If people cycling are breaking the law, there’s a problem with the street

In Horsham, there’s a street where people cycling consistently break the law. South Street is a one-way street in the centre of town; stand here for any period of time, particularly in the morning or the evening, and you will see people cycling ‘the wrong way’ – either on the footways, or in the carriageway itself.


Going the wrong way


Also going the wrong way

Why is this? Well, South Street has to be seen in context.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 10.45.55

South Street is the short link, marked in red, with the arrow showing the ‘correct’ direction

South Street forms part of the one-way route through the centre of the town; you can only drive through the town from the roundabout to the south-west, to the junction at the north-east – not in the opposite direction.

There were good intentions here – the centre of Horsham has very little motor traffic, and it travels at low speeds, thanks to a (self-reinforcing) 20mph zone with humps, sharp corners, and a cobbled surface. The idea is (and was) to make through traffic take the inner ring road, that loops around the town centre, and this generally works. (I’ve covered the background in this previous post).

However this policy has made it very difficult to negotiate the town centre by bike, because the one-way route through the centre has no exemptions for cycling. It makes it difficult – indeed next to impossible – to cycle across the town from east to west, and (for our purposes) from north to south.

Looking again at South Street, it’s quite easy to see why people are cycling through here; it forms part of a direct link between the Park to the north (where it is legal to cycle), to the routes through to the southern parts of Horsham.

The obvious route, from north to south, across the town centre

The obvious route, from north to south, across the town centre

There isn’t any other alternative if you want to head from the north of the town, to the south, except for the inner ring road itself, which is a dual carriageway carrying around 20,000 motor vehicles a day, at 30+ mph.


Albion Way, Horsham’s inner ring road. An attractive route for cycling?

The additional detail – as well as the outright hostility of this road to cycling – is that it would be a lengthy detour to use this road, rather than taking the direct route. Fine if you are driving, which doesn’t require any physical exertion, not much fun if you are cycling.

So the ‘problem’ of cycling the wrong way on one-way streets is really a problem of failing to design safe, attractive routes for people who wish to cycle – indeed, ignoring cycling completely in the design process.  

The obvious solution here is to make South Street two-way for cycling – that is, simply legalising the illegal behaviour. I think this could be achieved quite safely without any physical alteration to the street, beyond changing the no-entry signs to include an exemption. There’s not much traffic travelling through here, and people are already cycling the wrong way, without the world ending! 

Long-term, it would be more appropriate to emphasise two-way cycling with this kind of design –

Two-way cycling in the centre of Assen, on a one-way road for motor vehicles

Two-way cycling in the centre of Assen, on a one-way road for motor vehicles

But in the meantime a simple exemption would work.

I think it’s worth considering these kinds of problems with two important principles in mind –

  • All the regulation and control on our streets – one-way roads, traffic lights, and so on – exists because of motor traffic. Prior to the existence of large volumes of motor traffic, almost none of this control was necessary. So people cycling have been swept up in, and inconvenienced by, a system that wasn’t necessary for their mode of transport.
  • We want more people cycling; more cycling is a good thing, as is less driving. So we should do all we can to exempt cycling from the controls that exist solely because of motor traffic.

It seems that these kinds of ideas are, sadly, completely alien to most people. The associate editor of the Irish Sunday Times, John Burns, had this to say in response to a comment of mine about ‘fixing’ the problem of cycling the wrong way on streets –

Presumably this was an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum, but it falls flat, because yes, this is precisely what we should do doing. If people are cycling on footways, there’s a problem with the street. If people are cycling through red lights, then there’s a problem with the junction. The problem lies not with the behaviour; it lies with the street itself.

I’ve already described how pavement cycling does not exist in the Netherlands, as a phenomenon. There simply isn’t any reason to cycle on footways, because the alternative is better.

