The Tyranny of Speed

Speeding is probably the most common and socially acceptable form of lawbreaking. Close to 100% of motorists will have less than perfect adherence to the posted limits, with a sizeable number of scoff-laws routinely flouting the law. There appears to be a belief amongst those routinely flouting speed limits that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing, that they have a right to drive at whatever speed they wish too. The inference is that their perceived right to go fast is more important than the rights of other road users to be and feel safe going about their business. I have observed strong resistance to measures as reasonable as 20mph zones in residential areas from people I would not necessarily expect it from. See the Association of British Jeb-ends Drivers for further examples of this kind of behaviour.

Perhaps it is simply a result of being forced, inappropriately, to share space with motorised traffic regardless of its speed and volume, but I have also seen a similar attitude from some fellow cyclists too. Many sport-cyclists are capable of regularly exceeding speeds of 25 mph on a bike. Because cyclists are forced to share space on roads designed exclusively to accommodate high volumes of fast motor traffic, these sorts of speeds become a natural way to survive the hostile environment. I have experienced this myself when cycling in heavy, fast traffic; you are put under pressure to ride faster and often end up doing so without necessarily meaning or wanting to.

The problems arise when separate cycle infrastructure is discussed, construction of which requires re-allocation of road space away from motorised traffic. In addition to improving cyclist safety, this has the added effect of calming traffic through the requisite lane narrowing, side road geometry/levelling alterations and junction redesigns. The natural result of this is lower speeds, especially in areas where road space is at a premium. This is A Good Thing as the areas where space is at a premium are usually also the areas where roads are (or rather, should be) places rather than routes; including residential areas, shopping streets and around schools and hospitals to name just a few. These are areas where speed reduction is particularly necessary. On roads which are routes rather than places, space is usually at less of a premium, such as dual carriageways and large A-roads linking or bypassing towns, meaning that (if desired) cycle infrastructure can be provided without as much of an impact on the speed and capacity for motor traffic on the adjacent carriageway (with the exception of the requisite junction and side road treatments).

There is a risk when talking about such infrastructure of creating an unholy alliance between those motorists and those cyclists who are most attached to travelling at speed wherever they may be. I have been concerned by the ‘dual-network’ approach the LCC appears to be entertaining with its Go Dutch designs, partly because the dual network approach has a pretty solid track record of not working and partly because it represents an up-front acknowledgement that the designs are not good enough to accommodate the needs of all cyclists. I have also been concerned by the lack of understanding of what Dutch cycle infrastructure actually means by one of the UK’s most prominent cycle bloggers (including the unwelcome presence of a misleading Franklin-era diagram). ‘Going Dutch’ means that people come first, and speed is only accommodated where there are fewest people. It benefits cyclists as much as it does pedestrians and can even make life easier for motorists by keeping them out of the way of the former two.

Whilst the cycle infrastructure along roads which are routes rather than places would naturally facilitate fast cycling (and very fast cycling), cycle infrastructure on roads which are places rather than routes would naturally require some of the very fastest cyclists to slow down, some of the time, just like all the other traffic, or else use another road which is  actually intended as a route. Whilst it may seem acceptable at present to blast past a primary school at 25mph on a road bike where the road is carrying 30mph motor traffic, this kind of arrangement is hardly acceptable; in a location such as this all traffic, regardless of mode, needs to be slowed down to a more civilised level, with fast traffic being reduced in volume substantially.

Taming the motor traffic and turning such a location from a route to a place once again, through the sorts of measures used in The Netherlands, would most likely involve the removal of through motor traffic. The road would likely still allow through cycle and foot traffic, but it would be access only for motor traffic and no-longer be a place for that kind of vigorous, fast cycling. This is not a reason for fast, sport-oriented cyclists to oppose such changes; the road nearby which is a route will have been altered too, in a way which would comfortably accommodate high speed cycling.

Faster, sportier cyclists have nothing to fear from ‘going Dutch,’ provided they are willing to accept that there are times and a places where speed is acceptable, but people have to come first.


1 thought on “The Tyranny of Speed

  1. It seems evident to me, even where the view is not specfiically expressed (as I think it is, by CTC) that the reason that many existing cyclists object to segregated facilities is precisely because they fear that these will lead to them being prohibited from using the roads proper. I understand that there is some precedent for that in the Netherlands, on some of the roads which have segregated cycle paths alongside. I don’t actually see that happening here though – while certain classes of road in the UK do specifically prohibit pedestrians (motorways being the most obvious example) there is a general presumption that a pedestrian can walk along the road if he so chooses, whether or not there is a proper kerbed footway beside it. Whether it is a wise choice is of course another matter.

    Similarly, I cannot see how we could reasonably expect that pedestrians would be prohibited from using cycle paths. How can we claim exclusivity for a facility when, technically, a motorist can’t? Many of the better (and all things are relative) cycle facilities in the UK are already shared, with pedestrians, disabled mobility scooters, and horse riders. Pedesrians are going to stray onto cycle paths even where there is a footpath alongside – if the path is degraded, has a big puddle on it, has a large group strolling with pushchairs etc.

    I think that means that it is impractical to assume that you can cycle on it as fast as you can cycle on a road, whether you want to cycle that fast or not. Do I care, personally, about that? If I am an “everyday” cyclist, I probably won’t because I don’t want to have to wear special gear for the ride and then shower at my destination. That might work for the commute to work but I don’t see shops, restaurants and cinemas providing showers and changing facilities somehow. In any case, the time required to shower and change demands a watershed in journey length – I strongly doubt that the speed differential to permit arrival in unsweaty state in normal clothes would use up all the shower/change time until the journey exceeds five miles. I’ve tried it – I managed a trip across London of about 5.5 miles, dressed in a dinner jacket and black tie, and I reckon it probably cost me about ten minutes to take it slower.

    So, it seems reasonable to expect people to cycle on cycle paths at speeds of up to perhaps 4 times walking speed, ie the speed at which you are still making no more than walking effort. That is 10-12 miles per hour. How many of those want-to-cycle-but-are-afraid-to would actually want to barrel along faster than that? Aren’t the high-speed vehicularists going to struggle with busy paths where they frequently have to slow down behind other users?

    I can’t see a move towards prohibiting cyclists from using the principal highway network just because an alternative is now provided. It just doesn’t fit with the peculiar British approach to rights and freedoms. John Franklin can carry on tearing along the highway, as can Martin Porter (don’t be too hard on him – he is still inside the tent p*ssing out) to their hearts content. They evidently have not been discouraged from cycling by the conditions we face today, and I am sure you are right that they will still find it safer and more pleasant than it is now

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