Driving Lessons

Due to a combination of factors, including discrimination against non-drivers when job-hunting, the problem of Christmas and most significantly an effective contractual obligation, last year I ended up learning to drive. I thought it might be interesting to keep a record of the experience, as an outsider’s perspective.

Lesson One:

Driving instructor asked me if I had any previous driving experience. I answered literally, telling him that I had driven a car a few times, not on the road, around ten years ago. We headed to a part of Blacon with plenty of quiet residential streets and he proceeded to explain how the machine worked, about the mirrors and the visual limitations of being in car, particularly the wide pillars either side of the windscreen and between the side doors.

Eventually I got to drive the car. It was quite an odd experience, I felt a bit low down and quite detached from the environment I was passing through. Eventually we ended up on some of the two-lane main roads (which are sadly commonplace in Chester) for a bit of practice with roundabouts. The whole time, I was shocked at how easy it was. Other drivers didn’t routinely cut me up or try to force me to yield. Decades of car-centric planning and road design, combined with extremely generous subsidies made this big, wide, five-person vehicle perhaps the easiest way to get around the peripheral areas of Chester. Roundabouts in particular were a revelation, being much easier in a faster vehicle where other road users don’t routinely try to bully you into giving up priority.

Lesson Two:

This lesson involved a lot more driving on faster roads. I was also encouraged to turn the car around on a few different quiet roads, which helped to bring home how poor the range of vision in cars can be, demonstrating how inappropriate they are in an urban setting. Presumably the instructor’s curriculum is aimed at the widest possible audience; much of the lesson was spent going over stuff which anyone who regularly uses the roads would have picked up, regardless of mode.

Lesson Three:

Reversing into parking bays is the main lesson here, with recaps of the other stuff we have covered. We also covered emergency stops. In an automatic, emergency stops are much the same as on a bike (except you don’t need to move your weight backwards because cars are generally quite heavy already).

On the faster roads I really started to notice how ubiquitous speeding is. On a bike I will generally find myself going as fast as I can on a fast road which is busy. In a flow of traffic where everyone is speeding, it is possible for a learner to get sucked into the flow. Thankfully, despite what the Association of British Drivers says, it is actually very easy to look at the speedometer quite frequently and adjust speed accordingly. Compared to having a queue of impatient motorists behind you when riding a bike, a queue of impatient motorists behind you when you’re in a car is actually quite fun. This is probably because you are not just one impatient idiot away from death or injury.

Lesson Four:

This lesson covered dual carriageways, the sort which are basically motorways in all but name. This was the first part of the process of learning to drive where I didn’t already have some sort of analogous experience to draw upon. Thankfully, getting onto the dual carriageway seems to be the hardest part, and it is actually fairly easy due to good design. As someone who normally experiences UK road design on a bike, I was surprised to see that UK road engineers can design something properly, provided that it is something which is only used by fast motor vehicles.

The main issue with dual carriageways it seems is the roundabouts at the entrances and exits. These suffer from the same problems as all roundabouts in this country; an unwillingness of designers to standardise designs in a logical manner. The result of this is that when encountering a roundabout for the first time, you don’t really know what to expect. A handful of standardised roundabout templates as used in The Netherlands (which also happen to acknowledge the existence of other transport modes without treating their users like crap) is so obviously a good idea. The fact that we in the UK have not already done so neatly illustrates the complete failure of British road design.

Lesson Five:

My instructor wasn’t available for the usual weekend lesson, so instead I had a lesson before work with the intention of finishing at my place of work in Wrexham. This was the first time driving for any length of time without any instruction. Naturally I took the route to Wrexham I would’ve chosen were I traveling by bike (with a few tweaks to make the route car-legal). Travelling through inner Chester, the car was of course a hugely inappropriate choice of transport, yet my passage through the centre of the city was made easier by  expensive bits engineering such as the inner ring road, which were built to facilitate short journeys into the city by individuals using vehicles designed for five.

