It’s not 1934

Last year I wrote a long piece about (British) ideological opposition to cycle tracks alongside roads; opposition flowing from the notion that such provision represents a ‘surrender’ of the road network.

People making this argument claim a variety of things. They claim such an ‘abandonment’ of the road network would be bad policy. Motor vehicles would have won; driving will be easier, and we will have failed in our overall goal of attempting to reduce driving and increase cycling.

Or, they claim that drivers – once people cycling have separate provision – will behave with a greater sense of entitlement, seeing the road network as ‘theirs’. Or, they claim that drivers won’t be used to driving around people cycling, with similar negative consequences for the latter group.

These arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny, yet, as I wrote in that previous post,

opposition to cycle tracks in the UK, of this ideological form, persists. This opposition is not new; it has a long history, dating right back to the 1930s, a time when cycle tracks were, intermittently, being proposed alongside some arterial roads in Britain. Most strikingly, the arguments advanced at the time have hardly changed in the intervening eighty years.

One of  the oddities of these kinds of arguments is an acceptance that the motorway network is unsuitable, and unusable, by people cycling, yet the rest of the road network should be retained as being ‘for cycling’. That will often includes dual carriageways and busy inter-urban A-roads which present, to all intents and purposes, just as much danger to people cycling along them as the motorway network. Building cycle tracks alongside these roads would constitute a ‘surrender’.

The explanation for this difference in attitude lies in the fact that the motorway network was built explicitly for motorists, while the rest of the road network predates (for the most part) the motor age, even if it has been changed and upgraded out of all recognition, often closely resembling motorways. These are the roads that cannot be ‘surrendered’, especially as the motorway network (in the eyes of cycle campaigners of the era in which motorways started being built) was constructed to ‘take’ the motor traffic away from it.

Unfortunately these attitudes about the road network are fossils; they are relics of an earlier era, an era when the motor vehicle was only just starting to explode as a popular mode of transport. And yet they persist.

My petition calling for the introduction of Sustainable Safety on Britain’s roads – which will involve separate provision for cycling on main roads carrying traffic at 50mph, or higher – has attracted comments of this ilk.

Your proposal accepts the motor centric status quo and asks to remove active travelers from our road network which may not be feasible in many circumstances


I think volunteering to lose rights is a disastrous thing to do from a position of weakness. I absolutely don’t think that offering to get off roads will lead to the powers that be supplying a radical provision of adequate alternatives.

I also think that pushing the idea that cyclists don’t belong on (our) roads near motorists is asking for trouble when we will have to be near motors on most roads. Going along with getting cyclists out of what drivers may think is “their way” is a very dodgy thing to aim for.

The philosophy that lies behind these kinds of comments is that, one day, some day soon, the road network could become suitable for people cycling, if only we could get drivers to behave, or if only we could slow them down, or if only we would enforce the law properly, or if only we could reduce motor traffic.

In short – if only we got tough enough on driving. 

Typifying these attitudes, in a comment referring to this picture

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 20.56.49of a father and daughter cycling alongside the main road into Gouda from the A12 motorway, David said

How much pollution and noise are the man and boy being exposed to cycling next to that busy main road? Progress would mean people in variety of human powered vehicles moving a varying speeds to a maximum of 20mph, perhaps a tram or other public transport vehicle parallel with the occasional less able-bodied person allowed in a car sharing the space as a ‘guest’

This kind of approach is plainly utopian. It imagines that a motor-centric society can somehow revert to being one in which motor vehicles barely exist; that we can restore the character of our roads, as they were in the early part of the 20th century.

Theoretically, it could be possible to achieve this. Maybe we could remove HGVs from our road network, displacing goods onto rail. Maybe we could persuade people to abandon their cars for long-distance trips, forcing them to travel at 20mph when they do.

But the chances of this happening are so remote it’s not even worth considering. We need to deal with reality. It is not 1934; it is 2014, and we need to start thinking about cycling and motoring as distinct modes of transport, with separate networks, sharing only in very limited circumstances, and under specific conditions.

That, of course, means town and city centres where motor traffic is largely removed, but it must also mean a different kind of separation on main roads, the roads that will inevitably continue to carry motor traffic. This needs to happen not just because mixing motor traffic and cycle traffic presents unnecessary danger, but also because doing so makes cycling far more attractive to ordinary people.

