Surrogates and segregation

You’ll have noticed that here at At War With The Motorist we like the idea of good segregated cycling infrastructure in places where bicycle users would otherwise have to interact with high volumes of fast moving and badly driven motor vehicles.  The point of developing the infrastructure is to develop mass bicycle use: having seen what has happened here and around the world, we’re satisfied that segregated paths are an important requirement for mass bicycle use; their absence a major barrier to it.

But mass bicycle use is not our ultimate goal either.  It’s just one way to help to achieve what At War With The Motorist really wants: places that are nice to live and work in.  Happy, healthy, stress-free cities and villages.  We want to remove the air pollution and noise pollution, the neighbourhood and community division and destruction, and the danger and intimidation from our streets: all problems that are caused or at least exacerbated by excessive use of motor vehicles (along with climate change, inequality of opportunity, war, and many other problems to explore one day in other posts).

And yet mass bicycle use is still not exactly the solution to our problems.  Because as we’ve seen again and again, create spare road capacity in London — by building a new road, displacing cars with a congestion charge, ripping out pedestrian crossings, or having a modal shift to trains and bicycles — and there will be ten others waiting to jump in that space.  Demand for road space in a city like London is so elastic that it will always be filled just to the edge of gridlock, whatever happens.

On segregated infrastructure, Carlton Reid says:

In such a car-centric society as the UK it is politically naive to demand to take meaningful space away from cars. Millions of vote-toting motorists would scupper any such plans. We have to build alliances with other active travel and true road safety organisations, not be single issue campaigners. And we probably have to recognise we’re not going to succeed with the present administration.

Mass bicycle use, if it were ever to be achieved without any changes to the roads, would likely make little improvement to the quality of our environs.  They would still be smelly, smoggy, noisy, nasty stressful places.  I would hesitate to call that a success.

So absolutely we should not get carried away and campaign on the single issue of segregated cycle paths, a mere surrogate endpoint.  Taking meaningful space away from cars is exactly what we ultimately need to be aiming for.  Not just building a bike path, but reducing the motor-vehicle capacity on the route of that path; making residential neighbourhoods impenetrable for through motor traffic while at the same time more friendly to people; getting motor-vehicles out of the narrow city centre side-streets that they’re destroying; and reforming the way we design new neighbourhoods, to prevent ourselves making the same old car-centric mistakes.

I don’t think those things are impossible.  Indeed, I see a lot of them already quietly happeningMost car users are not political Motorists: they want nice livable streets too.  They’ve let pedestrian zones and residential road blocks and people-friendly developments happen, and I’ve seen no evidence that they wouldn’t also let bike paths happen.  It is not car users who have being vetoing the development of good bike paths.

I was a Cyclist

I rode a bike before that.  It was just a convenient way to make the short journeys I needed to make.  Initially to the university in Bristol, where helmets didn’t really seem to be the style.  Then around the sidestreets and sidewalks to the lab when I worked in Cincinnati.  Hybrid bikes with cargo shorts or socks pulled up over trousers.  I bypassed the bearpit, became a great fan of the NCN paths, and discovered ride-by photography.

Then I moved to London, took the bus and tube to the office for a week, before settling back into riding the bike.  I looked at the OS map and the TfL recommended routes, and spent over an hour winding through Dulwich Village and Loughborough Junction, with a short burst of main roads at Westminster Bridge followed by a maze of one-way streets through Soho and Fitzrovia.  That wasn’t going to work.

So I moved over to the Brixton, Kennington, and Charing Cross Roads.  I confidently took the lane, developed the brute-strength method of accelerating like a car when the lights turned, and bought a helmet to help should I get crushed by a bus.  I discovered that cycling was something that required at least a change of t-shirt at the other end, and when the company was bought, contributed with those calling for our shiny new offices to have showers.  I became the competitive commuter, and learned to love the Elephant & Castle: it’s fun riding fast.  When the hybrid bike got nicked, I replaced it with a £600 road bike.  That’s the London way.

I had become a Cyclist.

