Tag Archives: canards

Repost: The definition of madness

So TfL have produced a short advert once again asking everybody to calm down, play nice, and share the road. I figured it might make a good excuse to post again this thing that I scribbled a couple of years ago.

On the Guardian Bike Blog, Tom Richards points out that “while we’d all love better cycling infrastructure, there is neither the money nor the political will…” Therefore we should focus on easier and more populist things — like conquering human nature and legislating to re-educate 30 million people.

Now, leaving aside the fact that the effects of changing driver education (if there are ever any effects at all, and it’s not a very robustly researched field) have long lag times — as long as street lifecycles. And leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence that this sort of intervention would ever actually have any significant effect on the sort of issues we’re concerned about, such as occurrence and severity of motor vehicle/cycle crashes (but if Richards were to propose a randomised controlled trial…). And leaving aside the fact that it could have, at best, only a small effect on the arguably more important issue of barriers to cycling, which are more about subjective assessment of the comfort of the environment than about raw injury statistics, and so can make no significant contribution to solving the wider issues which cycling is tied to. Basically, leaving aside the fact that this is, at best, a mediocre proposal. The interesting question is, why do people keep clinging to these kinds of ideas?

The idea that somehow physical engineering is difficult and expensive and unpopular, while changing human behaviour is quick, easy, cheap and effective, is one that the British are remarkably strongly attached to. It is manifested in a wide variety of rarely very effective campaigns and initiatives, from marketing the unmarketable to the bizarrely widespread belief that obscure details of insurance law are a significant influence on behaviour. One of my favourite examples of the attitude was caught by Freewheeler a couple of years ago, from “3 feet please” campaigner and now ex LCC trustee David Love:

This provoked a response from David Love in the Comments, who among things writes:

Sure, segregation would be great but in London at least there’s no room and no money so it’s not going to happen.
Campaigning for behaviour change is more realistic right now

And there you have the ‘realism’ of a man who is LCC Trustee and Vice Chair.

But the British tradition of soft measures goes far wider, deeper and further back than this. Motorists may moan about having been the victim of a “war” that restricts their freedom, polices their movements, or sends campaigns of severe punishment for accidental and unavoidable infringement of petty rules, but the reality is that right from the start, when the red flag acts were repealed, this country’s response (and that of much of the English-speaking world) to the problems that motorists create on the road has largely been light touch and libertarian, in which the children are simply asked again and again to play nice, even as they become ever greater bullies, and only if they’re really bad might they have their pocket money docked. We encourage and raise awareness, appeal to the legendary British sense of fair play, and still believe that the ideal road is within reach if only we can persuade everybody to get along through courtesy, good manners, and communicating our intentions clearly to one another.

Joe Moran has an entertaining history of this English approach to road safety in the chapter “please don’t be rude on the road” in On Roads. Amongst others he tells the story of Mervyn O’Gorman, who argued against introducing a driving test because all that a motorist should require is a natural “road sense”, and who acted on his belief that the cause of road accidents is poor communication by inventing the Highway Code, a list of mostly legally baseless customs and courtesies, explaining that “is is just as ungentlemanly to be discourteous or to play the fool on the king’s highway as it would be for a man to push his wife off her chair at the Sunday tea table and grab two pieces of cake.” Perhaps most entertaining is his coverage of the period in the 1930s when “courtesy cops” went around with megaphones politely asking errant drivers to behave themselves. He concludes:

Underneath this appeal lay an uncomfortable truth: many members of the respectable middle classes were incompetent drivers who were to blame for fatal road accidents. Rather than turning them into criminals through putative legislation, British traffic law relied on appeals to their sense of fair play. It was always better, went the mantra of the time, to cultivate good habits than propose bad bills. [Sound familiar?] So the courtesy cops did not prosecute motorists; they offered friendly advice to the careless. The Times blamed accidents on what it called ‘motorious carbarians’ — the few bad apples hidden among the vast majority of gentlemanly drivers, who could be relied upon to break the law sensibly. Motoring correspondents railed against excessive regulation in the 1930s in a way that eerily echoes today’s campaigns against speed cameras and road humps. ‘Regulation after regulation pours from the Ministry of Transport in a never-ending flood,’ complained the Daily Mirror in 1934 … but ‘courtesy and good manners may be cultivated easily enough by everyone.’

