‘Critical mass’

Over the last few years it has seemed (to me at least) that the notion of a ‘critical mass’ of riders being a key plank of cycling policy has lost its credibility. The idea of ‘safety coming from numbers’ has, quite correctly, been replaced by a more mature understanding that numbers should – and indeed have to – come from safety, and from feelings of safety.

To that extent I was quite baffled by the comments that the Labour Transport Secretary Mary Creagh came out with at the meeting yesterday in the House of Lords, to launch Bike Week.

It was a speech that could have been written five years ago, with claims that the debate about segregation is still ongoing, and an argument that cycling infrastructure can’t accommodate demand for cycling, so we shouldn’t have it. She pointed specifically to the cycle tracks along Tavistock Place as being oversubscribed, and unable to cope with the numbers of people cycling on it, as a reason why cycle tracks are bad.

To me, this missed the point spectacularly. The demand for these tracks – widely acknowledged as substandard, ever since their compromised construction – demonstrates that the principle of separation from traffic is popular.

Popular, despite the low quality

Popular, despite the low quality

That’s not an argument for removing cycle tracks and simply mixing people with motor traffic. It’s an argument for either improving the standards of poor cycle tracks so they can cope with demand, or for separating cycling from motor traffic in other ways – through measures such as filtered permeability, both of which are potential solutions for this route through Camden.

But instead, Mary Creagh appeared to think that cycling infrastructure in principle isn’t capable of coping with the ‘critical mass’ of riders on London’s roads. Where 20mph limits exist, she argued, separation isn’t required. That ‘critical mass’ of riders is sufficient.

Firstly, this begs the question of how she imagines Dutch cities – which have cycling levels ten times higher than London, a genuine ‘critical mass’ – manage to function. Do they simply mix people with motor traffic? Absolutely not. On main roads they separate, employing the measures that Mary Creagh seems to think can’t cope with demand.


Secondly, the very notion of a ‘critical mass’ on London’s roads is deeply questionable. I suspect it is easy for MPs to convince themselves such a thing exists when they have been on a large group ride, with a police escort, through central London at rush hour. It feels as if there are lots of people cycling, and indeed this is genuinely true for many roads in central London, at rush hour.

But this phenomenon is very localised, both temporally and spatially. Spatially, it is limited to central London. There is no critical mass, at all, in vast swathes of London. Cycling is essentially non-existent in many boroughs. And just as importantly, the ‘critical mass’ is limited to a short period of the day. Outside of rush hour, cycling returns to being non-existent in central London.

Just after we had finished listening to Mary Creagh, @lofidelityjim and I pedalled from the Houses of Parliament to Kings Cross. I didn’t keep an exact count, but it’s safe to say we saw no more than a dozen people cycling on this four mile trip.

DSCN0715DSCN0718DSCN0721DSCN0725Where is the ‘critical mass’ of riders in these photographs?

I then had to head off to Farringdon area, visiting Old Street along the way. Again, cycling is non-existent here in the middle of the day, on routes that are informally famed for the high levels of cycling on them at peak times.

DSCN0731DSCN0740DSCN0743A ‘critical mass’ isn’t an effective way of making cycling more attractive, when its existence is very shaky indeed.

But much more importantly, it’s not even an acceptable way of ‘catering’ for cycling in its own right. When I look at large numbers of people cycling amongst trucks and buses, weaving their way through, or fighting for space, I don’t think to myself that that is a reasonable way forward for cycling. Quite the opposite – I’m horrified that we are essentially forcing people to cycle in this way; refusing to give them safe conditions that prioritise them as a distinct mode of transport, in their own right. This is what happens when you pour lots of people cycling onto busy roads. [Video by CycleGaz].

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 00.00.18

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 11.22.46Espousing ‘critical mass’ as a way forward for cycling is, in truth, an abdication of responsibility. It says nothing at all about how you get a ‘critical mass’, and nothing at all about how that mass should be catered for, if it arrives.

Whether you have significant numbers of people cycling already, or none at all, it simply won’t do to employ it as a concept, in place of strategic thinking about the quality of the cycling environment. It’s high time it was put out of its misery.

This entry was posted in 20 mph limits, critical mass, Subjective safety. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to ‘Critical mass’

  1. Schnauzer Minelli says:

    a 20 mph limit is NOT cycling infrastructure. I wish politicians understood that. If I get hit by a car at 20mph I will still die (or suffer injury)

    • Liz says:

      The driver who knocked me off my bike was probably not even traveling at 20mph; I wasn’t seriously injured, as the bus directly behind me was able to take evasive action. However, it was enough to make me seriously consider giving up cycling in London, and I still struggle to cycle through that area without getting panic attacks. You’re absolutely right – speed limits are not cycling infrastructure.

  2. Joel C says:

    Is there a recording or transcript of what she actually said?

