Tag Archives: cycling

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.


Updated: That Cycling Revolution

A couple of years ago, when I had some time to waste flicking through the four decade history of stalled and deliberately ineffective “pro-cycling” transport policies, I created one of my simplest but most enduringly popular posts: a graph of That Cycling Revolution we keep hearing about.

The concept was simple (and crudely implemented) but I think must have made the point strikingly: taking quotes celebrating a “bike boom”, a renaissance of cycling, a grand new policy, or, most absurdly of all, a golden age of cycling and overlaying them on a graph of cycling’s great decline and stagnation in this country.

But of course, we were in the midst of a cycling revolution at the very time! The Olympics were coming! We were going to ride the wave! Sadly, at the time, the Department for Transport traffic survey data that was used as the basis of the graph only reached as far as 2010, when we were merely in the midst of a cycling revolution. So how did 2012’s cycling revolution work out? Last year’s numbers are in and it’s time to look at an updated picture.

(This time, to avoid faffing with crudely adding the annotations in PS, I’ve found the Google Docs annotations functionality, which unfortunately is very limited in the control it gives you over display style (and doesn’t give quite the right feel to the different types of data that crude PS labels gave), so click to embiggen and get the quotes…)


(Edited to add, thanks to @johnstevensonx, here’s a fancier one you can hover over to get the quotes.)

Oh what a change.

As ever, I’ll repeat Dave Horton’s warning here:

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.

And as before there are caveats to consider, besides the (pretty much irrelevant to the final results) fact that I adjusted GB distances to UK population change. The two in particular that occurred to me being:

Firstly, the annual traffic estimates are based on manual traffic counts for a (large) sample of roads. They don’t include off-road routes like railway paths, which have been slowly appearing over the past three decades. Unfortunately I doubt there are anywhere near 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. In London, for example, there genuinely has been growth in the numbers of people on bikes in inner and central London over the past couple of decades. But at the same time, cycling in outer London plummeted, stabilising only in recent years.

A caveat to the caveat, though. When the CTC put together a map showing changes in cycling commuter share between the 2001 and 2011 census, people were keen to find meaning in the numbers. Why was there an apparent bike boom over here? Why did cycling rates crash over there? But in most of the country, all that the map really showed is the same thing that the DfT’s distance estimates show: that cycling hit rock bottom long ago and the tiny numbers continue to fluctuate — mostly by fractions of mode share percentage points — randomly.

If you did the stats properly, perhaps you could pin a robust narrative to the data — small but significant rural declines to small but significant inner urban gains seems to be one of the more attractive hypotheses*. But you couldn’t make the stories of the cycling revolution — or the policies that were supposedly to make one come about — stick.

(For the data and info on sources, see the Google Doc.)

* but equally you can find evidence that suggests the exact opposite and evidence that recently there’s no nationwide urban/rural trend at all; none of the evidence is all that good, and all it really says is that rates are fluctuating at low levels.

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.)

The quick, the cheap, and the inadequate

At the last Street Talks, a panel presented on the theme of “The quick, the cheap and the temporary: Speeding up the transformation of London’s streets and public spaces”. Hannah Padgett of Sustrans talked about projects that get communities to suggest and try out improvements to their streets and places; Brian Deegan talked about Royal College Street and the research that has gone into Transport for London’s new Cycle Design Standards; and Ben Kennedy from Hackney Council talked about their trial de-motorification of the Narroway.

It was all very encouraging to hear how transforming our streets to reduce the blight of traffic and enable walking and cycling doesn’t necessarily have to take decades and hundreds of millions of pounds, and so I look forward to Boris and the boroughs making some rapid progress rolling out this kind of flexible “segregation lite” around the city. It’s good to have it spelled out and spread far and wide: budget cuts are not an excuse.

Except I’m a little worried about the quick and the cheap. Sometimes I just can’t quite see how it can do the job. Take the proposals that TfL are currently consulting on for the A21 in Lewisham:

A21 Bromley Rd Canadian AvThere are two elements to this scheme: the long straight link, and the crossroads node. A mandatory cycle lane is proposed for the link — dedicated space found for cycling within the existing carriageway, but protected only by a stripe of white paint. This cycle lane looks like exactly the sort of place that Royal College Street-style segregation could be quickly and cheaply implemented. It would be far from perfect — minimal separation from passing trucks, and only on one side of the road — but it would at least be a quick and cheap interim solution that could be in place on the street within days of a consultation ending.