They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. For eighty years or more the answer to motorists playing nice has been just a little bit more education and awareness raising, and look where it has got us. It’s time to call off the search for the British sense of fair play and abandon the naive idea that meaningful and worthwhile change on the road can be achieved with a few gentle nudges.

Why do people have such strange ideas about modal choice?

Glasgow’s literacy and numeracy rates are amongst the lowest in Europe. Since it has a smaller population of readers to serve, Glasgow should invest less in schools.

Compared to the rest of Europe, a low proportion of people in Glasgow are healthy. The relatively small number of Glaswegians making use of their health indicates that Glasgow can invest less than the rest of Europe in health services.

Glasgow has the lowest employment rate in the UK. Therefore we should do less to invest in jobs in Glasgow than elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a very low proportion of Glasgow’s population is willing to use a bicycle for transport in the city. Therefore Glasgow should invest very little in providing for bicycle transport

One of my policy recommendations has been implemented by Glasgow City Council. Can you guess which one? That’s right. Glasgow City Council do not interpret a lack of healthy people as a reason not to invest in health services, but they would interpret a fall in the number of people cycling as a reason to cut funding for cycling infrastructure Glasgow.

(For some reason Glasgow City Council do not see the fact that Glasgow residents own a negligible number of electric cars, and indeed that fewer than half of all Glasgow households have access to a car of any kind, as a reason not to give those few who are rich enough to be able afford an electric car a gift of free storage space all over the city.)

It’s obvious enough that investment in literacy, health and jobs is not aimed at helping those who are already healthy educated people in employment, but at those who are not and who would benefit from being so — indeed, that low rates of literacy, health and employment are indicative of problems that politicians should be fixing. So why do people have such difficulty grasping the point of investing in enabling cycling?

I’ve written before about this bizarre idea so frequently cited by politicians (and incorporated into their absurd cost-benefit analysis model for transport infrastructure spending) and commentators these days — that somehow everybody has made a completely free choice, entirely uninformed by the environment around them, the options that have already been provided for, or the constraints imposed by the laws of physics; and that it’s the politician’s job simply to provide for what people have demonstrated is their choice. The absurdity of this position is encapsulated rather well in the fabricated Henry Ford quote beloved of management consultants and self-help book authors — “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

Stupid though the idea is, I can understand why right-wing politicians and a libertarian government would want to pretend that everybody’s current transport use is the result of a completely free choice and so exactly reflects the modes of transport that we would most like to be using and which the government should provide for, and that therefore any government action which resulted in modal shift would be an unacceptable state intrusion into personal lifestyle choices. What really infuriates me is when campaigners — and it seems to be peculiar to cycling campaigners — hobble their own campaigns with the same stupid idea.

It is an idea that is closely tied up with those soft measures campaigns: it is the idea that there is no point in anybody asking for any kind of cycling infrastructure because there are currently too few cyclists for the request to be heard, therefore we need to focus on “more realistic” soft measures and encouraging more people to ride, until eventually there might be enough cyclists to make an effective lobby. Well if you’re designing your campaigns around policies to provide things for cyclists — to solve “the problems that cyclists face” — of course they will go unheard and ignored, just as a campaign to “solve the problems that cable car users face” would be a stupid way to go about getting a cable car built. Cyclists are “a curious, slightly nutty irrelevance“, and Cyclists campaigning on behalf of Cyclists doubly so. It’s why the Cycling Embassy was so desperately needed — a campaign for a new transport infrastructure for all, not the usual request for a bit more room for Cyclists; it’s why LCC’s Go Dutch campaign succeeds in attracting attention beyond the usual suspects; it’s why the name Cities Fit For Cycling suggests a good campaign, while the headline Save Our Cyclists didn’t.

If you think you can’t campaign for cycling infrastructure because there aren’t enough cyclists, you’re doing it wrong.

The definition of madness

On the Guardian Bike Blog, Tom Richards points out that “while we’d all love better cycling infrastructure, there is neither the money nor the political will…” Therefore we should focus on easier and more populist things — like conquering human nature and legislating to re-educate 30 million people.

