Playing Baseball with Aunt Sally

I was prompted to write this piece based on a post by Carlton Reid on his Quickrelease blog, in which the a comparison is attempted between building infrastructure for bicycles as a means of increasing their use and building baseball stadiums as a means of increasing the popularity of baseball in the UK. As an analogy, it doesn’t really work (and I know I’ve strained a few myself on this blog in the past) but it is at least an interesting revisiting of a straw man with whom Carlton has been arguing with on and off for a few years now.

The straw man I refer to is as follows; that of the cycle campaigners advocating replication of The Netherlands’ approach to cycle infrastructure here in the UK, a significant proportion believe that implementing a botched half-measures as seen in Milton Keynes or Stevenage is enough to produce cycling rates in the UK which are comparable to those in The Netherlands. No-one is saying that quality cycle infrastructure is the entire solution to the unpopularity of cycling as a mode of transport in the UK, it is just most of the solution, difficult, an entirely essential component of the solution and the most obviously visible part of the changes required.  It makes sense that people are talking-up infrastructure; it is a very visible part of the changes we need, it is easy to communicate and it is the very foundation of making cycling a viable mode of transport for normal people. Talking down infrastructure, however, helps none of us, and is a particularly odd thing to do if you have previously made the case for the need for cyclists to present a united front to decision makers.

Carlton beats his straw man over the head with examples such as Milton Keynes or Stevenage, neither of which come close to representing what cycle campaigners advocating replication of The Netherlands’ approach to cycle infrastructure here in the UK are proposing. Whilst the treatment of main roads in these places may superficially resemble approaches used in The Netherlands, without the corresponding changes to other classes of road, such as residential streets, and the requisite inconveniencing of short-hop car trips arising from this infrastructure, attempting to use these places to argue that The Netherlands approach to cycle infrastructure would not work in the UK due to unspecified cultural difficulties is dishonest.

Instead, the importance of the built environment on the modes of travel people choose is downplayed, with unspecified cultural reasons suggested to be the real issue. As most of you will know, using the bicycle as a means of transport in most parts of the UK is not a normal thing to do. Using a means of transport which differs from the dominant means of transport; the car, on infrastructure designed entirely around the car, and amongst car users who have little understanding of cycling or cyclists can often make the act of cycling for transport into something of an ordeal. When facing this situation day in, day out, it can be very, very tempting to see the decision of others to drive rather than cycle as a personal failure, or a result of culture, rather than as a result of the environment. “If I can cycle in this, so can they,” you think to yourself, after a close overtake or a multi-lane roundabout, “if only they weren’t so lazy, or stupid, or addicted to their cars.” I find myself thinking along these lines sometimes, after a particularly gruelling ride to work. But really they’re just ordinary people, people who haven’t given much thought to why they chose the mode of transport they have. The cultural argument for why cycling has failed in the UK is so alluring because it allows us to feel morally superior to those who drive. Accepting that those who currently drive in the UK are the same as those who currently cycle in The Netherlands is hard because it means committing to changing the road environment here to more closely resemble that over there, which is a big job. It also means losing the thing which makes us special; being a cyclist, despite the environment, in a place where cycling is marginalised.

Carlton, it’s time to put this old straw man out to pasture.

Eric in an ideological Pickle over parking

I was interested to read about Eric Pickles’ statement about local authorities and car parking charges on the recently resurrected Crap Waltham Forest blog.

Councils will have to declare the total paid by drivers to park in both on-street and off-street bays, after new government figures showed local authorities’ total income from parking hitting £1.27 billion last year. 

Ministers believe the new “transparency” drive is vital to ensure local politicians can be properly held to account by motorists – and to help reverse the decline of the country’s high streets, including the closure of businesses. 

Earlier this year a government report conducted by Mary Portas, the retail expert, identified that high cost of parking as one of the reasons why shoppers were deserting high streets in favour of out-of-town centres where parking is often free. 

Mr Pickles said: “We are ending an era of bureaucratic accountability and replacing it with a more open era of democratic accountability. It is right that taxpayers get to see how town halls spend their hard earned taxes so they can properly hold local politicians to account. 

