Better than nothing

So the scandalously inappropriate and inadequate designs for the Bedford turbo roundabout have come a step closer to construction, receiving DfT approval, and with grim inevitability Sustrans have proudly press released their support for this barefaced misappropriation of cycling funds for the construction of a high capacity motor road junction in an urban centre. Their defence of the scheme seems to be that, because they anticipate that motorist speeds will probably be a bit lower than in the current arrangement, cyclists will be able to “take the lane” as they ride amongst the heavy motor traffic; and if people do not wish to take the lane then they will instead be allowed to pootle on a pavement designed for pedestrians. A dual provision of equally, but differently, unattractive prospects.

But they’ll be less awful than what is there now.

And that seems to be enough for Sustrans. No need to fight for anything better, if it’s less awful than what’s there now then it gets the Sustrans stamp of approval. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect anything more from Sustrans after years of being ground down by the conditions in which they’re trying to operate, but “better than nothing” seems to be the limit of their aspirations in everything they do these days. On the National Cycle Network, where signposting flights of steps, heavily eroded sheep tracks, and private roads marked “no cycling” is for misguided reasons considered better than having no signed cycle route at all. And in the latest edition of their design guidance, where, for example, such guidance is given as to paint bicycle symbols on the carriageway at pinch points caused by traffic islands — rather than simply to stop squeezing bicycle users in with motor traffic in such a way — because such symbols are taken to be better than nothing.

I’m not convinced that paint on busy roads is in the slightest bit better than nothing for cycling. I think it’s delusional — or colossally gullible, perhaps — to believe that putting a piece of trunk road engineering in a city centre is worth anything at all for cycling. And I think that luring people onto heavily eroded sheep tracks is far worse than nothing for cycling.

But I don’t have time to argue about the specifics of cases like these, and I shouldn’t have to. Rather I have a more general point to make.

Things that are a marginal, almost imperceptible, or questionable improvement on what is there now are not better than nothing.

Marginally reduced speeds and crap shared footways are not better than nothing when they’re being employed in the theft of half a million pounds from the budget.

Rebuilding a junction to a design that you hope, maybe, might make things marginally less bad than they were, is not better than nothing if it means perpetuating a fundamentally anti-cycling and traffic dominated town centre for perhaps another fifty years.

Mediocre guidance is not better than nothing if it’s used in place of genuinely good guidance — if the Sustrans brand allows professionals to dismiss the recent London and Cambridge guidance as foreign or utopian when all that the cyclists themselves say they want and need is some paint at a pinch point.

Signing inappropriate cycle routes is not better than nothing if they give aspiring bicycle users an even worse experience of cycling than they would get from following their streets. They are worse than nothing when they are cited as an example of cycling already having been catered for and nothing more needing to be done.

Better than nothing is not good enough. Marginal gains aren’t good enough.

That’s one reason I’ve never got all that into local campaigning, much though I appreciate and admire those who do have the energy to do so. I don’t actually think it’s worth my time. I don’t think the tiny single victories are ever worth it. Call me selfish but I don’t think that one shared pavement that allows half a dozen or so additional kids to get to school by bike is worth it. I don’t think the lighting on that one path in the park that makes a couple more people feel safe getting home by bike at night is worth it. I don’t think that one bike lane that keeps one pensioner riding to the shops for an extra year or two is worth it.

I mean, I guess I’m happy for them and everything, but, whatever.

What motivates me is extreme selfishness and some bigger picture selflessness. That’s the selfish interest in the quality of the places where I spend my time, and my journeys around and between them. And the big picture of the problems that our communities, society and planet face. Transport policy has a big impact on public health — through air pollution and active vs sedentary lifestyles it impacts pretty much any non-communicable disease you can think of — on climate change, energy use and economic productivity, and so ultimately on quality of life. And on all of those counts a policy of mass modal shift away from motor vehicles and to cycling would be a huge net positive. But nothing short of a revolution will do.

A real revolution — not a 5% mode share target shoehorned in beside business as usual.

Anything less is not going to make the slightest meaningful difference. Not going to make any noticeable difference to my journey being spoiled by heavy traffic and air pollution. Nor is it going to make any noticeable difference to population, planetary, or economic health. Not even going to add up to something that does in time, or reach a “tipping point”. A “cycling revolution” that is not registrable in things like morbidity statistics, by air quality measurements, in transport sector energy consumption and carbon emissions, or in the population’s quality of life, is not a revolution. And if it’s not a revolution (and if it doesn’t help me personally), sorry, I don’t really care. It’s not worth my time asking for it.

