If driving in Britain was like cycling in Britain

You need to make a short trip with your children, by car.

The first thing to do is to dress them (and yourself) appropriately. That means ensuring you are wearing dayglo reflective tabards, and crash helmets. Driving a car is very dangerous, and you also need to ensure that you are visible to other road users. They will not be expected to see you, unless you are glowing, and illuminated.

The next step is to get your car ready. There isn’t anywhere secure to store your car on the street, so you’ll have to fumble it out of the shed. You will need to unlock your car, and then attach lights and luggage to your it.

The vast majority of cars sold in Britain are for recreational purposes – for driving around in the woods, for instance – meaning that they have no coverings over their wheels, or anywhere to store possessions, or lighting systems. These have to be fitted by the buyer, in their own time, and at extra expense.

Most people don’t know how to do this, and so water and filth from the road will get distributed over them when the roads are wet. Consequently they don’t drive when it is raining. They don’t use their cars to shop either, because they don’t have anywhere to put the items they have bought.

The transmission of nearly all cars is exposed. Grease can easily get on your clothes, so you have to wear clips to keep them out of the way. Without regular maintenance, the transmission will go wrong. This means many cars languish, rusting, in back gardens, because they have quickly broken and people can’t be bothered to fix them.

Fortunately you are one of the few car enthusiasts, who has taken time to learn the intricacies of how your car works, and how to adapt it (as much as you can) for everyday use, and how to fix it. (Travelling by car in Britain is – strangely – the only mode of transport that requires this degree of intimate knowledge.)

You – and you children – sit in your car, open to the elements, with no protection from crashes with trucks. Being hit by one of these vehicles will obviously be catastrophic.

Unfortunately almost all the other vehicles on the roads are trucks, travelling at their normal, regular speed of 40mph, far faster than the maximum speed of your car, which is 20mph.

Driving cars is deeply unpopular. You are one of the few people who chooses to make short trips by car.

The government makes regular exhortations about the benefits of car driving, and ‘encouraging’ people to use cars, but to little or no effect. Car use remains the transport choice for a tiny minority of people.

Going anywhere by car will require you to travel in the same space as the trucks everyone else is driving, which bear down on you alarmingly. There is no legal alternative.

Your natural instinct is to drive to the side of the road, out of the way of these trucks, but official guidance is to drive your car in ‘the primary position’ at places where you sense conflict could occur (which is nearly everywhere in urban areas), directly in front of the trucks roaring up behind you.

No truck driver understands why you do this – you seem to be deliberately positioning your much slower vehicle in their way – and many will become furious, honking their horns and yelling at you to ‘drive your car at the side, in the car lane’. (Car lanes rarely exist, and when they do, they are functionally useless, being narrower than your car. Official training suggests you don’t use them).

This abuse – although unpleasant – is much better than the alternative of you (and your children) being hit or crushed in your car, because truck drivers feel free to squeeze past you. Roads are now designed for the way trucks travel, not the way cars travel, so truck drivers will frequently attempt to overtake you in dangerous locations.

There are a small number of cars on the market that would allow you and your children to travel side-by-side, but travelling in this way is, like the ‘primary position’, usually seen as a deliberate provocation.

You have reluctantly chosen instead to buy a narrow car, with your family positioned in a long line, safely spaced out from each other – out of the way of truck drivers.

While this car has the advantage of not annoying truck drivers, it means you can’t hold a conversation with anyone else in your car. Travelling in single file like this is something you do sadly, and you dreamily lust after a car that would allow you to travel with your children beside you, without being yelled at by truck drivers.

Being isolated from your children like this is frustrating, and you yearn to be able to listen to music, or to listen to the radio as you travel, like truck drivers do. Unfortunately this is extremely dangerous and you will be subjected to severe opprobrium by anyone who sees you doing this. How could you isolate yourself from the sounds of truck drivers speeding up behind you?

