No, cycling infrastructure in London is not creating a ‘race track’ mentality

TLDR – the fact that there are people cycling fast on cycling infrastructure in London does not mean that the infrastructure is ‘creating’ or ‘causing’ fast cycling. The people cycling fast are the people who were already cycling in London, brave enough to deal with the (almost entirely hostile) road network. Instead of ‘causing’ fast cycling, cycling infrastructure actually enables a diverse range of users to cycle at whatever speed they wish to pedal at. It lowers cycling speeds, rather than raising them.

Last autumn, my partner and I cycled together in London. It was her very first time cycling in the capital. I think it’s more than fair to describe her as a nervous cyclist – while she cycled in her youth, the bike was pretty much discarded once she became a teenager, and she only started again, intermittently, several decades later, on holiday trips we took to the Netherlands.

On one of our Dutch cycling trips

Given her nervousness, the very first bit of road we ended up cycling on in London would have been an absolutely crazy choice five years ago. Upper Thames Street, a four lane canyon of motor traffic running straight through the City of London, is (or at least was) notorious for danger. The cycle courier Sebastian Lukomski was killed here in 2004, crushed under an HGV, a death that Bill Chidley identifies with the start of the politicisation of cycling safety in London. In 2008, Nick Wright was killed a matter of yards from where Lukomski died – again, crushed under the wheels of an HGV. And these horrible collisions kept happening. Again in 2013. And again in 2014. All on the same stretch of road.

But last autumn we cycled along this very same road, in almost complete safety. At rush hour.

To state the obvious, I can guarantee you that there was no way this would have happened, without the subjective and objective safety offered by the protected cycleway, which meant we did not have to cycle down this canyon, mixed in with HGVs, coaches, vans and cars. We had our own space, where we could trundle on our fully-laden Dutch bikes at a sedate 10mph, roughly the same speed as the slow moving motor traffic on the other side of the kerb.

Without that kerb, I don’t think there is any chance that this young child would be cycling along Upper Thames Street either.
Or these children.
Or these children.The crucial difference the cycleway has made is that people are now free to cycle at their own pace. Just like my partner, they can trundle along fairly slowly, without worrying about HGVs and coaches steaming up behind them. The cycleway has enabled, and will enable, people to cycle at slower speeds – the very people who would never even have considered cycling here, and on similar roads, without it.

It’s more than a little troubling, therefore, to see an emerging narrative that these kinds of cycleways are ‘creating’ a mentality of fast cycling – that their design (and even their name), are somehow fomenting or encouraging a type of cycling that wouldn’t exist if the cycling infrastructure hadn’t been built.

The latest example is a piece from Jill Rutter for Reaction. The piece makes very some sensible arguments, but has had a silly headline added (at a guess, by an editor who has previously demonstrated some antagonism towards cycling infrastructure in London), and unfortunately creates the overall impression that safe, attractive and convenient cycling infrastructure, rather than enabling nervous people to cycle, is instead fostering a problem of fast and aggressive cycling. This impression was slightly reinforced by some comments the author later made on social media.

Unlike those journalists and politicians who are opponents of cycleways and would like to see it removed, and who are therefore making these kinds of arguments about ‘racing culture’ in bad faith, it’s pretty clear to me that Rutter is sincere. She supports cycling infrastructure, wants to see more of it, but is troubled personally by the types of cycling she is seeing at the moment, and worries that it may be putting people off cycling in London.

The problem is that new cycling infrastructure is obviously not ‘creating’ a racing mentality. That mentality is created not by the few miles of safe cycling conditions that have been built in central London, but by the abject reality of the rest of the road network, which does involve mixing with fast motor traffic, and large vehicles, on dreadfully-designed junctions and roads that make no concession whatsoever to the safety of people cycling. The ‘superhighways’ aren’t the reality of cycling in London – they’re only a small respite from it.

We haven’t suddenly transplanted the Netherlands onto London. We’ve built a few miles of good stuff, in pockets here and there, often without even joining it up, and… that’s it. The aggressive, fast people we encounter on ‘superhighways’  are the people who were cycling already, the people who will almost certainly be cycling without the subjective safety offered by motor traffic-free conditions.

Plainly, we shouldn’t be musing about why we haven’t got a demographic of relaxed, Dutch-type cycling in London when we’ve barely started changing our roads. We haven’t even scratched the surface. Let’s not start pretending that the infrastructure which allows my friends, family and partner to cycle slowly, and in safety, is somehow encouraging or fostering a type of cycling that is in reality a natural consequence of the rest of the road network.

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7 Responses to No, cycling infrastructure in London is not creating a ‘race track’ mentality

  1. Jason says:

    Thank you for this considered and reasonable response!

    That article, or more specifically, the reaction to it has angered me greatly. It was like a bunch of Daily Mail readers on speed all jumping in to demonise what they see as the ‘wrong type’ of cyclist in their mind.

    I don’t have any real choice of what I wear or ride for my 41 mile round trip commute on a variety of roads, from fast country lanes to Cycle Superhighways and everything in between (I’ve tried all sorts of clothes and bikes…and have settled on the most practical and appropriate for myself given the conditions). Dozens and dozens of traffic lights, traffic and ped crossings I stop at. It’s hard work, and requires a minimum speed to make it practical for me to actually see my family at the end of the day. This means I wear lycra and ride ‘fast’ where SAFE AND APPROPRIATE. I ride defensively, and obey the highway code better than 99% of car drivers and most cyclists, lycra wearers or ‘utility’. I slow down and chill out in busier areas (in town) and don’t take risks. I’m not alone here, most riders of all types are like this, this just want to get from A to B as incident free as possible…so why are some demonised so much?

    99% of the anti-social cyclists on my route are of the utility variety – normal people, normal bikes. That’s because they make up 99% of the other cyclists I see (once i hit town that is).

    But only a minority are dangerous or anti social, and so I don’t feel the need to create a social media storm hating on them and making them scapegoats for the actions of total strangers they have no control over. Why do people do this? I’ve seen this over and over again since I started cycling in early 2012 (nothing to do with the olympics or Mr Wiggins btw).

    Thanks again, and keep doing what you do!

  2. ktache says:

    Another fine article. Good to have another blog from yourself, I know you have been tweeting ( had referenced a tweet from you, i do not tweet), but I do like a good longish read, and you do talk quite a lot of sense.
    I myself ride a lot calmer and slower on non motor infrastructure.

  3. Mike says:

    Thanks for the article; isn’t it amazing how the haters invent a new argument when the old ones collapse under scrutiny.

  4. marmotte27 says:

    Great to see you back. I don’t have Twitter and do like long, well reasoned articles. Keep it coming.
    On the topic, why is there so little common sense around? All of this should be so obvious.

  5. Pingback: No, cycling infrastructure in London is not creating a ‘race track’ mentality | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  6. Matthew says:

    This should be added to the cycling fallacies site if it isn’t already there. Great article.

  7. Stead Cycles says:

    I appreciate cycling. So I continually subject to blogging about cycling. Cycle rinding is a bewildering foundation that we need to contribute. Cycles-n-Stuff is one of my favored online diaries. I got a lot of information and overhauled it by learning with this post. Thanks for sharing!

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