In this lesson, my experience of using the roads on the bike was less helpful; the instructor told me I was checking the blind spot on the driver-side more frequently than was necessary. I’m sure anyone who has ridden on UK roads for any length of time will know why I’ve fallen into this habit.

Lesson Six:

Reverse (parallel) parking today. Like all the other manoeuvres, I got it right first time. I think my driving instructor is a bit baffled by this, considering the fact that my general driving is not perfect. However, he doesn’t know that I used to drive a pallet truck for a few years in an old part-time job, and all of the manoeuvres done so far were frequently required doing that job.

There seem to be a few bad habits I’ve picked up from cycling, such as having to make a conscious effort to feed through the steering wheel when steering, and some road positioning which is taken from vehicular cycling but probably just confuses my instructor, such as positioning the car in a way to prevent overtaking which I would not feel happy with were I on a bike.

I found out the instructor used to have a 60s Moulton, so we spent much of the lesson talking about the new models, of which he was not aware.

Theory Test:

Other than a handful of motor vehicle-specific questions (generally motorway-related questions) anyone who has been cycling for a while should have picked up what they need to know to do ok in the multiple-choice part of the test.

The hazard perception test looks hilariously dated. I get the impression that much of the development work will have been done at a time when the government representative responsible for the project would have used the term, “new-fangled computers.” The test takes the form of several video clips taken with a single fixed video camera, at roughly VHS-quality from the front of a car. You are encouraged to click you see a hazard which is developing and again when action must be taken. You do not have to click where the hazard appears on the screen because the system is too basic. Because of this, the hazard perception test does precious little to gauge a person’s ability to perceive hazards. With a bit of modern (ie: post-2000) technology, the test could be greatly improved to make it fit for purpose.

Despite its inherent limitations, if you have been riding a bike on the roads for a while, you shouldn’t have much trouble with the hazard perception test.

Practical test:

After a hiatus of nearly two months, upon returning from Japan I had a few more driving lessons in preparation for the test. It is quite telling that, despite the fact that there is a driving test centre in most towns; the waiting list for a driving test is often months long. It is possible that a big part of this is due to people who ‘brute force’ the driving test; taking a sufficiently large number of tests so as to pass one eventually. I was eventually able to get a test slot which I was able to make and thanks to years of cycling on UK roads and as you’d expect after surviving years of cycling on Britain’s roads, the test went fine, being remarkably simple considering the sheer amount of destruction a car can cause. there were some interesting anomalies I noticed during the examinations

Speed Limits:

During driving lessons and during the driving test, you are encouraged to travel as close to the posted speed limit as possible without going over, barring any major conditions which dictate otherwise. It is actually possible to be penalised for travelling within the speed limit but at a level deemed ‘too slow,’ such as 20 mph in a residential area posted as 30 mph but which really should be 20 mph. This may be a contributing factor behind drivers commonly treating speed limits as speed targets or minimums and really ought to be addressed by the Department for Cars Transport. Thankfully though, even with little driving experience, periodically glancing at the speedometer to ensure speed stays in check is a trivial matter.

Non-motorised traffic:

At no point during any of the testing was I required to know anything about the techniques recommended for cyclists by Bikeability training, such as ‘taking the lane.’ My instructor, after finding out I use a bike for transport even asked me about the reason for this particular behaviour. Whilst we are waiting for our roads to be made fit for purpose for non-motorised travellers, this really ought to be addressed by the Department for Cars Transport.

Aftermath:

Once you have passed the examinations you may be surprised to learn that unless you are one of the few people for whom actually owning a car might make sense, your shiny new pink card is basically useless for twelve months. Whilst I wouldn’t want to own a car, hiring one occasionally could be useful under certain circumstances. However, in general car hire companies will not hire a car to anyone who doesn’t have 12 months not-driving experience under their belt, so there is a very good chance that (for the time being at least) you’ve spent all that money just to change the colour of the card you use prove you are old enough to buy booze.