Even travelling by car with children is seriously frowned upon. Truck drivers say you are irresponsible, and putting them at risk, placing them on the roads with trucks. Better for you to transport your children in a truck, they say.

Stubbornly, you stick to your principles, although you are not entirely sure why.

Your town has a large number of one-way streets and roads. These roads used to be two-way, until the large number of trucks that appeared on the roads meant that they had to be adjusted, for ‘traffic flow purposes’.

Consequently what should be a short trip is about twice the length it could be, as you have to travel the long way round on these one-way roads, with the trucks. One-way roads aren’t too much of  a problem for truck drivers as, being much faster, they hardly notice the extra distance.

You wonder to yourself why on earth it is that your considerably narrower car can’t be allowed to travel in both directions on these streets, while trucks travel in just one direction, but don’t dwell on it too much, as it is depressing.

Sometimes you are tempted to just pop up one of these one-way streets to save yourself a huge amount of distance, and exposure to danger from trucks, but you are a Good Car Driver, and would never do anything to Give Car Drivers A Bad Name.

The same goes for driving on the separate bits at the side of the road. These are very tempting places to drive on, especially in places where the number of trucks is especially thunderous. However, you are strictly forbidden from doing this, and truck drivers will berate you for ‘being dangerous’. Again, you don’t want to Give Car Drivers A Bad Name. Your reputation as a car driver is bad enough as it is.

You wish that the simple act of driving your car from A to B could be simple, direct and painless, and free from scary interactions with trucks. You wish that you could drive it with your children beside you, and that you didn’t need to wear special equipment. You wish that driving a car didn’t require constant vigilance, and awareness of the potential hazards about to be presented by trucks being driven around you.

Surely such a place couldn’t exist?

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34 Responses to If driving in Britain was like cycling in Britain

  1. Angus H says:

    To be fair, when putting kids in a car, failing to fit their seat belts, booster seats etc. is generally rather frowned upon these days (we used to be allowed to ride short trips in the boot of my mum’s estate car in the early/mid 80s, and I think that was pretty normal then. Although so was drink driving). As to car design, the first couple of cars my grandfather owned 30-40 years earlier were pretty much as you describe – everyone but the seriously rich did (at least some of) their own maintenance, and there was a lot of it. I don’t know whether mass-motoring changed car design, or changed car design begat mass-motoring – probably a bit of both.

    • kimharding says:

      The driver is responsibility to ensure that children under 14 are correctly restrained whilst traveling in a motor vehicle. The penalty for failing to do so is a fine of up to £500. It has been so since 1989.

  2. “The vast majority of cars sold in Britain are for recreational purposes”

    Bicycle retailers in this country stock Formula 1 cars and quad bikes and not much else. That’s a cause/effect issue though. Are they only stocking what people want? Why don’t people want to buy practical bikes? etc.

    • Angus H says:

      Because the kind of trips that ought to be practical, on a practical bike, for practical people, generally aren’t. In the bits of London where you see the most bikes in general (aside from central London commuter routes), you tend to see a greater proportion of practical bikes.

      Incidentally, Brompton sell practical bikes in fairly large quantities; Boris Bikes tick a lot of practicality boxes too. What they have in common is that their users have too long a journey to cycle the whole way, but demographically bear a close resemblance to the ten-miles-in-lycra crowd.

      What it comes down to is, if you can deal with ten miles each way daily, you can most likely deal with the crap conditions, and vice versa. Most bike shops would respond pretty quickly – in the space of a year or so – to an uptick in the demand for Dutch style bikes.

      I’m lucky to live by a high street with three bike shops – one catering mainly to serious sports cyclists, one a nice all-round LBS selling all shapes and sizes (but much of whose business seems to be fixing up cheap-and-nasty “mountain” bikes foolishly bought from Argos), and one specialist Dutch bike dealer. No prizes for guessing who seems to get the most and least footfall…

    • Karl says:

      No idea why people pick up mountain bikes and then find that they are totally useless for day to day riding. I’m sure it’s because they get them for leisure riding and don’t think of it as a means of transport or utility. Even with many road bikes you can put a rack on the back. I remember my Gran had a tree gear bike, which was what most people had before mountain bikes came along. Only lasted her 30 years.

