Wednesday, 21 March 2012

In which our hero picks up cycling policy's hottest potato...

Most evenings, as I head home towards reunion with the Invisible Visible Woman, I pedal, as I’ve noted before, in the footsteps of Roman soldiers along London’s Cycle Superhighway 7. But, on nights of the light, misty rain that are a spring and autumn speciality of London’s weather, something unusual happens. As I and other cyclists swing onto a section of the Cycle Superhighway by Kennington Park, we veer out of the marked, blue-painted part of the road that’s meant to be reserved for us. We all know by now that the marking was done on the cheap with a simple layer of blue gloss paint. In such weather, it becomes scarily slippery. We consequently sit towards the outside of the near-side lane. The sight of the line of bikes, all frightened to use a dangerous facility intended to keep us safe, always leads me to raise at least a mental, mildly amused eyebrow.

Roadworks in the City: guess which transport mode
everyone decided was dispensable
I smile a similarly wry inward smile when cycling along any section of pavement (sidewalk, American readers) that’s been divided between pedestrians and cyclists. The standard UK practice is to mark the separate pedestrians and cyclist sides with ridged tiles (to help vision-impaired people). The ridged tiles on the cyclists’ side are laid parallel to the bike’s wheels, however. Those on the pedestrian side run acrossways. A reasonably cautious cyclist consequently has to veer onto the pedestrian side at the tiles, to avoid the small but real danger the ridges will catch his front wheel. Having narrowly missed crashing after catching my wheel a few times on such a tile, I’m unwilling to take more chances.

My main thought as I negotiate these obstacles (or, more properly, “cycle facilities”) is to wonder whether their designers are even vaguely familiar with a bicycle and its basic physical properties. I think we can dismiss out of hand the idea that they might actually regularly ride a velocipede.

However, there’s a second, more serious thought. If this is the rich world’s idea of cycling infrastructure, why are so many cycling organisations pressing for more of it?

Such a notion pitches me, of course, into a bitter intra-cyclist dispute. It echoes, in a way, the divisions everywhere among oppressed groups seeking greater freedom. Do we seek, like pedalling Malcolm Xs, the segregation of the separate cycle facility, using mainly lanes free of our motor-powered oppressors? Or do we pursue peacefully the dream of integration, winning the right to the respect we deserve on the wider, more diverse society of the road?

It’s worth saying, of course, that I am as open as the next person to enjoying a car-free environment. When visiting my parents-in-law, I cycle to their church in north Wales partly on a tarmac path along an old railway line. On a Sunday morning, with few runners or other cyclists about, it can be one of the purest, most uncomplicated bike-riding experiences available. One of the most enjoyable cycle facilities to use in London is a fully segregated cycle lane along Cable Street in the East End. The absence on most of the route of worries about car behaviour is undoubtedly one of its attractions.

It’s the difference in stress levels using such routes that leads admirable campaigners in many countries to demand better, separate cycle provision. In the UK, it’s currently common for such campaigners to say cycling will remain a niche activity for the eccentric few (such as the Invisible Visible Man) until the country boasts the same kind of network of segregated cycle routes as the mass-cycling Netherlands or Denmark. They look at people like me who think there are chances of forging a basic understanding between road users and shake their heads. Isn’t it sad how determined we are to restrict cycling to ourselves and a few other members of the privileged middle classes?

I have, as it happens, a fundamental distrust of the idea of segregating any groups of people that can’t seem to get along. But I’m worried about the practicality of cutting cyclists off from other traffic too.

Nørrebrogade: exhibit A in the segregationists' case
It’s certainly hard to feel too sceptical about segregation standing in the morning on Nørrebrogade, in Copenhagen, the street that carries traffic from the west of Copenhagen over a string of lakes into the city centre. I went to look at it in late 2009 and, even towards the end of the rush hour, there were hundreds of bikes streaming down neat, segregated cycle lanes. Niels Tørsløv, the head of Copenhagen’s city traffic department, told me the city timed the traffic lights to fit in with the flow of bikes, rather than cars. One of the major controversies he was tackling was over the number of cargo bikes in the city. He was having to widen the cycle lanes to make it easier to overtake them. Such are the problems of directing traffic in a city where 37 per cent of people get to work, school or college by bike.

A Copenhagen motorist helpfully illustrates
the Invisible Visible Man's point about side-street conflicts
But, according to Mr Tørsløv, the segregated lanes only rearranged the accidents, putting them at the intersections between roads and cycle paths, rather than at even spaces along the roads. Copenhagen put in the cycle lanes, he said, only because they encouraged people to cycle – cycling numbers rose 10 per cent when a street gained a cycle lane. I happened later the same day to see a motorist knock off a cyclist using a segregated cycle lane.