I find it perverse to justify opposition to cycle tracks alongside main roads, carrying significant volumes of motor traffic, in terms of ‘rights’. This ‘right’ is only being exercised by a tiny fraction of the tiny percentage of people who regularly ride bikes in Britain, and more importantly such a position denies other people their right to use the road network; those people who would like to cycle, but are currently prevented from doing so because of conditions. People like my partner, who will happily cycle along main roads and dual carriageways in the Netherlands, but would never dream of doing so in Britain – not in a million years – because there is no alternative, except cycling in the carriageway with motor traffic.

We cycled here. This would never have happened if the road was our only option.

A major junction on the outskirts of Utrecht. We cycled here. This would never have happened if the road was our only option.

So I’m tired, really, of having these kinds of arguments. People have already been pushed off the road network, to all intents and purposes. We need sane policies that make that network attractive, for all potential users.

It’s time to get real.

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24 Responses to It’s not 1934

  1. Lets face it, the quality of driving is hardly worth relying upon. Especially knowing how many drivers out there don’t even bother with a licence, or are still driving when if it were a licence to operate any other type of equipment, they would have been banned. What impact will these no surrender dinosaurs get to have on the reality that is modern driving standards?
    Riding to school this morning with my kids in Utrecht, NL, waiting at the lights on our dedicated network of cycle paths, a middle aged women in her little car sped through to get through the lights at what looked like twice the speed limit, but she was no threat to me and my kids. Bad drivers in holland exist just like everywhere else, but here they pose much less threat. On the side roads, it’s set up so cyclists are the main user, no car will drive down there unless they are actually going there. It makes the majority of streets very quiet and then there’s the roads where bikes don’t need to be, it’s so much clearer. We still share but only at much lower speeds. Drivers know when they are in areas with people and bikes and when they are sharing with just cars, and you can see the difference in their behaviour.

  2. Matt says:

    Well said Mark, very well said indeed. Helen (my fiance) is the same in that she is afraid of main roads and used to walk through the subways at E&C when going between East Dulwich and South Bank Uni (she didn’t know about the bypasses but they would have been a bit less direct).

    I am the bookkeeper at Red Pepper magazine ( and want to talk to the editors about cycling, and possibly mythbusting NL, and countering ‘it can’t be done’ arguments. I would make darned sure you were paid fairly. If the eds are happy to go ahead would you be interested?

    Thanks for all your hard work and persistence for social justice, even if reading your blog distracts me from my work and chores at times!!!

  3. T.Foxglove says:

    “The philosophy that lies behind these kinds of comments is that … if only we could get drivers to behave, or if only we could slow them down, or if only we would enforce the law properly, or if only we could reduce motor traffic.”

    I think it is more that current provision is so pitiful & as it will take ’40 years’ (a period of time now known as a Gilligan?) to catch up with the Dutch, you could find yourself legislated to the pavement; dodging pedestrians & lamp posts, giving way at every driveway.

    Looking at the A12 photo above, even with a “right to the road” very few would chose the road over the cycle path. Build a high quality network and the point will become moot.

    • Matt says:

      @T.Foxglove there is absolutely no reason why it’d take 40 years, as David Hembrow illustrates, there was a New Scientist article in 1981 praising the Netherlands for what it had achieved in eight years. They continued to learn, and to upgrade and renew infrastructure. We could copy the best and very quickly re-engineer our roads in less than five years. Roads are being relaid and rebuilt all the time. If it has to be done in stages, start with the junctions, by providing feeder lanes and cycle only crossing, better if it is simultaneous green, allowing cyclists to cross from anywhere to anywhere in one go, separated in time and space from motorists.

      At the same time, signals could be reprogrammed to eliminate problems caused by traffic having to wait to turn right on permissive as opposed to protected greens. Near me there are several junctions where it is just not safe to have that. Capacity must sometimes be sacrificed for safety. In NL, nearly always green means go

  4. Ravindra Srinivas Rao says:

    It is impossible to control errant drivers. In India the penalty for bad driving is so small that it is worth the risk. Bicycles have disappeared from the streets because of bad roads and rash drivers.
    India is experiencing a peculiar rise in the number of motorised two wheelers. India has ten million cars and 80 million motorised two wheelers. The two wheelers disrupt traffic and are the cause of many accidents and fatalities.
    There is a need for new technology in Human Mobility. All current transport systems are inventions of the 19th century. We need a 21st century invention. Even the bicycle is a pre 19th century invention

  5. Dan B says:

    What’s the point in having the ‘right’ to do something if nobody is either willing nor able to exercise that right?