      • Angus H says:

        Perhaps because they’re incredibly cheap (well, the £80 Argos etc. ones that would fall apart if you so much as waved them at an actual mountain), look “tough” and well-built (whereas in reality most Dutch bikes, and steel/alu road bikes, will survive far more abuse than a £80 “mountain” bike), and handle going over kerbs well – bearing in mind a lot of novices want the option of riding on the pavement a fair amount.

      • Angus is right about cheapness, but they became cheap after everyone started buyng them – and they started buying them round abut the time government and people generally decided that the way to encourage cycling was to get them to do it…. away from the roads. Sustrans is part of this. Have you tried using the Semington section of the K&A canal towpath lately? On a ‘practical’ bike? Best get Knobbly Tyres. And Suspension.

        Most bikes shops sell are rubbish for riding on roads because most people wanting to cycle don’t want to do so on a road.

        There is also attitudes-leak. Attitudes-leak where you spend most of your time driving a car and berating #bloodycyclists that get in your way, but still like the idea of whizzing about on a bike, or have been specifically instructed to do so by your doctor. What kind of bike will a person buy, if they wish to cycle, but subscribe to the idea that ‘roads are for cars’? They will buy an “off-road” bicycle, and transport it an activity area in a range-rover. Having eroded a bit of peat, they will now call themselves a “cyclist”, as in “I’m a cyclist too, but these #bloodycyclists jump red lights all the time and shouldn’t be on the roads”.

        • Karl says:

          People see cycling as a leisure activity to do in a park. They may not want to do it on the road but they rarely go anywhere that needs a MTB. When they do come to anything a bit rough they seem to turn the other way. I’ve taken the kids to a couple of parks with off road cycle paths, they were aged 3 and 5 at the time and managed it fine, so I wouldn’t call these off-road.. just not on-road.

          But, there are many people riding around on MTB in town that really would be better off with something more roadworthy – in the sense of faster, easier and lighter, as Mr Cat points out below.

          Many of the Dutch-style bikes I think are too heavy for the UK (bar central London or Norfolk). We have too many hills. A good hybrid with no suspension, points for fixing a rack, mudguards and gears to help anyone get up the short but steep climbs, are ideal. They can be used in town or out in the parks. While you may not want to do downhill on one they easily cope with tow paths and woods.

    • Judging by the number of people I see riding mountain bikes around London with two bags of shopping dangling from each handlebar, most bike shops are failing even to meet current demand for practical bikes.

  3. paulc says:

    Isn’t that what car driving used to be like back in the olden days when they were open topped and need an awful lot of fettling to keep running?

    • Robert says:

      Except that you didn’t have anyone behind you yelling at you with more power than you. Unless the cyclist or the tram operator had a gun.

  4. Ian says:

    Here’s a truly wonderful example, marketed as possibly the bike to work scheme commuter bike. http://www.edinburghbicycle.com/products/revolution-shadow-13?utm_source=email-24-01-14&utm_medium=email&utm_content=sale&utm_campaign=shadow

    Shame you can’t fit proper mudguards, or a frame mounted rack, or tyres wider than 28, oh and of course no dynamo hub. Quite why anyone would commute on this in a Scottish winter is beyond me.Ian.bradbury2010@gmail.com

  5. Chris says:

    Why do people bang on about Dutch bikes so much?

    I ride around 3,000 miles a year. If I had to do it on a Dutch bike, I doubt I’d bother, for a number of reasons;

    1. They’re slow and heavy.

    2. They’re weighed down by pointless things like built in locks. If I get off my bike whilst out and about, it’s getting securely locked to a fixed object. I’m certainly not relying on a built in wheel lock!

