An open letter to Sustrans
Earlier this month Jon Usher published an objectionable piece titled “All cyclists have a collective responsibility to slow down” (a conversation subsequently continued by “The end of another Tour” by Melissa Henry, and variously on twitter).
Malcom Shepherd put the icing on the cake when he was quoted in a “Lycra Louts” piece by the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation, describing his fellow riders as “reckless cycling speed demons”.
I ride over a hundred miles a week on “shared use paths”.
Please, Sustrans, let’s get a few things straight:
There is no such thing as collective responsibility
Jon, I’m left questioning whether you even understand what the concept of collective responsibility is. Perhaps this hope, however forlorn, is preferable to the depressing idea that you do.
Stop and think carefully about the basic meaning of what you’re saying. You’re telling me I am responsible for the actions of anyone who can scrape together the money to run a bicycle in your United Kingdom? What’s worse- you’re feeding the expectation of millions of misguided Britons that cyclists are some kind of borg collective that share something beyond the fact that we all own a chunk of metal with two wheels and no engine.
Respectfully, fuck that.
Are we supposed to admire the boldness of a publicly-funded body that dares to speak of a heterogeneous group in this way? Has anyone told the Islamic community that they have a collective responsibility not to hack people up in the streets?
Did the mainstream civil rights movement ever tell African-Americans that they had a collective responsibility to stop robbing shit, dealing drugs, or making eyes at white women? *
Of course not.
Sixty million people live on our small island and some of them act inappropriately. Since some of them ride bikes, it follows that sometimes people on bikes act inappropriately. This is not news.
I am no more responsible for their actions than the non-cyclist sitting next to me as I type.
* I trust it’s obvious that this is a deliberate caricature
Cyclists *are* traffic
We’re struggling hard to gain acceptance as a legitimate form of transport here, Sustrans. Have been since long before I was born.
You know what would really help? If publicly-funded bodies recognized that we are traffic when we cycle on open roads and we are still traffic when we cycle “off road”.
When environments are accessed by cyclists it is an inescapable truth that those environments are no longer traffic-free. Old rail-beds have been converted from rail traffic, towpaths no longer see horse traffic… they see bike traffic. On other purpose-built or legacy thoroughfares, bike traffic may be a straightforward addition to foot traffic.
As above, none of this is to suggest that none of the up-to-sixty-million bike owners in the UK ever behaves inappropriately. Motorist misbehaviour on the open road is rife, as is dog-walking behaviour on paths – and it’s the same people who are riding bikes. That is, Britons. Naughty folk, sometimes.
You guys have got to frame the debate correctly if you want to have a credible dialogue with current and prospective cyclists (and our detractors).
Some routes where cyclists are traffic happen to be closed to motor vehicles, and on these you suggest there is an issue – but cyclists should ride prudently regardless of whether they are sharing space with motorists or not.
Calling a “shared use” facility “traffic free” when cyclists are traffic just sets everything off on the wrong foot. We think of ourselves as legitimate traffic rightfully using an old railbed, towpath or other thoroughfare, and so should you.
You’d have more success engaging with us if you recognised this legitimacy more freely.
Less sensationalism please
We’re told that “cyclists have been clocked travelling at 28 miles an hour at peak walking to school times on a path crowded with kids”.
At face value this does sound bad – but then I think about how easy it would be to go to any primary school in the UK, clock the single fastest driver at school dropping-off time and print a similar headline.
What’s the 85th percentile speed, Sustrans? And can you even put a figure on what an appropriate speed is on any given path?
Is this a rational debate about cycling behaviour or rank sensationalism?
This stance on road bikes is embarrassing me
Sustrans, I hate to break this to you, but one of my five bikes is a road bike.
It’s a real thoroughbred – narrow tyres (gasp!), superlight frame (boo!), drop handlebars (hiss!). I built it myself and it is a masterpiece.
Yet it does not endow me either with the capability to cycle at Ludicrous Speed, nor in any way remove my ability to attend to my surroundings or change my attitude towards my fellow citizens. If I was to take Jon’s article at face value, I might be inclined to think that it’s possessed of all the social ills of a class A drug rather than a pretty innocuous variant of the generic bicycle.
Let’s stop and think about this a little. What sort of bike would you buy, as a powerful rider with lengthy rides in mind? A fast one, maybe?
Others may prioritise low maintenance, mudguards, an upright seating position, or whatever, but the main reason people are going fast on road bikes is that they are bloody powerful riders. They’d be fast on anything; indeed one of my great satisfactions in life is to exhaust unwitting weekend warriors on my 16″ folding bike.
The idea that “the speeds capable on these machines without much effort from the rider is quite frightening” is a fallacy (and I have the power meter data to back that up). Are road bikes the new boogie man?
As David Henbrow has pointed out (twitter again), comparisons between the average speed of continental riders (who have to stop at lights every hundred yards) with riders on a segregated path who don’t is inherently fallacious – and Pro tour teams have used continental “shared use” facilities for race training.
Get over Strava already
Ever since people have been able to buy bicycles, there are those who have tried to ride them quickly.
First they had to use the sun to compare feats of heroism (timepieces not having been invented in the 19th century 😉 ), but progressed quickly onto watches and then, eventually, onto speedometers.
GPS is a more recent arrival, and finally Strava, a service that compares many disparate performances across time and space and has raised the ire of your good selves because it reveals in a more public way what has been true for almost all of the last 200 years – some cyclists like to ride quickly.
Yet what does Strava really show us? I just looked up an equivalent section of the Bristol-Bath railway (Edinburgh’s NEPN) and the median speed on Strava is 14.3mph while the 85th percentile speed is just over 18mph.
A forward-thinking organisation could really go on the front foot with this incredible data source to dispel misguided concerns over speeding cyclists (that is, make sure legitimate concerns are grounded in the correct context) by using it to demonstrate how much slower cyclists are going than people are led to believe by accusations from within the ranks that we are all “reckless cycling speed demons”.
I’m sure there are faster Strava segments, but the point in general must stand. It patently *doesn’t* show hordes of ravening cyclists tipping over grannies and mangling school kids – the lack of any casualties backs that up. Indeed, Strava’s moderation of segments means it’s equally likely that it could be having a dampening effect on speeds on the less appropriate stretches of path, compared to non-Strava riders.
Some people will always ride recklessly (even with only the sun for their guide) and some won’t. This is a concern regardless of technology, and stirring up some kind of moral panic amongst the public about “speed demon cyclists and their evil apps” isn’t contributing anything much to the arrangement.
Instructively, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, the inventor of the bike as we know it – naturally a Scot – was convicted of running down a child on one of his early journeys. (No doubt he was branded a “reckless cycling speed demon” by the 19th century counterpart of Malcom Shepherd.)
It’s a sad fact of life that people behave in less than ideal ways. They do it when walking their dog, when driving their car, and when riding their bike. We might call it human nature.
I have no problem with Sustrans attempting to address the issue of inappropriate cycling, but you must do so constructively, inclusively, and accepting that you are trying to change something about a person’s entire nature, not just a component, cycling behaviour that can be viewed in isolation.
Nobody has managed to do this for speeding or mobile phone use behind the wheel, for keeping dogs on a short lead or collecting their soil (the list of things where people stray from the one true path is almost infinite) but they certainly didn’t manage it by alienating the people they were trying to address, as it seems to me Sustrans is hell-bent on doing.
As ever, your most humble servant, etc. etc.
The thumbnail / cover slide for this article courtesy Lee Carson (Creative Commons)