And the same logic applies to jumping red lights. In the vast majority of cases, there’s either too much unnecessary delay, or there is no need to hold people cycling at a red light, when they could safely proceed. More generally, urban areas in Britain are bloated with traffic signals, a result of a failure to restrain motor traffic, or to redirect it to more appropriate routes. Dutch town centres have vastly fewer traffic signals, and hence vastly fewer lights for people to jump.

Earlier this year, a video of ‘bad cyclist behaviour’ in York went viral, featuring in the Daily Mail and a number of other national newspapers. The original YouTube video now appears to have been withdrawn – but you can view it here, in BT’s ‘motoring’ section.

Nearly every single example of ‘bad behaviour’ in this video would not exist in the Netherlands, because roads and streets there are designed to make cycling easy and painless, rather than throwing up pointless obstacles in their way.

The video opens with people bypassing a red traffic light to turn left, on a well-used cowpath.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 11.39.50

Junctions in the Netherlands are designed to accommodate this behaviour. There is no reason to hold people cycling at red traffic signals unnecessarily – people in York have worked this out for themselves.

This is followed by a sequence of people cycling the wrong way on one way streets (being admonished by the dayglo finger of shame) –

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 11.48.33 Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 11.48.48 Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 11.49.08

This is behaviour that should simply be legalised, and made safe. Towns and cities should not have these kinds of restrictions on movement in these directions by people cycling.

Next up, someone cycling straight on through a red signal at a T-junction –

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 11.55.52

Again, streets should be designed to allow this kind of behaviour; there’s no need for people cycling to come into conflict with motor traffic while performing this manoeuvre.

Then a sequence of people jumping traffic lights that – judging by the locations – shouldn’t exist at all –

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 12.05.21

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 12.07.13Should there be so much motor traffic in these kinds of locations to justify signalisation? Almost certainly not.

The video is rounded off with some people trundling on footways alongside some pretty dreadful-looking roads.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 12.34.03 Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 12.35.08Would they be here if there were suitable conditions away from footways? Definitely not.

Rather than shaming and blaming, a more constructive (and more importantly permanent) solution to illegal cycling would be to design the problem out of existence. In doing so would we make our towns and cities vastly more attractive places.

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33 Responses to If people cycling are breaking the law, there’s a problem with the street

  1. And yet there was a certain amount of traction with the idea that if the majority of motorists speed at 80mph, the law should be changed.

    Agree completely, by the way. No-one would suggest putting traffic lights at this 4-way junction on a common, heavily used as a safe through-route http://www.cyclestreets.net/location/4321/ It’s just not necessary for people on bikes and foot interacting.

    • Doesn’t the “85th percentile” guide for setting speed limits do this, by looking at the existing speeds of most drivers and making that the limit, in essence?

      • T.Foxglove says:

        The entry points to my village had an endemic problem with speeding vehicles breaking the 30 mph limit. After a long campaign by residents/parish council for action, monitoring discovered that the 85th percentile was 45 mph so the local authority put in a pinch points/changes of priority to slow traffic entering the village.

        Following a couple of late night accidents when poor innocent drivers were unable to avoid colliding with a well lit inanimate object, the pinch points were removed and the speed limit on the roads raised to 40 mph.

        Now the 85th percentile speed of drivers on the road was within the ACPO Guidelines for enforcement (speed limit+10%+2) the problem is officially solved.

  2. Jim Yurchenco engineered the first Apple mouse. He was recently interviewed by Wired and talking about usability he said: “If our design is allowing them to do something wrong, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault.”

    Those words should be tattooed on the forearms of every street designer. And they should be forced to wear short-sleeved shirts at all times.

    Link in case anyone’s interested:

  3. Mike says:

    Great artical. Anyone who disagrees with what you are proposing needs there head examined and a holiday in a padded room. Commonsense needs to be brought back into road design.

  4. andrewrh says:

    Have you approached the council, highways authority and elected councillors with these good suggestions and feedback? What was their response?

