Sunday 23 April 2017

An angry man on a pavement, a rash of misunderstandings - and why I'll be seeking to bridge the gap

One morning in mid-March, because I was running late for a meeting, I opted to ride across Waterloo Bridge, expecting it to be the fastest route, despite its being a hostile environment for cyclists. Only just over half way across, however, I found myself stuck behind a queue of buses stretching all the way to the Strand. Resting my foot on the kerb, I peered down the long, red, double-deck wall, wondering what I should do.
Waterloo Bridge, approaching Covent Garden (c Google):
scene of a run-in that briefly enraged me,
before opening my metaphorical eyes

As I did so, a passing pedestrian decided to lecture me on the basis of what he thought I was doing, not my actual actions.

“Hey, mate!” he shouted in my direction, before pointing down at the pavement (or sidewalk, North American readers). “This here is a footway!”

I tried shouting after him to explain I had not the slightest intention of riding my bike down the pavement, as he assumed I planned to do. But he was already off, an air of self-righteousness buzzing around him like flies round a smelly cow.

It was one of several times recently when I’ve come across people making judgements about people’s behaviour on the roads based on their perceptions of what was happening, rather than the reality. I’ve had to pull out of my son’s front tyre a tack that had been left, presumably deliberately, on a cycle path to thwart someone’s idea of bad, irresponsible cyclists. I’ve rowed with an Uber driver who thought I was being unreasonable by riding down the middle of a narrow street to stop him from dangerously overtaking me and my family. I’ve seen pedestrians pause as I slowed to a stop at traffic lights, apparently assuming I would breeze on through.
The tack that caused my son's puncture:
anti-cyclist prejudice made manifest

These and other incidents have all made me realise how hard it is to change attitudes about events on the road. As far as the angry man on Waterloo Bridge is concerned, he went away having prevented a cyclist from riding on the pavement, an event that can only have reinforced his self-righteousness. The people who scattered the tacks on the cycle track will have assumed they thwarted some lycra-clad cycle commuter and won’t have seen my son’s anxiety over the incident. The Uber driver gained no understanding of why I was riding in the middle of the road so will only think cyclists more unreasonable. The wary pedestrians will assume I’m the exception, not the rule.

But the incidents have also made me think about how I react when I’m out on the streets myself. Time and again, as I assess the risks of some situation, I look round to work out how much of a danger a particular driver’s behaviour is likely to represent. I notice that I retreat into the basest assumptions about how people of a particular race or gender will behave or judge a person solely on his or her choice of car. The recognition has impressed on me yet again the vital importance of getting to know the widest possible range of people and understanding their views. Yet both on the roads and in politics - which it’s now my day job to cover - groups appear to be growing more polarised and less apt to talk to each other, rather than less.

At the heart of the on-street misunderstandings is a paradox of road use that has struck me repeatedly over the years. It feels like a private experience to use a street - particularly when driving in a car. But one’s in fact engaged in a very complex social interaction. It’s vital to anticipate how others are going to act and that people broadly adhere to the expected ways of behaving, even if those are not the same as the formal rules of the road.

In the US and UK, where cycling is a minority means of getting about, this creates a problem for people who ride bikes. Very few drivers or pedestrians can picture themselves in a cyclist’s place on the road or understand the multiple pressures on a cyclist on a busy road or mixed-use path or some other place where conflict between users arises. This only exacerbates, it seems to me, people’s tendency to stereotype cyclists’ behaviour. The wincing pedestrians at traffic lights are a case in point. While they perceive cyclists as inherently unlikely to obey traffic lights, I’m far more struck by how many cyclists obey signals whose placing and timing is generally governed by another mode’s needs.
A crash on Clapham Road: road use is such a complex
interaction it's surprising such scenes remain relatively rear.

The challenges are all the greater because people have to make decisions on the roads fast. Many of my own reactions, I’m aware, come from bits of my brain that work so instinctively I’m barely aware of them. I’m startled into fear by the sudden movement of a car in my peripheral vision, much as my distant ancestors must have been hard-wired to jump at the movement in the corner of their eyes that signified a prowling bear or wolf. Once those fight-or-flight responses are aroused, I tend not to revert quickly to my normal polite, reasonable self.

