Held up

You don’t have look too hard on social media to find the ravings of drivers muttering about being delayed, impeded or obstructed by someone cycling ahead of them. Usually it’s a rant about someone being ‘in the middle of the road’, or people riding two abreast, or not using a ‘perfectly good cycle path’ – often accompanied by a photograph uploaded to the internet by the driver.

The general background impression of all this noise is that delay and inconvenience on the road network is exclusively bike on motor vehicle; that it’s the slower, two-wheeled vehicles that cause the hold ups. That’s intuitively understandable – cars are fast, bikes are slow, slow things hold fast things up.

But there is, of course, a different perspective – one from behind the handlebars. This week – in a poor attempt at a parody of social media moaning – I tweeted a picture of terrible congestion on Shaftesbury Avenue.

I was being held up; this very wide road was completely clogged by a large number of drivers, travelling three abreast. If they weren’t there, or if they were to stay over to the left, I would have been able to make stately progress.

A little further on, and I was still unable to cycle at the speed I wanted to. In fact I was stationary.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 22.09.41

Bloody motorists.

And again, later that same day, in the evening, streets in Westminster were completely clogged. I gave up, and walked on the pavement.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 22.14.23

This is all so commonplace it’s background – I suspect even many people cycling will not reflect on the fact they are being held up and impeded by motor traffic. It’s so normal it’s not worth commenting on. Queues of traffic that are often difficult to filter past are everywhere in urban areas.

And it’s not just the traffic that is moving – or attempting to move. The car on the right of the picture above is parked. Without that parking occupying valuable road space, again, I would have been able to have made progress. Parking is often tremendously obstructive, yet this passes without comment. It’s a subtle way in which other modes of transport are impeded, yet unnoticed. And of course having parking on both sides of narrower streets means that roads have to be made one-way, causing needless delay (in the form of diversions) for people on bikes who would otherwise be able to take direct routes.

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If all that parking wasn’t there, this road wouldn’t be one way, and I wouldn’t have to cycle around three streets, instead of just taking the direct route down this one. I’m directly, or indirectly, impeded up by motoring.

I’m also held up by traffic lights, pretty much everywhere I go by bike, in urban areas.

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Traffic lights are so ubiquitous it is very easy to forget that they essentially only exist to facilitate the passage of motor traffic – and to allow people to cross roads dominated by motor traffic. Where motor traffic levels are low, or non-existent, there is of course no need for traffic signals, even where human beings are moving about in tremendous numbers.

And of course the width of motor vehicles means I am unnecessarily held up, where otherwise I would be able to pass by oncoming traffic without difficulty.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 23.15.35People coming the other way on bikes on narrow streets, however, do not hold me up.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 23.36.19There are probably countless other ways in which motoring is obstructive and causes delays – feel free to point them out in the comments. The problem is that this delay is a result of street design and layouts that seem to be ‘natural’. Nobody questions parking on both sides of the street, and how that might affect flow or capacity. Nobody questions the existence of traffic lights, or one-way systems – both subtle ways in which motoring is privileged at the expense of delay and inconvenience to non-motorised users. Nobody questions the effects of motor traffic congestion itself on the free movement of non-motorised users.

This isn’t to say that people cycling won’t ever hold up people driving; just to say that there is a very large flip side to that coin. The solution to these difficulties, for both people cycling, and for people driving, is to place these two modes onto different systems – to separate the two modes of transport as much as possible, creating parallel routes for cycling on main roads, and removing through motor traffic from access roads, in line with the principles of sustainable safety.

If you’re a motorist complaining about being held up – firstly, the person who is cycling in front of you will almost certainly be held up by motoring just as much, if not more, than you, and secondly… there’s an answer out there.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 10.17.08

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41 Responses to Held up

  1. Exactly!
    A message that has not been heard or understood by most people.

  2. Terry says:

    My local council, Barnet, recognises the obstruction to narrow roads caused by parked cars. So it authorises people to park on the pavements. It also requires residents to put dustbins on the pavement, so they are almost completely blocked for pedestrians.

