Misguided, embarrassing, counterproductive?

An open letter to Sustrans regarding “cycling speed demons” on Britain’s cycle facilities.

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)

Don’t build it and they can’t come

You need to have pavements before you can even consider addressing other reasons people don’t choose to walk. Why do people think cycling is any different?

Infrastructure is not sufficient, but it *is* necessary

What lesson should we really draw from Stevenage?

Hang around cycling blogs for any length of time and you will inevitably come across a variation of the argumentum ad Stevenage.

This “dull grey 1950s new town” (waronthemotorist) is a fantastic place to drive: dual carriageways combined with high volume roundabouts make it pretty effortless to motor from A to B (a more local equivalent would be Livingston – it’s hard to believe Stevenage could either be more drab, have bigger dual carriageways or have a lower cycling modal share).

Central Livingston. The bridge is a segregated cycle facility, but who would feel the need to use it?

Stevenage also has a relatively extensive network of segregated cycling infrastructure – and a dismal proportion of journeys being made by bike.

It’s this combination that has led to Stevenage enjoying (along with Milton Keynes) the dubious honour of becoming the go-to argument against infrastructure provision. Literally “we built it and they didn’t come”; the reader is invited to draw the conclusion that infrastructure has at most a small contribution to make to cycling uptake and potentially none at all – it’s just an expensive distraction.

There are all sorts of debates to be had about exactly why Stevenage (or any given piece of infrastructure) may, after construction, not enjoy the level of modal share that we might wish.

The reason people drive is simply that they prefer to drive. The proportion of people who prefer to drive is driven by diverse factors – how troublesome it is to drive, how troublesome it is to cycle, questions of fitness, weather, clothing, personal safety, money, all in a giant melting pot.

There’s not much point picking just one of these things to squabble over.

It should be obvious to everyone that building cycle infrastructure will not necessarily cause a large proportion of people to give up driving and take to two wheels instead. However, it’s critical that all campaigners (and campaign groups like the CTC) understand that insufficiency does not speak to necessity.

There’s nothing more discouraging to me than someone who argues against (or downplays) hard segregated infrastructure for one simple reason:

segregated infrastructure is as necessary for widespread cycling as rails are for railways

Rather than pointing to Stevenage (or Milton Keynes, or wherever) as places that have infrastructure but no cyclists, I’d love to see just one example of a place with widespread cycling uptake but no infrastructure.

Such places simply don’t exist.

It’s tempting to be fooled by recent London surveys pointing to modal shares of 50% or more on particular streets, but that is not comparing apples with apples, since it doesn’t include the huge proportion of journeys Londoners make on the tube, for example, and only a small proportion of roads.

It’s not even clear to me whether the figures count the movement of people or merely the movement of vehicles. (Any argument which relies on giving one chap on a Boris Bike equal weighting with eighty people on a double decker is immediately suspicious).

Regardless, the fact that transport provision in some of our inner cities is so horrendous that people are compelled to cycle despite the risks is no recipe for success anywhere else (“London is not Britain” – in fact, innermost London is not even “London” – the English capital’s modal share is still dismal overall).

“If you build it they may not come” is a true (and trivial) statement. There are lots of reasons not to let your kids cycle to school, besides the risk of being ground to a pulp. But even if you overcame all other issues, if your kids may well be mown down by a dangerous driver, that’s the ultimate blocker.

I’m not sure I would let my kids cycle to school in Stevenage either. However, without segregated infrastructure there would be no chance whatsoever.

Retrofit is not new build

In Stevenage and the other new towns, bike infrastructure was built alongside fast and convenient main roads and, although necessary for cycle use (imagine cycling to school on one of these de-facto motorways) it has not proven sufficient for a high modal share – there is no demand for travel any other way.

In contrast, almost anywhere that cycle infrastructure is retrofitted in 21st century Britain, significant latent demand for cycle use exists, thanks to the terrible experience that is travelling by car (or public transport) in most other places.

The reason that explosive growth on Edinburgh’s segregated facilities hasn’t translated into a high overall modal share is correctly understood as a simple lack of segregated facilities (which can be highly utilised only where they exist) and not that Edinburgh residents have the choice of riding off road but simply choose to drive regardless.

It takes me 30-40 minutes to cycle to work versus an hour in the car and up to 90 minutes by public transport. No smooth-flowing dual carriageways here.

A better analogy of segregated cyclepaths is pavements. It’s easy to point to a town or city with lots of pavements but a low modal share of journeys on foot, but few would try to convince themselves that pavements are anything other than a necessity for any significant level of perambulation. You need to have pavements before you can even consider addressing the other issues around people not choosing to walk.

Build it, and they can come if they want to. But if you don’t build it, they can’t.

This, at least, is straightforward.