I drew the line at lycra, obviously.  And I never quite got around to working out clips and cleats.  But I became suspicious of Sustrans and their slow, winding quiet routes, contemptuous of any and all dedicated cycling infrastructure, and felt sorry for the few friends who were stuck on their slow old hybrids, uprights, and bromptons, ignorant of the wonderful fast fun right way to cycle in London.  We would often need to get from the office in Clerkenwell to the events in Mayfair or Kensington during the evening rush.  It’s a simple and obvious journey: straight down Theobold’s Road, Shaftesbury Avenue, and Picadilly Circus.  Man those girls on their hybrids and old dudes on their bromptons need to toughen up, I’d think to myself, as I waited again for them to catch up, or tried to explain the concept of merging into the taxi-saturated right-hand lane for a turn at Picadilly Circus.

After that one time, we took their route.  Something about being all dressed up for a night out, and not wanting to get sweaty.  And the fact that only the craziest moron would think to cycle around Picadilly Circus.  Quiet(er) roads and segregated paths around Bloomsbury and Marylebone, then down through Hyde Park.  I pointed out the dangerously badly designed “facility” on Tavistock Place, and discovered how terrifying it is to cycle slowly through London sidestreets, where one feels pressured by the traffic to pull in close to the parked cars so that they can overtake with two inches gap in order to pull up at the next queue for the lights.  For some reason my friends didn’t like the idea of “taking the lane” when the options having done so were to arrive in a sweaty dress or get a constant honking from behind while riding at leisure.

I hated that style of riding, slow and vulnerable, where quick and confident feels safe and fun.  But my friends and I now make our separate ways to evening events.  I am the weird one, preferring the Old Kent Road to the Greenwich Tunnel, Picadilly Circus over Hyde Park.  My friends ride bikes, but no amount of training manuals will ever make them Cyclists: they’re just not interested in that sort of thing.

Of the 3% of journeys that are made by bicycle in inner London (and much of the rest of the UK), already less than half are made by Cyclists in my style.  And the number of Cyclists like me is never going to grow significantly: 99% of the population will never be comfortable riding around roundabouts and dual carriageways amongst double-decker buses and skip lorries.  The rest of the bicycle journeys are made by non-Cyclists who just happen to ride a bike — or in alternative terms, by “utility cyclists” rather than “lifestyle cyclists”: people getting from A to B by the most convenient and sensible means available for their particular needs and circumstances.  But for every one that has already been persuaded by the convenience, savings, and health benefits, there are twenty or thirty who are just the other side of the threshold: keen to access those benefits, but always foiled by their (correct) perception that riding a bike to get somewhere in modern Britain is frequently deeply unpleasant and unsafe.  They will stay that side of the threshold as long as they’re told that the pleasant and safe way to cycle is the quick-and-confident middle-of-the-lane vehicular style.

The interests of cycling campaign organisations — the LCC and CTC — are the interests of their Cyclist members: the heads-down-into-the-wind team lycra wearing formation racing bike riders, who just want to get out on the open road.  And that’s fine.  They’re under no obligation to represent the larger population of non-member utility bike riders and even larger population of would-be utility bike riders.  Except that our politicians and planners treat them as if they do represent everybody on a bike (and even potential bike riders), the majority of whom have very different wants and needs to the Cyclists who are actually represented by these organisations.

I happen to have made half of the transformation into a Cyclist, out of necessity as somebody who only ever meant to ride a bicycle to get to where I needed to go in London.  But this is not a Cycling blog.  We don’t care about carbon frames and expensive accessories.  The blog could be written by somebody who doesn’t use a bicycle at all.  Because what we care about and campaign about at At War With The Motorist is not Cycling, but better transport and planning policy: we want to re-humanise our cities and villages, to make them nice places to live again.  We write about bicycle infrastructure quite a bit because we know that replacing the over-use of motor vehicles with the mass use of bicycles for short journeys is one of the most effective ways to achieve that goal.  And we know that mass bike use will never be achieved by telling the average person to man up and ride in the middle of the road like the guy in spandex with the £200 helmet.  You can call that cycle douchbaggery if you like.  But I think I know which attitude to riding a bike makes you the biggest douchbag.  And I sense that I have the people with me on this one.