After that visit, I started to notice, as I sped along Cable Street towards meetings in Canary Wharf, how disproportionately at risk I was from motorists pulling across my path at side streets. I was out of their eye line and difficult to see.

The Invisible Visible Man's hired cruiser bike.
He's not on it - but obviously
drivers saw it like this all the time
My experiences last week in the US (the reason, dear readers, for the late production of this latest blog post) underlined my worries about segregation. Unable to bear any longer missing my bike languishing across the Atlantic, I hired a cheap cruiser bike and headed across the causeway from Miami Beach into downtown Miami proper. I was encouraged at points to see cycle lanes marked on the road. But then I spotted a sign with a bike picture and the words “may use full lane”. This was a rare piece of permission, I realised. The painted lanes were less a facility than a prison, confining me to the fringes of the roads.

Given the number of motorists I’ve already had tell me in Britain that I shouldn’t be outside some rebranded gutter masquerading as a cycle lane, it made me worry what kind of message a heavy concentration on segregated lanes would send. Certain motorists would quickly come to think of on-road cycling as banned.

A whole lane? The City of Miami, for once, spoils cyclists
I’m consequently positioning myself in the middle of the lane, staring round at any potentially menacing drivers - and pedalling my way into the camp that says cyclists and motor vehicles broadly have to coexist in most city streets. This action will, I know, put me, to some advocates, irrevocably in the Not a Good Person camp. They will look upon me henceforth the way a reactionary newspaper columnist would if he had seen me cycle through a red light and mount a pavement, mouthing obscenities.

Yet I’m reluctant to side firmly with either camp because bike behaviour doesn’t seem to me the most important issue on the roads. Watching politicians’ obvious nervousness when discussing road funding in the UK this week has illustrated how fear of drivers continues to drive attitudes about how roads are used. The same fear holds back police forces from tackling speeding, driving while distracted and the other driver behaviour that puts some cyclists off.  After a driver threatened to assault me recently, the police showed no interest in investigating the driving offence that led to the confrontation. The driver had deliberately pulled his car across the path of a cyclist in, I suspect, full view of a CCTV camera. It would have been a “disproportionate use of police resources” to try to retrieve the film.

There doesn’t even seem to be an appetite for explaining the law. Many drivers, I suspect, don’t actually understand they’re not meant to intrude into cycle-only stop areas or that cyclists are allowed to ride outside cycle lanes. It would take too much courage to embark on a simple public information campaign.

Motorists’ attitudes are certainly not immutable – I’ve referred before to the transformation in views about drink driving in many countries as an example. It’s my guess that, if motorists were behaving better, far fewer people would yearn for the apparent sanctuary of segregated lanes. Meanwhile, if the apathetic planners currently in charge in many western countries set about building new cycle infrastructure, it’s a fair bet it would tend more to keep cyclists out of motorists’ way than to help cyclists.

It's unfortunate, too, if the debate polarises advocates into backing two separate approaches. Some places – the busy roads by the Thames in London, for instance – look perfectly set up for separate cycle lanes. The narrow streets in the City of London look best suited to assertive, on-the-road cycling. Many junctions need redesigning. Others would be fine if the current ignored rules were enforced.

But, for the moment, cyclists’ real needs are so far from policy makers’ minds that they’ve built a “Cycle Superhighway” out of stuff that makes bikes skid. I’d prioritise changing motorists’ and officials’ thinking over pressing the same people to build more of their flawed idea of cycling facilities.


  1. I have most of my falls on such facilities...

  2. There's an easy solution to this question. Cars and bikes share the road on low-speed, low volume roads. Where there's lots of traffic, high speeds, or several lanes, it's better to give cycle traffic its own lane, and own signals. Easy.

    1. Anonymous,
      Thanks for your comment - but I'm not sure it is that easy. A lot of city streets have a lot of turnings into side streets. Accidents are pretty much guaranteed at those intersections. It's different in different countries. A lot of urban US roads are like mini motorways (or freeways) and really don't seem suitable for cycling. Since they're often elevated, it's a bit easier to segregate a cycle lane. But, in London, segregated lanes represent real dangers.
      Invisible Visible Man.