    In addition, Is it worth contacting Mary Creagh MP to challenge her assertions (as you’ve reported them above)? There’s a note on her website saying she can’t intervene on behalf of non-constituents, but surely if she’s got the shadow transport brief she has to talk to people nationally, bearing in mind she might well be in charge of the ministry come 2015…

    p.s. I’m just going to leave this here:

  3. Mary Creagh ” pointed specifically to the cycle tracks along Tavistock Place as being oversubscribed, and unable to cope with the numbers of people cycling on it, as a reason why cycle tracks are bad.”
    And yet this is exactly the argument needed for why we “need” more roads, more motorways, because of the “demand”!!!!!

  4. Chris says:

    My cycling in and out of Central London is in rush hour, and on CS7 – one of the most “critically massed” routes in London. It’s very common, especially on a nice, sunny day like today, to have upwards of 30 cyclists in the advanced stop box at most major junctions from around Clapham inwards.

    There are no areas on my commute where I don’t feel comfortable during rush hour – although I wouldn’t want to take my kids with me – but if I get held up in the office and don’t make it back out to Colliers Wood by 7pm, I feel like Cinderella’s pumpkin, as the protection proffered by the bus lane suddenly vanishes, to be replaced by parked cars!

    What, though, would be the alternative on that route? Most of it isn’t wide enough to allow for segregated cycle facilities, bus lanes and car lanes, I don’t really see how you could do away with any of these completely, and for plenty of CS7 between Clapham and the Elephant, the current mass of cyclists is already enough to often see 4 or 5 cyclists abreast, each overtaking those cyclists inside them. That might not represent a critical mass now, but it surely would do if we were all segregated into a cycle lane two bikes wide.

    In my dream world, TFL would take a parallel side route, remove all powered vehicle access, keep the footpaths, turn the entire current road surface over to bi-directional cycle paths, and have traffic signals at all junctions which would only change when triggered by a vehicle detection system, and then only for a short period of time, so as to prioritise the cycle traffic.

    Whether my dream would ever be even remotely possible, who knows?

    Overall, even in the Netherlands, only 2% of journeys over 10 miles are carried out by bike. I commute 15 miles each way 2-3 days per week, so will always be in favour of the status quo or complete revolutionary change, as whilst halfway house changes might increase safety, I fear they would come at too great a cost to average cycling speed on an already busy route to allow me to continue commuting by bike.

    • Government must consider transport on a mass level.

      If cycle paths cause you to give up cycling, while enabling children to ride to school and other people ride to the shops or work, then it’s worth it. It’s a net gain.

      One person’s desires to work a gym routine into their commute isn’t relevant. It’s not about one person’s wishes, it’s about enabling millions of people to use a bike for transport.

      • Chris says:

        Most of the people I know who commute by bike to London have journeys of 8-10 miles or more though. It’s just the nature of property prices in London pushing people out to the periphery.

        Add to that the fact that most people who do live closer to the centre would struggle to find anywhere to store bikes for their families without them getting stolen on a regular basis, and I suspect you’d find that people like me are a significantly larger proportion of the London cycling population than you might expect.

        • Joel C says:

          You’re probably right, if you mean the *current* population – namely that rag-tag bunch of weirdos, eccentrics and outliers who are bold/fit/crazy enough to cycle in the current conditions. There’s a certain romance to being the outsider, but that isn’t a reason to retain the status quo, when improving conditions could help so many.

          It also bears repeating that London != Great Britain. Many journeys in provincial villages, towns and cities (in other words, where the vast majority of the population of the UK actually live) are eminently commutable, if road conditions were acceptable. Practical issues about security and storage are – frankly – side issues that could be overcome; again not a reason to hold back on development.

          I concur with the cat: when it comes down to it: if its a choice* between my hobby and the health & well-being of the population at large, I know what I’d be prepared to do.

          (*) I should point out that this “choice” is completely artificial in reality – no-one is being forced to give up anything.

        • Bill G says:

          Chris, Your selection of distances may be true in your office/ work place but in my City bank (sorry!) many of us cycle between three and eight miles. What I do notice is that my fellow roadies who use the shower room ride further than most and don’t always recognise the folding bike riders, folk with baskets etc as cyclists.
          To get masses of folk cycling we need the segregated space that makes it safe to ride short distances without becoming a road warrior, decked out in technical clothing and cameras.
          As for the main thrust of the article, I agree with the sentiment. This evening I cycled home along Royal College Street and again sighed at how the new layout is worse than what preceded it. One planter is missing at the southern entrance, an adjacent planter smashed beyond repair.
          Further on a taxi was parked in the cycle lane outside the Prince Arthur pub. The planter that is supposed to block this was dented an shoved half a metre off its stand.
          Camden council and Camden CC can we have our lovely big kerb back!