    • pm says:

      Same here – probably the same everywhere.
      They even allow it on pavements that are too narrow in the first place, and vehicles invariably spill out of the boxes painted on the pavement. A couple of weeks back one pavement here was entirely blocked by a combination of a 4×4 and (bizarrely) a sofa dumped in the small remaining space.

      When that happens you have to walk in the road – then cars hoot at you for being in their way (as it has a 40mph limit).

      • Terry says:

        Every car on the pavement was of course driven on the pavement too. Apart from the danger to pedestrians, the damage to the paving is huge. And yet how many people complain about that? It’s always about the antisocial cyclists!

      • surfsensei says:

        I suppose at least the sofa is the lesser evil, it does at least offer a soggy place to rest and wait for that gap in the motor traffic so you can walk to the shop..! 🙂

  3. Toby says:

    Thanks for this post. When I used to cycle regularly into central London, my 30 minute journey would be 5 minutes quicker on a Sunday or bank holiday simply due to the lack of motor traffic – and I’m not a speedy cyclist. No non-cyclist ever believed me when I told them this. And when I track my city walks on my phone, I can see all the time I spend waiting for a gap in the traffic or for the lights to change. These delays add up to a lot, but are invisible and usually missing from the discussion.

  4. So true, I regularly get 15+mph moving avgs. on my bike and often cover about a mile every 4-5mins and that’s a pretty damn reliable timing too. Given a known distance I can usually then estimate arrival times +/- 5mins, lets see someone with a car do that. I know when I was a mobile engineer working in Central London driving around all day I used to at the very least double the time my Sat-Nav suggested when telling customers my arrival time, not forgetting to add on the time it would take to walk from car park to their office of course :D.

    I was also having a discussion on Youtube recently about drivers “being held up” by cyclists and I gave an example of following a slower rider at 15mph in a 30 zone. I said it would take 2mins to cover a distance of 1 mile at 30mph and 4 mins at 15mph, so *if* for some reason you can’t find a safe spot to pass the cyclist in that 1 mile chances are traffic is so bad that it’s *not* actually the cyclist who is holding you up and it is really worth quibbling over such a small amount of time?

  5. pm says:


    In fact, the apparent inability for most to even notice the parked cars obstructing most of the road, is surely a particular form of a wider phenomenon. Problems created by a dominant group somehow become invisible.

  6. John Wright says:

    That’s a great video clip. All those people sorting out crossing a busy junction without hassle and, as far as I could see, only once was there nearly a collision.

    • Terry says:

      I thought I saw a couple. Slow speed incidents that wouldn’t normally do much harm, but even so. One or two near misses in just 2-3 minutes suggests that actual collisions would be quite frequent in heavy traffic.

      • jeldering says:

        The only near miss I saw was at 0:19. I haven’t been in Groningen for a while, but my guess is that the frequency of collisions that cause damage (either material or injury) is pretty low. I looked at registered incident statistics at http://ongelukken.staanhier.nl/ and for this junction (and direct surrounding area), in the years 2007 – 2013, there are six incidents listed, three of which with injury, each involving a cyclist and secondly another cyclist, a light motorbike (“snorfiets”, 25 km/h limit), and a car.

        • Terry says:

          Yes, watching again, you are right. Thank you for the statistics. This sort of interaction between people and bikes in the UK would have pedestrians complaining bitterly about dangerous cyclists, with tales of the many occasions when they were nearly run down.

          • Your comment is valid. But I think that the fundamental problem in the UK that exists between pedestrians and cyclists can be traced to the way in which motor drivers and their vehicles interact with pedestrians. The established practice (whatever the law and the Highway Code may state) is that motor drivers have priority in all but a very few controlled situations (basically lighted junctions & crossings, & the disappearing Belisha-beacon crossings). At all uncontrolled junctions, crossing the road, turnings into driveways & car parks, and other informal interactions pedestrians defer to motor drivers. At junctions, for example, motor drivers will pull up in front of pedestrians waiting to cross their path even though they could easily have slowed/stopped to let the pedestrians pass without delay to them. This is just one example of the many ways in which drivers assert superiority over pedestrians. It is this asymmetry of rights and duties which defines the culture and style of driving in the UK.
            With the long-term decline in cycling (up until the patchy recent growth) and concurrent expansion of driving, we have lost any historic culture and style of cycling and the recent growth has therefore had to occur without a common understanding of how to manage the interactions between pedestrians and cyclists, something which can only develop over time. The video shows how well such interactions CAN work where there is a common understanding. Pedestrians know that cyclists will not cycle into them, but will pass them safely and without threat. It is that situation that we lack in the UK.
            In the UK a proportion of cyclists have, understandably if not desirably, have adopted the assumption that a bicycle being a vehicle assumes the same pecking order position as motor vehicles vis-a-vis pedestrians. Not all cyclists adopt this approach of course.
            On the other hand, however, for sensible reasons of ingrained safety and self-preservation, many pedestrians have made the same assumption. I try, for example, to give pedestrians priority to cross at junctions whether I am cycling. It is remarkable how often pedestrians fail to take up a clear indication that I will let them proceed.