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Cycling to Shibuya

As discussed in the last post, I am currently staying in Saitama, a city in the Greater Tokyo area which is approximately 25 km outside of central Tokyo. On Sunday I found myself at a bit of a loose end, the weather was crisp, clear and bright, perfect for a bit of exploration.

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Japan’s version of a ‘shared use’ facility. Because Japan doesn’t treat its pedestrians with the same level of contempt as the UK does, the concept works surprisingly well.

Not willing to pay the extortionate rate expected for mobile data roaming (and forgetting to activate even the possibility before leaving the UK) I had to rely on an offline map for navigation. Add to this the unexplained failure of my phone’s GPS since arriving in Japan and I realised that travelling through the most populous metropolitan area in the world might require some creative navigation. After wandering around for a bit, I decided that I would use the train lines as a means of navigating. Thanks to the Carradice bag packed in my T-bag, I knew that I could easily pack the Brompton up and hop on the (quite easy to use) rail network should the need arise.

After heading towards central Tokyo for a while, I realised that if I followed the forking points of the train tracks correctly I could make it to Shibuya, a place I’ve wanted to see since sinking many an hour into Jet Set Radio many years ago.

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The Greater Tokyo area is remarkably permeable. Whilst there are some one-way restrictions for motor vehicles which do not apply to cyclists and pedestrians, this high level of permeability applies to motor vehicles almost as much as cycle and foot traffic. In order to make my journey I merely needed to have a rough idea of which direction I needed to travel in and the roads and streets always managed to allow me a way through. Despite this permeability, I was not bothered by a particularly notable volume of motor traffic on residential streets. Navigating through the crowds of pedestrians and other cyclists was the main obstacle I encountered and was one I was happy to work around.

This lack of rat-running is likely in part due to the fact that it just doesn’t seem to be acceptable here to haphazardly discard your car on whatever piece of public land you fancy at the other end of your journey. Cars here are stored when not in use, not carelessly abandoned. The result is that people seem to make fewer frivolous car trips (and seem to own fewer frivolous cars) with the bicycle picking up the slack instead. Residential streets are places rather than just routes, and these places are perfectly inviting for cycling and walking.

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Fancy a hot can of (surprisingly good) coffee whilst wandering, slightly lost, through a Shenmue-esque neighbourhood? No problem (I recommend the Rainbow Blend).

In addition to the extensive network of pleasant, permeable residential streets there are plenty of big, multi-lane car-centric roads running throughout Greater Tokyo. Thankfully these roads are made relatively pleasant thanks to two measures; shared use facilities and smoothing traffic flow.

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Cultural differences abound in Japan; here this sign is not an iron-clad guarantee you’ll have a bad cycling or walking experience.

Shared use facilities in Japan, whilst not a perfect solution, work unexpectedly well on the major routes. This is largely due to the fact that pedestrians are not treated with the same level of contempt in Japan that they are in the UK, so when cyclists and pedestrians are lumped together the experience is still positive. Presumably as a result of the ubiquitousness of shared use in Japan, there is not a great deal of conflict between the two types of user; pedestrians expect the encounter cyclists and cyclists expect to have to slow down or stop for pedestrians where volumes of foot traffic are higher.

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An elderly lady rides a typical Japanese city bike along one a shared use pavement. I’m not sure how she would feel about doing the same in London.

Don’t like it? Want to go faster? Get on the road. Cycling on main roads in Japan is also surprisingly pleasant thanks to measures which smooth the flow of traffic; all types of traffic. Next to the shared use sign in the above picture is a ’40’ sign, indicating a speed limit of 40 km/h or 25mph on what is effectively an urban dual carriageway. This speed limit, enforced by frequent stops for motor traffic at practically every set of traffic lights results in a consistent, smooth flow of motor, bicycle and foot traffic rather than the frequent short bursts of dangerous speed from motorists enabled by the complete subjugation of cyclists and pedestrians which we have in the UK.