“As part of that we will expose a great council cash cow cover-up, unmasking punitive parking practices that hit residents in the pocket. We’re calling time on the billion pound local war against motorists – now, more than ever, we need to see the back of this shopping tax and encourage more people onto the high street.” 

Town halls are supposed to control parking to improve traffic flow and stop gridlock occurring, and they are prohibited by law from using their powers in this area simply to boost their income. However, ministers and their advisers believe a growing number of councils seek to get round these rules by earmarking the cash raised for other transport projects.

Mr Pickles, the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government seems to be suggesting that it is wrong for councils to charge for car parking on their sites at rates which allow them to turn a profit and that these rates should therefore be reduced.

This statement confused me immensely for several reasons. Firstly, as Conservative minister, should Mr Pickles not believe that it is wrong for local authorities to use their position to offer parking facilities at prices with which the private sector could never compete? Surely the idea of government crowding out the private sector when it comes to the provision of car parking facilities if at odds with the Conservative ideology. Naturally, the first step in remedying this would be for local authorities to increase their parking charges to allow the more dynamic and efficient private sector to step in.

Secondly, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, surely Mr Pickles should be aware that accommodating to many private motor vehicles in town centres contributes to their downfall. Shopkeepers grossly overestimate the amount of their customers who arrive by car, falling to see that, in town centres, pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users are usually better customers.

Thirdly, providing subsidised parking in town centres tends to damage town centres by excluding those who wish to, or have no other option than to arrive by different modes of travel. The town centre of my native Rochdale is a good example of this; surrounded on three sides by dual carriageways Rochdale’s local authority has done everything possible to accommodate private motor vehicles in the centre of town. The result of this is that the centre of Rochdale us barely accessible by non-motorised means. The tragedy of Rochdale is that even though it’s local authority sacrificed the safety and convenience of pedestrians and cyclists to benefit motorists, it has not produced an otherwise-successful town centre. It is no coincidence that Rochdale has one of the highest levels of unoccupied shop units, with even McDonalds giving up on it. Successful town and city centres rely on a concentrating a large number of people in a relatively small area and put simply this is never going to be compatible with the car. Once people have been coerced onto using the car, it is a trivial matter to go somewhere which seems less of a hell-hole, such as the Trafford Centre. At least they have a McDonalds. 

Fourthly is Eric Pickles’ pet project, localism;

The Localism Bill will herald a ground-breaking shift in power to councils and communities overturning decades of central government control and starting a new era of people power.

 

“It is the centrepiece of what this Government is trying to do to fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country. For too long, everything has been controlled from the centre – and look where it’s got us. Central government has kept local government on a tight leash, strangling the life out of councils in the belief that bureaucrats know best.

 

By getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs we can restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth – and build a stronger, fairer Britain. It’s the end of the era of big government: laying the foundations for the Big Society.”

Somehow this seems slightly at odd with central government interfering with councils’ running of their car parking operations.

Finally (and building upon point three) is choice. Twenty-five per cent of households don’t have access to a car. Many of these people are hard-working strivers who want to be better off and so do without a car, at least for the foreseeable future. It is simply not possible to further accommodate private motor vehicles in our town centres without further diminishing the experience of those travelling by other modes. Should people not be able to choose how they travel? It seems at odds with Conservative values to subsidise one mode of transport far above all others, as it coerces people into acquiring the means to travel in that manner, and to use it for almost all trips. Is influencing transport choice in this way not the very opposite of the choice which is so valued by Conservatives? Surely the right thing to do would be to treat all modes of transport equally (perhaps with the advantages and disadvantages of each taken onto account) in order to give people back the choice of how to travel. Since motor transport has seen decades of generous government subsidy, it would make sense to start with massive investments in walking and cycling infrastructure.

Unless I’m reading too much into this, and it is actually just a cynical exercise in which our Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government panders to the myth of the victimised motorist to boost his popularity.

Helmets on Heads

I found a new campaign via Twitter; Helmets on Heads. It is run by helmet and bicycle manufacturer Schwinn and an organisation called Think First (think a US Headway) which advertises itself as the US’s “National Injury Prevention Foundation.”

“The ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation’s award-winning, evidence-based programs are aimed at helping people learn to reduce their risk for injury.”

