Thursday, 29 April 2010

A young cyclist sets me thinking

The controversial cycle lane in Poole

Coming in on the A30 this morning between Staines and Bedfont, I was passed on the inside by a young man on a bike dressed head to toe in black (save that his helmet was silver and black). He commented as he passed that he thought it looked as though I was about to turn right. An odd comment, I thought, as there were no right turns off that dual carriageway and I had certainly not signalled a right turn. He was referring to my road positioning and perhaps also to the fact that I spent a lot of time looking over my right shoulder at what was coming. Perhaps also he wondered at my propensity to move further right when I saw a vehicle coming up behind with no apparent intention of changing course or speed.

During the limited time available at the next light I tried to impress upon him the importance of being seen and he responded ‘yes, but there was carnage behind you’. I know, from my own observations, that those vehicles who look ahead have plenty of time to filter into the offside lane before passing me. The ‘carnage’ must be from those who passed him three vehicles (bike, car, car) abreast and then braked in front of him when they got to me.

I have nothing against the youngster; [subsequent edit:  I know him better now and really like him] our exchanges were perfectly friendly and I would defend his right to ride in the style and kit he chooses. What does concern me is that he does not apparently understand my style of riding. He is not the first fellow cyclist who has in effect suggested that I ‘keep in’. I would welcome intelligent debate on road positioning but often the ‘keep in’ stems from acceptance of an article of faith that (mere) bicycles should keep out of the way of (proper) traffic.

We are not all perfect and implicit criticism from a cyclist does cause me to reflect. I shall look into a bikeability training course since, though I have probably as much experience of riding on the roads as anyone, we are all capable of improvement. As Boris Johnson likes to point out the risks of being run down from behind are relatively low; but readers of this blog will know that riders do get run down by overtaking motor traffic on dual carriageways and the consequence when they are is often fatal. It is true too that the convenience of passing motorists is not very high on my list of priorities; but then when I am driving and passing a cyclist I put the safety of the cyclist well above my own convenience so I am being at least consistent.

I am a passionate believer that motorists should give cyclists plenty of room. On the A30 that cannot be done with two cars simultaneously passing a cyclist so I feel justified in claiming some road space to discourage it. I dislike the vast bulk of the cycling infrastructure in this country which consists of cycle lanes barely wider than a bicycle and which do nothing to encourage safe overtaking. When, at last, a cycle lane of suitable dimensions (pictured) is installed in Poole it receives widespread derision from motorists and their motor centric organisations and newspapers.

I am a ‘vehicular cyclist’. Realistically, I have to be given the distances I commute. Cycling infrastructure is of very limited, if any, use to me. I have not always been that way; I started commuting using cycle lanes painted on pavements; I then realised that the quality of the infrastructure I was using was such that I was much safer, as well as faster, on the roads; initially I kept well in and was often scared witless by close passing vehicles when I had nowhere to go; my final epiphany was reading John Franklin’s ‘Cyclecraft’ and I have felt rather safer since riding my bike as a vehicle entitled, like any other, to claim space on the road.

Cycling infrastructure though is essential to encourage others to cycle. I am persuaded in particular by this blogger (as convincing as he is prolific) that proper cycling infrastructure is required here of the quality that is widespread in Europe. Here we have generally the worst of all worlds with substantial money spent on a very poor infrastructure which appears to be designed to keep cyclists out of the way of cars rather than to make the cyclist’s journey smoother faster and safer. Who knows, if the infrastructure is really good I may use it, though I suspect I will want to continue to assert my right to use the road (a fear that this right may be eroded is the only reservation I have had about good infrastructure but this should be tackled by appropriate driver education).

For this election then I am looking for two things from any candidate who may attract my vote: support for road racing (see previous blog) and support for a proper cycling infrastructure designed by cyclists for cyclists with the aim of getting people out of cars and onto bikes. The rest of it: heavy taxation and spending cuts in order to get us out of the financial hole we are in, I take as a given from any future government.


  1. The vehicular cycling technique has been one of the best things I ever started doing. No more mirror clipping overtaking and other dicey activities by motorists. All I needed to do was take ownership of my spot of road.

    It is sadly very hard to teach to others, people think (and I can understand why) that it will reduce their safety rather than greatly increasing it.

  2. How refreshing to hear a vehicular cyclist assert that infrastructure is still needed for those that are less confident :)

    As a fairly new cycle campaigner (18 months or so) I despair sometimes at the cycling tribes that have formed here in the UK because cycling isn't a "normal" thing to do. I ride on-road where necessary, but traffic-free where possible (the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, for instance) because it's more pleasant. As David Hembrow says: no-one suffers from cycling being made more pleasant.

    I do understand the fears held by some vehicularists that more infrastructure would be accompanied by a loss of rights to the road.

    David Hembrow also says that the sheer quality of, and thought put into, Dutch infrastructure means that he can ride further and faster than he ever could in the UK.

    Thanks for a great blog!

  3. Yes it is nice to be right.

    But one day you might come across a driver (as I did one fine day) who cares little for the law or indeed cyclists. He or she will push you off the road to show you that you have no right to be there in his eyes, and drive off. That was when I realised that I might not be alive to complain that he was wrong afterwards. A driving license is a license to kill. What is killing a cyclist going to cost a driver ?
    My attitude is that I only have one life. I also live in a region where we have a good cycle infrastructure and through using it I believe now in apartheid between cars and cycles... MY quality of life has increased hugely and I don't have to put myself at risk to other peoples stupidity.