          • Har Davids says:

            Cyclists not recognizing other people on bikes because of a basket or because it folds? If that’s the attitude, nothing will ever change in the UK.

  5. davidhembrow says:

    Chris: It’s correct that the Dutch make “only 2% of journeys over 10 miles” by bike, but please remember that 15% of journeys between 5 to 10 miles are by bike. Speed is important over these distances too.

    In fact, the infrastructure here allows for very high speed commuting. My commute over a distance of 18 miles each way took less time on the cycle-paths in the Netherlands than it took me to cover a much shorter distance commuting on roads by bike in the UK. Why ? No stopping. Better surfaces. Much less need to negotiate around cars.

    The entire distance of my commute was on infrastructure which is perfectly fine for children to use, and indeed they do in great numbers. This distance of 30 km was between two cities, Assen and Groningen. Because there are no secondary schools between the two, all the children of that age group cycle every day in one direction or the other. Making long journeys by bicycle in the Netherlands is not the preserve of those who are brave, and it doesn’t get worse after 7 PM or any other time. Indeed, my children have cycled to Groningen just for a day out. It’s the sort of thing that any people can do without fear.

    On long journeys, just as on short journeys, it is usually possible to avoid almost all traffic lights because cycling and driving routes have been unravelled from one another. The one traffic light which existed on my commute operated just as you idealize about – defaulting to green for bicycles and only switching to green for a short period for cars when they are detected.

    Due to being both more efficient and safer, the result is that long distance cycling here is far more common than it is in the UK. Though my route was popular with quite a lot of other cyclists, not once could I have boasted about occupying an ASL with 30 other stationary bicycles. Why not ? Because we were all moving continuously and almost entirely without stopping. It’s a bizarre claim, actually, to make good of the stops when ideally you wouldn’t stop at all. In any case, there were no ASLs on my route. They’re not good infrastructure but an artifact from the past which is best left in the past.

    I share your concerns about yet more grim infrastructure because grim infrastructure certainly won’t help you. It won’t help slower less confident cyclists making shorter journeys either. What is needed is good infrastructure, which I can confirm from my experience would serve you very well indeed.

    • Chris says:

      That does sound idyllic, but I just don’t see how that sort of system could be built into the existing landscape of London?

        • Chris says:

          Do you have anything to add that doesn’t make you look rather strange, or should we assume that you too have no idea how a fit for purpose segregated cycle infrastructure could be implemented on or near CS7 to take the current level of cycle traffic without bringing the entire South West of London to even more of a grinding halt than it currently does?

          The cheapest/easiest idea I could come up with was a suspended cycle lane above the existing road carriageway, and that’s not exactly cheap or easy.

          • Chris says:

            Just to clarify, the “it” that brings the route to a grinding halt is the rush hour, not cyclists!

          • Joel C says:

            As David suggests, how about separating motor vehicles entirely from the “difficult” parts of the route? Or maybe that’s a “strange” idea…

            • Chris says:

              That article is about Assen in the Netherlands – population 67,000, population density 2,100 per square mile.

              We are talking about London – population 8 million, population density 13,690 per square mile.

              Whilst I’d love to have the sort of infrastructure shown in Assen, I’m still waiting for someone to explain how we could retrofit it to somewhere with 120 times the population and 6.5 times the population density.

              • Joel C says:

                If the will was there and the people who understand can make a persuasive argument – it’s not idealism, just civil engineering. Very few things in life are static and inviolate.As a species, we re-route rivers, dam lakes and drain marshes; we build bridges and canals; we erect towers and we dig tunnels; we demolish; we re-build. Hell, we can even create new land where non existed before (as in Hong Kong and NL).

                We do these things because they *need* to be done.

                In my view, it is therefore not beyond the wit of our society to build proper, safe cycling infrastructure into our transport networks; in densely populated London and in nearly-empty Shetland, it can be done. It just requires a bit of imagination and ingenuity.

              • With a higher density, surely it becomes even more imperative to prioritise space-efficient modes of transport like cycling, no?

              • Greg says:

                If you can do it there certainly the argument has to be that you can do it anywhere else that has at least that level of density. The priority order in a more dense place should be to give preference to the more space efficient forms of transportation. So in central London, for example, clearly priority has to be given to pedestrians first. Then cyclists and only then if there is still space available should provision be made for private cars.

                So clearly the question shouldn’t be is there space for bicyclists? The question needs to be is there space for cars?

              • Clearly you are not waiting for ‘someone to explain how we could retrofit it to somewhere with 120 times the population and 6.5 times the population density’, since the explanation for this ‘how?’ is: with shovels and concrete.

                What you mean is: where’s the evidence this could work in London?

