Tuesday, 9 November 2010

My package for mass cycling

There seems to be a slight difference between what people think is needed for mass bicycle usage in London (I’ll stick to London for the time being if you don’t mind) and what the “cycling campaigns” think is needed and can be obtained. The vision of “CCs” is a bit old and hasn’t worked yet. It seems they cling to some old ideal, afraid of taking back what they’ve been saying for a long time, looking at the effects of their policies. They fortify themselves with slogans like “safety in numbers” and “making drivers more aware”. They mislead people by telling them things that aren’t true, like “segregation will mean no more bicycles on roads”, segregated infrastructure leads to more accidents”. Then they misunderstand the point that “segregationists” make by saying – there’s no way we can have 500 000 miles of cycle tracks – let’s better use roads. Because of that I thought of constructing my own list of a couple of things that might make people think about picking up cycling.

1) Segregated Infrastructure
This isn’t be all and end all as some suggest. Nor does it mean that bicycles will be banned from the roads. This infrastructure is characterized by a couple of very important points. All of these requisites have to be met in order for this infrastructure to work.
-          Quality – a cycling track of sufficient quality is one you’d allow your kids (5-7 YO) to use for riding their bikes.
-          Starting and leading somewhere – it’s obvious that mass cycling isn’t about leisure trips – it’s mainly utility cycling – shopping, getting kids to school, going out to meet friends, commuting. Tracks need to start where traffic doesn’t allow kids to safely ride their bikes on the road and end when they can do that again. Let them lead to school from the estate areas, to shops, then to bigger hubs. (By the way – I don’t think there’s a point in having all roads covered with cycle tracks, it more about creating a comprehensive network of high quality links).
-          Continuous – a cycling track is as good as its weakest path. The whole track becomes nonexistent if one of its part makes you take kids on a busy road. There are quite a few nice separated cycle tracks in London. Most of them unused for one simple reason – there’s no way to get to them without getting onto a busy road first. Why not connect the already existing infrastructure with new links.
-          Having priority – a cycle track that gives way at every driveway is not attractive at all. Not only does a person on a bike need to stop at every such road but also while crossing they might be swept by a car coming from behind them. I have heard a response to that, which said that bicycles are better at giving way then cars, which is utter nonsense – one: how can you give way to a car you can’t see; two: why do you have to give way to cars which then have to give way themselves to join the traffic. Totally pointless
-          Enforced – no need to explain that.
-          Well lit, clean and even supported by good bicycle parking.

2) Strict Liability Law
This has been brought up by the “CCs” and chapeau to them. It basically means that in a collision the bigger is at fault. So if a person walking or on a bike is hit by a person in a car, then the one in the car is automatically responsible unless they can prove the person walking or biking was at fault. The same situation applies when a person walking is hit by a person on a bike – the latter is responsible to providing evidence that he wasn’t at fault.
This law is like your very own bubble of a cycle track around you. It makes people in cars very cautious and finally straightens things out. No more SMIDSY for all.

3) Getting mums to cycle 
– it’s been observed that women have incredible power. It falls on this pattern. Women see something that’s saves them time, helps them get in shape, is good for their children (or any other pragmatic reason), they pick it up – suddenly it becomes cool and all males want to do it too. For some reason. Then it has been noted that no other social group can be as vocal and organized like mums. And if you try to oppose them – you might just get a phone call – from your own.
Now, having said that, mums are anything but reckless. They are very unwilling to put their offspring into any kind of danger, even to prove a point. If you try convincing a mum to make her kids ride to school on Londons roads you’ll be lucky to get away lightly bruised. However if you give mums a pleasant and safe cycling route to school, they might ditch the SUV. One such successful route is able to sprout another. Why?  Because more mums will want one too!

4) Advertising riding bikes
 this one’s difficult. The car is super popular because it makes money. Of course not the ones who use them, but there’s a whole industry that lives because of cars. Even supermarkets have their own petrol stations and give discounts when you do your shopping with them. Now, how would you feel if your local supermarket gave you a discount when you cycled? Does it sound enticing? There’s nothing in it for the supermarket you say? Well the first one to do it would get massive publicity – I bet the bicycle bloggers would help. Then the others wouldn’t want to stay behind, would they?