And “better than nothing” is worse than nothing when it stands in the way of changes that are actually worth giving a shit about. One tiny aspect of one tiny tiny part of the whole being “better than it was before” is worse than nothing when it takes the pressure off and makes a handy excuse to allow everything else to continue as it was before. As an organisation or campaign, settling for better for nothing is worse than nothing when the people who have invested their time and money in you begin to lose the motivation to ever do so again. Better than nothing is worse than nothing when it distracts our attention from our actual goals and what actually needs to be done to achieve them: when it gets us too tied up in projects instead of policy.

They tell us that perfection is the enemy of the good. Well better than nothing is the enemy of anything actually worth having. And that, Sustrans, is why you’re losing so many friends.

(And before you start telling me that trite cyclesport-inspired cliché about marginal gains again: that only works when you’ve already done the big stuff and made it to the top of your game. Marginal gains make the difference when you’re a top olympic athlete. They’re not going to help when you’re the kid who doesn’t get picked at games.)

28 thoughts on “Better than nothing”

  1. Meanwhile Sustrans lament the fact that road projects get more funding.

    Of course they do! Road projects have a single function that performs well! What happens when cycling schemes get money? We end up with limp wristed compromises that don’t live up to the hype that Sustrans blows up and meet thunderous criticism from the people that Sustrans are trying to represent. Who would want to continue to invest in that?

  2. I think the thing which enrages me most about this – and led me to terminate my monthly direct debit to Sustrans after nearly 14 years – was the sheer naked theft, fraud or embezzlement of money set aside for cycle safety. Sustrans is implicated in this theft and they should feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves!

    How did they get to this pass? Did they not use to be a real campaigning organisation for sustainable transport? (Which included, but was never confined to, cycling, by the way). Has government money and a seat at the government table corrupted them so totally?

    Reading the reports in on-line versions of the relevant local media, I noted that the genesis of this project was a high incidence of collisions between motor vehicles on this roundabout. I think it was mainly car-on-car, but possibly commercial vehicles were involved as well. Certainly the roundabout was struggling to cope safely with the high volumes of traffic it has to manage at certain times of day. The “turbo” solution was a response to that issue.

    However, I have no doubt that the highways authority was then faced with the dilemma of how to pay for the proposed improvements. (I don’t doubt that the proposals are an improvement, in a sense, for those who they are truly aimed at). It is an age-old dilemma. Money for road building is tight, unless you are talking about grands-projets zombie schemes which ministers can claim as trophies when they next face their car-dependent electorates. Fixing potholes properly seems to be beyond the capabilities of their budgets to absorb. So, some bright spark says “I know – why don’t we claim this is for the benefit of cyclists? After all the design has a vague resemblance to what they do in the Netherlands (quite explicitly as a motor traffic solution – they certainly don’t envisage mixing bicycles with motors on those roundabout) and they ride bikes a lot in the Netherlands, don’t they?” Just cuck in a bone in the form of permission to cycle on the footpath for the more timid bike riders and Bob’s Your Uncle!

    Hey presto – the money is found! But what about those pesky cyclists, who are never satisfied and are bound to moan about it? Easy, just wheel out our clutch of Uncle-Toms, CTC, British Cycling and, best of all, Sustrans. They’ll give us what we want. They’ll approve it!

    Bedford is not the only example of this sharp practice. Some years ago, the City of London was faced with a dilemma on Southwark Bridge. It was a popular spot for tourist coaches to park up while their cargoes are gawking at St Pauls and the Tower of London. Apparently, the engineers queried whether the bridge was strong enough to cope with the weight of traffic on top of all these coaches just standing there, so the coach parking had to go. To make clear that parking was now out, they needed to narrow the road with something which big vehicles couldn’t breach. Enter the concrete berms which now lie a metre or so out from the kerb on each side. But how to pay for it? Actually, the City has squillions tucked away, including a fantastically wealthy bridge maintenance fund, but misers do like to hoard their cash, so they had to fund it from somewhere else. Flash of inspiration! Say that the narrow space behind the berms is a cycle track! Use an entire year’s TfL grant for the old London Cycle Network – £200,000 – to fund it! Pend about a third of that on the concrete and the navvies, a third on “consultants”, and keep a third as contribution to the Highways department salary budget!

    I have ceased to care about the roundabout itself, but I do want to see the funding con exposed and Sustrans/CTC etc grow some backbone and revoke their approval of Cycle safety Fund support.

  3. Stirring prose Joe. A very cogent piece of writing. Many thanks.

    I am always on edge about “strident” critiques for fear that they will be used by real opponents to help justify further neglect of cycling.

    But this justifiably angry article goes way beyond automatic sloganising and makes a very strong case that should be widely read and taken to heart, however stinging it might feel.

    I can think of dozens of items in my own home of Bristol where the provision of a lane, a cut through or some shared space makes me think “that is, actually, quite a lot worse than nothing” – even without thinking of the broader impacts on budgets and policies that Joe has successfully emphasised.