The shared use facilities have priority over minor side roads which is enforced by a combination of fairly tight turning geometry and a general tendency amongst motorists to act as if they are in charge of machines which could easily kill or maim people if operated without due care and attention. At major intersections, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians get a green phase in the same direction at the same time. Motorists are permitted to turn left but must defer to bicycle and foot traffic heading straight ahead. Again this works surprisingly well thanks to a technique which Japanese motorists have developed known as ‘paying attention.’

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The very big roads have separate little roads running alongside them which are used for cycling, walking and as residents’ access. The structure above the road in this shot is a motorway which has high noise-abating walls.

Through a combination of these different types of road, I followed the train line a rather circuitous, approximately 50 km route to Shibuya. I saw plenty of little slices of life in Japan; a mother cycling to the shops with her child and his grandfather not far behind, children cycling unaccompanied along city streets and shopping malls so inundated that you have to pay for bicycle parking.

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Whilst it doesn’t hold up to The Netherlands example, Tokyo shows what can be achieved when government policy at least doesn’t actively suppress cycling.

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This was the one point I thought I may have to turn back; I had cycled down a residential street to an ornamental garden next to a river. I carried the Brompton down the steps and found that there was a path leading to a footbridge over the river leading me back to the train tracks I was using to navigate.

Eventually I made it to Shibuya. By this point my arms were really aching; unlike making a similar journey in the UK, I didn’t need to stop all that often. It turns out that my body has grown accustomed to the frequent stops I must make as a cyclist in the UK riding on a road network designed solely around motor traffic.

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A street in Shinjuku, pedestrianised during shopping hours. Nearby here is where I saw the only HGV I have seen in Japan. It was being used as a mobile stage to promote an album launch. Major freight movements seem to be by rail.

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A scramble crossing outside Shibuya station. By the time I got to Shibuya, after a short wander around, I was so tired I decided to head back to Saitama. Sometimes it is all about the journey.

Cycling alone and through the one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, I was unfamiliar with the language and the specifics of the law and yet I still felt safer than I ever do cycling on the roads back in the UK. The UK really has an awful long way to go.

Safety tips for cyclists

Safety advice aimed at cyclists is nothing new, but in my experience it often tends to descend into little more than a motorists’ wish list for cyclist behaviour. Even worse is advice based on the false assumption that law breaking on the part of cyclists is the lead cause of cyclist injuries and fatalities. Instead, I thought it might be worthwhile to share my own experiences in the hope they might be useful to others.

Reading the road

Cycling on UK roads is a baptism of fire and anyone who has been doing it for any length of time will have learned to read the road ahead. The same cannot be said for everyone else. A worrying number of other road users will fail to consider what the road conditions will require of them 100, 50 or even 15 metres ahead of where they currently are. This failure is the root cause of several initially baffling behaviours. It is the reason that motorists will sometimes perform a risky overtake only to have to immediately stop at the end of a queue of traffic which was readily visible when the manoeuvre was started. It is the reason why a motorist may overtake you only to immediately make a left turn, or pull into a roadside parking bay. It is the reason why a motorist may overtake you on a cramped residential street only to immediately stop block your progress to allow an oncoming vehicle to pass, even though had they waited, there would have been sufficient room for you on a bike and the oncoming vehicle to proceed at the same time.

Roundabouts

Sometimes it almost seems as if roundabouts were left behind by an advanced but long lost civilisation and no-one is sure what they were built for or how their builders intended them to be used. The lack of a small set of standard approaches to roundabouts certainly doesn’t help. The rules of roundabouts are fairly straightforward, but there are several things to look out for.

The general principle of giving way to traffic already on the roundabout may not apply to you when you are on your bike if the other party is driving a luxury German car, such as a BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz. If you are already on the roundabout and encounter one of these vehicles waiting to get on, you may be expected to give way.

There are some road users who will use the other lane of a multi-lane roundabout regardless of the exit they wish to use. These people pose a risk to you when you are getting on a roundabout, as their road positioning suggests they are intending to leave the roundabout even though this is not the case.