    I’d happily surrender my right to cycle on the carriageway of a duel-carriageway (for all intents and purposes) motorway if there was a high-quality, user-friendly cycle track. I’d also happily surrender my right to drive everywhere I like for high-quality protected urban cycleways.

    Just because you have the ‘right’ to do something doesn’t mean it’s right to do.

  6. People who claim this would lead to loss of rights on existing roads also miss the key point that even in the Netherlands, only about a seventh (20,000km out of 140,000km) of the road network actually has segregated cycle paths. The remaining 120,000km doesn’t need it because it is the local loop, of access to homes and shops etc where permeability and traffic calming are sufficient to make the cycling environment safe. The key thing is to separate the larger volumes and higher speeds of motor traffic form cyclists, not to separate everything everywhere. For most of the time therefore Dutch cyclists are on roads, and any suggestion that are not, or could be not, permitted to be there is nonsense.

  7. Another good blog Mark. The point being missed by so many is that not only do protected lanes give you safety, they feel safe. Thus unlocking the roads to millions of folk who can and would ride.

    Love to hear your thoughts on Hackney’s new cycling transport strategy being based on the HoP?


    • Mark Hewitt says:

      As Mr. Hembrow would say it’s all about the subjective safety.

      In the UK as most people if they want to cycle to any destination over any distance and the usual reply you’ll get is “the roads are far too dangerous”. Give them a route entirely off road with no interaction with cars and it’s a different story.

      At work lunchtimes I go walking south of Stockton-on-Tees which has quite a good layout of cycle paths, I see all sorts of people using them, from the roadies, to parents out cycling with small children, who would never dream of letting them anywhere near a road.

      • Dan B says:

        Subjective safety is also why people jump red lights because it massively reduces the interaction you have with motor vehicles. We currently have infrastructure where it feels safer to ride illegally much of the time.

  8. geoffrone says:

    Great blog Mark. I feel that the dinosaur comments on your petition are fortunately following their namesakes and whilst we still have to endure them for now, they are getting fewer and fewer. Who would have thought 5 years ago that CTC policy would move so far towards segregation and Dutch style principles?

  9. I agree that all fast and busy roads need segregated cycle tracks and they need to be good enough that (virtually) all cyclists prefer to use the cycle track.
    I agree that cycling has already largely been pushed off our major roads. But I do still worry that there is a risk that we may lose our ‘right to the road’ and end up with sub-standard cycle paths, or even, no cycle paths at all (like alongside current motorways).
    However, worrying about that is a bit of a luxury because, where I live, providing cycle infra alongside busy roads is barely on the agenda. Firstly, it is not being thought about because the traffic studies only consider motor vehicle capacity. Secondly, cycle safety is not perceived as an issue because there are appear to be few cycle KSIs (obviously because cyclists are avoiding these dangerous roads). Thirdly, the lack of cyclists on such roads means that cycle infra ‘is not justified’. Fourthly, cycle infra appears disproportionately expensive because ‘bolting it on’ afterwards costs far more than designing it in from the start and because none of the benefits of more cycling are counted.
    When we budget for building a road we need to automatically budget for the cycle infra that is required to *give back* the right to travel directly, safely and conveniently that is otherwise *taken away* by making a road that is too fast and busy for bikes.
    When we build a road we don’t say ‘We need a nice wide road for all the cars and HGVs. Shame there isn’t enough space and money for the drainage, let’s just leave it out’. Perhaps we could all aspire to being treated more like drains!