    2. I think this is the idea I'm leaning towards Anonymous. I can understand the problems with segregating traffic everywhere now Invisible Man has outlined them - but I've still in favour of separating traffic on the large thoroughfares in London - where lorries, white vans, buses and taxis are a real severe danger to cyclists and where I feel we just cannot using the same lanes . But in places in the city where there is low-speed traffic and cars - like on the back and side streets on my cycle home I would be in favour of shared roads.

    3. Hannah has a point. You talk about collisions at junctions and you are right. But the answer to that is to (a) minimise the number of junctions (b) focus turning movements at signal junctions where there are phases for cyclists and (c) where you cannot avoid having give-way unsignalised junctions, you build the footway right across the entrance to the side street, so that drivers have to look for the entrance and in the process slow right down to a crawl. They then have to, effectively, mount the kerb to cross the footway to access the junction. These measures have contributed to Copenhagen's falling collision rate. Where junctions have not been removed or treated, this is where the collisions remain most common.

      We should not be so dismissive of infrastructure: I agree there are dangers, and indeed I personally prefer to use the carriageway. What we should demand, however, is high quality and robust design standards for whatever is provided and some indication of where it should be provided. Cable Street does not need tracks--it could be 'modally filtered' to remove through traffic, which should be on the parallel main roads to the north and south. The street is poorly designed because it has a two way cycle track on one side--giving a four-times higher chance of collision with a motorist at a junction when travelling with the traffic flow on the adjacent carriageway, and a massive 11 times higher chance when going against the flow on the same side, compared with using the carriageway. It might be the one place where the blue highlighting paint is actually useful.

      The Dutch (and probably the Danish, too) state that streets should be shared (between motorists and cyclists) where possible and segregated where necessary. The question is, of course, what constitutes "necessary", and here views might differ. But whatever your view, insist on the highest quality of design and implementation and that lessons are learned to minimise collisions at junctions whilst retaining cyclists' priority, and most people will be pleased. Insist that cyclists' right to use the carriageway in the presence of adjacent tracks is sacrosanct--and facilitate and highlight this choice and everyone will be pleased, and more cyclists will feel confident riding.

  3. I want to comment on what would be required to make sharing roads with cars safer. The most obvious starting point would be lowering speed limits and measures to ensure they are adhered to. I've always favoured compulsory fitting of speed control to motor vehicles. Such a system would reduce roads deaths by up to 40%, cut carbon dioxide emissions and do away with the need to have (and be cheaper than) speed bumps, which are so annoying to cyclists.

    Since I first read a report from Leeds University in 2000 recommending speed control, government has done absolutely nothing about this (google Leeds +EVSC). If they had risen to the challenge, a very large proportion of our cars would now be fitted with EVSC. As you rightly say, government fails to challenge to motor lobby.

  4. I have to take a few issues here.

    There are many approaches to separate cycle infrastructure. Some of them, such as typical UK cycle infrastructure are often terrible, dangerous and worse than nothing. Denmark do a much, much better job than we do, but even their infrastructure is not as good as The Netherlands. In the USA, there are some good examples, but much variation in quality (presumably due in part to the federal structure). My point is that just because we suck at cycle infrastructure, doesn't mean that cycle infrastructure itself inherently sucks.

    A good example is roads. There are many roads in the UK which are outright hostile and dangerous to cycling, designed solely for around the needs of motorists and encouraging the sort of behaviour which puts us in danger. It would be foolish to suggest that roads are inherently bad for cycling, as there are also some roads, such as traffic calmed residential streets, which are just fine for cycling without separation. To suggest that sharing space between cars and cycles is a bad idea based on the dual carriageway experience would be foolish. It is all about using the right tool for the job.

    I agree with you about the need to improve the behaviour of motorists, but I think that in order to make any meaningful progress we need to make some significant changes to our road environment, as the built environment plays a huge role in informing motorists' behaviour when driving. The advantage of The Netherlands system is that it incorporates lots of little changes to road geometry which make being a pr*ck when driving more of a challenge than it is on our roads.

    Another issue I see is that whilst motorist behaviour is a problem faced by existing cyclists, even if they were all at least moderately competent and well behaved, if they were still present at anything like their current volume and cyclists were expected to mix with them, it still wouldn't be enough to encourage the vast majority of the population to see cycles as a viable means of getting around. I doubt it would get my mother or grandmother going shopping by bike. If we visited the Netherlands though, they'd probably be more than willing to use a bike to get around.

    As for narrow streets in dense urban areas, cycle lanes might not be a feasible solution, but neither is assertive riding for the vast majority of the population. The obvious answer to me would be to remove or severely restrict through motor traffic.

