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.
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.
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.