    • Paulc says:

      “Fourthly, cycle infra appears disproportionately expensive because ‘bolting it on’ afterwards costs far more than designing it in from the start and because none of the benefits of more cycling are counted.”

      just seen a google street view of one of those nasty bridges across the Thames in London where a cyclist was killed… the carriage way was three lanes wide in each direction plus a massively wide pavement on either side, and yet there still wasn’t any space for proper separated cycle lanes… just nuts… it was wider than a motorway plus hard shoulders… but apparently the bus lanes were sacrosanct and the main traffic lanes just had to remain there to reduce congestion elsewhere…

  10. Excellent post, and I wholeheartedly agree.

    This “right to the road” mentality is as outdated as the other side of the coin which is the “Road fund licence” crap. I cannot understand just how these notions have managed to survive into the 21st century.

    Roads are fundamentally different to what they were back then. Most of the trunk and A roads have been massively motorway-ised since the 60s with bugger all provision for pedestrians and cyclists which is thanks to the “right to the road” mob.

    If the likes of the CTC and what is now British Cycling etc had stood up then and either argued for the right, or for infra then the country’s position for cycling would be much better.

    But everyone largely sat back and allowed the roads to be taken over by default.

    I have absolutely no issues with cyclists being prohibited from fast A roads etc, as long as dutch quality prioritised separated & protected infra for cyclists is provided first.

    The other thing that needs to happen is that vehicles need to be restricted somehow to these main roads and all the rat runs and smaller country lanes that are parallel routes closed down except for access. the drivers right to drive wherever needs to be curtailed.

    With commitment, leadership and funding this could be achieved in 5 years, which would be the foundation for a real transport revolution

  11. fIEtser says:

    You can take the “(British)” out of the first sentence (or add “American”) as the same attitude exists here in across the Pond. We were “fortunate” enough to have John Forester around 40 years ago to gut the safety improvements as standards were being developed. (Parking-protected bikeways were first recommended in 1972 in CA!) These days, the opposition has reached new heights of what would be comedy if it weren’t for people continuing to be mowed over for lack of infrastructure because of the irrational stupidity. But those same tired arguments continued to be recycled and the esteemed group of engineers that makes up the VC crowd has yet to produce anything to improve the “safety problems” that are rumored to exist with cycletracks.

  12. Paul Gannon says:

    The British cycle lobby’s deep-seated dislike of continental cycle networks is a classic example of ‘group think’. As implied in as-easy-as-riding-a-bike’s posting, the birth of this attitude is to be found in the 1930s when the CTC opposed cycle tracks for fear (real or imagined) of being banned from ‘the road’ (along with other bright policy ideas such as opposing it being compulsory for cycles to carry lights in the dark).

    The antipathy to dedicated cycle networks has been handed down from generation to generation of cycle activists. I was always impressed when involved in promoting the Camden cycle tracks (in Royal College St and Bloomsbury) by the number of cycle activists who told me we were wrong. Nearly always they started off by saying that they too had started off in cycle activism thinking the same foolish thoughts as I did about the desirability of segregation, but had come to realise that this was due to their initial ignorance and that they now accepted the multitude of arguments against segregation. ‘By idiots for idiots’, as one long-standing cycle activist described segregated networks.

    Lots of other arguments were put forward – you know them all as they get recycled endlessly. However, my contrarian view that high-quality cycle networks made cycling a pleasure unlike the experience of biking it in Britain, was based on having spent 3 years living in the Hague and then 3 years in Brussels (with lots of visits to many other cities in western Europe as part of my work). I very soon realised that ALL these activists were completely ignorant of the continental networks are really like. Surprisingly this even included those who had visited the continent and looked at those networks. Something odd was going on here – positive evidence about the levels of cycling in Europe (and the better gender and age profiles of cycling population) were being dismissed while fanciful arguments were being concocted.

    The reality as I worked out (before having heard of ‘group think’) was that the CTC’s 1930s policy was be re-produced by the internal pressure to conform to dominant ideas if you wanted to be taken seriously as a cycle activist. As they had told me, they all started off with the naïve view that segregation was desirable, but had changed their minds. What they didn’t realise was that it was not fact, but group pressure to toe the line that had changed their thinking.

    This is what Bob Davis told me in 2004 after seeing the first implementation of Royal College Street:

    “I’m afraid I have to disagree with the Camden CC people. In Ealing, where I am Cycling Officer, the local cycling campaign used to have a Camden CC view, but now have a view in line with the CTC etc.The view of almost all the cycle activist/campaigners I know is more to the John Franklin end of things. Those who are sympathetic to highway engineering take the view of the main cycling organisations (the LCC, CTC and CCN) that segregation is NOT the key. I should also say that I see the experience of government organisations, some (but by no means all) cycling groups, in Europe as of limited value.In this context I find re-runs of arguments which have been going on for 70 years largely irrelevant.The way most of us resolve this is for segregationists to be welcome to their schemes if they can get them in without too much additional hazard, but don’t tell us they have to be the basic solution.”