            • Terry says:

              I think this is right. I find on a shared path it is often hard to give priority to pedestrians – they step to the side before I get close enough to stop. I suspect they then feel they were forced to leap to safety because of the killer cyclist.

  7. Blaise says:

    Great post. When I cycle back home after work I have to filter in a long queue of cars on Gray Inn Road toward King Cross. It is really annoying and quite dangerous as cars do stupid things when they’re held up. After I pass the lights on York Way there is usually no traffic anymore and cars tend to speed up. I’m often tailed or horned at this point because I’m on the way. I find it so ridiculous that they consider me the problem whereas they are the problem.

    Also, some narrow streets in Central London are not one way but there is only the space for one car at a time (often because there are car parks using a lot of space). In that situation, you can lose a lot of time waiting for a car to pass. Th worst situation being that a car will force its way when you’re already engaged.

  8. surfsensei says:

    My cycle journey of 5miles to work is only 5 min longer than by car and 5 to 10 min quicker on ghe way home purely because of dense traffic (Wolverhampton). Congestion is caused by motor vehicles, NOT by cyclists, pedestrians, horses or anything else.
    The enormous rise in individual car ownership and use has not improved attitudes or tolerance in society

  9. Torbjörn Albért says:

    In Sweden they “save” cyclists from the cars and lead them up on the pavement, separated from pedestrians with a white line. Winners: The motorists, who don’t have to deal with cyclists any more. Loosers: The pedestrians.

    • meltdblog says:

      Citys are faced with limited space to provide transport infrastructure, balancing the demands of different modes is very important to reduce them conflicting. Given a space some division needs to be made between pedestrians, bicycles, and motor vehicles, otherwise they will interfere with each other and reduce comfort, safety, and throughput for the conflicting modes.

      Here we can see how bicycles and cars conflict with each other on space:
      At high speeds bicycles sharing road lanes will slow cars by more than if they had been allocated a fraction of the road even if you account for the reduced space for cars. Equally in slow/congested areas cars are slowing bicycles as the author here presents.

      • Jitensha Oni says:

        and here

      • Har Davdis says:

        Economically and environmentally bikes, pedestrians and public transport should rule. Yet, the limited space is allocated on the basis of the motorist’s want in most parts of the world. People driving a Hummer downtown travel at about the same speed as someone on a bike, which makes their mode of transport pretty senseless, but they’re still taken more seriously by our city-planners.

  10. Jake says:

    Add in the structural barriers that larger roads make over potential cycling and walking routes. Dual carriageways and motorways built over traditional routes without necessarily accommodating non-motorists incur significant diversions.

  11. ThinkPurpose says:

    Beautifully put.
    Cars, BECAUSE they’re everywhere, are totally invisible.

  12. Greg Collins says:

    I often ponder what other of my personal possession that I don’t really have space to store I should be allowed to leave in the road with unremarked impunity. Our kitchen is too small for one of those big US-style fridges. Put it out front in the road. Not enough storage space in our bedroom. Simple. Stand I should stand my wardrobes in the street. Got visitors, erect a tent in the street for your guests, or, if you’ve the money, maybe a caravan.

    It is exactly what drivers do. They privatise portions of the public space for their own exclusive use so as to store their possessions there. And, because they call it ‘parking’ nobody raises an eyebrow. Bonkers.