    This situation is a scandal and wrong. But like unless the petrol runs out soon I don't see it changing.

  4. This is a fantastic blog post and looks at cycling infrastructure with refreshing eyes for a self-confessed 'vehicular' cyclist.

    I agree that the right to use all of the road should be enshrined, but likewise if you want mass cycling (mums and kids on bikes for example) then we need the infrastructure too. It just needs to be a damn site better than the stuff that is being built at the moment. David Hembrow, on his blog, shows what is possible and how, and shoots down all of the weak excuses that even we as cyclists sometimes use to criticize infrastructure. There's no reason why Britain couldn't be more like Holland, Denmark or Germany. All we need is a bit of political will.

    As for the young cyclist who undertook you, he sounds like a bike ninja to me! :O)

    Thanks for another fantastic and thought-provoking post!

  5. Cycling along a street off Tottenham Court Road once, I had a woman in a car pull up next to me and frantically start yelling at me for cycling on the road instead of using the cycle path that had been installed on the other side of the street. She was furious that the road we were on had been cut from two lanes to one to make space for a cycle path and that I was failing to use it. I responded that the path is too narrow for cyclists travelling along it in both directions (as it is supposed to accomodate), it has a raised curb on either side making it impossible to swerve if necessary (and in my eyes contributing to the possibility of accidents), it is not possible to pass slower cyclists using the path, and that it is frequented by pedestrians who fail to check what's coming before stepping into it. She calmed down a little but considered us road-using cyclists to be highly selfish - demanding special provisions but then not using them.
    Although I support better infrastructre for cycling and know that many cyclists less confident than myself will greatly benefit, I can't help but think that it could contribute to added aggression against road using cyclists like ourselves from drivers such as the woman I described above. Any increase in cycle lanes, or installation of proper cycle lanes, needs to be coupled with further education campaigns for drivers to accept cyclists as legitimate road users.

  6. No one seems to realise that what we need isn't special cycling infrastructure to separate us from other road users, what we need is some kind of "car lane" to get the people who choose to use cars off the roads to make the journeys of other road users easier and faster.

    It would be great to see a small section of road somewhere developed this way, with a car lane as poorly designed as many bike lanes are and the road used by cyclists, buses and HGVs only. It could be some kind of public art project to highlight the problems with our existing cycle infrastructure and highlight why many of us accept that the infrastructure we have can be useful for less confident cyclists, but that the more confident among us may wish not to use it and that we are entitled to choose not to use it.

  7. Its all about affordances, the things cyclists do, cycling on the left, letting cars past, crossing red traffic lights, overtaking on the inside, are all things that feel natural, and pretty safe. The things drivers do (accelerating and driving quickly between traffic holdups, pulling in to the left to allow oncoming traffic through, paying attention to the front/right of the vehicle) are the things that are 'natural' for drivers. (and there is a similar list for pedestrians, like assuming nothing will be travelling very close to a kerb, and nothing on the road is silent, therefore walking off the pavement before looking to the right is perfectly safe). Although there are regulations and guidances that suggest people behaviour counter intuitively, there are always likely to be conflicts.

    Proper segregated cycle infrastructure is quite comfortable to use as a cyclist, but even in Amsterdam its probably not as 'fast' as travelling on the road with motor vehicles, I'm sympathetic with the point of view that decent cycling infrastructure also means less opportunity to travel on the road, but even so it might be worth it. The useless on road cycling lanes in the UK don't reflect the basic affordances of cycling (or driving) well, they are too narrow to reflect the differences in speed of cyclists, and they are often used by cars when overtaking (or parking). Cycling in the prime position does help prevent the acceleration and braking cycling of driving, but I suspect leads to high levels of frustration. As a cyclist I do use the primary position on occasions, but I also recognise that it could trigger dangerous levels of frustrations in a small number of drivers. I try and read the road as a driver as well as a cyclist and not get in the way unless strictly necessary.

    As a cyclist I find one of the most frustrating things is where a driver zooms past me, then cuts in in front of me and stops, because they have reached
    a 'parked car chicane' and can't get through when a vehicle is coming in the other direction. I could have, but now I am forced to stop.

    Driving is massively frustrating (and enraging), its full of starts and stops, and when I drive now I immediately want to be back on a bike. A small number of drivers cannot deal with these levels of frustration, and their behaviour becomes dangerous as a result. I do think the frustrations of driving, traffic levels, diminishing and increased costs of resources, will eventually poison private motorised traffic. ...but not yet.

    There isn't a perfect solution, ideally people should share the space across different modes of travel. I've cycled in a lot of countries, and the countries between different modes of travel seem to lie in different places. In most of the world cyclists and pedestrians seem to mix more easily than in the UK. Cyclists do seem to be being driven off the road by rising levels of traffic, perceived status of cars over cyclists, faster larger, wider cars, and faster 'uncrossable' roads penetrating cities. The countries that retain high levels of cycling have much more properly segregated cycle infrastructure, its not a perfect solution for cycling. It feels like a defeat, but maybe its the only victory we can have at the moment.

    Its hard establishing segregated cycle lanes in the UK, because the space for them usually comes from car parking, and quite often they are seen as pavement overflow space by pedestrians. In Portsmouth we just had a new seafront cycling lane, and its triggered a lot of virulent opposition in the local press (even from some cyclists).