Despite this quote from the Think First website, this particular campaign aims to promote greater helmet use. From the campaign’s “The Facts” page:

  1. In 2009, there were an estimated 418,700 emergency room visits and nearly 28,000 inpatient hospital stays for bicycle-related injuries.
  2. Over the past several years, roughly 1 in 10 bicyclists killed were not wearing helmets.
  3. Nearly 70% of all fatal bicycle crashes involve head injuries.
  4. Bicycle helmets have been estimated to reduce the risk for head injuries by 85%.
  5. Despite these facts, only 20-25% of all bicyclists wear bicycle helmets.

Fact number one doesn’t really tell the reader much because it is not put into any kind of context. 418,700 sounds like a lot, but it would be nice to see how this number compares to the number of pedestrian-related injuries or trouser-related injuries.

Fact three sounds believable enough and although this statistic has little to do with cycle helmets, the context is is placed in cleverly makes it appear to support the argument for greater use of cycle helmets.

Fact four seems oddly familiar, but it is at odds with more rigorous meta analyses such as Rune Elvik’s efficacy review, which places the benefit of helmet wearing around ‘net zero,’ with earlier similar studies placing the benefit of helmet wearing around the ‘negligible’ mark. This appears to be the only fact on the list which is outright dishonest.

Facts two and five are best taken together; the 20-25% of US cyclists who wear cycle helmets appear to account for 90% of the cycling fatalities in the USA.

This list is one of the most interesting uses of facts I have seen in a long time. Other than fact four, which is outright bogus, the other facts presented seem likely to be sound. However, these facts are not used to make an argument in the conventional sense (Ie: by supporting a claim) they appear instead to be used as window-dressing; largely unrelated to the cause but when taken at face value and presented in the right way, they appear to support it. Let’s take another look at that window-dressing, but with a different slant:

  1. In 2009, there were an estimated 418,700 emergency room visits and nearly 28,000 inpatient hospital stays for bicycle-related injuries.
  2. Over the past several years, roughly 9 out of 10 bicyclists killed were wearing helmets.
  3. Nearly 70% of all fatal bicycle crashes involve head injuries.
  4. On average, bicycle helmets have been estimated to provide no overall benefit to their wearers in the event of a crash.
  5. Despite these facts, 20-25% of bicyclists still wear bicycle helmets.

Ok, so I changed fact four because of the bogus nature of the original #4. More or less the same list of facts now look like an argument against cycle helmets and I didn’t even have to lie.

The campaign also provides support materials for teachers:

Q. What is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself when riding a bike?
A. Wear a helmet! The impact of a crash is absorbed by the helmet, rather than your head and brain. Talk about the brain, how easily it can become injured, and how recovering from a brain injury can be difficult or impossible, depending on the extent of the injury. Protecting your brain is important!

I agree entirely that protecting one’s brain is indeed important. This is why, especially when forced to share space with motorised traffic, I would suggest that the most important thing to do to protect yourself when riding a bike would be to ensure your bike (especially the brakes) is in a good state of repair and that you are aware of the hazards in your surroundings so that you can take appropriate action. However, it looks like I was wrong, all that is needed is to slap on one of Schwinn’s fine cycle helmets and all will be well.

In appreciation of Andrew Mitchell

Until a few days ago, I had no idea that Andrew Mitchell, the chief whip of the Conservative Party, rode a bike. I imagine that his experience of cycling is much the same as it is for anyone, involving a significant amount of pretending that, rather than riding a bike, you are in fact driving a car.

‘Pretend you’re a car’ is a pretty good description of the UK cycling experience, but not perfect. Whilst cyclists are expected to ride on (and pay for) roads designed exclusively around the requirements and limitations of motor vehicle traffic, expected to accept all the same responsibilities as operators of motor vehicles and obey rules, signs and traffic signals which exist in their current form (or in their entirety) because of motor vehicles, cyclists are routinely pilloried when they break the same rules which motorists routinely enjoy having a blind eye turned to, such as travelling on pavements & ignoring traffic signals.

Even when cyclists manage not to fall foul of this system and pull off a sufficiently convincing car impression, under certain circumstances, they may then find themselves taking flak for failing to pretend to be a pedestrian.