The junction is the problem. Perhaps I just lack the imagination but I can’t picture any amount of the quick and the cheap segregation-lite making a safe, inviting and effective crossroads — especially one in which cyclists have to get past a long dedicated left-turn lane. And fixing the junction is the main issue, since it is junctions that are the least safe and least inviting part of our streets.

The best way to solve crossroads — and perhaps the only proven way, since Danish and German junctions don’t have such a great record for cycling safety and convenience — is the Dutch way: providing good, direct, high-capacity dedicated space with plenty of separation — in space and, where there are signals, in time — from the jostling and turning motor traffic. And that can not be done with a wheelbarrow load of armadillos.

@AnoopShah4 has already reached for the crayons box and sketched out a basic idea for the sort of things a junction like this needs. Carriageway narrowing, removing the left-hook lane, and putting in dedicated tracks set back from the carriageway:

Suggestion_A21_Bromley_Rd_Canadian_AvThe fact is, the carriageway on the A21 is in the wrong place. It’s the wrong shape and size. Fixing it, to make it the right shape and size, will require at least digging up the road to move the kerbs, but probably also moving some of the things on the street (like lamp posts) and under it (like rainwater drains). That’s not cheap and easy (well, not compared to Royal College Street; it’s still a bargain beside the M74), which is why in TfL’s plans, there is only some minor tinkering with the kerbs to tighten up the turnings in a couple of places, while absurd abominations like that left-turn lane are untouched.

It’s not cheap and easy, but without digging up the road, I just can’t picture how this junction could ever match the Mayor’s promise for TfL schemes:

Timid, half-hearted improvements are out – we will do things at least adequately, or not at all.

The current plan out for consultation is inadequate; to do things at least adequately here would require the mayor to spend some money correcting the carriageway.


The Dutch had carriageways that were the wrong shape and size too, but they’ve slowly worked their way through them correcting that, adding their cycle tracks as they go.

This junction is far from alone amongst London’s main roads — the ones which require dedicated space for cycling — in being a place where I can’t see how the quick and easy could work, and it’s not just junctions where this is a problem. A great many of our streets seem to have been assembled quite clumsily, with carriageway and lane widths bouncing around erratically according to the space available between buildings, obstructions strewn across footways without thought, and decades of added and moved and sometimes removed buildouts and islands, stacking lanes, bus stops and loading bays. They’re a mess, and trying to retrofit them for cycling could only make them an even bigger mess. To do things adequately, you’re often going to have to sweep away the accumulated mess, cast off the constraints of the motor-centric streets we’ve inherited, and do things properly. But we managed to put the money and effort in to install all of those ill-conceived left-hook lanes and junction stacks in the past. We should be able to find the same to now fix those mistakes.

Be nice to the ASA

I am sure that if you have not already, you will soon be reading an account of the Advertising Standards Authority’s embarrassing adjudication on complaints made about Scotland’s “Nice Way Code” series of “won’t everyone just play nice on the roads?” adverts. Briefly, of all the things that the ASA could have picked up on in the Nice Way Code, the offending footage ruled to be irresponsible by the ASA are (a) showing a roughly realistic proportion of people riding bikes with and without helmets, and (b) showing somebody riding a bicycle more than 0.5 metres from the side of the road. Other people will give you the full story.

I’m not an expert on advertising regulation, but I guess the first ruling sets a precedent against any future advertising featuring helmetless cycling. Things like TfL’s Catch Up With The Bicycle campaign. A depressing but not entirely unpredictable result of the lazy fact-free assumption on helmets that seems to have put down deep roots in this country (and started growing the fearsome thorns of shouty emotional anecdote). The second ruling is the more interesting and hilarious of the two. This one effectively precludes any future advertising of the standard long-established government guidance on road positioning, as taught in the official “Bikeability” cycling proficiency training. Like the advertising TfL and the DfT (under the Think! brand) are currently running on buses and billboards in London and several other English cities. But again, others will have more time than me to explore the amusing implications of the decision.

No, I only really popped into the discussion to say one thing, in the spirit of the Nice Way Code: be nice.

Obviously someone at the ASA has made a spectacular cockup, and they deserve a day’s mockery and ridicule for such an achingly absurd, side-splittingly ludicrous joke of an assessment.

But, occasional slapstick stupidity aside, I’m sure the ASA are not bad people.