On top of all this, most people, I think, carry the mental scars of past bad experiences, which they recall far more readily than good things. It’s easy to miss how much that shapes one’s perceptions. A friend from New York, for example, cycled in London last summer and raved about how she saw no-one driving while using their mobile phone, comparing that favourably with New York. She had yet to build up my experience of spotting drivers using mobile phones in London. For me, by contrast, each time I see someone’s driving while using a mobile, it slots into a convenient mental envelope - “yet more evidence that dangerous mobile phone use is endemic among London drivers”.
A clear message to drivers about driving
around cyclists: all too rare - and all too
badly needed

The net result of all these human foibles, it seems to me, is that nearly every road-user travels around a mess of prejudices, dangerous assumptions and hurt feelings. It’s hardly surprisingly, consequently, that myths about road user behaviour seem particularly persistent and prejudices against cyclists seem particularly hard to shift. People’s assumptions are shored up not only by what they see going on around them but by the far greater number of things they think they see going on. My apparent determination to plough down a busy pavement on a Monday morning probably did more to reinforce the prejudices of the Angry Man of Waterloo Bridge far more than any encounter with a real pavement cyclist would have done.

Yet, however urgent the need to bridge this chasm of comprehension, the gap seems currently to be growing ever wider. Whereas debates about roads policy might once have been played out mainly through newspaper articles or in other media that had a range of contributors and readers, social media such as twitter seem to let narrow groups reinforce each other’s prejudices. Drivers’ twitter accounts often bristle with violent anger against cyclists, frequently reinforced by other, like-minded people. Cycling social and other media, meanwhile, are prone to a self-congratulatory tone and, sometimes, scorn for anyone using any other transport mode, including buses.

I was particularly disappointed recently to read a column by Ashok Sinha, chief executive of the London Cycling Campaign, lambasting those of us who point to the evidence linking worsening motor traffic congestion with the building of London’s segregated Cycle Superhighways for spreading “fake news”. It would be far harder for this conviction to maintain its current hold on London’s cycling advocates if more of them spent time with transport planners and advocates from outside the activist community. Even planners who are well-disposed towards cycling and want to see cycling levels rise go slack-jawed in amazement at activists’ reluctance to accept the clear, substantial evidence that the new facilities have played a significant role in worsening congestion for motor vehicles.
A busy North-South Cycle Superhighway,
next to a congested road: my views about
the relationship between the two are
"fake news," apparently.

Yet I understand all too well why the echo chambers get sealed off from outside noises. Two of my Facebook friends would, for a while, respond every time I complained about dangerous drivers by complaining about the alleged danger posed by cyclists on pavements. When even a blogpost analysing the evidence on this point failed to persuade them, I took, I admit, the path of least resistance. I unfriended them, making my experience of Facebook less stressful but simultaneously less diverse.

The problem is far from confined to cycling advocacy. This past week, I started a new, temporary day job as a political correspondent. It’s impossible to avoid the idea that politics in both the UK and US have grown polarised partly because people have so little experience of communicating with people with a different point of view. The stubborn insistence of some supporters of Jeremy Corbyn that he can lead the Labour Party to a general election victory makes far more sense if one imagine how information flows to Corbyn’s hardest-line supporters. Since most presumably have twitter feeds and Facebook timelines full of people agreeing with them, it must be easy to assume that the opinion polls - which show the party 20 percentage points or so behind the Conservatives - are some nefarious plot.

The widespread nature of the problems, meanwhile, means I can’t offer an easy solution. I wanted to put the Angry Man of Waterloo Bridge straight but I couldn’t catch up with him. If the gulfs of understanding that separate multiple groups in contemporary society were easy to cross, misunderstanding would be far less rife than it currently is.

The angry man’s reaction was, nevertheless, a useful reminder of how easy it is to slip into assuming the worst about another person and failing to question how one’s interpreting a situation. I will seek in future to be slower to anger, less ready to assume the worst about others and more ready to explain my own position politely and calmly.


  1. I had a conversation with an angry man outside Holborn Police station the other week. He shouted at me for going through a red light, I had followed a Moped and a Black Cab through as it was changing. I popped onto the pavement and asked him if he all called me, I don't think he was expecting me to stop.