This is by no means a complete package, but I guess it outlines the idea. Because in the end there’s no point to convince other cyclists – we are already converted, hooked on the freedom the bicycle provides. There’s the sense of community and all the other things that keep us cycling (like laughing inside when colleagues tell us about another tube strike). The goal is to make riding a bike something as natural as driving a car. We have to give normal people an alternative without using the phrases like “defensive cycling”, “safety in numbers” and “training”. They don’t make sense and put people off. What they imply is a lycra, high vis and helmet warrior dodging lorries for his ideals.
With all the talk about sustainability, with all the powerful arguments about the health benefits, with visible to all traffic jams there’s no better time to give the bicycle a new face – not the sweaty one, red with anger and caked with mud; it’s time for the pretty face this time. And don’t worry – they won’t ban you from your beloved roads – although it’s time some of us realized that they don’t belong to cyclists any more.


  1. Hear hear to all of the above.

    Strict liability is an interesting one - it raises blood pressure at the Daily Mail primarily, I suspect, because it implies that the motorist is always to blame. We have therefore not explained ourselves very well - this is largely about civil liablity and insurance, it could never (quite rightly) apply to criminal sanctions, where the very idea of guilty til proven innocent is repugnant (even if it does apparently apply to suspected Islamist militants). The practical effect would be slightly higher premiums (say £50) and loss of no-claims which, after all, can happen even where the other guy is entirely responsible eg a rear end shunt.

    My only conern is the corrolary - if motorists have struct liability to cyclists, and cyclists to pedestrians, does that push us towards compulsory insurance? Would that include children? How would it be levied, how enforced? Would the nutters who want licence plates on bikes have their day?

  2. Since no compulsory insurance is needed for bicycle today (fairly small amount of damage inflicted by bicycles) I don't think it would need to be changed along with the Strict Liability. This law, in my opinion, only serves to speed up the legal processes.
    I, on the other hand, already have insurance for my bike which also promises to pay for damages I cause to others while riding it.

  3. An excellent summary of what makes for good cycling infrastructure and the associated measures required for promotion.

    Given that I know of no cycle track in Britain which meets the above criteria, does that explain why such a large group of 'experienced cyclists' are so opposed to new infrastructure?

    You say that the cycling campaigns' policies have failed, but surely those policies haven't actually been implemented by those who have the power: the local authorities and government. I don't know, but I don't think anyone is happy with the situation at present and all major groups want to see a change to how the road system works (including segregation) but all the councils ever do is convert another crappy footway to shared use instead of reallocating roadspace away from cars to give a proper segregated route.

    Safety in numbers is not an argument to get more people cycling - it is an argument to disarm local authorities who currently hate cyclists because they are 'high risk road users' (ie, they keep getting run over by lorries) and their casualty figures undermine the overall road safety strategy. They fear that any increase in cyclists will lead to more injuries: that doesn't have to be the case as has been demonstrated everywhere.

    Clearly safety in numbers doesn't tackle subjective safety of individual cyclists: but it isn't intended to.

  4. thanks for your comment transportretort.
    i am afraid that until the image of cycling changes, it will be seen by the authorities as an socially irresponsible, outdated hobby, and not a mode of transport.
    on the other hand the change is happening, although it's hard to see when you are inside. i guess we wouldn't mind getting to the dutch level next year, but that's of course impossible. having said that I would like it to pick up the pace.
    in the end it's all about quality - even though we have cycle lanes and asls all over London - their quality renders them invisible to general public so in the end the money is wasted on something that doesn't improve the situation. i bet that if the two cycle superhighways which are now in place where of at least as good as the Cable St bit over the whole length we would see a surge in the number of cyclists.

  5. While I would welcome changes to the law to introduce the concept of Strict Liability, I'm not sure that it will make the difference that some seem to claim.

    One problem with people in general is that they often aren't good at considering the consequences of their actions. Motorists certainly don't want to run down kids in their cars or mow down cyclists, and yet it happens now even though the consequences (a death on your conscience!) are extreme.

    Further, the problem with cycling now is mostly (IMHO) perceived safety. Is cycling next to a bus going to feel any safer with strict liability laws in place? Somehow I doubt it.

    So bring it on by all means, but don't let it muddy the waters too much. To me, segregation is by far the highest priority. Without that, all other measures will fail.

  6. iswas - thanks for your comment. This is why I put it on the list second to segregation. Strict liability would come into place where merging of traffics would occur.

  7. You have some interesting ideas there, I particularly like that one on getting "Getting mums to cycle". If they feel it is safe to do so, then they will encourage (rather than discourage as at present) their children to do so. The key is to making them feel safe, the question is how to do so? I came up with a few suggestion a while back, but it is far from an exhaustive list. May I borrow some of your ideas the next time I have a go at it?

  8. Kim -thanks for comment. My ideas are open source - feel free to use them. I have read your post before and it encompasses much more then just cycling - which I think is the way forward - active travel.