The thought receptacle

Stephen's mental dustbin

Sat, 05 Apr 2014

Something about cycling

I seem to be thinking a lot about cycling these days.

Too much safety talk spoils the cycling broth

Safety is important, but we have a problem. When you ask someone why they don't cycle, safety is what they say. Let me repeat that. Safety is what they say. That doesn't mean cycling is dangerous; it means that it is perceived as dangerous by people who don't do it. Many apparently pro-cycling bodies spend a lot of energy talking about safety, campaigning for more of it, and so on. Most of them are aware that perceived safety, not actual safety, is the real issue. Then they proceed to act in ways that vastly worsen this perception. I follow various cycling sources on Twitter, and it's a depressing read, because it's always highlighting the never-ending stream of accidents. To somebody who doesn't cycle, this would surely seem terrifying. Cycling is not risk-free, but neither is walking, or driving, or taking the train. The health benefits of cycling far outweigh safety risks. The social benefits of a modal shift towards cycling (away from motoring) are also huge and unquantifiable. Even if we find ourselves with gold-standard Dutch-style facilities, we would only reduce fatalities per kilometre roughly by a factor of 2.5. This is obviously a good thing, but we need to get it in perspective. How much ill health and premature death is happening because of people being discouraged from cycling Right Now? How much social benefit are we stalling by telling people that it's not safe to cycle until we have Dutch-style roads? It's as if in the quest for proper government attention to cycling as a mode of transport, we've had to resort to shouting “cycling is dangerous! so please give money...”. This is the wrong thing to shout. Whatever scraps government might throw as a result, the current level of safety campaigning is counterproductive overall. We need to shout instead that cycling makes people happier and healthier, and makes economic sense, and that therefore we should take action to encourage it. We need to fight the false perception that cycling is a dangerous fringe activity. That means being much more focused and careful in how we present and debate the issue of safety.

Sport versus transport

A surge in popularity of cycling as a “sport” is all very well, but let's not keep mentioning it in the same breath as transport issues. Cycling to get around and cycling for sport are very different things. It's great that Britain has many Olympic cyclists, but that bears little relation to our transport habits.

Recreation versus lifestyle

Weekend cycle rides are one thing. Embracing cycling as a part of everyday life is quite another. That's why efforts such as recent bike-friendliness grants in the Peak District are a distraction from proper investment in other areas. As one commenter insightfully notes under that article, the public transport connections to and in the Peak District remain poor. So, under current conditions, the grant cannot do anything more than promote cycling as a weekend activity “for families”. That's not a bad thing, but we must be careful not to let it be portrayed as a substitute for proper investment in both public transport and support for everyday cycling—the things which together can enable and accelerate the shift away from the car. As before, we need to distinguish carefully what kind of “cycling” is being supported, and not accept any cop-outs from politicians that try to paint support for one kind of cycling as support for other kinds.

Facilities of the month

The blithe call for “facilities” often accompanies the safety message. This is always a dangerous call, because as we know, many attempts at facilities are of negative overall value. A large fraction are simply dangerous, owing to flawed design or substandard implementation. Other facilities might suit some set of people but can easily disadvantage others, either directly or (more likely) indirectly—such as by encouraging dangerous or disrespectful driving around those who choose to avoid them and cycle on the road. Aside from our local authorities' great track records of producing really badly designed attempts at facilities, I'm concerned that we're not emphasising a specific and subtle point: the population of people who cycle contains more disparate needs than users of other means of transport. This is a result of both disparate physical capabilities and disparate experience levels. While I'm all in favour of facilities which will make an underconfident person feel secure, they might not be the same facilities that make cycling quick and convenient for an experienced rider (which we all become, if we cycle enough). Provision of “facilities”, however inadequate or dangerous, is perceived by many [drivers] as eroding the right to cycle on the road. We must fight this attitude. (Of course, most “facilities” today are narrow, twisty, badly surfaced, constantly yielding to side roads, and full of pedestrians—in other words not “safe” for anyone. We must fight those too.)

No more “cyclists”

Talking about “cyclists” is something I've started trying to avoid. It somehow suggests that people who cycle are a separate species, thereby perpetuating the in-versus-out group mentalities that plague popular attitudes to cycling. I prefer to say “people on bikes”. I think if everyone did this, it might help somewhat to combat “species prejudice” that humans are unfortunately prone to.

Cycling, and walking, but not ‘cycling and walking’

“Action for Roads”, a government report published last year, contains 15 mentions of the word “cycling”, but 10 of are in the phrase “cycling and walking” (or something very similar). Anyone who's cycled beyond a few teetering first steps will know that cycling radically different from walking and needs wholly different kinds of provision. We need to fix the mistaken belief that the two can be lumped together. A recent ride reminded me that even Sustrans—an allegedly pro-cycling charity— offers routes with an appallingly high frequency of shared-use sections, many of which are simply a relabelled pavement—narrow, badly-surfaced, highly unsuitable for cycling, and causing unpleasant conflict with people on foot. This is worse than a waste of money: it's spending money on making things outright worse.

It's the culture, stupid

David Hembrow has an impressively complete selection of compelling arguments about why high-quality Dutch-style facilities are not only a good idea, but completely achievable in Britain, and why the counterarguments wheeled out by naysayers are all flawed. But one thing that's very hard to counter is the fact that in the Netherlands, practically every driver also cycles. The Dutch never lost their cycling culture. Ours was thoroughly lost many years ago, and this makes it an uphill struggle in Britain.

Where to begin?

I recently joined the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, and the membership form asked me the following questions. “What do you think most needs to be done to help cyclists? Is there anything you particularly think the Campaign should be doing?” I found it surprisingly hard to answer! I also want to nitpick that helping those who are (currently) non- cyclists should be part of the agenda too. Anyway, eventually I wrote the following. “Proper consideration of cycling in town planning, road design, new development regulations, etc.. Responding to popular misconceptions about cycling as they appear in journalism, policy statements, etc..” There is so much said and written about cycling that is either misleading or outright wrong. I believe that all this misinformation chips away at the popular perception of cycling, and we must fight it continuously. It appears to be a neverending struggle, but also, some strange small amount of momentum seems to be building here in the south-eastern UK in the last few years. We need to keep on pushing.

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