    3. From those I’ve seen commuting in London after dark, I’d want to supplement the dynamo lights, so those are dead weight as well.

    If you want to buy a Dutch bike in the UK, there’s plenty of places you can buy one, so buy one! Why do you feel the need to try and force them on everyone else? Why are you so offended by people like me who happily ride many miles a year on hybrids, or in my case on a CX bike with mudguards and a bike rack? Surely it would be better to encourage people, regardless of the type of bike they want to ride?

    As for the rest of the article, find me just one photo of lots of cute Dutch families riding happily along that sort of cycle lane on a 5% gradient (or even 3%, to be generous) and I’ll start to consider that experiences in the Netherlands might be relevant to here. Until then, constantly referring to the Netherlands to the exclusion of all else, regardless of how much time, money and effort they’ve invested in their infrastructure is just a pointless waste of time. Make me some comparisons with France, Germany or Spain!!!

    • Paul Smith says:

      You sound like a chap who knows what they want from a bike. Like me, I don’t need a rack, or any of this other stuff. I’ve got a road bike (albeit with proper metal full length mudguards included as standard). Because that’s the best choice for me, I ride it either leisurely, or to work and back and have to do it at speed! It doesn’t get left anywhere it could get nicked (I have a crappy old mountain bike that gets left locked up when I need to go to town for whatever reason). I don’t do shopping on the road bike, so I didn’t need one with a rack. I like messing about with my bike so the regular maintenance isn’t a problem.

      However we ended up spending the value of my other half’s Hybrid again on accessories to make it usable for what she needs. She rides it to work, does all our weekly shopping on it and can be trawling around Surrey and Sussex going to boot sales on it. That means a rack, panniers, lights, kick stand, separate locks and mudguards, because they don’t come as standard. Even with all the extra bits brought for it, we still need to deal with the open transmission, which means regular maintenance.

      If I wasn’t a bike expert she would probably be trying to go shopping on the cheapest mountain bike she could find, getting wet, having to carry everything in her back pack, etc. With a totally destroyed chain and cassette, with the gears out of whack. Like some of my colleagues at work. Not a good experience. She’d probably have given up and just use the car.

      A “Dutch” style bike would suit her fine, couldn’t get one though because there was no one locally that sold ’em. The Pashleys that were stocked (15 miles away) still had open exposed chains and derailleur gears (and were probably pink). For most people currently using cars for short 2 or 3 mile trips to nip to town who aren’t doing a Strava segment, a Dutch style bike would be the perfect choice. Low maintenance with all the stuff they need.

      • Chris says:

        There’s a really interesting angle here on the difference between motorists and cyclists that I really don’t understand.

        You say that if you couldn’t fettle your wife’s bike, she’d be riding around, like so many, with the gears crunching and grinding. You’re right, of course, (although how difficult is it to occasionally use a chain cleaner?), but how many of them would drive round in a car making the same sort of noises?

        On the whole they wouldn’t. They’d take it to a garage. Why do people think it makes sense to pay £200+ to have a car serviced, but the idea of paying £30 to have a bike serviced is a completely alien concept?

        With regards to adding bits to your wife’s bike, however, what on earth did you add?? Even with a Dutch bike, I would’ve bought another lock, so I wouldn’t count that, but my pannier rack was £35, my mudguards £30 and my very powerful Chinese led lights £27. There aren’t many bikes you could consider riding for only twice that…

        • Paul Smith says:

          I don’t recall exactly. We had a £650 cycle to work voucher, we spent it all, the bike itself was £350 if I remember.

        • platinum says:

          £30 for a service would be more than the value of my crappy old mountain bike, not to mention I’m a low wage earner. Of course that’s academic since my local bike shop closed down, I’d have to cycle 25 miles on 70mph trunk roads to get to someone that knows anything about bikes. Buying tools and investing the time to learn to do it myself would also cost more than the value of my bike. If people had to pay more than the value of their “cars”, and had to drive 25 miles trying to share the road with “trucks” every time they needed a service how many people would do that? Hence I have to live with my squeaky brakes and crunchy gears. Meanwhile I dream of a maintenance free Dutch bike.