    I’m sure we will carry on trying to cajole Bristol into much better and there are signs that Bristol City Council and The Mayor would like to oblige. Nevertheless, the national arena is where the big guns are needed. Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government need to wake up to the economic and social realities of sustainable transport and set out funding, targets and appropriate engineering standards. The main parties need to have chunks in their manifestos ready for the looming General Election.

    As a great man once wrote “let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late” Local compromises raise false hopes for a nation that needs to change. National priorities need to be set at a national level and funded proportionately.

    At street level, people are ready to ride, They just need the opportunity and the freedom to do so: see:

  4. Posting anonymously for obvious reasons.

    The Bedford episode saddens me because there is a lot of good in Sustrans, a lot of passionate, well-informed people, generally working for way below the market rate. There are countless good schemes that have only been achieved because of Sustrans, crap LA schemes that have been turned into good schemes through Sustrans’ work (one recent £2m project springs to mind), and crap LA schemes that have been cancelled entirely because Sustrans have pointed out they will never work.

    And then we get this… which is still unabashed crap, even after Sustrans’ involvement. 95% of what Sustrans does is leagues better than this, an unequivocal gain rather than “better than nothing”, and often in the unglamorous provinces where most bloggers fear to tread. Why Sustrans is supporting this is largely a mystery to me.

    My feeling is that this is a decision by perhaps two people in Eastern Region, and Sustrans nationally feels backed into a corner where it has to keep defending it. Which is a great shame, though perhaps explained by the ferocity of the debate around it.

    I would like to see Sustrans do two things, and they both need to come from the top.

    1. A policy decision that going Dutch in busy urban areas is their direction of travel. That’s “direction of travel”, not “all or nothing today”; that’s “going Dutch”, which includes calmed streets and doesn’t mean segregation absolutely everywhere; and that’s “in busy urban areas” because shared use genuinely can be the best solution in the countryside. It doesn’t endanger what Sustrans does now; quite the opposite. But it provides a reference against which schemes like this can be judged.

    2. A stronger instruction (and stronger support) to regional staff as to the baseline of infrastructure it will support and fund. Sustrans’ regional staff are its unsung heroes and work way beyond the call of duty. They are constantly pressured by LAs to sign off on crap and usually refuse. Sustrans gives its regional staff a lot of latitude, which is good – up to a point. Too much latitude allows stuff like this to get through on the say-so of one or two people. A central instruction that “we require A, B and C” would stop this.

    Sustrans are good, very good people; they are our friends. It shouldn’t have got to this. Let’s make sure it doesn’t again.

    1. To be honest, having attempted to ride the ridiculously bad NCN 1near Berwick-upon-tweed I’m afraid I struggle to recognise this optimistic picture of Sustrans. They appear essentially to have stuck signage on unmade routes that might be fine on an MTB, but are completely useless on a loaded tourer, ‘because it’s better than nothing’. Well, no it isn’t, it’s awful, and a group genuinely focussed on sustainable transport wouldn’t do it, just as they wouldn’t support the Bedford roundabout.

  5. Well said!

    Much of Cambridge’s alleged cycling infrastructure is at best marginally better than nothing; much of London’s is unarguably *worse* and in both cases there are NCN signs all over it.

    Sustrans has weight beyond its competence. How do we apply pressure to make it increase its competence or, failing that, remove its authority?

  6. the problem here is that the “Vehicular” cyclists still have far too great a voice and the dual use provisions remain embedded in the toolbox so that we get painted advisory lanes and ASLs for the vehicular cyclists, meanwhile the very people who need proper, safe, separated infrastructure get fobbed off wit shared use paths with Toucan crossings if lucky or else cyclist dismout and give signs for every bleepin’ side street…

  7. I doubt if any cyclists have much of a voice. “Proper safe separated infrastructure” would need to take serious space from cars and will only happen when candidates supporting Space for Cycling get elected in large numbers. (Around here the winners wanted nothing to do with it)

  8. Part of the solution here might be to have the National Audit Office look at how the cycling budget is spent and make sure that people who might use the infrastructure on bikes are seeing real value for money. They should use other countries as a benchmark. Take a random handful of projects where cycling money is spent. Compare to similar sample in Holland. Report back.

  9. Even the fear of the NAO investigating cycle funding misappropriation might be enough to kick LAs and Sustrans regions into shape. So anyone who can blog or journalists who might write about this, please do so.

  10. I am really sorry to hear that people think the designs are inappropriate and inadequate. Having stood and looked at this roundabout on a number of occasions we are really interested to hear what other suggestions people have. The design that has been chosen is innovative and will be carefully monitored. If it proves beneficial it will have been very worthwhile. If not some valuable lessons will have been learnt. There do seem to have been a lot of comments on the subject so we have put a post on our website:

    I am not sure if it has been made clear enough that the scheme was put forward because it was identified by local cyclists as one of their areas of greatest concern and the Council came up with a scheme that was backed by a letter of support from the Local Cycle Campaign. The scheme includes provision for both on-road and off-road cyclists.