Andrew Mitchell may not have intended to become a martyr, he may even have just been a man who, after being forced to put on his best car impression just to go about his business, simply snapped when Police officers didn’t understand why he wanted them to open the huge motor vehicle security gate at Downing Street. Many people won’t understand the pressures which come with being forced to pretend you are something you are not, or may feel that his outburst was inappropriate. However, for highlighting the desperate need for a fair deal for cyclists, for dedicated infrastructure for cyclists here in the UK; Andrew Mitchell, I salute you.

Partition is a panacea

The title for this piece is borrowed from an old article whose author creates a straw man to argue against pro-infrastructure views. The title of that piece came to mind again recently when reading reports in June of the UKs worse-than-expected quarterly growth. This was also around the same time that the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain wrote an open letter to Nick Clegg urging for some of the infrastructure investment being discussed at the time be directed to provide Dutch-quality cycle infrastructure. The title of that particular old post came to mind because the failure of austerity policies in reviving the British economy has been leading to ever louder calls for a different, more Keynesian approach; in addition to the many proven benefits which come from actually having dedicated cycle infrastructure, right now we stand to benefit from significant wider societal effects from the process of actually buying this infrastructure too.

At a time when unemployment (particularly of the young) is staggeringly high, imagine the benefits of a project as grand in scale as finally making Britain’s roads fit for purpose, for all users, regardless of transport mode. As many of the detractors of cycle infrastructure are quick to say, reconfiguring our entire road network to something resembling that of The Netherlands is a big and expensive job. However, right now this should be seen as an opportunity in itself; we have a huge number of young (and plenty who are not so young) people who are desperate for work and who are on the verge of becoming a lost generation if they do not do so.

A project to reconfigure the entire nation’s road network would create a huge number of jobs, in every corner of the UK. Those new to the world of work would be given a chance to learn a trade and earn a wage; the jobs wouldn’t just be limited to obvious areas such as construction, a huge amount of design, planning and legal work (to name a few) would also be required. Such a project must be handled correctly, through publicly-owned enterprises paying a living wage, rather than private contractors whose ‘cost savings’ are typically provided by driving down wages, which subsequently have to be topped up with tax credits, housing benefit, council tax benefit and so on, negating any real savings to the public purse. Even worse would be to finance it through private finance initiatives.

The knock on effects of boosting employment this manner are obvious and the same as for other big infrastructure projects. However, unlike other many other infrastructure projects such as traditional roadbuilding or motorway construction, once built cycle infrastructure actually pays dividends. Reduced healthcare spending, reduced congestion and its associated costs, increased employee productivity, increased wellbeing of citizens to name but a few, the benefits of high-quality cycle infrastructure are well-studied and broad. Added to the significant economic benefits we could reap from merely building cycle infrastructure, it really does start to look like a panacea.

Privatising the motorways – Lessons from rail

There has been a lot of talk today regarding David Cameron’s announcement of a feasibility study into privatising the motorway and trunk roads network. Privatising trunk roads is obviously a terrible idea. Privatising motorways however, which at present are paid for by all taxpayers but usable only by motorists, makes a lot of sense. Looking at the UK rail network, which was privatised in 1994, shows that privatisation of the motorway network might allow the coalition government to live up to its promise to be the “Greenest government ever.”

Structure

In order to minimise competition and maximise cost to the customer, the motorway needs to be privatised in a manner which has little or no vertical integration. For example, the basic infrastructure of motorway network could be owned by a single, ostensibly private company. This company will operate much as its publicly-owned predecessor, except its activities will naturally be less transparent and publicly accountable, and it will cost a bit more due to the need for a well-paid board of directors. If this proves not to be a feasible private company, it can be repeatedly subsidised with taxpayers’ money, the end destination of which the public will never know. Call it Network Road.

To create the illusion of competition, several companies will run ‘services,’ basically consisting of running toll collection along various routes. To minimise any meaningful competition, these franchises will be given out to single companies between particular pairs of population centres. This will maximise cost to the customer by preventing multiple operators running tolls along different routes between the same pairs of population centres, which would result in price wars and a lower cost to the customer.

Services

Toll operators should work together to produce an extremely complex pricing structure. Those booking their journeys significantly in advance will be able to save money, whilst impromptu travel can be discouraged through cripplingly high on-the-day tolls. These on-the-day tolls should also be around 100% higher at peak travel times.