‘Taking the lane’ is an unfortunate necessity on most roundabouts (effectively excluding most people from cycling them) but beware that some motorists will try to bully you to the periphery of the roundabout regardless of which exit you wish to use.

Finally, it is not uncommon to see motorists leave a roundabout whilst still indicating right. The result of this misleading signalling should be that you do not enter the roundabout even though the opportunity was there. However, in areas where this behaviour is particularly prevalent, it is important to beware of this behaviour becoming normalised; you could end up pulling onto a roundabout in front of a car which really is staying on.

Professional drivers

In an ideal world, professional drivers (delivery vans, taxi drivers etc.) and our interactions with them would be exactly that; professional. Sadly, in practice this is often not the case. I can only surmise that when driving becomes a major part of a person’s job they will often become blasé about it and safety suffers as a result. Add to this business models which encourage or even necessitate illegal behaviour and we have a recipe for unpleasant encounters. Thankfully, professional drivers are generally easy to identify by way of their commercial vehicles, so at least you’ll know to expect the worst when you see them. The ease with which commercial vehicles can be identified makes reporting bad driving much easier than with private cars, although typically just as fruitless.

Texting

I have covered this issue before. Thankfully, providing the vehicle is not a pimpmobile with tinted windows, it is at least possible to spot the characteristic position a driver’s head adopts if they are reading from a phone screen whilst driving. Spotting this characteristic tilt a few weeks ago probably prevented a collision between a texting motorist and myself on a roundabout in Wrexham. So engrossed in her texting was this driver that she failed to even register my loud subsequent significant list of graphic expletives.

Indicators

As mentioned above for roundabouts, indicators are not to be trusted. Most common is the  lack of indication by a driver about to attempt a manoeuvre, but it is not uncommon to see a driver indicating the wrong way, leaving an indicator on long, long after a turn has been made or indicating a turn of a particular direction several opportunities to make a turn in that direction prior to the one they wish to take. It is especially useful to be distrustful of turn signals when pulling out of a side road; just because the driver on the road you wish to join is indicating to turn down your road often doesn’t mean they actually will.

If there are any other tips or seemingly bizarre driver behaviours anyone feels I have missed, please share them through the comments.

TfGM’s Oxford Road corridor changes risk the lives of cyclists

The forthcoming Oxford Road bus corridor in Manchester is to be accompanied by a series of changes to the surrounding roads, including Upper Brook Street and Upper Lloyd Street. In their current form, the changes offer pitifully little for pedestrians and are potentially lethal for cyclists. In a consultation found here, the proposed changes to the layouts of these roads can be seen in detailed the detailed plans found here.

The specific details of what will be offered for cyclists on the relatively short section of Oxford Road from which general motor traffic is to be excluded will not be shared in any detail until 2013. This makes the current consultation relatively useless as we are prevented from seeing what may or may not be gained in exchange for the significant reduction in cyclists’ safety on the surrounding roads. Even in the unlikely event that both the short section of Oxford Road from which private motor vehicles are to be excluded from, and the remainder of this important route are to be brought up to something resembling Dutch standards, as unlikely as this would be, this does not excuse the significant increase in danger posed by the redesign of the surrounding roads, which cyclists would still have to use.

Here we see where Upper Brook Street meets Grosvenor Street. The protected contra-flow cycle lane on Grosvenor street, whilst not perfect was a welcome step in the right direction. Sadly the hideously botched Toucan crossing solution for cyclists where Grosvenor Street looks set to remain. A missed opportunity to make this unfinished bit of infrastructure, still one of the most notable in Manchester, into something genuinely fit for purpose.

Under the present layout, this is a far North as traffic can travel into the city, however the proposals will make Upper Brook Street two way as far as Portland Street for the first time in decades. Truly a step in the wrong direction.

Plymouth Grove is to have advisory cycle lanes added to it for possibly as much as 100 metres southbound. As risible as this is, the bigger issue is that the motorway sliproad geometry where Plymouth Grove peels off from Upper Brook Street remains, placing cyclists continuing along Upper Brook Street in completely avoidable danger of a left-hook.