    It turns out he is a civilian working in the Police station and I asked him why he shouted at me and not the Cabbie or Moped rider. Which led to a constructive conversation which I was able to steer into an 'evidence based' direction. I was able to diplomatically counter all his prejudice with facts and I really hope that at very least I made him think a little about his actions that morning.

    Usually I don't bother engaging because people are rarely interested in constructive dialogue, as you suggest they are just looking to reinforce their own stereotyping.

    Thanks for your patient comments on the SKC page.

    1. Caspar,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree, as you'll have gathered from my post, that dialogue is the best way to deal with these things. But, clearly, as you note, lots of people haven't got much appetite for that.

      Thanks also for your kind comments about my engaging on Stop Killing Cyclists. Unfortunately, however, I ended up losing patience. I was accused, among other things, of deliberate dishonesty and "cyclophobia". I ended up closing comments on the post and leaving SKC. It's a pretty clear example of the phenomenon I'm bemoaning in the post. If someone such as I who essentially supports SKC's goals is driven out by abuse for making reasoned comments based on statistics, the chances of reaching out to the indifferent or hostile seem pretty slim.

      All the best,


  2. I imagine that the best response to Angry man on Waterloo Bridge would have been to smile and shout back "Thanks! And, this is a road!" or something similar...

    1. Anonymous,

      You're probably right. But, rather typically for such situations, I was more focused on answering him back in kind than on being witty.

      All the best,


  3. My view is so what if the protected cycleways cause more traffic congestion. Doing nothing will simply allow the roads to fill up and eventually hit the same level of congestion, if they're not already at chronic peaks.

    At least now people have an alternative.

    Utility riders cannot be held responsible if the congestion increases pollution: that is purely down to the users of motor vehicles, especially those who hire taxis rather than taking the Tube or perhaps cycling (Norman Tebbit should try it).

    Besides, you need congestion for the protected cycleways to be a success. Malmo put in a network of protected cycle lanes which are hardly used because they have the space for first-class roads with few jams.

    1. Will,

      Thanks for your comment. This isn't the first time someone's suggested to me that it's not really a problem if motor vehicle congestion is allowed to grow worse.

      I vigorously disagree, however. Roads and motor vehicles are important and useful, for many reasons. They carry buses, heavy trucks and numerous other vehicles that bikes can't readily displace. Only 18 per cent of traffic in the Central London congestion charge zone is private cars. I don't want work on Crossrail, affordable housing or bus travel to be hostage to growing congestion.

      The other reason I don't want to shrug my shoulders over this is that it's clear what can be done about it. The central London congestion charge reduced traffic levels and cut congestion when it was first introduced. It's clear that a more sophisticated charge can do more to manage traffic levels with the far lower capacity network that's now available. It makes a huge amount of sense to charge appropriately for road use and allow road users who pay the appropriate price to have faster journeys than at present.

      All the best,


  4. A very interesting and thought-provoking post as ever.

    I very much identify with your experiences of others making assumptions. Several times I have been wrongly-accused of red-light jumping by pedestrians who simply haven’t clocked on to the fact that a fair few sets of traffic lights in central London now have a separate cyclist phase. On a couple of occasions I have managed to stop and talk to them, however, and explained in a polite and friendly manner that it was a green light for cyclists (even explaining the cycle safety rationale behind cyclists having a separate phase), and the people I’ve spoken seem to have taken it on board in a positive manner, so hopefully I’ve done some good!

    On the flip side, you’ve inspired me to examine the prejudices and assumptions I make about other road users (including -- or perhaps particularly -- my fellow cyclists). I’ll start on my ride into work tomorrow morning.

    There is however one bit of your post where I would like a bit more from you (and I suspect you realised when you wrote it that it’d be the controversial bit): you refer to “...the clear, substantial evidence that the new [segregated cycling] facilities have played a significant role in worsening congestion for motor vehicles”.

    Could you provide me with some references to this “clear, substantial evidence”? I have never seen any actual evidence to this effect at all. If studies do exist, I’d genuinely be very interested in seeing them, as they will certainly need to be effectively dealt with in future campaigning.