There is plenty more which toll operators can learn from train operating companies.  Ideally, 50% of motorway capacity should be reserved for the use of first class toll payers. It is of the utmost importance that the first class capacity is not opened up to standard class users even if the toll operating companies have vastly oversold their standard class capacity, or a system failure has led to a spike in road capacity demand further down the line. Allowing advance toll holders to reserve motorway space at times when they may not actually travel will further help to discourage motorway trips, especially journeys made at short notice.

Customer Experience

In order to maximise the discouragement of driving, motorway network maintenance which cripples the basic functioning of the network should be planned on all bank holidays and a significant number of Sundays each year. Toll operators should also close certain routes at random for periods of between 30 minutes and two hours without warning.

By following the example set by the privatisation of British Rail, the government has a significant opportunity to discourage driving like never before. By making the motorway network significantly more expensive, more frustrating to use and less reliable for the end user, private car use can be significantly reduced, allowing the government to live up to its promise to be the “Greenest government ever.

The Times’ Campaign – Where Next?

I was impressed to see 77 MPs turn up to the cycle safety EDM yesterday, brought about by The Times’ Cities fit for Cycling campaign. I was fortunate enough to be able to watch the debate through the parliament website. Whilst the debate lacked strong focus, it was pleasing to see cycling discussed seriously in parliament, with red-light jumping being mentioned only once, and the MP who brought it up quickly chastised by the chair of the debate, Dr Julian Huppert MP.

Since watching the debate, I’ve been thinking about where I’d personally like to see this sudden momentum directed. Obviously, our elected representatives cannot be experts on every subject, and so it is my hope that they will be looking to the right groups for guidance. There were a lot of ideas floating around the debate and I think it would be beneficial to propose a few basic principles and a few short and long-term objectives which would help get us to the point where cycling is safer for existing cyclists and safe enough for the rest of the population to want to cycle.

Principles:

  1. “Cycling” should not be treated as a single entity; transport cycling should one of the core responsibilities of the Department for Transport and the equivalent local institutions, sport and leisure cycling should be overseen by the relevant government departments which oversee sports, leisure and tourism.
  2. Measures to increase the safety of cyclists should be primarily external to cycling and the cyclist. Make cycling truly safe for all and helmets, high-visibility apparel and Bikeability become an irrelevance. The single largest change needed is the design of our roads.
  3. Measures to increase the safety of cycling should not make cycling less convenient; cycle infrastructure needs to be convenient and safe for children and fast, experienced commuter cyclists alike. The dual network approach is confusing and causes more problems that it solves.
  4. Measures to increase the safety and convenience of cycling should not come at the expense of safety (including subjective safety) or convenience for pedestrians.
  5. The Netherlands model for road design should be the basis for the changes needed to our road network in order to make cycling safe and attractive for all.‡

Short-term objectives:

  1. Commit to integrating cycling into all stages of road design, planning, construction and maintenance
  2. Overhaul LTN 2/08 in order to reduce the beurocracy involved in producing reasonable-quality cycle infrastructure such as the Camden cycle tracks and to prevent it being misinterpreted and used to justify facilities such as these.
  3. Replace the current hierarchy of provision with a much more specific set of separation principles.
  4. Continue with driver awareness programmes and Bikeability whilst road designs remain in place which put cyclists in danger.

Long-term objectives:

  1. Cycling needs to be integral to the design of new roads. Existing roads are refreshed periodically based on wear & tear and their importance; this work must include bringing the road up to the new standard for safe, convenient cycling.†
  2. In urban areas, basic functional cycle networks should be built as a matter of priority. These should be along main roads and informed by existing desire lines of those using all modes of road transport.
  3. Central government needs to set a final compliance date by which time all relevant Highways Agency and local authority roads must comply with the new standards.
  4. As the cycle networks become fleshed out, phase out Bikeability in schools in favour of Dutch cycle training which will be more appropriate for the redesigned roads.
‡ The Netherlands model of road design also offers advantages pedestrians in the areas of safety (including subjective safety) and convenience.

† Whilst admittedly an incredibly blunt instrument, rolling out safe, convenient cycle infrastructure as a part of the existing process of refreshing roads should help construct basic cycle networks along existing desire lines, as these are generally the roads with the most wear & tear and importance.