          • Ian says:

            Maintenance free sounds optimistic. Lower maintenance, but not none. No one in a local bike club or CTC group who could help?

      • Paul says:

        For 2-3 mile trips a Brompton (British made) bike would be ideal. For trawling round Surrey and Sussex / carrying shopping a touring bike. ( or trecking bike ).

    • I’m sure we’ve been through all this before, many times, but no, no-one is forcing you to buy a Dutch bike.

      They are an option for people who aren’t you.

      • Chris says:

        You’re right, we have, and I apologise for coming back to it again, but I just get so frustrated by people constantly coming up with reasons why people can’t just get out and ride a bike!

        Every person riding a bike is one less person driving a car, and I think that’s a great thing. The more people there are riding bikes, the happier I am, and the faster my journey is. This is a good thing, and I don’t care what sort of bike they’re on, so long as they’re happy!

        Making amusing comparisons between cars and bikes is all well and good, but what does it do to help? If it puts just one person off cycling because they haven’t got a special Dutch bike, that is a bad thing!

        What’s wrong with pointing out that whatever sort of bike people get for pootling around town, they’ll enjoy more with mudguards and the occasional cheap service?

    • I bang on about my “Dutch Bike” (actually German) because I can just get on it and go to the shops without bothering about special clothes or shoes, lights or a lock or even tucking my trousers in. It carries me (15.5 stone) plus a weeks shopping back from Llanelli (6 miles away) or takes the cats to the vets, me to the pub or me + 30 watt amp and guitar to rehearsals. I’m lucky, I also have a couple of faster bikes and a tandem but if I could only keep one it would be my roadster. BTW, SW Wales is hilly but when it gets too steep I have the option of pushing it up and riding down. The “no maintenance” thing is important, it has a fully enclosed chain and 8 speed hub so I don’t get too worked up when the wind blows sand off the beach, I also like the hub brakes and dynamo.
      I used to love messing about with my bikes and spending money in bike shops but I suspect I’m now at the point where I really can’t be bothered – I just want a tool that does the job rather than a tool that needs lots of other tools to make it work.

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  7. Hette says:

    You can find plenty of pictures of happy Dutch families cycling in hillier parts. Just google “fietsen in de duinen” of ” fietsen in Zuid Limburg”. As for your point of cycling in Germany, remember that not all parts of Germany have hills? As a Dutch person I lived for years in the East of Germany but there was no hill in sight….

  8. inexpensive, reasonable proper city bikes are available in the UK – http://www.decathlon.co.uk/elops-3-black-city-bike-id_8245409.html#User_opinion

    Although Goodwill was wrong to stereotype like he did, he was right about needing to change the UK view that cycling is a sport rather than practical transport needs to change.

    The problem is that national and local govt seem to have a perverse ability to make cycling as difficult as they can whilst pretending to “encourage” it.

    It isn’t hard to change things and just needs conviction and commitment.

    • Jan says:

      You call that a reasonable proper city bike? I’m dutch, and what i see is the following: Exposed chain (means i have to keep it lubricated), flimsy rack that won’t survive a passenger, flimsy rim brakes. It weighs 17kg, which is comparable to a must more robust dutch style bike. It’s nice and cheap, but I would not call ita practical bike at all.

      Practical means to me: Maintenance interval of 1 year, while bike is used daily and left parked in the open air, rain and snow all year round. Capable of carrying a passenger, a load of luggage (preferable both) or 2 children. Bike has to survive a bike rack crammed with other cyclists (your braking cables will get tangled).

      Maybe such a bike is not cheap. But per km cycled, it’s the cheapest option. Your bike wouldn’t survive 2 years in Amsterdam, lots of Gazelle’s are over 20 years old and still going strong.