    I have of course seen plenty of “common sense” arguments (a very different thing from evidence) that reducing the road space available to motor vehicles while not commensurately reducing motor vehicle numbers will increase congestion, and I do have an element of sympathy with this point of view -- inner London does urgently need a bold motor vehicle reduction strategy to sit alongside the policies to increase in space being allocated to pedestrians, cyclists, and buses. I do, however, suspect that those who complain the loudest about congestion would most certainly not like most of the ideas I have for traffic reduction!

    However, for all that these arguments have a common sense, self-evident feel to them, you and I both know that it’s far more complicated than that: evaporating traffic is one major factor (there’s only a certain amount of congestion people will accept before they organise their lives differently in order to avoid it, thereby keeping a natural lid on congestion), as well as the difficulties in attributing the cause of congestion (for example, was a particular traffic jam “caused” by a decrease in motor vehicle capacity at a nearby junction on CS3, or by the roadworks down the road, or by a nearby super-sewer construction site, or by a temporary surge in construction vehicle numbers in the area? Most likely to be a mixture of all these causes, but it’s very difficult attribute amounts of “blame” to different causes!).

    1. Alex,

      Thanks for the comment. It's good to know people are thinking about what I said on assumptions and how they work.

      I take your point about the "controversial bit" but I confess I'd hoped this had stopped being controversial, since there's really no doubt about what's going on on London's roads. I've been thoroughly depressed to find out there's still so much anger and silliness over this.

      I didn't set out the evidence in detail in this post because I'd hoped it was covered by the hyperlink to one of the two blogposts in January where I dealt with this issue in huge detail. The two blogposts are here: and here:

      I'm reluctant to spend much more time on this issue, which has already consumed too much of my time and led to far too many personal attacks. But, broadly, the issue is as follows. It's clear from Transport for London's streets performance reports that the capacity of central London's roads network fell sharply around the time the superhighways were built This is clear because congestion grew sharply worse at a time when traffic volumes fell.

      The typical cycling advocate response to this is to say that the causes of congestion are complex and it's unlikely that the relatively small number of superhighways has caused this congestion. The problem for that theory is that TfL has now published a report on the impact of the superhighways on motor traffic that show substantially increased journey times for motor vehicles on the roads where they've been built: It's simply impossible that those big increases in journey times aren't pushing traffic onto neighbouring streets and playing a big part in causing the worsening of congestion.

      I can't see any way that, taking the streets report and the report on the superhighways' impact together, it's possible to avoid the notion that the cycle superhighways have added to motor vehicle congestion.

      You're quite right this is a problem for advocacy. Cycling advocates keep insisting that the new facilities haven't added to congestion while everyone else can see they have. I object to this partly because I don't like it when people loudly and noisily insist on untrue propositions. But it's also hard to imagine that more facilities will get built as long as advocates are insisting that planners and other people are acting in bad faith by worrying about the effect on congestion. The debate will become more fruitful once advocates face up to what's really happening and start to address it.

      All the best,


    2. Thank you for going to the trouble of replying, and thank you for the link to the November 2016 TfL paper, which was particularly interesting.

      Don't get me wrong, I'm not a headbanger on this point. I agree that reducing motor vehicle capacity while motor vehicle numbers remain static or increase will increase the overall likelihood congestion (albeit that direct impacts on particular roads are very hard to ascertain for all the reasons described in my previous comment). CSHes have reduced motor vehicle capacity on a couple of roads in central London (albeit perhaps not by as much as people think), so they are a part of what's going on in the London congestion picture.

      However, I think having accepted that, it's important to point out the following:

      1. Cycling infrastructure is only one part of the picture of increased demand on London's roadspace. As TfL's Travel in London Report 9 puts it, "effective road network capacity for general traffic has been, and continues to be, removed from London’s roads. This has been to support a very wide range of beneficial policies such as improved road safety, public transport, walking and cycling priority, improved urban realm and infrastructure development -- all of which make demands on limited road space." -- i.e. lots of things, of which cycling's only one. On a related note, it's very aggravating when people moan about cycle infrastructure reducing motor vehicle capacity in relation to schemes which have only little to do with cycling. One example is the Elephant & Castle roundabout removal, which to my mind is 90% a public realm/pedestrian scheme (and is actually pretty ropey for cycling in parts).

