & fewer of them had wearing helmets.

    The type of bike you have is to some degree a statement about how you view cycling, as is the clothing one wears while cycling. The type of bike, the clothing and, most important of all, style of riding combine to make individual contributions to the nature of the dominant cycling culture.

    We are engaged in an almighty cultural struggle with the powerful motor lobby, but alongside that we also have the job of establishing an urban cycling culture in a country where there has been no cycling culture – except the drop handle bars, fast cycling culture of cycling clubs. Building a more encompassing cycle culture is part of what we have to do.

    BTW I back up Andrea’s comments about it being a mistake to see cyclists in the Netherlands & Denmark as ‘slow’. My experience of the Netherlands was that cycling was fast & furious though that was mainly because, as a British cyclist, I was almost totally lacking in the critical skill of cycling with lots of other cyclists. Pure cycling numbers impose their own speed limits.

    • MarkC says:

      The culture thing has to change if cycling’s to become more mainstream. In the town where I live (50 miles from London) and others up to 25 miles away, there’s been a lot of improvement in cycling infrastructure, but seemingly very little increase in the number of cyclists, Public perception is still that a pushbike is for sport or leisure and no alternative to the car. The bike business caters accordingly: outside of London, bikes best suited as everyday transport are quite difficult to get – most shops don’t stock them even if they knew what you were talking about.

      There are exceptions – Evans, for example, but it still looks like the transition is going to be later rather than sooner…

  8. Sarah says:

    I’m slightly faster on a road bike than on my very heavy steel bike with straight handlebars, but two other factors make a much bigger difference: the gradient, and whether I’m in a hurry or not. “Keeping up with traffic” can be a factor, too, but I have enough of a brass neck to slow following traffic for a few seconds now and then: to save my tired legs, or on the approach to junctions when I want to change gear in good time and avoid getting stuck at the bottom of a hill in the wrong gear after making my turn. I’d rather change gear before a turn than while executing one, and afterwards is sometimes too late.

    Heavier bikes may be more popular in the Netherlands, but so are bikes with electric motors; the two factors may cancel each other out. The electric-assist bikes obviously aren’t as fast as the fastest lycra commuters, but they are fast enough to create major headaches when used in an unsatisfactory infrastructure environment. As they become more popular in the UK, the “Why can’t everybody just pootle along on Dutch bikes like they do on the continent” argument will start to look even more hollow than it was to begin with. It won’t be possible to blame the lycra brigade for pedelec riders going six times faster than the pedestrians on rubbish shared-use pavements; the pedelec riders won’t look like “cyclists”, all sweat and lycra, but like besuited commuters, like tradesmen with their tools, or like parents giving children a lift home from nursery school. (OK, the latter two may be wishful thinking, for the time being, but the former is a confident prediction).

  9. Paul M says:

    I must say my initial reaction to Jonathan Cole’s comments was irritation – that this really was not an appropriate occasion to go into marketing mode – but perhaps I do him a disservice.

    All the same, I really don’t think that the generality of cycling conditions in London would indicate traditional roadsters or “Dutch” bikes. True enough, it is sometimes possible to ride like a granny. For example I made a business trip last week to the British Library convention centre from my office near Fleet Street, through Holborn and Bloomsbury, in full business suit & tie regalia so I needed to go sedately to avoid ending up with a premature dry cleaning bill. While there is little in the way of cycle infrastructure on this route, however the roads and traffic conditions do permit a leisurely pootle so it was a safe and pleasant experience.

    Contrast this with the occasion when I took home my newly purchased Fahhrad Manufaktur, in essence a German “Omafiets”, from Bloomsbury via Kingsway, Aldwych and Waterloo Bridge to Waterloo station. I felt really exposed. The bike is fast enough, but the riding position really doesn’t suggest racing performance and on these roads both speed and acceleration are an essential survival strategy. (I don’t criticise the concept of vehicular cycling – as a survival strategy for fast, busy roads without segregation it is fairly effective – just the pronouncements by its principal apologists that there is no other way).

    If Cole had said that sales of traditional bikes would help to promote a different, more positive view of cyclists to the non-cycling population, who apparently perceive us all to be red light jumping, pavement riding lycra louts, and would thus start a trend to political acceptance and change, I would have said “right on”.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see the chicken-egg question being resolved this way. The streets are not suddenly going to fill with Victoria Pendleton/Kelly Brook lookalikes in floaty dresses and flowing tresses, and men done up in the style of the Tweed Run. I suspect we’re going to have to battle our way through continued misconception and plain prejudice as London cyclists continue to hunker down over the drop bars of their race-bred road bikes and continue – occasionally – to anticipate red lights turning green etc, much to the irritation of golf club bores all over the country.