In a show of contempt for both cyclists and pedestrians, this overly-wide section of road is to have its southbound pavement converted into shared use between Plymouth grove and Grafton Street. From this point southwards, Upper Brook Street is to have one additional lane squeezed into the existing space. This extra lane it switches use to the opposite direction of traffic roughly every signalised junction. I used to live near here and I couldn’t count the number of dangerously close overtakes I endured using the current two-lane arrangement. This area also sees a great deal of pedestrian traffic due to the hospital and University, yet the proposed changes (or rather lack of improvements to existing dire facilities such as crossings) show a complete disregard for the needs and convenience of pedestrians. 

As the extra motor vehicle lanes South of this point are not continuous in one direction, it will not create any extra vehicle capacity, instead encouraging motorists to dangerously speed through the sections where the road is two lanes before forming a jam immediately after the lights where two lanes are forced to merge back into one. This unnecessary extra merging will simply result in additional collisions between cars without providing any time benefit to motorists, whilst the additional lane will necessitate lane narrowing which will bring cars and cycles into conflict, making an increase in the number of injuries and fatalities an inevitability should the proposed designs be implemented. TfGM’s designs for this section of Upper Brook Street in particular will force cyclists and motor vehicles into even closer conflict. I have little doubt that, if implemented, these designs will lead to the deaths of cyclists.

Despite Upper Brook Street seeing significant amounts of pedestrian traffic, the proposal does nothing to facilitate this whatsoever, with existing anti-pedestrian junction geometries and multi-stage crossings requiring pedestrians to deviate repeatedly from desire lines remaining in place. Where additional crossing are to be provided, such as at Brunswick Street, pedestrians are treated with contempt; forced to cross via a ludicrous number of stages so as not to inconvenience motorists coming onto Upper Brook Street from popular residential rat-runs. Cyclists and pedestrians are to be brought into conflict between Plymouth Grove and Grafton Street by the lazy conversion of the inappropriate-width footway to ‘shared use’ in order to allow an unjustifiable three-lane stack at the junction between Upper Brook Street and Grafton Street. This junction, separating the Manchester Royal Infirmary, blood bank, flats and the University of Manchester Medical School sees a significant amount of foot traffic, making the atrocious treatment of pedestrians by the proposed design at this point inexcusable.

The proposed changes to Upper Brook Street in particular represent a potentially lethal attempt to squeeze ever more private cars into the same amount of space. In addition to the increase in fatalities and injuries, many cyclists will be intimidated off these roads entirely, either continuing to cycle but on the pavement, causing problems for pedestrians, or switching to another, less desirable mode of transport. Where cycle infrastructure is proposed, such as Booth Street West and Higher Cambridge Street, it is of the same kind which has been shown time and time again to fail to meet the needs of cyclists for both safety and convenience; advisory cycle lanes and ASLs. Advisory cycle lanes are generally less than useless, they are frequently blocked by legally parked cars and routinely abandon their users at junctions, anywhere where the road design becomes confusing or complex or where the road starts to narrow and cyclists might genuinely need some additional protection from the motor vehicles which have been brought into close proximity with them. In the few places where cycle infrastructure is proposed in the current designs they are simply paint on the carriageway or lazy footway ‘conversions’. At junctions, turning geometries are not tightened up at all (as is commonplace in The Netherlands and Denmark) meaning left turning vehicles can perform turns at higher speeds, increasing the chances of a ‘left-hook’ collision with a cyclist, which are often fatal for the cyclist.

In addition to the problems caused for pedestrians by ill-conceived shard use paths as between Plymouth Grove and Grafton Street and the risk of overall increased pavement cycling, the few additional measures included supposedly to benefit pedestrians have been done in a manner which shows utter contempt for the value of pedestrians’ time and the quality of their experience of walking. The increase number of vehicle lanes will increase noise and pollution endured by pedestrians, cyclists and residents, which make the already formidable barrier presented by the road even more difficult for pedestrians to overcome.