      2. This all demonstrates that inner London urgently needing a motor vehicle reduction strategy (road pricing, smart congestion charging, PHV cap, etc. etc.) which goes beyond natural traffic evaporation.

      3. The long-term aim is modal shift from cars/taxis/minicabs to bicycles, which will be very beneficial in tackling congestion. Segregated cycleways are proven to do this in other countries, although most modal shift won't occur until there is a fuller network.

      I suspect you would broadly agree with these three points, and if you'd put forward your basic argument on congestion (which I'd summarise as "cycling advocates need to have answers to the congestion issue") alongside these themes, you'd have had a warmer reception. As it is, I think a lot of people (wrongly) thought you were just joining in in the rather lumpen cycling-phobic arguments which adopt this theme.

    3. Alex,

      Thanks for the reply.

      People keep telling me that the causes of congestion are complex, as if that made it impossible to unpick the complexity. I'm very clear the causes are complex. Congestion was worsening before the cycle superhighways were put in. But that doesn't mean we can't say that the cycle superhighways have contributed to it. The implementation report makes it clear that motor vehicle journeys on the roads where the superhighways have been built have grown considerably slower at exactly the time the facilities were built, when it's also clear that the capacity of central London's roads fell sharply. While it might not be possible to pin down precisely which bits of the shrinking of capacity were a result of the building of the superhighways, it's clear they played a bit part and it's frustrating that cycling advocates are so resistant to recognising that, since people outside are very clear about it.

      As for how I presented the point, I'm reaching a point of despair about people's sensitivity on this. I've written multiple times about this. My first post on it, back in August, said almost precisely what you suggested I should have said here - It was met with derision and abuse for the most part. I've faced unpleasant personal attacks from some influential people, including Andrew Gilligan. This post included hyperlinks to the previous posts that set out the case carefully. I'm not going to go back pussyfooting around this issue every time I refer to it. I may indeed give up the blog altogether because it's become so massively irritating to deal with the nonsense surrounding this. I reiterate the point of the post. It's striking how people insist on interpreting what they see around them as reinforcing their prior beliefs, even when they're wrong. The fact that a relatively small part of the post referring to many cycling activists' prior beliefs has produced nearly all the reaction helps, I think, to prove my point.

      All the best,


  5. Robert says in his blog, “Even planners who are well-disposed towards cycling and want to see cycling levels rise go slack-jawed in amazement at activists’ reluctance to accept the clear, substantial evidence that the new facilities have played a significant role in worsening congestion for motor vehicles.”

    I found this bit of the blog rather problematic. I dispute that there is “substantial” evidence that London’s very limited new cycling facilities have played a “significant” role in “worsening congestion for motor vehicles.” Indeed, from what I have seen of the evidence, the very limited new cycle facilities contribute little or nothing to worsening congestion for motor vehicles when looked at in context.

    The 120,000 PHVs in London, for example, require 33 times as much space as all the new cycleways when those PHVs are stationary. When those PHVs are on the move, they eat up 100 times as much space as all the new cycleways.

    The London cabbie trade informs us that 600 new PHV licences are issued every week. When in motion, two weeks’ worth of the road space occupied by these new cabs equals all the space given over to the new cycleways in London.

    But that is small cheese compared with the effects on congestion of the growth in motor vehicle size. As a reminder to those who think this may be a silly point, in recent years the space requirement of the Ford Fiesta has grown 20 percent, that of the VW Golf GTi by 25 percent, of the VW Beetle by 23 percent, of the Fiat 500 of by 47 percent and of the Mini a whopping 75 percent.

    If we were to take an extremely conservative estimate (ignoring non-like replacement of small saloon cars with people carriers, SUVs, giant pick-ups, etc., and ignoring larger commercial van and lorry sizes) of 10 percent growth in vehicle size, that growth alone in recent times demands well over 4,000 times as much space as all the new London cycleways. A more realistic assessment would show that to be a vast underestimate of the actual space that has disappeared beneath ever bigger motor vehicles.