                Now, on one level, that factual evidence is freely available in, among other places, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and latterly New York. And whatever ‘but’ you come up with, be it the ‘medieval street plan’ business or ‘longer distances’, there are established facts to defeat the argument: road commute distances in London are *less* than in Dutch cities. Lots of dutch cities have medieval street plans. Etc etc.

                But on another level, what you are really saying is: we can’t know this would work here, unless we tried it.

                As an argument for not trying it, that’s somewhat unimpressive, isn’t it? I realise no logic has the power of conveying confidence into the fearful… I am happy to enlist fife and drum, if this will help. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGrxHO-B2TY

              • Mark Hewitt says:

                Ah c’mon now. “This place is too dense for cycling”, “This place is not dense enough for cycling” – it’s the same myths and excuses.

          • davidhembrow says:

            The Dutch couldn’t initially see how to built it into their existing cities either. Up until the 1970s, the Dutch spent most of the 20th century (especially after the second world war) transforming their cities to accommodate cars. For instance, pedestrians were marginalized behind barriers and prevented from the crossing the roads where they wanted to, just like in the UK. Cyclists were left with nowhere to go except on the roads with cars, just like in the UK. What’s more, traffic lights grew up all over the place because they were required to deal with all that motorized traffic, again just like the UK.

            By the mid 1970s, Dutch streets looked just like British streets.

            It then took an enormous amount of effort to change the streets to another form which better suited human beings than cars. But with that process, the barriers were taken away, cyclists were provided with far safer routes and because traffic lights were mostly no longer needed (or were changed to a far better design for cyclists) cycling also became more convenient.

          • fIEtser says:

            Cheapest and easiest way would be to remove the bus lanes and make them into cycletracks. Alternatively, remove the car lanes and make it a bike/bus only route. Third option places a reversible bus lane on an opposite side of the street as a bi-directional cycletrack. During the morning rush, buses can use it heading in toward the city center. On the evening commute, that flow is reversed. Boarding islands can be installed so that passengers can still board when the bus is on the “wrong” side. This basically preserves the capacity for all modes, but might actually result in an increase in the efficiency of the buses by providing a dedicated lane for the entire corridor.

  6. Richard says:

    Mary Creagh gave an interesting presentation at the Hackney Cycling Conference. Cycled to school in Coventry (not particularly through choice). Discovered cycling could be actually be quite normal in Oxford, at university. Long time resident of north London, regular cyclist in north London’s traffic.

    Struck me as perhaps a bit too used to the current norm in north London. Certainly pretty comfortable with supporting Hackney’s attempts to do as much as they can without segregation.

    • davidhembrow says:

      I used to visit Hackney quite often 20+ years ago (it’s where I met my wife). Today’s Hackney is not like Hackney of 20 years ago. This is a classic example of somewhere where cycling has grown primarily as a result of demographic change.

      Hackney has been “gentrified” by all those ex-university types moving to the area. They are the cyclists. Of course, because people tend to surround themselves with similar other people, they can easily fail to realise that they’re a self-selected group.

      This is probably why Mary Creagh can’t see what is actually just past the end of her own nose. Incidentally, demographic influences of this type are a sub-theme of my latest blog post, which I finally got round to finishing in response to Mark’s today.

  7. Clark in Vancouver says:

    Even the “critical mass” theory has been taken apart and proven to be false. The first I heard of it was in a little booklet from the 1980s called “The 100th Monkey”.
    It was a source of hope back in the cold war era. It spread the theory that all you need is numbers for your cause, not good arguments or evidence. Just enough people convinced and then when you reach the critical mass of people in support, magically most of the others will suddenly switch.
    But it’s just not true.
    I’ve noticed a change here in Vancouver with many more people cycling and people just in average clothes doing their errands by bike but nothing magical has happened to make that. It wasn’t more people cycling then others decided to as well. It was simply that some good quality infrastructure was built. The demand was already there. Some basic routes and traffic calming had been built in the 1980s which gave a start, then some more in the ’90s and more recently some old plans have finally been made so there was a foundation already there. Add to that the mild climate and the west coast love of nature and being active and it all came together.
    I know many people who only cycle on the Seawall and other protected lanes. Never on sharrows or door zone painted lanes. This tells me that they would cycle more places if there were more high quality routes. Evidence shows that too. Whenever they fix a “gap” in a route the entire route gets used more.
    Here there are the same arguments as London. That there isn’t enough room for all the cars we currently have so we can’t afford to give away any of that space for bicycles. All the same nonsense. Fortunately we know better.
    The only thing I can think of where a critical mass is important is in city councils and the provincial legislatures where things are getting voted on. It matters there more than how many people are out on the street.
    So my advice for the UK is to start cultivating future politicians. Look to people who aren’t currently in power but might run next time. Lobby the current ones of course, but look to making a foundation for the future.

  8. Pingback: Utrecht – a city that has been designed for cycling and mass mobility | As Easy As Riding A Bike

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