  10. Joel C says:

    I’m often worried by the emphasis on Dutch Exceptionalism. Like many modern western democracies, The Netherlands has a variety of social problems and there’s probably a fair amount of their culture that we wouldn’t want to emulate: football-related violence is still hugely endemic in all levels of their game* – look at the design of their grounds, with its “safety” netting; like the British, they have a legacy of colonialism** and all the troubling things that go along with that (a history littered with racism, conquest and wealth acquired through exploitation). Like a lot of continental Europe, there’s the legacy of wartime occupation too***, not to mention they have some very backward attitudes to immigration****.

    The Dutch as a nation aren’t a good deal more enlightened, progressive or “better” than their peers – they are just an group of ordinary, fallible human beings. Perhaps if we stopped putting “Dutch culture” on a pedestal (characterized as a unique, unobtainable, utopian vision) and merely look at what they’ve gotten right – in this context, namely transport policy and infrastructure design – we might be able to make some progress.

    p.s. any Dutch people reading this, I’m not trying to deliberately denigrate you – apologies for any offence – just trying to make a point that you are normal!


  11. In the field of factory work, it used to said that a worker, working on a machine which did not have a proper guard to protect the worker from inadvertently getting his hands trapped in the machine through a moments inattention, was totally to blame for his injuries if he did accidentally get his hand crushed or trapped in the workings of the machine. Then, many many years ago, society became enlightened and said that a moments inadvertence should not result in the loss of the limb and so we passed laws requiring employers to ensure that the machines that factory workers operate are safe. Still, from time to time, mistakes are made. But if the machine is basically safe, life and limb are not lost.
    When are we going to see the same approach on our roads?

  12. i’m another who has both ‘performance’ bikes and a Brompton. Likewise I feel much more ‘exposed’ on the Brompton – I actually intentionally don’t wear a helmet when I’m on it, try to have some flapping clothes and intentionally wobble in an attempt to get more space.

    There was another interesting piece in Saturday’s Guardian that i’ve not yet tracked down online. In it a member of the Dutch Embassy in London tells how he swapped his heavy Dutch bike for for lightweight machine and bought cycle specific clothing after a short while cycling in London.

    We’re back to the fallacy of “safety in numbers” – the infrastructure drives the bikes and the style of riding, not the other way round. If the traffic around you is travelling at >30mph and the infrastructure expects you to ride amongst it you are steered towards a bike, and a style of riding, that gives you more speed.

  13. Lorenzo says:

    I think this is the Guardian piece you refer to:-

    The paragraph that mentions Weijer Losecaat Vermeer from the Dutch embassy is about four from the end.

  14. Pingback: Better cycling through design – how to really ‘Go Dutch’ | Global Bike

  15. pm says:

    “We’ve arrived in a strange position in Britain where the slightest error of judgement on the part of the people who are vulnerable is legitimate reason for excusing their death. ”

    Agree 100% with this.
    Sadly, though, I think the psychological factors behind the kind of victim-blaming that we see here are very deeply-rooted and apply in areas well beyond cycling.
    The most dispiriting thing is how many actual existing cyclists will happily join in with it.

    When something bad happens to someone, people don’t want to acknowledge their own vulnerability. Hence even people in the same group as the victim will immediately try to identify some ‘mistake’ the injured party made. So then they can think “I don’t make that mistake, ergo this can’t happen to me”

  16. Gareth says:

    Growing up abroad means I’ve missed out on a lot of weird British terminology, but I have to ask:
    Where does “sit up and beg bike” come from?
    And while I’m at it, why do some people call it a ‘push-bike’? Surely thats the thing little kids use with one foot on and the other foot pushing it along.

    Agree overall though, I arrived in the UK age 19 with a bust up old Gazelle ladies bike, with no gears and a rear hub break (pedal backwards to stop), and I took to cycling faster and more aggressively, I guess in my own way I reverted to a take the lane approach. At some point I sort of assessed what I was doing, didn’t like it, and stopped cycling altogether for a couple of years.

    • paul gannon says:

      The Oxford English Dictionary records the first written use of ‘sit up and beg’ in reference to a type of bicycle as late as 1978 (Lancashire Life: ‘Old Luke’s sit-up-and-beg bike was propped against one of the sandstone gateposts’.

      Before that the term was most often used in a different way, implying speed, such as an example in 1919: ‘Our gallant youth is quite prepared .. to make his seventy miles per hour motor-bike sit-up-and-beg as he would put it’. Alternatively it might imply mastery of a skill: ‘”He can make it sit and beg” indicates that a man has become extremely proficient in working some material, e.g. a metal.’

      It would certainly be interesting to see how the phrase transitioned from mastery of machines and materials to the clear put down aspect of the ‘sit up and beg’ reference to bicycles, but the OED offers no help here.

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