    1. Nigel, given there is no real new provision for cycling, why is it coming from cycling provision funds – adding some zebra crossings doesn’t cost £300,000, the roundabout itself didn’t have any proven benefit for cyclists before the removal of the lane dividers, and will clearly have none after their removal, so why is cycling funding being used for what is purely pedestrian and motorvehicle works?

    2. Nigel,

      This is what the roundabout could have looked like.

      While not the safest, it was considered and discounted. I would like to know Sustran’s reasons for instead celebrating a decidedly not-Dutch roundabout that depends on both pavement cycling and vehicular cycling.

      This is perplexing to have to explain this to you. Sustrans have existed for 37 years, and by now should be experts in good design, or at least be humble enough to learn best practice from others. Instead you are still supporting designs that are obviously critically flawed as experiments.

    3. Are you stalking me, Nigel? ;-)

      The obvious alternative in that location, based on my memory visiting from nearby Northamptonshire while growing up, would be to rip out the roundabout, put in 4-way traffic lights and use the extra space (then not needed for so many approach lanes) to add wide kerb-protected bike lanes with cycling+walking green scramble stages on the lights. It’s not like Bedford doesn’t have lots of worse traffic lights already.

      Another obvious improvement would be to spend the money near St Mary’s Bridge where more serious cycle collisions happen, but hopefully improvements there will happen in connection with the redevelopment of the Town Hall nearby.

    4. Why don’t you simply go to the Netherlands, grab their cycling infrastructure designers, bring them over to the UK and ask them “what should we do here?”

      It isn’t rocket science.

    5. And if it doesn’t `prove beneficial’, then you’ll no doubt be clawing the cycling safety money back to spend on the product of your `valuable lessons’? Don’t make me laugh…

      As wheelsonthebike has pointed out: all this from an organisation which has taken 37 years to get where it is today. How many more decades do you want? Do you think cyclists really have the luxury of waiting for you to catch up?

      As for your support for all things `innovative’ over proven designs and your dismissal of motor traffic reduction as `not possible’, you really are not doing anything to improve SUSTRANS’ [already not very impressive] reputation for being stuck in a Not Invented Here rut (at best) or a useful idiot/ front for the motoring lobby (and even that might not be the worst of it). Shutting down this useless not-fit-for-purpose organisation would be better than what’s already there!

  11. What provision does a design that will INCREASE motor vehicle speeds have for “on road” cyclists?

    In fact, your “The scheme includes provision for both on-road and off-road cyclists.” demonstrates, in a single sentence, the problem so many of us now have with sustrans. We want designs that cater, well, for all cyclists. We want the “dutch” way, where all cyclists use the same, high quality, infrastructure. We don’t want compromised “dual networks” or “national cycle networks” that feature muddy narrow tracks, stairs, barriers that have to be dismounted for etc. Sustrans promotes bad design that will not encourage more cycling.

  12. “The design that has been chosen is innovative and will be carefully monitored.”

    It was, I suppose, fair to claim it was “innovative”; but without the plastic dividers it’s just a dual carriageway roundabout in an urban area. I’m not sure how the same design with the safety feature stripped off is anything at all really.

    It’s just a really fast, even higher capacity roundabout for vehicles, with generous entry angles to encourage speed and nothing to preserve lane discipline.

    I know you’re desperate for the consultancy fees or something, but it’s time to say “No”.

  13. Nigel,

    This is what the roundabout could have looked like.

    While not the safest, it was considered and discounted. I would like to know Sustran’s reasons for instead celebrating a decidedly not-Dutch roundabout that depends on both pavement cycling and vehicular cycling.

    This is perplexing to have to explain this to you. Sustrans have existed for 37 years, and by now should be experts in good design, or at least be humble enough to learn best practice from others. Instead you are still supporting designs that are obviously critically flawed as experiments.

  14. That design was not presented to the panel and I don’t believe that the panel was aware of it. It seems to have been rejected by the Borough Council, who are the scheme designers not Sustrans. The panel which included Sustrans, CTC, Cyclenation and DfT had to make decisions on what they were presented with. The bid was supported by the local cycling campaign see

    1. Sustrans are supposed to be the experts in sustainable travel, yet you weren’t aware that roundabouts provided by a cycling safety fund could be designed with safe segregated cycling? Instead you decided to support a scheme designed to generate conflict and fails to provide both safety and convenience?

    2. So why not just acknowledge that all of the options were unacceptable and tell the council to go away and try again, preferably with advice from people with actual expertise in designing for cycle safety?

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