    • On this point, there is a huge amount of cycle contraflow in Cambridge, so an example equivalent to the Horsham one is almost certainly available, if you don’t already have some. We have contraflow with and without lanes, or roads with a large variety of widths, shared with buses etc. Not saying it’s all best practice, but demonstrably safe. But then you already know that because people do it illegally.

      Might be worth pushing the argument that pavement cycling could be reduced if people can legally cycle in the opposite direction?

  5. rdrf says:

    I would disagree to the extent that some cyclist rule/law breaking is simply being greedy or lazy and disregarding the well being of other cyclists and pedestrians. it won’t necessarily go away with even substantial re-design of streets. Some people are just going to find a way to be anti-social however difficult it becomes to be like that.

    HOWEVER: I more than agree about how the authorities have for decades accommodated rule/law breaking IF DONE BY THE MOTORISED. The motor vehicle and highway environment has been designed explicitly to connive and collude with not just more motoring, but careless/dangerous/rule or law breaking/criminally negligent driving.

    Driver crashes (or may crash) into roadside object (such as a tree) – the roadside object/tree is removed.

    Driver crashes (or may crash) into motors travelling in the opposite direction – crash barriers or central hatching at the least.

    Drivers crash and their vehicle is made crashworthy (seat belts, crumple zones, airbags, collapsible steering wheels etc.) so that they don’t even need to report the incident to the police because nobody is hurt.

    Schrodingers cat and Cambridge Velocipedestrienne make this point above (85 th percentile and relaxing speed limits generally). And don’t forget that this is colluding with rule/law breaking by those who threaten other people’s lives FAR MORE than the “shamed” bicyclists highlighted above.

    I suggest making this point when pushing for accommodation of two-way cycling etc. when the usual bigoted criticisms are made.

  6. There’s no justification for running red lights on a bike. If we, as cyclists, are allowed to use roads which are primarily there (clearly, by design) for motor vehicles then we abide by the rules of the road. We wouldn’t accept cars running red lights and neither should we accept bikes.

    The very fact that bikes have to use roads to get around towns and cities obviously points to the problem that British towns and cities are not designed for bikes. But that does in no way excuse cyclists for jumping red lights.

    • USbike says:

      I have mixed feelings about this topic. I don’t personally like to have too many exemptions for certain users (like the Idaho red in the US for cyclist). But at the same time, pedestrians and cyclists are having to be extremely inconvenienced at best, and endangered at worst, because of all the motor vehicle traffic and subsequent creation of traffic control devices and other traffic rules.

      I think the approach commonly used in the Netherlands is a very reasonable one, where cyclists often don’t have to stop at t-junctions or make right turns. And this isn’t because they’re allowed to “run” the red. It’s because in those cases, the traffic lights are to the left of the cycle track and don’t apply to them. In other cases, there’s the all direction green or they try to synchronize the timing to minimize unnecessary waiting. These are special provisions for cyclists but they are not an exception to the traffic law like the Idaho red which allows cyclists to treat stop lights and stop signs differently than motorists. While the Idaho red probably works just fine in many locations, it’s a band-aid approach to a greater problem, in my opinion. For certain things it’s appropriate and necessary to make some exceptions, like two ways for cyclist on a otherwise one-way street. But then again, that isn’t a blanket exception because streets allowing that would be marked in some way shape or form.

    • Dan B says:

      “Allowed” to use the roads? “Primarily for motor vehicles”?! No. Cycles and pedestrians use the roads by right; it is only motorised traffic that is there by licence.

      The reasons it is unacceptable for cars to run red lights is because they cause an unacceptable level of danger to others. Is it unacceptable for pedestrians to cross roads when the crossing is on red? Is it unacceptable to cross when there’s no crossing? People on bikes are much more akin to pedestrians than they are motor vehicles.

      I’ve only recently started jumping red lights, having ridden to the letter of the law for 8 years. Obeying the law gained me and cycling absolutely nothing, except close proximity to fast-moving, dangerous vehicles. Now I don’t have to sprint for my own safety as cars rev their engines inches from my back wheel. Now cars don’t overtake me at the pinch points they used to. I now ride as if MY traffic signals are broken, with the understanding that the other ones aren’t. It’s a pragmatic approach that makes cycling feel a hell of a lot safer.

