Misguided, embarrassing, counterproductive?

An open letter to Sustrans

Dear 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.

Wrapping up

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)

15 Comments

  1. Al__S

    I swear a lot of the problems would be reduced if Sustrans shared use paths were generally better. I saw a recent stand by one of “their” routes (actually, in this case, a section of the Cambridge Guided Busway path that they had no hand in getting tarmaced- they did lobby for and contribute towards the worst bit near St ives) with a huge banner reading “Do you want more paths like this?” I’d previously seen this at the end of the hilariously narrow and very bust, frequently overgrown, “Genome path”- their flagship “10,000 mile”.

    This time I stopped and let the poor volunteer what I thought of the poor quality of the path, that I wanted rather better paths thankyou very much. Sustrans off-road paths, especially in and near towns, should be aiming for 4m wide minimums, with, where there’s likely to be large numbers of pedestrians, a sperated footway. True “shared use” is only appropriate out in the countryside where the equivalent road would have no footway.

    That’s not even getting me started on the “unpaved” sections of the so called “National Cycle Network”

  2. Bristol is in an interesting situation in that it actually has a useful cycle path that people can use to get around quickly (I only have experience of the Bristol Bath cycle path here). Where I normally commute (Aldershot – Camberley), there are some off road routes (Blackwater valley path), but the one time I used the route, it doubled my commuting time and therefore I don’t use it, whereas if I had to go from Bristol to Bath I probably would use the cycle path.

    If I were doing that 15 odd mile commute every day, I dare say I’d ride quickly. I hope I wouldn’t ride irresponsibly, but there is always the chance that someone will run out from a side alley or that their dog will jump out of a bush. Better for me than someone driving out of a side road without looking.

    I don’t think there are many motorists who wish I’d slow down and franky that’s where cyclist have to spend most of their time. I actually feel more comfortable in traffic being able to accelerate and go a little faster. I dare say that if I could do all my commuting on immaculate and direct cycle paths I might use a different bike (well, probably the Raptobike and properly give Jon the willies).

  3. Dan

    Good points well made, and more eloquent than I may have managed. I used one of Manchester’s main shared use paths recently, the tail end of a club run using it for the last few miles. We all noted how the array of cobbles, ruts, unpaved sections etc etc was more suited to cyclo-cross than the ‘pure’ road bikes we were riding- where are these ‘ideal for thrashing it’ paths he speaks of? Oh and I must point out that while we were spinning along in the small chainring having a chat, we were alerted to the presence (via a bell) behind us of a fella in casual clothing on a sit-up-&-beg who proceeded to overtake us and go as quickly as he possibly could. Yes, we’ll happily crack on at 30mph in our little peloton where the conditions allow, but as regular cyclists we’re also perhaps more conscious than this chap of the consequences when it goes wrong. 

  4. Watdabni

    I have to take some issue with this. Whilst idea of the collective responsibility of cyclists is clearly inappropriate, the sentiments behind the comments from Sustrans are sound. There are too many cyclists out there who seem to believe they are superior because they ride bikes and, as such, are entitled to be rude to everyone else. Just yesterday, the manageress of of a café I stopped by on the Lea Navigation complained that a cyclist had forced his way through a number of people, including, her, crossing a Pelican Crossing on a green man. When challenged the cyclist yelled back at them “I’m a cyclist, get over it”. This is not unusual. I have often experienced similar behaviour myself as a pedestrian. It is this behaviour of a significant minority of cyclists that upsets people and it gives all cyclists a bad name. It is hard enough trying to change things for the better for cyclists generally when idiots like these ignore the rights of others because of, what seems to me to be, sheer arrogance.

    I do agree with comments about the poor quality of some Sustrans cycle paths (parts of NCN1 are no more than very poorly maintained footpaths) but that is a separate question to the one being discussed here. It should also be remembered that Sustrans is a charity working with very limited funds and, without extra money it will always have difficulty in providing cycle paths of the quality we would all like. I am grateful it is there. It is better than nothing.

  5. uphillfreewheeler

    There are too many drivers out there who seem to believe they are superior because they drive motorised vehicles and, as such, are entitled to be rude to everyone else. Just today, a motorist forced his way past me at a pinch point. When challenged the motorist said “I’m a motorist. Get off the road” and proceeded to run a red light. This is not unusual. I have often experienced similar behaviour myself as a pedestrian. It is this behaviour of a significant minority of motorists that upsets people and it gives all motorists a bad name. It is hard enough trying to change things for the better for motorists generally when idiots like these ignore the rights of others because of, what seems to me to be, sheer arrogance.

  6. Dave

    @Watdabni, uphillfreewheeler beat me to it with his excellent response.

    I’ll leave you one further idea that you may not like:

    I think it’s perfectly possible that the constant barrage of complaints against cyclist behaviour actually causes people to ride badly, because it creates a social context for them where that is expected (and therefore, perversely, more acceptable).

    In your example, a cyclist does something that can’t be condoned, but their thinking was apparently “this is what cyclists do”. Had they been ground down so much by people insisting on collective responsibility that the barrier to their own misbehaviour was lowered?