Now, leaving aside the fact that the effects of changing driver education (if there are ever any effects at all, and it’s not a very robustly researched field) have long lag times — as long as street lifecycles. And leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence that this sort of intervention would ever actually have any significant effect on the sort of issues we’re concerned about, such as occurrence and severity of motor vehicle/cycle crashes (but if Richards were to propose a randomised controlled trial…). And leaving aside the fact that it could have, at best, only a small effect on the arguably more important issue of barriers to cycling, which are more about subjective assessment of the comfort of the environment than about raw injury statistics, and so can make no significant contribution to solving the wider issues which cycling is tied to. Basically, leaving aside the fact that this is, at best, a mediocre proposal. The interesting question is, why do people keep clinging to these kinds of ideas?

The idea that somehow physical engineering is difficult and expensive and unpopular, while changing human behaviour is quick, easy, cheap and effective, is one that the British are remarkably strongly attached to. It is manifested in a wide variety of rarely very effective campaigns and initiatives, from marketing the unmarketable to the bizarrely widespread belief that obscure details of insurance law are a significant influence on behaviour. One of my favourite examples of the attitude was caught by Freewheeler a couple of years ago, from “3 feet please” campaigner and now ex LCC trustee David Love:

This provoked a response from David Love in the Comments, who among things writes:

Sure, segregation would be great but in London at least there’s no room and no money so it’s not going to happen.
Campaigning for behaviour change is more realistic right now

And there you have the ‘realism’ of a man who is LCC Trustee and Vice Chair.

But the British tradition of soft measures goes far wider, deeper and further back than this. Motorists may moan about having been the victim of a “war” that restricts their freedom, polices their movements, or sends campaigns of severe punishment for accidental and unavoidable infringement of petty rules, but the reality is that right from the start, when the red flag acts were repealed, this country’s response (and that of much of the English-speaking world) to the problems that motorists create on the road has largely been light touch and libertarian, in which the children are simply asked again and again to play nice, even as they become ever greater bullies, and only if they’re really bad might they have their pocket money docked. We encourage and raise awareness, appeal to the legendary British sense of fair play, and still believe that the ideal road is within reach if only we can persuade everybody to get along through courtesy, good manners, and communicating our intentions clearly to one another.

Joe Moran has an entertaining history of this English approach to road safety in the chapter “please don’t be rude on the road” in On Roads. Amongst others he tells the story of Mervyn O’Gorman, who argued against introducing a driving test because all that a motorist should require is a natural “road sense”, and who acted on his belief that the cause of road accidents is poor communication by inventing the Highway Code, a list of mostly legally baseless customs and courtesies, explaining that “is is just as ungentlemanly to be discourteous or to play the fool on the king’s highway as it would be for a man to push his wife off her chair at the Sunday tea table and grab two pieces of cake.” Perhaps most entertaining is his coverage of the period in the 1930s when “courtesy cops” went around with megaphones politely asking errant drivers to behave themselves. He concludes:

Underneath this appeal lay an uncomfortable truth: many members of the respectable middle classes were incompetent drivers who were to blame for fatal road accidents. Rather than turning them into criminals through putative legislation, British traffic law relied on appeals to their sense of fair play. It was always better, went the mantra of the time, to cultivate good habits than propose bad bills. [Sound familiar?] So the courtesy cops did not prosecute motorists; they offered friendly advice to the careless. The Times blamed accidents on what it called ‘motorious carbarians’ — the few bad apples hidden among the vast majority of gentlemanly drivers, who could be relied upon to break the law sensibly. Motoring correspondents railed against excessive regulation in the 1930s in a way that eerily echoes today’s campaigns against speed cameras and road humps. ‘Regulation after regulation pours from the Ministry of Transport in a never-ending flood,’ complained the Daily Mirror in 1934 … but ‘courtesy and good manners may be cultivated easily enough by everyone.’

They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. For eighty years or more the answer to motorists playing nice has been just a little bit more education and awareness raising, and look where it has got us. It’s time to call off the search for the British sense of fair play and abandon the naive idea that meaningful and worthwhile change on the road can be achieved with a few gentle nudges.