    • What I can’t work out is how to change it – we have street after street of Victorian houses with cars parked right the way along the pavements on both sides of the road. Trafalgar School even puts out metal barriers and cones in a vain attempt to stop people totally blocking the corner. There are regular problems where the width of road left between the cars is too small for an emergency vehicle to pass and there is not enough space on the pavement for pushchairs -but once people own a car, they are not going to vote for a clear road if that means selling their car.
      David Hembrow’s ‘how we do it in NL’ examples just didn’t have the same number of cars. It is noticeable that the local parking zones simply ignore these old, narrow streets where there isn’t room to paint parking bays for all the resident’s cars.

      • But Dutch car ownership is similar to the UK, so they must have the same problems. Greater use of underground parking, slightly remote communal residents parking instead of on-street?

        Although it is obvious in parts of Cambridge that the parking isn’t actually residents: it’s commuters. Overnight residents store their cars, but the streets are busier with parking during the day when people from outside the city come in. Just as residents don’t have to find space to own a car, shops and businesses externalise the problems of parking for customers and employees.

        • A lot of this is resident parking (full overnight, empties more in the day). I know that overall UK car ownership is a bit lower, but that will disguise a lot of variations. I suspect this is high local ownership rates and a general acceptance that it is OK for parking to take precedence over other uses of the road. People understandably want to park outside their houses for convenience and security. Nor is it economic to build car parks on expensive land that could be sold for housing when it is possible to park on the road for free (or sometimes £70pa resident permit).

        • Har Davdis says:

          We do have the same problems, especially in urban areas. The difference is, that there are penalties for parking on the pavement, because that space is sacred. If you own a car and come home late at night, you may need some time to find a place for your car. In my area the pavement is sometimes blocked by bikes, though, which is preferable.

    • Notak says:

      Well, there are parts of the world where, when an elderly relative dies, the normal thing to do is put the coffin in the road, blocking the street, and invite all the neighbours to the wake in the street. So all sorts of things can be put in the street, it just depends on the prevalent culture!

    • surfsensei says:

      That’s a good point, thank you.

    • surfsensei says:

      Another issue is that cars have recently become bloated and taller so that they cannot now fit into the garages that many still have and which, in addition, many people use to store stuff (including bikes) instead of their car(s). Add multiple car ownership and the widespread desire to park outside one’s own front door (regarded as a basic Human Right by many) and you have the universal problem of antisocial parking, plus the general failure to deal adequately with it.

  13. https://youtu.be/-ShWn9SawFs Same problems in Dublin. A report recently stated the average speed of a bicycle in city centre is faster that that of cars and busses.

  14. Christine Jones says:

    It’s the way I’ve felt about motor traffic since I learned to ride a bike. nearly 40 years ago. Cars take up soooo much space, they could have been a useful transport medium without turning the entirety of the UK into a bloody carpark. One size certainly doesn’t fit all.
    I’ve just spent nearly a fortnight back in the UK, the small town where my Husband’s parents live, where we used to live, the streets are all one big car park, cars constantly wait behind parked cars to use the little bit of road space left to pass one at a time. Yet they all insist they want to keep this total lack of double yellows going. The road (and way too frequently the pavement) is just seen as for cars, stationary or moving. The majority of the drop kerbs are for driveways – that makes the pavement uneven and back breaking with a pushchair veering into the road all the time. There’s never a drop kerb where you need it – when you do find them you find your visibility is so rubbish, you put yourself in danger or go for the 5 inch drop.
    I saw plenty of cyclists, there is a massive suppressed demand. It’s basically a safe place to cycle but I got so tired of the daily bully, close pass, nudge from behind at traffic lights, waiting ages to cross with kids with no crossing point etc. There was so very little done to even suggest that cyclists or pedestrians are anything but in the way of drivers who won’t stop apart from for each other.

  15. matthewp says:

    The space taken up on the road by parked cars is increasing also because cars seem to be getting bigger. There is a street near where I live which is one-way, solely because it isn’t wide enough to accommodate two-way car traffic as well as residential car parking by the side of the road. So on what should be a convenient quiet route for bikes we have one-way for everyone and a row of parked cars.