These designs need to be changed as a matter of urgency. In their current form they represent a disaster waiting to happen.

Cycling Demonstration Town Report – Chester

Hat Tip – Two Wheels and Beyond

The Cycling Demonstration Towns have reported their findings, despite the body overseeing the scheme, Cycling England, being abolished in 2011. The total budget of the Chester Cycling Demonstration Town scheme was reported as £4,437,034. This may sound like a lot of money was invested in cycling in Chester, but it actually only represents a single one-off investment of approximately £13.50 for each person in the borough of Cheshire West and Chester. In comparison, nThe Netherlands invests in cycling to the tune of approximately £25 per person, every year. For further context, last year’s unjustifiable fuel duty cut costs each person in the UK approximately £97 each year; and represents a subsidy of those who already well-off enough to own and run a car. Needless to say, the budget for the project really is small change; before the project began it was inevitable that what it could achieve with this relatively small, one-off investment would be fairly limited.

The scheme had some successes, such removing some of the barriers to cycle permeability in the city. There are still a great deal of one-way systems from which cyclists are not exempted, although the government is only just coming around to the idea of allowing this exemption to be done easily and cheaply (as in much of the rest of Europe) just a little bit too late for this scheme. Unfortunately, the archaic inner ring road remains untreated, acting as a huge barrier for those wishing to access the centre by bike; not only unpleasant to ride along but difficult to negotiate a way across when using the quiet back-street routes.

Sadly, two major infrastructure schemes were scrapped due to costs exceeding expectations. This is extremely unfortunate due to the fact that major infrastructure projects (such as fixing main roads) have the greatest scope for increasing cycling rates by making cycling feel safe and viable as a transport mode for the average person. The report does not specify much about what these infrastructure projects would have consisted of.

Beyond this, the Chester Cycle Demonstration Town project seems to have suffered by trying to do too many things with the limited resources available to it. Making a lot of minor improvements, some aimed at existing cyclists and others at occasional leisure cyclists can be an attractive option when running a project such as this, as it may feel like the limited funding is being spent in a way which would benefit the largest number of people, even if only marginally. It is however worth considering whether this rather confused splitting of focus between many small changes, some aimed at experienced cyclists using bikes for transport and some at less-experienced cyclists using bikes for leisure actually has a greater effect than simply investing all of the money bringing a single section of main road which is a major desire line for cyclists up to Dutch standards.

Unfortunately, where the project did involve cycle infrastructure it approached the subject from the baffling perspective of a ‘dual network,’ where inexperienced cyclists are provided with infrastructure to use until they become experienced enough to ‘graduate’ onto the main road network, implying that the infrastructure is not for existing, confident cyclists. The problem with this approach is that by being aimed exclusively at a subset of a subset (that is, a subset of cyclists who are already only a tiny minority of road users) there is little incentive for this infrastructure to not be like this; being simultaneously inconvenient and dangerous for inexperienced cyclists and making experienced cyclists who understandably shun it into the subjects of abuse from motorists who believe that all cyclists should be using the ‘cycle infrastructure.’ This approach has not worked anywhere else in the world and it doesn’t work here. In The Netherlands, cycle infrastructure is built to accommodate cyclists of all levels of experience and skill, from school kids to roadies. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, and spending money on unproven ideas like the dual network we should be copying measures with a proven record of success such as The Netherlands’ model.

The project also had a strong focus on cycle training. Whilst I have nothing against cycle training per se, I feel that the importance and usefulness of the current style of cycle training common in the UK in increasing cycle rates is extremely limited. At present cycle training is designed to help those who wish to cycle on the UK’s incredibly cycling-hostile roads to mitigate the dire situations they will find themselves in on a road network designed exclusively for the facilitation of high volumes of fast & prioritised motor vehicle journeys, at the expense of all other road users. UK cycle training focusses on a very narrow, assertive and fast type of cycling which will never be an attractive or viable transport option for the vast majority of people. Whilst helping those who are willing to cycle in the present conditions is laudable, it can not be the basis for the long-term growth of cycling.

