If you are new to cycling (or at least to the politics surrounding cycling in the UK), you may be unaware of the two major schools of thought regarding cycling’s place as part of the wider transport spectrum; integration and segregation.
Integration is more commonly referred to as vehicular cycling. The ideal behind vehicular cycling is that bicycles are vehicles like any other, and that they belong on the road (with the exception of motorways). Segregation sees bicycle users as more vulnerable than other road users such as cars and buses, and strives for separate infrastructure to be provided for them (to varying degrees depending on the road environment). Most existing cycling campaigns focus on a vehicular approach to encouraging the uptake of cycling (CTC, LCC etc). Fewer campaigns focus on a segregation approach (The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is the only one I can think of on a national level, Sustrans also believe in providing off-road facilities, but with a primarily recreational focus). I genuinely believe that campaigners from both schools of thought want to make conditions for cyclists better, and wish to encourage the uptake of cycling by more people.
The main focus of vehicular (integration) cycling campaigns are as follows:
Reducing (non-cycle) traffic volume
Reducing traffic speed
Improving driver behaviour through educational campaigns
Vehicular cycling training for cyclists
Reducing traffic volume is commonly done by either reducing road capacity, increasing the cost of driving or making driving less convenient. Reducing road capacity whilst maintaining the current vehicular cycling approach means reducing the capacity for cycles as well as cars, HGS and buses. This approach is not really feasible for a vehicular cycling approach because it will inevitably lead to greater conflict between cyclists and other road users. Making driving less convenient by instigating circuitous routes in dense urban locations is also going to make vehicular cycling less convenient. Increasing the cost of driving would reduce motor vehicle traffic and improve conditions for cyclists, but it is politically difficult to achieve any meaningful results from this policy.
Reducing traffic speed is commonly done by narrowing the carriageway (either with kerbs or with white lines). The white lines method of reducing traffic speed is how many of the UK’s existing awful cycle lanes were actually created; their primary purpose is traffic calming, the bicycle lane aspect is more of an afterthought. In a vehicular cycling approach, reducing the width of the carriageway is undesirable because it brings cyclists into conflict with other road users. Another option is to keep the road width but reduce the existing speed limit. The problem with this is that the width of the road has a psychological effect on drivers’ perceptions, making them feel safe to travel at higher speeds. Enforcement through speed cameras can help keep drivers in line with the lower speed limit, but they are costly, politically unpopular and drivers commonly flout the law during the stretches between speed cameras.
Improving driver behaviour through educational campaigns is difficult. New drivers can have their behaviour modified during the examination and licensing procedure. Existing drivers are hard to reach, due to the lack of regular re-examination of existing drivers at present. The main problem with this kind of educational campaign is that it requires the driver to consciously modify their behaviour, and to do so solely for the benefit of someone else (the cyclist), someone they don’t know.
Vehicular cycling training is beneficial to many, helping to equip them with the skills they need to survive on the roads as they presently are. It does seem like a counter-intuitive way to encourage cycling though, riding a bike is something which should be as easy as riding a bike. The very fact that vehicular cycling campaigns feel there is a need to train cyclists how to survive on the roads seems to underscore the fact that there is something very wrong with our roads as they are.
The main focus of segregation cycling campaigns are as follows:
Providing cyclists with dedicated safe, convenient and direct infrastructure
Reducing (non-cycle) traffic volume
Improving driver behaviour (such as speed) through infrastructure
Dedicated cycle infrastructure consisting of lanes separated from other traffic, providing direct and convenient routes has been shown to encourage mass uptake of cycling in other countries with a similar level of development to the UK (including The Netherlands and Denmark), including places with similar old town/city layouts as seen in the UK. The infrastructure is provided by re-allocating road space away from motorised traffic, which also has the benefit of encouraging cycling indirectly by deterring driving.
On smaller roads, or roads where separate cycle infrastructure cannot feasibly be provided, traffic volumes are reduced through the use of one-way streets with exemptions for cyclists, sending motorised traffic along inconvenient circuitous routes whilst still providing cyclists with a direct and convenient route through.
Driver behaviour is modified on an unconscious level through infrastructural changes. Narrow roads do not bring cyclists into conflict with other road users when they are provided with a separate lane, but still have the effect of slowing other traffic. This allows conditions for those on foot to be improved (by reducing motor traffic speed) without making cycling inconvenient or undesirable at the same time. Narrowing the width of the connections between side roads and main roads makes drivers turn into and out of side roads at a lower speed, reducing the possibility of conflict with cycle lanes as they cross side roads (with right of way given to the cycle road). There are many other small infrastructural tricks like this used in segregated cycling cultures.
Vehicular cycling used to be a successful strategy in the UK in the era before mass car ownership, because the conditions vehicular cycling campaigners now strive for were largely intact at the time. In the time since the era of mass car ownership began, only segregation has been demonstrated to be able to bring about mass cycling, as demonstrated in The Netherlands and Denmark.
If ideal vehicular cycling conditions could be produced, I do believe that many more people could be encouraged to cycle. However, I do not see any viable way that these conditions could be brought about; pricing people out of their cars without the subjective safety of cycling infrastructure as an alternative is not going to be at all popular politically. Generally, people don’t like feeling like they are being forced to do something.
Without being able to use inconvenient, circuitous routes or road capacity reduction to bring down (non-cycle) traffic volumes, and you can’t use carriageway width reduction to reduce speed, if you somehow still did manage to produce ideal conditions for vehicular cycling, you’d have also created ideal conditions for driving too.
And as has already been demonstrated by history, if you create ideal conditions for driving, you end up in the sort of mess we’re in now.