I recommend that douchbagize follow the excellent works of ibikelondon and the lo fidelity bicycle club.  Readers might also be interested in the chapter “Cycling without spandex” in Lyn Sloman’s Car Sick.

–Joe

Fear of cycling

In last week’s the week before the week before last’s post, if you build it they will come, I described why we should expect that building proper cycle superhighways — fast, capacious, direct and sensible routes that are segregated from high volumes of fast moving motor vehicles — should unleash a massive latent demand for cycle commuting in British cities.  But there is an argument that dedicated and segregated cycling infrastructure like this could actually be counter-productive.  The argument goes like this:

Firstly, providing dedicated infrastructure sends the message that cycling on roads is dangerous.  Like helmets and hi-vis, bike paths say that cycling could get you killed, and that it’s up to you — not the person in the 3 ton Chelsea tractor or the 50ft artic — to take precautions not to get killed: in this case, that precaution is to get off the road.  Most people don’t like danger, and so will simply stop doing the activities that they perceive as dangerous.

And second, taking cyclists off the main roads and putting them on their own paths will mean that cyclists and Motorists will encounter each-other less frequently, and so Motorists will stop expecting to see cyclists and forget how to drive safely on roads with cyclists, making the cyclist less safe on the occasions where they must leave the bike path and rejoin the road network.

For these reasons, some cyclists and cycling campaigners oppose dedicated segregated cycle paths, and actively promote the status quo of “vehicular cycling”.

The first objection is clearly irrelevant.  People don’t need segregated space to believe that London’s roads are unsafe.  People already believe that London’s roads are unsafe, and they’re not stupid for believing that.  By far the most common reason given for not commuting by bicycle by those who would like to commute by bicycle is that the roads are too dangerous.  And so 98% of London commuters do not commute by bicycle.  That dismal outcome has been achieved without any dedicated cycle paths to give the impression that roads are unsafe.  The reasoned argument might say that segregated paths give the impression that cycling is dangerous, but the evidence-based argument says that it is high volumes of fast moving motor vehicles that give the impression that cycling is dangerous.

The second objection is wrong too, but much more interestingly so.  The mistake in the logic of this objection mirrors the great mistake that cycling campaigners made in the mid-twentieth century to get us into this mess.  In 1935, when high-speed motor vehicles were becoming common on our roads, some people began to worry that the roads weren’t wide enough to accommodate all of the people who were trying to use them.  In particular, the Motorists pointed out that the roads were simply too narrow to have these great big slow cyclists using them, and suggested that they be sent somewhere else where they wouldn’t get in the way.  No, no, said the cyclists.  We have every right to be here.  It is you Motorists with your inappropriate speed who should be going somewhere else.  And so the cycling campaign organisations and the Motorist organisations found themselves united in the call for the provision of new infrastructure specifically for fast cars.  Thus the motorway network was invented.

The flaw in the campaigners’ logic then and now was to assume that by providing dedicated segregated infrastructure, there would be a universal shift to that new infrastructure, but that everything else — the volume of traffic, for example — would stay the same.  But obviously that is not what happened when we built the motorways.  By providing fast and capacious roads dedicated to motoring, we unleashed the latent demand for private motorised transport: motoring suddenly became more attractive than cycling or taking the train or sitting at home, so everybody bought a car and filled up the road.  Rather than the conventional old roads returning to the quiet pre-car utopia that the cycling campaigners had predicted, the construction of the motorways led to more cars than ever clogging the country lanes and residential streets, as they made their way from the motorway junction to their final destination.