  9. rdrf says:

    You missed out that:
    1. The “trucks” are being driven over the speed limit by 40 – 50% of their drivers when possible.
    2. “Truck” drivers are insured against their responsibilities by having 3rd party insurance – which is supposed to make them more responsible. (I’m not saying they shouldn’t have 3rd party – but not at more than 80% of the costs of injury to a human being)
    3. “Truck” drivers have their road and vehicle environment engineered to accommodate their carelessness/recklessness/rule or law breaking .Which exacerbates this behaviour – in the name of “road safety”.
    4. Driving a “truck” is not that much more expensive than driving “a car”. Of course, it would be far more expensive if the social, environmental and health effects of trucking were taken into account.
    5. It’s difficult and expensive to not only buy “a car”, but to maintain it.
    6. Police, doctors, transport planners, “road safety” personnel etc. think that rule breaking in your “car” is as bad (or worse) than rule breaking in “a truck”.

    In fact you could go on and on…

  10. Brilliant satire, one of the best cycling blog posts I have read for quite some time. Kudos.

  11. pm says:

    There are also the “car drivers, get out and push” signs!

    And the street furniture placed in the middle of the highway.

  12. Nat Bocking says:

    Let’s not forget that before the ‘car’ the roads were made for horses and they weren’t that good so the ‘car’ riders lobbied and fundraised got the roads straightened and sealed and so hundreds of thousands of people went out in astride their ‘cars’ every day but the lorries saw these nice level roads and thought they’d like them too and rather like a bully at the bar, instead of making room for the ‘car’ on the roads they demand be built for them, just elbowed the ‘car’ rider out of the way.

  13. Ysanne says:

    Spot on.
    By the way, Germany is full of MTB-ish bikes that come with mudguards, chainguard, pannier rack and kickstand. Quite well built with acceptable components, available at major supermarket/low-end department store type places for a reasonable price. Turns out, it’s the perfect combination of sturdiness and practicality that you need for everyday city riding — I appreciate it even more, now that I brave Australian traffic on a road bike…

  14. OnlyAnotherAndy says:

    To extend this analogy:

    One might think that cars ought to have their own separate roads, separated from the trucks, or at least, have a separated part at the side of busy roads. Of course, due to the mass driving of trucks, all the roads and all the space is currently allocated toward as many truck lanes and routes as possible to “alleviate congestion”. All this has achieved is allow and encourage people to drive their trucks further and more often, making them more truck dependent and worsening conditions for pedestrians and car drivers.

    Inevitably, when “car infrastructure” of good quality is proposed, to give cars a fair chance, it will usually require reallocation of space away from the trucks people are nowadays so reliant on. Besides being politically difficult, driving cars is mostly seen as recreational or for sport, not as practical transport, seen as the poor man’s transport, so why on earth is money being spent to make truck driving conditions worse? Those bloody car drivers. Of course, giving car driving a fair share of the space to create a usable network would be part of some “war against the truck driver”. Even though mass truck use has an enormous social cost in terms of space consumed by parking both in residential streets and destinations, road danger, difficulty crossing roads especially for children and less able people, pollution, noise, expensive damage to roads, transport poverty and so on, most people think this is completely normal, and lots of people will not accept any measure to encourage alternatives if it means reducing convenience for trucks. Politicians talk about “encouraging car use” by painting a useless narrow lane at the side of the road, allowing cars on inadequate pedestrian pavements or “car boxes” at the front at junction queues that have been proven ineffective in other countries. The reality is that these measures are bollocks, and, truck use is in fact currently financially subsidised by the state.

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  16. Robert says:

    And imagine that at the same time, you had to push repeatedly on the accelerator just to keep it moving, and you had no power accelerator, and when you started up again, began to move, you had to push even harder on the pedals. And imagine that the government said that a bit of education would make it safe to drive a car.

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