    • Bill G says:

      I cycle predominantly in suburban North London and I see cars running red lights every day. When the traffic light turns amber you can hear drivers revving their engines in a desperate bid to get thru’. When my light is green vehicles will still be driving across my path which should be impossible as the gap between the stop line and the light is less than a car length.
      Alastair, the best place to see this is the junction of Prince of Wales road and Kentish Town Road.

      I have reported this to the police (who ignore such behaviour) and even wrote to my MP when they failed to respond.

      Cycling on the pavement is not always benign or a sign of a lack of provision. When I still lived in East London (Leytonstone) I had regular encounters with young men riding at speed on the pavement. They were arrogant, intimidating and it does affect the confidence of elderly pedestrians to go out, even in the afternoon.

      The cars are more dangerous by a huge margin but do not underestimate the unpopularity of pavement cycling.

      • michael says:

        I agree with both points.

        Failed amber-gambling is now the norm, sometimes taking up the entirety of the green-man pedestrian phase. I don’t remember it being like this in the past, though the retiming (i.e. reduction in pedestrian phase) of lights by Boris seems to have made it a more noticeable problem. Motorists have already been given a large share of the available crossing time and yet they insist on stealing more.

        Also, cycling on the pavement is sometimes down to aggressive oiks, who do it even adjacent to perfectly quiet roads. Its as if it simply doesn’t occur to them they should be in the road – its an odd combination of aggression (towards pedestrians) and cowardice (in respect of cars).

        Though, on the other hand, I know one area where the problem of pavement cycling was non-existent till they put in a stupid one-way system.

      • Jitensha Oni says:

        Cycling on the footway may not always be benign where you are but it most certainly is where I am. It is actually quite popular and accepted. You or perhaps more pertinently your council need to ask yourself/themselves why it is such a problem in your area. Something to do with naturally antisocial “low” socioeconocmic groupings would you say? Or maybe I’m lucky and the people round me are unlike anyone else in the country.

        • Bill g says:

          Jitensha, where is your area? It would be interesting to see if street design etc could explain why pavement cycling is benign where you are yet is often unpleasant in Leytonstone.

          For example look up Bushwood road in E11. The pavement is fairly wide, though with lots of parked cars making it feel narrower than it is. When someone brushes past you at 3 or 4 times walking speed it is deeply unpleasant.

          I now live in the borough of Camden which has a fairly similar mix of people to Waltham Forest so I doubt that socio-economic groupings have much to do with it.

          • drs says:

            Six years late, hah, but for anyone who reads this: Sidewalk bicycling is very common in Osaka, Japan. Most streets are actually one-lane, no sidewalk, 30 kph, shared by all users, but along the fast multi-lane roads, sidewalks are wide and most (I’d guess 90+%) bikes stay on them. Also no one wears a helmet, and most of the bikes are upright posture or mountain bike posture; this is like Dutch city/utility biking, not US road biking. Conversely, there are basically no bike lanes. Mode share is allegedly high (25%) and while I never counted, there are definitely lots and lots of bikes — like 6+ passing me per minute, or more bikes than cars parked outside a store.

            I’m told Kyoto also has a lot of sidewalk biking. Tokyo had some, but felt lower overall where I was — maybe because the sidewalks were often packed — and somewhat more bikes on the road, and even some helmets.

            I think “Jitensha Oni” is Japanese for bicycle demon, so Japan may be where they were from.

    • michael says:

      Roads are not primarily there for motor vehicles. Utter nonsense.

      • Of course they bloody are! Otherwise they wouldn’t be designed and maintained for motor vehicles! I’m not saying that’s correct or how it should be, but clearly that is the case. How can you say otherwise? There is little to no thought for cyclists in road design in the UK.