    I venture to suggest that the planners’ slackening jaws are not a reaction to those cycle activists who display “reluctance to accept the clear, substantial evidence that the new facilities have played a significant role in worsening congestion for motor vehicles.” Rather the slack jaws are likely to be due to the planners’ incredulity that anyone can spend any serious time bemoaning the alleged congestion-inducing effects of London’s new cycleways when much bigger and much more obvious causes of congestion swamp any effects of those cycleways.

    1. Cyclablog,

      I'm sorry you find this problematic. I'd thought my views on this subject and the substantial evidence that led me to take that view were clear from two previous blogposts I wrote about this and the considerable controversy that surrounded them.

      The previous posts are here and here and I've given a recap of the evidence for my position above.

      I can only reiterate that it is a monumental waste of time for people to spend so much time arguing about this issue. The data really leave no room for doubt about what's going on. I hope for my own sake - since I continue to get unpleasant personal abuse on this point - and for the good of cycle campaigning as a whole that people start to pay attention to the data on this and address reality as it is, not as people wish it were.

      All the best,


  6. IMO until there is a method to restrict demand such as road pricing it is impossible to do anything about congestion in an area like central London.

    Capacity was increased on the M25 by using the hard shoulder as an additional lane and so-called smart signals were meant to "smooth traffic flow". What happened? In a classic case of induced demand, this encouraged more people to drive and journey times are now slower than before the changes and congestion has increased.

    Reduce general traffic capacity using bus and cycle lanes in favour of modes of transport that transport people more efficiently and all things being equal, congestion increases for those who continue to drive.

    So it doesn't matter what the road capacity is, in London it will always fill up.

    All politicans like to think they can do something and I don't know if TfL are honest telling them that really very little can be done. Road pricing scares politicians although IMO it is inevitable sooner or later.

    Also, I'm not sure what the objective that TfL are trying to achieve. Doing some quick googling, I see that average traffic speed in inner London in 1968 was 16.7 mph and this declined to 13.3 mph by 1998. So is there an average mph in central London that is deemed satisfactory?

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for the comment. But what's happened in Central London is pretty much the opposite of what you suggest. Traffic has been in long-term decline, particularly since the congestion charge came in. Only 18 per cent of traffic in central London is now private cars. The issue is that road capacity has shrunk even faster than the traffic levels. I wholeheartedly support a more sophisticated road-user charging scheme, which might cut traffic still more sharply. One of the challenges, it seems to me, is that increasing cycling is not doing as it is typically supposed to do and moving people from cars onto bikes. There's a fair amount of evidence that it's moving people from the underground and surface rail to cycling. I think it's worthwhile thinking about the implications of that clear increased burden on the roads.

      All the best,


    2. Central London traffic during weekday daytimes is 57% private cars if you include chauffeur-driven private cars (a.k.a. taxis and minicabs). I strongly suspect that percentage is even higher again in evenings and weekends. The TfL studies regarding potential for modal shift are insufficiently detailed to cover this point specifically, but I would hypothesise that a large proportion of these journeys could feasibly shift on to public transport, foot, and bike.

    3. Alex,

      I strongly support a system of road-user charging that charges every motor vehicle user according to the distance he or she drives and the time at which he or she does it.

      I personally don't like taxis and avoid them as much as I can. I last took one to get my family and our substantial piles of luggage from Heathrow to our temporary accommodation when we moved back from New York.

      But, as a semi-public, semi-private mode, they sit in a slightly odd place in this debate. I see a lot of cycling advocates express confidence that lots of taxi and private-hire trips could shift to bike. That has to be at least partly true and I'm sure bikeshare is picking up some of those trips.

      But there are also virtues to taxis. For people who were never going to make certain trips by public transport, they probably replace private cars a certain amount. They've probably displaced some actual chauffeur-driven vehicles in London.

      But I think it's a little too easy to assume that restrictions on taxis automatically push people into active travel and public transport. There are some virtues to a form of driving that doesn't bind people to complete the return trip by car and that doesn't eat up huge amounts of space for parking.

      I want road pricing to send a message to all drivers and see how that affects behaviour.

      All the best,



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