Create a network of real cycling superhighways into and through London — direct wide joined-up and pleasant motor-free routes; about twelve of them, say, radiating from a partially de-motorised zone 1 — and you will not merely provide a nicer path for the people who already cycle.  You will unleash the latent demand for cycling and cyclist numbers will swell to ten times their current number.  Not every metre of these cyclists’ journeys will be on the twelve superhighways, nor will all of their journeys be on routes served by one.  Rather than taking cyclists off the roads, real superhighways will create more, just as Motorways helped put many more cars on the country lanes and residential streets.  Drivers will be more used to seeing cyclists, and more used to being cyclists.

Author’s note: I’m afraid I’ve rather had to abandon the blog for a hectic couple of weeks.  Here’s one I started writing earlier but never got to pollish.  Normal service should be resumed next week. –Joe

If you build it they will come

On the London Cyclist thread “is there anything super about the Cycle Superhighways?,” we hear Chinese whispers on the reason why TfL decided against making real superhighways and instead came up with the overpriced and failed PR exercise that are the blue lines on the side of the road:

“TfL said the routes are simply not being used frequently enough to warrant separation of traffic.”

and,

Boris, when asked why the Superhighways are not segregated, always says “There is just not room on London’s roads”.

Whether Boris used one or both of these excuses, he is wrong.  The reason he is wrong is Transport Economics 101 stuff — the sort of thing that even amateurs like us understand.  Simply, the demand for transport — and especially the demand for a specific mode of transport in an area with competing modes — is extremely flexible, and easily adjusts to supply.

People like to go places.  If you give them fast and affordable railways, they will jump on the train to the seaside.  If you give them fast and affordable roads, they will drive their car to work.  If you give them budget airlines, they will herd into planes to southern Europe.  A new transport mode releases latent demand: previously, though they would have liked to have gone somewhere, they chose not to because it was too difficult or expensive.  And it induces demand in other ways: a new road creates car journeys by allowing small local shops and services to be closed and merged into large centralised versions that people have little choice but to drive to, or by removing the incentive for efficient means of transporting goods, or by making it feasible to develop residential suburbs and new towns far from centres of employment, etc.

This is why in densely populated places like the UK, building a new road to solve one problem always creates another before long: the new road makes driving easier and cheaper, so more people drive and they drive further and more frequently, putting additional pressure on all the existing infrastructure surrounding the new road.  We could bulldoze corridors through the cities and pave the whole countryside, build ten times the road capacity that we currently have, and the road network would be just as overloaded as it is now.  This we already knew.

What is less well known is that the reverse is just as true.  Make it more difficult to drive somewhere and people will not drive there.  Make taxis sit in traffic jams instead of subsidising their industry by allowing them into bus lanes, and their fares will take the train instead.  Make it more expensive for goods vehicles to get into central London and the businesses and organisations that are based there will stop being so wasteful with goods.  Impose airport taxes on budget flights to the continent and people will realise that they can have an equally appalling stag night somewhere nearer home.

Take away a transport route and our remarkably robust network copes just fine.  A sudden emergency causes disruption because people aren’t expecting it; but sufficiently well publicised road works have a far more modest impact because people adjust their plans around them — take a different route, move their journey to an off-peak time, or do something else instead.  Permanently closing a whole road is even better tolerated still: such closures do not leave the surrounding roads gridlocked, at least, not in the long term.  People shift modes and shift behaviours; and eventually, all of the businesses and development patterns that had adjusted to a world in which everybody drove down that road will happily adjust back to one in which they don’t.

The amount of road space that we have now is essentially arbitrary: it could go up or down without making the slightest difference to the traffic jams its users moan about.

So it is not true that our streets are too small to accommodate dedicated cycling facilities.  Our streets are already too small, and will always be too small, to accommodate even a tenth of the potential for private motor-vehicle use, and we cope with that situation.  The road network copes with this situation because nine out of ten Londoners are quite aware of the fact that trying to drive a car through town is an absurd thing to do, and they don’t do it.  Taking away a little bit more will make a negligible difference because a few of the more stubborn Motorists will wake up to the fact and the volume of traffic will adjust accordingly.