    • Michael S says:

      “There’s no justification for running red lights on a bike.”

      It’s safer. It’s quicker. There’s two justifications right there. Where the cyclist would not be crossing a stream of traffic (turning left or proceeding straight on across the top of a T-junction) it’s been shown in studies to reduce accidents by 14% if cyclists are allowed to proceed through red lights. That’s why they’ve legalised it in Paris and why right turns on red (left turns in the UK) are legal in many countries across the world.
      In the UK they’ve come up with a legal alternative that allows for the same behaviour. Short left turn filter lanes which bypass the straight on lights but allow left turns even when vehicles are coming through the lights from the right. They’ve chosen to engineer there way around the problem rather than just fix the problem and change the law.

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  8. rdrf says:

    DanB: “Allowed” to use the roads? “Primarily for motor vehicles”?! No. Cycles and pedestrians use the roads by right; it is only motorised traffic that is there by licence.

    Worth pointing out to people.

  9. henxy says:

    Some sensible stuff in here, but silly statements like the link-baity headline are the kind of stuff that make people think the bike lobby is full of nutters.

    • Dan B says:

      What’s silly about the headline? The ‘rules’ aren’t just broken by people on bikes – people cross the road where there isn’t a crossing, or cross against a red signal. Sometimes they wait to cross the road within sight of a crossing but prefer not to use it. Is EVERYONE who does this wrong, or are crossing points not in appropriate places and push-buttons ineffective – why do you have to wait the same amount of time whether you press the button or not at most crossings by junctions? Drivers also break many rules of the road, putting other people at risk.

      The ‘silly’ thing is that we know all this, and have for years yet continue along the “people just need more education” line – more signs, more paint, more training – despite the clear evidence that it simply doesn’t work. Einstein stated that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result”. That’s the UK road policy.

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  11. Simon says:

    I do usually agree with your posts, but I don’t in this case.

    People break the law for all sorts of reasons. It might well be a poor law; it might be that people are selfish and impatient.

    That people regularly drive at 100mph on motorways does not mean that the 70mph speed limit is wrong. Similarly here, if people cycle the wrong way down a one way street that doesn’t mean the one-way street should be two way (at least for cycles). It might mean that making it two way would be better than the current one way, but it doesn’t directly follow from the law breaking.

    Having said that, I do agree with you about that street in Horsham. I live in the area and know Horsham a bit – the largely pedestrianised town centre is a pleasure compared with Haywards Heath where I live (Haywards Heath is horrid for cycling) – and making that streeet two way would probably make Horsham nicer still.

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  13. surfsensei says:

    Reblogged this on Infrastructural and commented:
    I was about to write something on this very topic but this says it, really. The question that councils and national government should be asking, faced with people doing the ‘wrong thing’ on foot or bike, is “why do they feel it necessary to do this?” then deal with the cause – nearly always a case of poor design. If councils and their road engineers simply involved the users in the design process (which is what I understand all design should do), we will help them produce infrastructure that people will actually use. Do’t just take my word for it, read on:

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  15. anonymous for safety says:

    Cycling enthusiasts, do what all other emerging minority groups have done, and campaign to change the law. Meanwhile, kindly respect my rights as a pedestrian, which include the fair expectation that vehicles will not be come at me from where I least expect.

    Alternatively, brace yourself for the first time some character like Lewis Gill kills someone whose surviving relatives are rich enough to get a really good lawyer, and watch the effect of being sued for every penny.

    I obey law and customs, please do the same.

    • michael says:

      “Cycling enthusiasts, do what all other emerging minority groups have done, and campaign to change the law”

      Er…that’s what this blog is doing!

      Though while we are addressing entire groups as if they were collective hive minds – I once got mugged by one of you pedestrians. I obey the law, will you walking-enthusiasts please do the same?

    • “do what all other emerging minority groups have done, and campaign to change the law.”

      That is exactly what this post is about. Did you even read it?

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