    1. I whole heartedly agree with Dr C's post.

      May I add one other fundemental aspect that changes the behaviour of vehicle users in The Netherlands and other enlightened European countries that is "strict liability" This states that in the event of a collision the user of the motorised vehicle takes responsibility unless it can be proven otherwise. It is the larger vehicle that has the potential to kill, not the vulnerable road user, therefore the onus of responsibility is on the driver.

      Here in the UK my 10 year old son would be held equally responsible, in the event of a collision, as the driver of a bus, car, HGV etc. He would have to prove that the driver was at fault in order for any responsibility and liability to be accepted by the driver. This as we see from many instances is difficult and often impossible! Even though he has passed all his BikeAbility levels and is a confident cyclist there is no way I will let him out on the road alone while the law does not protect him.

      Until the law is changed to protect vulnerable road users then we will still see our streets dominated by cars, with drivers allowed to get away with saying " I didn't see them, they came out of nowhere.." etc. etc. after a collision and the law unable to make them take responsibilty for being in charge of a potentially lethal machine.

    2. greetings Anonymous,

      can you point me to more information on "strict liability" in The Netherlands?

      warm regards,


    3. Hi have just noticed your question. I am no expert on points of law but look at the following links. Having lived in The Netherlands for a period of 3 years, now back in London, I can say that it is a different mindset and combination of infrastructure and protection of law that makes cycling there such a mass activity. My son and his younger sister would have no problems cycling to school independently in most Dutch towns. With the political will it could happen here - eventually!

  5. Good post, I also am of two minds about segregation and infrastructure. The netherlands type scheme seems good and should help get more people cycling but the junctions with roads and side streets will be a worry if cyclists and cars are not used to dealing with each other. Also I'm not sure how experienced cyclist wanting to make good progress get on, "racing"* up and down cycle lanes will probably be frowned upon. I've been trying to find out what happens if you take to the roads in the netherlands, are cyclists accepted and well treated or do drivers take offence at them leaving the cycle lanes and trespassing on "their" roads?

    My main reservations about segregation is that the current cycling facilities are so useless and/or dangerous that even if the UK do commit to making the switch to segregated cycling there'll be several years of rubbish dangerous infrastructure that we'll have to get through (and possibly be forced to use) before we get proper fully functional well thought out facilities....

    ...if we ever get it.

    *cycling quickly not actual racing

    1. Thanks for your comment, DONK. I had thought of making the point that cycle facilities all seem designed for low speeds - or even aimed at slowing cyclists down. In London, where many people have quite long commutes, I think that could be a significant problem.

      On segregation, it's not just that there are accidents because cyclists and motorists aren't used to handling the interaction but that the segregation just makes it difficult for the two to look out for each other. If there are still accidents in Copenhagen, after all, there seems to be something fairly intrinsic to segregated design that brings people into conflict.

    2. Jesus! Another segregation 'expert' who writes like he's never visited the Netherlands in his life.

      The idea that Dutch lanes are 'slow' is ludicrous: many of them have motorised scooters in them, which go 20-30kmh (not something I approve of, btw) and the lanes are easily wide enough for 2-3 bikes in a row

      It's so disappointing that the level of debate in the UK on infrastructure is so badly informed.

      Articles like this go a long way towards ensuring we remain a third-rate cycling nation, and my children will never cycle to school.

  6. Really great piece - I visited Copenhagen this weekend for the first time and was bowled over by the cycling infrastructure. I rented out a bike, cycled around the whole city and on the roads you mention - it's pretty hard as a London cyclist *not* to think segregated lanes are the answer after experiencing this blissful city cycling - but your arguments are good ones and have left me with more to consider. My main gripe from this morning is the potholes on London roads... but that's another issue.


    1. Hannah,

      Thanks for your kind comment. I hope you also enjoy my latest post ( My working hypothesis is that a big part of what encourages cycling in places like Copenhagen is the taking away of space from cars. Probably the biggest single boost to London cycling in recent years was the intoduction of the congestion charge. My preferred option for encouraging cycling further would be a wider, more sophisticated congestion charging system. That would send out price signals to drivers about when and where to drive - and make it still clearer that cycling was a better option.

      Sadly, I don't think it's coming any time soon.


  7. Despite the provision of the 'off-road' cycle path on Cable Street I and many others prefer to take our chances on the Highway, an HGV-infested dual carriageway that runs parallel. Why? Simple, I feel safer and more visible to traffic as I'm confident in taking my section of the lane. All the side junctions on the highway are traffic-light controlled and travelling straight along there's very little risk of being left- or right-hooked. Cable Street however has many such risks, and cars rarely bother to check for cyclists when turning across the lane. The priority for who has to wait for whom changes frequently, with a couple of points where cyclists have to give way to cars turning across their path. Add to this a breed of lemming-like pedestrians who enter or cross the cycle path at random without looking and I'll take my chances on the dual carriageway.