That Cycling Revolution

I’ve been collecting amusing quotes from the history of Britain’s “cycling boom”, and I thought it might be instructive to overlay them on a chart of the DfT’s annual cycle mileage estimates, adjusted for population. A lot of the quotes are from MPs because Hansard is one of the few publications which is consistently available across that period for free and easily searchable online, making a systematic trawl relatively easy, but I might trawl through additional sources sometime. I haven’t marked every comment from an MP, but the sample is pretty representative of what members were saying about cycling over time. The non-MP quotes are just random things I stumbled across and bookmarked, and I can’t claim they’re representative of a widespread feeling at the time. If you’ve got any more good “we’re in a cycling revolution” quotes, let me know.

The fact that government ministers are saying now that “cycling is booming”, exactly as they did in the 1980s and 1990s, should put us on guard against other aspects of that history repeating — as I will discuss in a future post.

Dave Horton says:

there are two clear and present problems which bedevil UK cycling advocacy: one is the requirement to trumpet any and all gains, however minor or potentially imaginary, in order for us to legitimate and reproduce ourselves as advocates; the other is a rush to interpret any sign of growth in cycling as both ‘good’ and a clear sign that investments in cycling are paying dividends, when a wider and more critical analysis might concur with neither.

Note that there are a couple of reasons why things might not be quite as bad as the graph makes them look — not that they can be much better. Firstly, the annual traffic estimates are based on manual traffic counts for a (large) sample of roads. As I understand it, they don’t include off-road routes like railway paths, which have been slowly proliferating  over the past three decades. Unfortunately, there are not enough such routes to make any relevant difference to the national numbers. Of course, in a few places they might make a difference to the local numbers, which brings us to…

Secondly, they are national numbers, and I’m sure people will still want to argue that cycling in their city is booming. As was pointed out on the London Transport Data blog, cycling did indeed “boom” in Central London — where those MPs spent half of their time — from the extremely low ebb of the early 1970s to the dizzy heights of, er, one in thirty commuter journeys at the turn of the century. But it carried on plummeting in the suburbs as traffic and big roads continued to grow, cutting Outer London off from zone 1’s employment — the latter largely cancelling out the former in the city-wide stats.

No doubt changes in demographics, employment and settlement — in what kind of people are doing what kind of jobs and where — means that cycling really has grown noticeably (though never to anything close to its full potential) in a few (mostly urban) areas. But rarely can politicians legitimately claim such localised rises as a result of deliberate cycling policy. The small rises are usually completely unrelated to their ineffective cycling policies, often the result of undesirable factors — the push of economic recession and bad public transport, rather than the pull of attractive and convenient conditions — and are extremely vulnerable to the sudden cessation of those factors which caused them, or to new negative factors eclipsing them. There will always be an organisation ready to trumpet the rises, and a politician to take credit for them. There are never any to claim responsibility for the falls.

Theobald’s Road / Clerkenwell Road crossing Grays Inn Road on London’s “Silk Road” from the West End to the East End. The result of deliberate cycling policy or of overcrowding on the Central Line? What happens to these crowds when Crossrail opens and east-west public transport is massively improved? When rents in Hackney rise? Or when “smoothing traffic flow” makes junctions on the inner ring worse?

(Thanks to Jack for pointing out the travel distance data.)

People die of cancer and heart disease, therefore we don’t require oxygen to stay alive

AmCamBike seems to be frustrated with all these folk claiming that a necessary prerequisite for mass cycling is good infrastructure that doesn’t require bicycle users to mix with lots of busy fast traffic. He looks at a survey of people in the Netherlands who both drive and cycle for some of their journeys, and which asks those people why they choose to make journeys by bicycle and why they choose to make journeys by car. It turns out that they do not cite infrastructure as a reason to make a journey by bicycle, and they do not cite a lack of infrastructure on the occasions that they choose not to make a journey by bicycle. Dutch folk just never say: I would have made that journey by bicycle today if only they had built another cycle path. So I take it all back. Fixing our infrastructure is not necessary for cycling. Apparently we just need to shout loud and clear that cycling is healthy, fun and good for the environment. Why had nobody thought to do that before in this country?

AmCamBike may just have made an important breakthrough in transport planning. I just went to my local station, you see, and asked the folk waiting on the platform why they had chosen to make their journey by train. Not one of them mentioned the tracks. This opens up exciting money-saving opportunities for High Speed 2. Folk in the Chilterns will be relieved.