And it’s not true that there is no demand for segregated facilities, and anybody who says there isn’t must be living in a fantasy land.  Pick a random non-cycling London commuter and ask them about cycling: more often than not they will tell you that would love to be able to replace their horrible bus journey with a bike ride.  But ninety-nine out of a hundred of them will tell you that they don’t do so because the roads aren’t safe, and there’s nothing to stop a truck driving into them.  Not because they’re afraid that they might get sweaty, or because it occasionally rains, or because they don’t know how to use a spanner, or because they’ve never heard of cycling before.  Entirely because there is no infrastructure that is perceived to be safe.  Cycling has a modal share at the lower end of single figures; it could plausibly account for a third or more of commutes.  Provide fast, capacious, sensible, joined-up and conspicuously safe infrastructure and you will unleash the vast latent demand for cycling.

If you build it they will come.  The only reason not to that Boris has left is to protect his credentials with the primarily non-London Motorist Tories who he will one day want to vote for him to be prime-minister.

–Joe

Superhighways

Otherwise known as “motorways”.  Freeways.  Die autobahnen.  A road specifically designed for those whose journey takes them quite some distance, designed to carry a large volume of traffic at speed.  They have special engineering features and special rules and regulations.  Junctions are grade separated such that through traffic can sail past unperturbed; there are no zebra crossings for pedestrians, level crossings for railways; the carriageways are wide, to accommodate vehicles of a variety of speeds and power.  No bicycles, no farm tractors; cars and motorcycles must meet a minimum power requirement.

What’s a “cycle superhighway”?  What special engineering features and special rules and regulations are they marked by?

Blue paint.

Certain cycling campaign groups, political parties, and local authorities subscribe to a belief that cyclists should be on the road, in traffic.  There are good reasons for this belief, and I agree with it: the road is a much better way for a cyclist to get around London than any of the variety of styles of pisspoor cycling infrastructure put in by the boroughs, and we should certainly be doing all that we can to reclaim the City and West End streets from the Motorist for the people.  The problem is that the aforementioned organisations are dogmatic in this belief.  They believe that all cyclists should be in traffic, all of the time.  But a street lined with bus stops and 25 sets of traffic lights per mile is not the best that we can provide for cycling, any more than it would make a suitable intercity infrastructure for a Motorist.

A true cycle superhighway, providing an efficient and safe route between the parts of London where people live and the parts where they work, would have some specific engineering characteristics.  It would not be a lame blue strip along the side of a road, too narrow to accommodate the required volume of cyclists and variety of cycling abilities, surface smashed by the buses, air stuffed with the fumes of the trucks, too saturated with signals and crossings to allow reasonable journey times.  Nor would it be like the embarrassing wastes of money that are our current selection of useless and dangerous segregated roadside bicycle paths; the ones that weave through street furniture, over kerbs, in and out of traffic, and force the cyclist to stop to cross every small side-road.

A true cycle superhighway is a cycling freeway.  It is not shared with inappropriate transport modes: no cars, no buses, no motorcycles.  It does not have level intersections with roads: minor roads that cross its path cease to be through routes, while major roads fly over or under, with slip lanes for access.  It can accommodate high volumes and variable abilities — at least two lanes in each direction, with a verge for those who need to stop.  And it’s straight enough, flat enough, and smooth enough for people to cruise uninterrupted at speed.  It looks a bit like the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, the arterial cycle path through north-east Bristol along the route of an old railway: gentle gradients, gentle radii, and no level-crossings with roads.

If London were serious about cycle superhighways, that is what it would be building.  In the outer boroughs the superhighways would follow suburban streets that have been fully closed to other traffic — having the beneficial side-effect of making neighbourhoods more pleasant as they are freed from speeding taxis taking short-cuts through residential streets.  As they reached the inner boroughs they would converge to continue as elevated cycleways, often alongside or above existing railways — in the south, for example, three great arterial routes alongside the elevated railways that come in to London Bridge, Elephant & Castle, and Waterloo; finally converging, perhaps, upon a de-Motorised Southwark Bridge.

That would be expensive, compared to a few barrels of blue paint.  But the pay-out would be huge.  It’s called “investment”.