    The same also applies to a segregated-use cycle lane near my home, along the A316 between Richmond Circus and Chiswick Bridge. The off-road cycle lane has to yield to cars on average every 100 metres, not only to side-streets but also driveways to businesses! Cyclists have to check for cars turning in to the side road from in front and behind them and cars exiting the side roads that are often blocked from sight until one is right upon the junction, necessitating slowing to a snail's pace. Cycling on the road is significantly safer. A serious reconsideration of priorities for vehicles crossing these segregated paths is needed for them to be useful.

  8. I used to cycle along that long segregated route from Grays-Inn to TCR and a)was always scared of cars turning without looking (it nearly happened a few times) and b) pedestrians just stepping out into the cycle lane without looking. I saw it happen often but luckily I was always far enough away to avoid them. We're cyclists, we're quiet, pedestrians need to look. Then there was that fun few months where it was blocked off for roadworks and the pedestrians used the route that was clearly marked for cyclists rather than the clearly marked pedestrian route.

    To be honest, I have more of a problem with pedestrians than motorists. I find most motorists in London to be careful even if they do honk their horn whereas often pedestrians are just careless and inconsiderate. I think segregation of bikes and cars might make this worse. On a somewhat related note, I always feel safer cycling in London than outside, simply because drivers in London are used to sharing the road with cyclists, and this isn't true everywhere else in the country.

    Good blog you've got here.

  9. Tørsløv is correct that all things being equal, segregated bike paths will mostly rearrange the collisions. However, the severity of accidents in intersections is hugely overestimated in comparison to those between intersections, as shown in Dutch investigations. What's more, the Dutch (and to some extent, the Danes) have solved the intersection problems in two highly effective ways. You may read more about it on David Hembrows's blog "A view from the cycle path".

  10. The problem you have is you are comparing crap cycle infrastructure to no cycle infrastructure instead of comparing it to good cycle infrastructure. Good cycle infrastructure is relaxing to ride, saves lives, and does not slow cyclists down. UK and the majority of US infrastructure is crap, running from relatively safe crap that's no more dangerous than riding in the street, to deathtraps that place cyclists in conflict with other traffic and does not provide even a full bicycle-width of space for the bicycles.

    1. Opusthepoet,

      Thank you for your comment. Given that the piece talks about London, I suppose that, yes, it is comparing the current UK infrastructure with no infrastructure at all. I did that because I can't foresee circumstances in the near future where many UK cyclists are going to be facing a choice between no infrastructure and what one sees in the Netherlands, for example. That's a major rethinking of priorities that has been under way for 40 years and involved a country where, as far as I know, cycling levels had never fallen as low as they did at their trough in the UK.

      My perspective on the issues in question has slightly changed since I wrote the post, however. I moved in August to New York and it has to be said that, on New York's avenues, I really amn't keen on riding without a separated lane. The four lanes of traffic heading one way at speed really are too intimidating an environment. This affects my route choices. Around Midtown, where I work, there's a break in the East River bike route because the United Nations won't allow construction of a cycle path on its land. To reach the East River path, I'd consequently have to cycle 16 blocks on an avenue which has a marked bike lane but remains a markedly unrelaxing place to ride. I take instead a detour to the Hudson River and use the far nicer Hudson River Greenway.

      All that said, I stand by a lot of what I said in the post. While the Hudson River Greenway is an excellent, wholly segregated path, the road crossings for ferry and cruise terminals, heliports and so on continue to represent a major danger. Drivers are very poor at looking out for cyclists travelling on a different line from them and, every morning, I end up dodging taxis and buses pulling illegally across the lane without spotting cyclists. There are a couple of ghost bikes on the Greenway - it's a problem with segregated infrastructure that costs lives.

      More importantly, however, I think New York bears out my contention that segregated infrastructure sends out the wrong message about road use. There's been a concerted effort in New York to build segregated, protected lanes and I think it has given drivers the idea that cyclists don't belong on the roads. That's certainly the impression it gave the motorist who leant on his horn behind me two mornings ago on W54th Street then squeezed terrifyingly close to me to get past. Motorists in New York are far worse than those in London at ceding space to cyclists and I think it is partly a result of the feeling that, where there aren't bicycles painted somewhere on the road, cyclists don't belong.

      All the best,



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