AmCamBike also notes how strange it is that, in the UK, a survey found that dangerous roads and lack of cycling infrastructure is cited as a reason not to make journeys by bicycle. What a strange result that is, that in a country that lacks cycling infrastructure, a lack of cycling infrastructure is cited as a reason for not cycling. And in a country which doesn’t lack cycling infrastructure, it isn’t. What could possibly explain why it is cited as a reason for not cycling in one, but not the other? It’s a right conundrum, isn’t it?

AmCamBike thinks it would be interesting to see whether that result — from the recent Sustrans research — which found lack of cycling infrastructure to be a reason for not cycling in the UK, could be replicated in other surveys. Well, I suppose there’s the DfT’s 2011 “Climate change and transport choices” report. And the 2001 Scottish “Sharing Road Space” report (PDF). And Southampton’s 1997 “Barriers to cycling” survey (PDF). And Manchester’s 2011 cycle survey. There were Tim Ryley’s 2004 surveys in Edinburgh, I guess. And TRL’s 1997 “Attitudes to cycling” focus groups, 1998 “Cycling for a healthier nation” surveys, and 1998 “Transport implications of leisure cycling” surveys are often cited, though I’ve never obtained the full reports. And obviously there’s the very in-depth Understanding Walking and Cycling project, about which Dave Horton writes lay summaries. But perhaps they all just prompted the participants to give those responses?

I think it would be far more interesting to survey ex-pat Dutch folk to find out what affects their everyday transport mode decisions in their adopted countries. It shouldn’t be difficult: I find that Dutch people are very willing to tell you why they don’t cycle in the UK, before you’ve even asked. Like the Dutch chap on a hillwalking holiday who I met in Torridon last year — jealous of my cycle touring, he volunteered, but unwilling to join me because of the lack of safe places to cycle in Scotland. Or the retired gentleman who had struck up a conversation (wondering why I was photographing roundabouts) on the cycle path at Ernst when I was riding to Arnhem — a fan of my native West Country as a holiday destination, but he has only ever taken a car to Devon and Cornwall because “you’d have to cycle on the road, with 100kmph cars, it’s crazy”. Or the Dutch student I met at the lights on the Bloomsbury cycle tracks, who rides on a carefully planned quiet route to UCL, but to no other destinations, because she couldn’t be sure there would be a cycle route. Isn’t it really odd how, when they’re in the Netherlands, which has cycle paths, they don’t cite lack of cycle paths as a reason for not cycling, but when they’re in the UK, which doesn’t have cycle paths, they cite lack of cycle paths as a reason for not cycling? Why is that? Why won’t they listen to AmCamBike when he tells them that they don’t cycle because of the infrastructure?

Amsterdam, Monday 9am

As is regularly pointed out, cycling will never be an important mode of transport because it’s physically impossible to ride a bicycle to your important business meeting in a suit.

Friday photo: bloody motorists…

Car

You can hardly walk anywhere in the countryside 'round here without your way being blocked by some anti-social motorist who has left a vehicle on a footpath...

Even after all this time, I still find it so bizarre that in any mainstream media discussion of cycling and related policy, somebody inevitably tries to de-rail the discussion by shouting about how cyclists are all selfish lawless hooligans who cycle on the pavement.

As a pedestrian, I’m obviously no fan of other road users invading our space.

But, to the sort of person who doesn’t get out much and doesn’t think that they’ve ever even met somebody who rides a bicycle, it’s difficult to communicate the fact that “cyclists” and “cycling” describes an extremely diverse set of people and activities that can not be generalised.  One type of “cyclist” might be unable to identify with another type of “cyclist”, and there’s no reason why we should expect them to — they are strangers from different cultures and demographics, united only by their ownership some sort of a bicycle.

Indeed, what are the chances that the lawless hooligan on the pavement is riding a bicycle whose cruel loss some other cyclist is still mourning?

So perhaps the closest analogous scenario that the complainant might understand is to berate motorists for all these ugly burnt-out cars that they leave lying around, spoiling the footpaths on the hills.  You motorists

(Similarly, I hate all you bloody bus passengers: if you want to listen to some awful pseudo-R&B pop crap, get some bloody headphones.  And you assholes who use trains, yes, you, all of you: get your dirty shoes off the seats. You disgust me, every last one of you.)

More photography and prints for sale at my photography site.