    I’ve done the measurements according to Welsh Assembly Design Guidance and the road is wide enough for a cycle contra-flow for most of its length, aside from one particularly narrow stretch. Sorting this out would require removing about eight parking spots outside houses — as it happens some of the most expensive houses in the city. Ironically, the kind of cars parked outside these houses are the very fat wide ones that seem to be fashionable now among those who don’t worry about fuel prices. Because the road is narrow, they park partly on the pavement very often!

    To make matters worse, there is only pavement on one side of the street at this point, and it’s narrower than the minimum recommended width of the Manual for Streets.

    So all in all, I reckon that means those parking spaces should go, and we should have two-way cycling along that street. But I can’t see it happening…

    • cyclestrian says:

      In my opinion, any one-way road is suitable for cycle contraflow so long as there are sufficient passing places, and traffic speed/volume is not too high. Contraflow lanes don’t have to be marked, but a centre, dashed line with cycle sharrows might be enough to remind drivers what’s allowed.

      I’d rather have to stop in a spot from which to invite an oncoming driver to pass, than to have to cycle the other three sides of a block or to get off and walk. Drivers have to do similar all the time on narrow two way streets.

      So if matthewp’s road is too narrow only for 8 cars lengths, cycle contraflow is still an option. Ask your council for some “except cycles” signs!

  16. Notak says:

    Another effect of cars parked on both sides of residential streets is to create a sort of ‘canyon’, a physical barrier separating pavement from carriageway. This leads to the reinforcement of the idea that roads are for cars alone, in addition to the physical problems (crossing the street, interaction with neighbours, etc) caused by the barrier.

  17. Steven/Setty says:

    You fall into a similar cognitive trap. The car drivers are not being held up by other cars or bikes or anything. They are fundamentally held up by their own car. If they were on bikes, or motorcycles, or some imaginary one-person-wide snakelike motor vehicle, they would be able to get through dense situations, past cyclists, and generally move more quickly. They choose, for their own reasons, to buy a car that is two or three seats wide, made from rigid materials. That is their choice, and then they have to live with it. For people to then complain that cyclists are holding them up is as absurd as someone moving into a house without a garage then complaining that they can’t find car parking.

    When a driver complains that I am slowing them down, I smile and say “no, what’s in your way is your bumper.” They never understand, but I get to keep my calm.

    • USbike says:

      Generally speaking, cyclists are certainly not the ones responsible for all the traffic jams and other hold-ups. This is especially true in places where cycling is a very minority pursuit and almost everyone drives everywhere. I agree with you, that the problem is too many cars. The idealist in me wants to refute all the non-founded arguments and misconceptions thrown at cyclists, including things like the “road tax” nonsence. But realistically, cars aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Even if we were to ban them from city centers and some residential areas, they would still need access from arterials and medium-sized roads. On these roads, it’s very possible for a cyclist or two, or three, to hold up the drivers. This is especially true on high volume/high speed main roads with narrow lanes that make it difficult for drivers to pass.

      Now we can argue that it’s not a right for people to always be able to drive at least the speed limit, but that’s not the way most drivers will respond to being held to 10-15 mph by a cyclist on a road that has a speed limit of 35, 40 or 45 mph. We can also argue that speed limits are too high. That there are roads in my city that are 45 mph is due to terrible planning indeed. But the realization of all this by me means little when a driver is taking his/her anger out on me for holding them up or when motorists in general dislike ‘cyclists’ for a variety of reasons.

      All I want is to be able to get from A to B stress-free, or as little of it as necessary. This is not currently possible in most places in the US because of our infrastructure and domination by motor vehicles. Speeds in general do need to be much lower in too many areas, but I don’t want to be that moving speed bump/limiter Good infrastructure should address most of that, and the rest should eventually fall into place (better behavior, mutual respect, etc. etc.). These changes in mentality and familiarity take time. I’m sure if we replaced the entire Dutch population with people from NYC and LA, they are initially going to have a lot of issues where cyclists and motorists come in contact. At the same time, I can see Dutch drivers getting annoyed if they constantly don’t know what/when to expect cyclists and will get held up on arterials.

    • surfsensei says:

      Good point, I may have to explain it a few times to those who just won’t get it; personal responsibility is too big and scary for many people to acknowledge.. 🙂

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