Fast cyclists, eh.
Whizzing around; speeding through; belting around corners; appearing out of nowhere; tearing along.
At twenty miles an hour, even. Sometimes.
Twenty miles an hour.
Hang on. Twenty miles an hour? Twenty miles an hour? Isn’t that the kind of speed society conventionally considers to be quite slow, at least when it comes to motor vehicles? Witness the frothing that presents itself any time a borough, town or city wants to lower a speed limit from 30mph to 20mph.
30mph is seen (rightly or wrongly) as a reasonable, normal urban speed; yet this is the kind of speed that ‘cyclists’ – even the fittest and most powerful – will struggle to attain under normal circumstances. Equally, 20mph for motor vehicles is seen as an acceptably slow speed, yet 20mph on the flat requires serious effort from someone cycling.
So is there really such a thing as a ‘fast cyclist’? How can it be the case that cyclists are considered ‘fast’, when they will almost always be travelling through areas dominated by motor vehicles travelling within the speed limit, yet at greater speed? (Sometimes much greater). What’s going on? Does it even make sense to refer to cyclists as ‘fast’ in this context? If cycling on the road at well under 20mph isn’t ‘too fast’, why should it be ‘too fast’ on cycle-specific infrastructure?
One of the most recent examples of the employment of ‘fast cyclists’ was in this press release from Sustrans about a new bridge in Bristol.
The project will coincide with the first installation of new lighting technology which is used in Copenhagen to encourage faster cyclists to slow their pace. The “green wave” lights will coordinate with the signals at the crossroads on Coronation Road so that cyclists flow more smoothly through the junction.
It turns out that the purpose of the lights is really just to pace people to the traffic signals (at what speed, it is not stated) rather than, specifically, to slow down ‘faster cyclists’ – so this is a poorly-phrased paragraph (and misleading about the purpose of this lighting in Copenhagen). But it fits with a general atmosphere in Britain of blaming people for cycling ‘too fast’ for a situation, attempting to slow them down, without any apparent assessment of why it makes objective sense, in urban areas, to slow down anyone cycling to a speed far below 20mph, when 20mph is the minimum speed limit for motor traffic.
What is really the issue is not speed; it’s poor design. It’s paths that are too narrow to safely accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, in the numbers that are using them. Witness the attempts to get people to ‘behave’ on the Bristol-Bath railway path – ‘anti-social’ issues that simply would not arise if the path was wide enough, and had a separate footway.
It’s poor sightlines, and pinch points, and sharp corners, that bring people into conflict, and necessitate the use of awful barriers and chicanes in an attempt to get people to moderate their speed.
Rather than designing paths to accommodate a range of cycling speeds, paths in Britain are, sadly, often designed for walking speed, and then impediments and obstacles are put in people’s way once it turns out that the natural cycling speed of most people is much higher, and consequently problematic.
It’s awful, and it’s still happening. As I type this, a brand-new walking and cycling bridge is being installed over the A24, the bypass around Horsham. It will have TWO sets of slalom zig-zag gates on the ramp.
Why is this? Simply because the bridge has not been designed properly; designed to accommodate people’s natural cycling speed. It will have a ridiculously tight, Alpe d-Huez series of mini hairpin bends at the bottom of the ramp.
This ramp has come ready-made with obstacles attached to it, to slow people down, all because it has not been designed to accommodate normal cycling speeds in the first place. It’s as simple as that.
The vast majority of the people cycling in the Netherlands will not be getting near speeds of 20mph for everyday cycling. However, a minority will be (and may exceed that speed), and the infrastructure is designed in such a way as to accommodate those higher speeds, and to mitigate potential problems. I’ve set out in a previous post how this works; designing for the bicycle as a vehicle capable of speed.
More broadly, this is the kind of design that is good for cycling regardless of the speed at which people are travelling. The corners will be smooth, with sufficiently large radii, to make turns a pleasure, rather than an inconvenience. And conflict will be avoided, even at higher speeds.
It makes cycling a pleasurable experience; there aren’t obstacles in your way, corners are not sharp, and momentum is not lost. Journeys are smooth and easy, be they on the flat, uphill, or downhill.
By contrast, cycling in Britain appears to continue being accommodated within pedestrian-specific infrastructure, and is then hobbled to reduce the speed of people cycling to walking speeds.
The problem, therefore, is not with ‘fast cyclists’, but with completely inadequate design.