    To think about this in a more familiar context: we know that the majority of motorists speed. Do you think this knowledge causes individual motorists to slow down, or do you think it causes many of them to think “may as well speed, since everyone does it”?

    In other words, if the blame for my actions as a cyclist don’t rest with me but will be lightened by all other cyclists taking a share, does less blame = more misbehaviour? I’m not sure it’s far fetched at all.

  7. John lavery

    Uphillfreewheeler: Sarcasm does not help. The fact that some motorists are rude and stupid does not entitle cyclists to be rude and stupid too. I have suffered much more rudeness (both as pedestrian and cyclist) from cyclists over the last 40 odd years of cycling in London than I have ever experienced from motorists. The difference is that bad driving is far more dangerous than than bad cycling. Whilst, as I said, the suggestion from Sustrans that cyclists have a collective responsibility to cycle responsibly is a bit silly, the fact is that bad cycling from an idiotic few creates a perception in the public mind that cyclists collectively cycle badly. The point made by Sustrans is essentially sound and if you want better cycling infrastructure, bad behaviour by cyclists only hurts the cause.

  8. Dave

    John, nobody is trying to suggest that some people (and therefore, some people on bikes) never behave badly. The question is how we respond to that.

    Replace ‘cyclists’ with the word for any other group (‘black people’, ‘blind people’, it doesn’t really matter) and the problem is obvious.

    You yourself (effectively) say “I have suffered much more rudeness from blind people than I have from the sighted”… or from Jews, or whoever. In what way can this possibly justify discriminating against them as a group?

    Perhaps the fact that blind people struggle to get around safely (or cyclists for that matter) predisposes them to being snappy – and the only way to fix that, far from making improvements conditional on universal good behaviour, is to do exactly the opposite.

    Blind groups would be fighting tooth and nail against any universal tarring and the suggestion it should somehow correlate to better treatment of blind folk (or better facilities for the blind). You’d be more likely to see press releases like “blind people are human. Cut us some slack if we occasionally misbehave. Have you never broken the speed limit [insert comparable thing]”

    At this point people often make a weak excuse, to the effect that cyclists as a group are not comparable with other groups (like the blind), but this is to only sidestep the point, which I believe is unanswerable.

    Or at least, I haven’t seen a competent refutation of it yet.

  9. John lavery

    Dave: Your first post in response to mine made it clear that you had not read my first post properly. Now you try to suggest that one can replace the word ‘cyclists’ with, say, ‘blind people’ and it means that same thing? We are discussing the driving habits of vehicle users here, not people with disabilities or their ethnic origins. That is like comparing chalk and cheese. The only point I am making (and which I understand Sustrans to be making even if a bit clumsily) is that bad behaviour on the part of a few cyclists adversely affects the public perception of all cyclists – that’s all.

  10. Dave

    “We are discussing the driving habits of vehicle users here, not people with disabilities or their ethnic origins. That is like comparing chalk and cheese.”

    “At this point people often make a weak excuse, to the effect that cyclists as a group are not comparable with other groups”

    I rest my case?

  11. John lavery

    You can if you like but you would be wrong. Since debate is about vehicle users it is possible to compare, say, the driving habits of cyclists with those of, say car drivers. That is legitimate. It make no sense at all to compare the driving habits of cyclists with blind people who do not drive at all. You might as well try and compare the driving habits of cyclists with those people who are vegetarian. It is utterly meaningless. Comparisons between groups need some some ground upon which they can be compared before one attempts any sort of comparison.

  12. Dave

    Hi John,

    Sorry for my previous comment – I couldn’t help myself. The perils of responding while out and about (no doubt taking responsibility for all the cyclists I saw had worn me down).

    Your last sentence is unarguable, but I’m not alone in thinking that group comparison works perfectly well without the most simplistic requirement that they are a road user group.

    I won’t attempt to make you that argument in a comment box, but perhaps in a future post. In the meantime I can’t recommend strongly enough that you check out the excellent http://aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/the-issue-of-black-crime/

  13. John lavery

    Dave: Thank you for the gracious reply. I hope by this exchange we will have persuaded a few others to be a bit more careful to ensure any comparisons made are valid.

    I looked at the article you suggested. It is related to to this one which I think worth reading too: http://twowheelsgood-fourwheelsbad.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/cycling-vs-cyclists-how-to-do-things.html. It is not often realised that how we use words has a profound influence on our perception of events etc. and it is vitally important that we do think about this when formulating arguments or describing events.

  14. Dave

    Thanks for the link – that’s a great article.

    I must confess, I’m now unsure why you find my earlier comparison invalid, but let’s leave that for a future post. I think it’s difficult to articulate in just a couple of sentences :)

  15. Richard Burton

    I initially had no gripe with Jon Usher’s article, but having re-read it in the light of the above comments, I now realise just how wrong he was about collective responsibility, thank you gentlemen.

    But the one thing that no-one else has mentioned, is that this article was published right in the middle of the Bristol Bike Festival, and some of the local media featured it rather than all the good news from the festival. It could have been published at any time, but to do so during the bike festival looks very much like sabotage, or at least incredibly niaive. We all know just how much Sustrans likes publicity, so perhaps they didn’t like the fact that the festival was taking some of their glory.

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