Clearly some junior adjudicator got out of his or her depth, read one document they didn’t entirely understand, and remained ignorant of the actual relevant research and guidance in the field. Sure, there should have been processes in place to prevent errors of such a preposterous magnitude from ever getting so far as publication, but I have no doubt that with the blunder now evident to all, the ASA will be working fast to fix the mistake, and will ensure all is put right before the DfT and TfL are forced to put their adverts on hold while more time and money is wasted formally challenging it.

I’m sure they’re good people, and I’m sure they’ll have this one under control in no time. So be nice to them.

By all means clog up their system with satirical reports intended to mock, and with serious test cases designed to force contradictions, but do be nice.

That’s the Nice Way Code, after all.

Motoring needs role models

Lewis Hamilton models the latest fashionable motoring wear

Lewis Hamilton models the latest fashionable motoring wear

The shocking death of 9 year old James Quackenbush has reopened the debate on whether flame-retardant motoring overalls should be compulsory. Stars from the world of motoring should stand up and take a lead on the issue.

James Quackenbush is, of course, just one of several people to have died on Britain’s roads in recent weeks while not wearing a full fireproof motoring bodysuit. Margaret Blanshard we now know died of a cardiac arrest after her Ford Fiesta collided with a lorry on the A90 in Fife; the 72 year old was too old fashioned to update her wardrobe to include a simple set of motorist’s aromatic polyamide fibre coveralls. Meanwhile, charges of causing death by dangerous driving have been dropped against 24 year old Wayne Acocks of Essex after it emerged that the driver of the Skoda Octavia that was hit by the stolen Audi R8 Acocks was driving had not been wearing motoring overalls — the Skoda driver died in hospital from multiple major trauma hours after being airlifted from the scene of the horrific high-speed smash.

But it is the case of James Quackenbush that has renewed the urgency of calls for a change in the law. It is one thing for a grown adult motorist to choose to throw away their life by not taking the simple step of donning a set of motoring overalls, but to allow a child passenger motorist to go without is quite another. AWWTM phoned grieving mother Kate Quackenbush — who left Queen Elizabeth Hospital in a wheelchair this morning — to ask how she felt as the woman responsible for the death of her own son, but the child killer declined to comment. As has been widely reported, the boy was not wearing motoring overalls when he died instantly from serious crushing injuries as the single mother’s 1998 Peugeot 205 was impacted on the passenger side by a construction waste lorry whose over-hours driver had momentarily lost concentration at the busy crossroads.

As a motorist myself, I can’t see any reason why you would not wear a flame-retardant motoring suit. I can tell you, I was very grateful I was wearing mine when I got into trouble recently. Luckily it only turned out to be a minor prang — a smashed light and a scraped panel — but I dread to think how differently it could have turned out had I not been wearing my lifesaving overalls.

Naysayers point out that most car crashes do not involve a fire, and that those which do are usually of such a severity that a flame-retardant outfit is unlikely to be of much use. To those critics we say: you’re free to make that irrational choice to go and kill yourselves if you like. For now.

And yet still many of the youngsters newly attracted to the pastime are not making the right choice. Until such a time as the law is updated, there is undoubtedly a role here for top stars from the world of motoring to set an example. Fireproof overalls have, of course, been compulsory in the professional sport for many years now. But amateur motorists need leaders to look up to. It was gratifying to hear Lewis Hamilton state his support for a change in the law in a recent press conference, but why isn’t Hamilton doing more to encourage youngsters and to help show that flame-retardant boilersuits are not just cool, they’re an essential part of any motor to school or weekly drive to the supermarket.

Our sporting heroes have a simple duty: to set an example. They must do the right things, and let people copy those right things. And one of those oh so simple little things is wearing full body flame-retardant overalls at all times behind the wheel.

Not hard, is it?

The tragedy around The Commons

I did a video, because I was too lazy to think about and research and write up a topic properly, and because I needed something for testing editing software. It’s about shared use foot/cycle paths in parks. I know! Super exciting, right?

This means that I now not only hate the sound of my voice, I hate my mannerisms generally. I was not entirely unaware that smiling/grinning/laughing doesn’t look good on me, but, damn, I do all those other things as well?

But in a fit of reckless impulsiveness I thought I’d go ahead and publish it anyway.

It starts with an apology, but I’m really not sure that one is ever enough.

For more on the topic, see Jon’s post at Traffik In Tooting. The London Cycling Campaign discussion referenced is here.