    All the signs of group think are there – the European experience is ‘largely irrelevant’ while fears about ‘being banned form the road dominate thinking & the whole thing is prefaced with the patronising message about how ‘I/we used to think like you, but now we know better’.

    • pm says:

      Is it possible that another factor is that many existing cyclists _like_ feeling like an embattled minority?

      If segregated facilities mean cycling becomes a mundane everyday activity for all, including children and the elderly, then where is the chance to savour one’s elite vanguard status and technical skill?

      Where does it leave one’s sense of identity as a ‘cyclist’ if its just something everyone does, on a par with walking?

      • Dan B says:

        ‘Cyclists’ can still be cyclists – they can still go on group rides, and race. They can still buy the latest kit. They can still wear whatever they want. Other people will just be able to ride bikes in safety too.

        There’s a huge difference between ‘cycling’ and ‘cyclesport’, just like people who drive cars aren’t all into motor racing and track days.

        • pm says:

          I think you slightly misunderstand my point. To expand on the thought, what I mean is, that it seems as if for many ‘cyclists’ the skill involved is (rather than being about sporting prowess) mostly about being competent at dealing with the daily joust with motor vehicles and their often erratic drivers. You take that away and anyone can do it, and where’s the sense of accomplishment in that?

          I mean it certainly seems as if most of those whose vocation is ‘cycle training’ are in reality almost entirely teaching ‘how to try and stay alive amongst motorised traffic’. If that wasn’t an issue what would they be teaching?

          I just wonder if that’s one reason for the observation from Paul Gannon above about people changing their mind about segregation after they’ve been cycling for a while in existing conditions. Is it coincidental that this change of mind comes about after they’ve invested considerable effort into learning to survive in those conditions? Aquiring skills that will become redundant if we ‘went Dutch’.

          Not to mention the selection-effect that those who don’t _want_ to have to learn such skills will just have given up cycling by that point.

          I’m not saying this is a good thing, just that it might be another reason why actual existing cyclists perhaps shouldn’t be regarded as having the last word on how to encourage cycling.

          • Paul Gannon says:

            Yes, I agree with your analysis and think this is a significant factor, though probably not the only issue especially where it applies to ‘group think’ causing the adopting of group ideology. I think it has changed considerably in the recent past, but as little as 15 years ago it was almost impossible for a supporter of segregation to prosper within a cycle organisation. The group think pressure applied to activists was staggering in its proportion. So to become a recognised activist you had to jettison ‘childish’ ideas of segregated facilities and adopt the ‘manly’ approach of vehicular cycling. I would add that this pressure and change in response applies at an almost subconscious level as wannabe activist adapt to ensure acceptance. We were called ‘idiots’, ill-informed’, ‘ignorant’, ‘inadequate’, ‘lilly-livered’ and so on. It took a lot of effort to shrug off such ‘group think control mechanisms’.
            We in Camden Cycling Campaign were very fortunate at that time in not having many vehicular cyclists running the group, so ideas for segregation could make headway. This was not the case at LCC levels where the vehicular cyclists dominated (many of them still in senior posts). I recall one LCC meeting, called to define policy on cycle networks, where over one hour of the the available three hours, was spent by the chairman telling us what we would be allowed to discuss and trying to prevent me from speaking about the developments in Camden.
            I spoke to lots of cycle group meetings back in those days and found frequently that, after meetings people would come up to me and say, “we agree with you but we can’t say so at meetings or we get shouted down/ridiculed”.
            With the difficulty of communication between like minds now aided by the internet, we have discovered that we are actually in a majority among cycle activists and group think, though clinging on some quarters, is crumbling. Thank goodness!

  13. Mike Chalkley says:

    I would say that your “50 mph & above” is far too much of a compromise – it should read “30mph & above”. Mixing bikes and traffic on 30mph roads is still incredibly dangerous and something the dutch strive to avoid.

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