Tag Archives: fear of cycling

State intervention

In reviewing the Radio 4 documentary Bristol: Cycling City (I didn’t hear it and was too slow on the iPlayer), the Guardian‘s radio critic Elisabeth Mahoney once again revealed the bizarrely muddled thinking of a nation so thoroughly addicted to its car culture.  The Cycling City project, in which a mere £22 million was given to the city to invest in cycling infrastructure and projects, was, she said, a “large state intervention in lifestyle issues”.

The implication is that the billions we spend designing our roads and streets for motor vehicles does not amount to a large state intervention in lifestyle.  Or perhaps Mahoney thinks that the inner-Bristol ring road has always been there, that the M32 arterial motorway is a natural geological landform laid down in the last ice age, and that the traffic signals that allow the narrow old city streets to support such a volume of cars just shoot from the pavement without the council even having to put down the right kind of fertiliser.

The roads projects of the second half of the twentieth century add up to the biggest state intervention in lifestyle choices there has ever been.  Building for the motor car gave some people new freedom and luxury,  to others it gave divided neighbourhoods and cities ruined by blight.  People were pushed out of their villages by richer car-commuters from the city, elderly people were isolated by the loss of their bus service, and people who were quite happy not driving — who couldn’t afford to run a car — were forced into supporting one as the car culture around them led directly to the closure of their local shops and services and sources of employment.  Millions of people have had their lives forcibly changed by the state interventions that supported the car.

Amongst those whose lifestyle choices are affected by streets that have been designed for cars by government agencies are people who would like to be able to walk and cycle.  Currently the proportion of journeys made by bicycle in much of the UK is less than one percent, and even in Bristol is well within single figures.  Again, perhaps Mahoney simply thought that this is the natural state for cycling — that the rates above 25% regularly achieved by some European cities are unnatural, achieved only by the force of the state.  Actually, if you ask a sample of people on the streets of Bristol, or any other British city, about their transport choices then the chances are they will tell you that they would like to be able to walk and cycle for their daily local journeys, but their streets and neighbourhoods simply aren’t designed to allow it.  You have to cross a dual carriageway that has no crossing; you have to learn to love four-lane roundabouts; you have to cycle down a suburban ‘A’ road that has lines of cars each side parked half on the pavement and half covering the cycle lane, while double-decker buses and articulated trucks overtake six inches from your handlebars, and queues of cars grow behind you, honking, just incase you haven’t yet got the message that you do not belong here.  Most streets don’t look safe for cycling and walking, let alone inviting.  Many people want to take advantage of the time and money saving benefits of making short journeys on foot or by bicycle, but they don’t think they can.

There is nothing natural about this state of our streets.  They do not just spring up out of the fields with four lanes and a row of parking places outside the shops and no room for pedestrian crossings or cycle lanes.  Somebody designs them that way, and that somebody is in some way an agent of “The State”.  The state can’t not “intervene” in streets; it has a number of choices for what to do with streets, but all of them amount to an “intervention”, and all of them affect our lifestyle choices.  Designing streets with only the needs of the motorcar user in mind has been a massive state intervention preventing people from making journeys on foot or by bicycle, even if they had really wanted to. Funding infrastructure and projects to make it possible for them to make those journeys is not forcing anybody to cycle.  It is not state intervention.  It’s providing a level playing field.

We’ve reached a point where most of the people alive in this country today have always lived in an era of mass car ownership.  Over half of the population were born after the first motorway opened.  People have a habit of believing that the world they grow up in is the natural and objectively correct way for the world to be; that if it were any other way the world would collapse.  Which is a problem when it comes to our city streets, which over the past fifty years have been designed extremely badly, in what we can objectively say was the wrong way.

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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