The Cycling Demonstration Towns initiative was a good idea which was let down in several ways: The confusing splitting of focus between cycling as transport and cycling as leisure, limited financial resources (and trying to do too many things at once with those limited resources) a legal framework which makes infrastructural improvements for cycling far too difficult and ultimately, the current government’s choice to abolish the body in charge of the initiative; Cycling England. I have described previously what my own vision for a ‘Cycling Demonstration Town’ (or rather, an experiment clearly demonstrating the effectiveness of different approaches to increasing cycling rates) would be. Whilst initially geographically more limited, spending all of the money given to the cycling demonstration towns by Cycling England on ‘Assenizing‘ a single town would have provided it with greater legacy; one single town with a Netherlands-level of cycling and absolutely no doubt remaining as to the cause; the infrastructure.

Cycling is Safe

This one has been languishing in my drafts for quite some time, with both Vole O’Speed and As Easy As Riding A Bike sharing their own views on the issue in the meantime. Statistically speaking, cycling here in the UK appears to be surprisingly safe. Indeed, in the past I have focussed on this when talking to new and potential cyclists about their experiences of poor subjective safety. These statistics are also readily utilised by a vocal minority who  are ideologically opposed to the use of separation by mode for the prioritisation and protection of cyclists. As is often the case with statistics they only tell part of the story; whilst it appears at first that they show cycling to be a ‘low-risk activity,’ what they literally show is that the current sub-section of the population who choose to cycle are doing so relatively safely.
Like most other people who choose to cycle in the UK, when I cycle I do so in a hyper-aware state; I always expect the worst from other road users, I pre-emptively hover over the brakes when I see a car approaching a give-way line where I have clear priority and I plan my escape route for when that BMW makes a sudden turn without indicating. I am relatively fit, fast, I cycle in the optimal gear and I know precisely how much force I can put into the brakes before the wheel locks up. Put simply, the bar it set much higher for cyclists than it is for other road users because the road environment is inherently hostile for cycling. Most people who drive motorised vehicles, which are significantly wider, faster and heavier than bicycles, do not do so in a similar state of hyper-awareness. This is because there is simply no need; the vehicles and road environment have been designed in such a way that their operators are largely protected from the limitations of their own ability. The bar has been set rather too low for such inherently dangerous machines.
I have often thought that if some of the greatest minds of the 1950s were put together in a room and given  and nearly unlimited budget and the specific task of designing a road network to minimise the number of people choosing to cycle, without being permitted to explicitly make cycling illegal, the result would not be far off the current UK road network. The exceptional hostility for cycling which is designed into the UK road network is enough to prevent the vast majority of people from every wanting to cycle on it. The result is that those few who are willing to cycle on it are not at all representative of the general population; it is because this minority can cope with the road network as it currently exists that cycling appears to be a statistically safe activity.
In The Netherlands, cycling is statistically slightly safer than the UK. The difference is not as much as might be expected, which is often used as an excuse for opposing the construction of Netherlands-style dedicated cycle infrastructure in the UK. However, with a little context the safety statistics from The Netherlands start to appear much more impressive. By implementing road designs which are not inherently hostile to cycling, the section of the population choosing to cycle is much more representative of society as a whole. The majority of ordinary people, cycling without being in a hyper-aware state typical of UK cyclists manage to get around by bike and are still statistically more safe than the tiny minority of physically and mentally exceptional UK citizens who choose the bicycle. Next time there is a discussion about how safe cycling is, remember that in places such as the UK where cyclists are a tiny minority, the statistics don’t tell you a great deal about how safe cycling is, only how safe cyclists are.

Dutch pick-and-mix

There’s more to ‘going Dutch’ than having a separate cycling lane was a recent piece written by Matthew Wright for the Guardian. The title is a valid statement, Dutch levels of cycling didn’t come about just from building cycle tracks along busy main roads, it requires that the private car is tamed on streets and lanes, so that a cycle track is unnecessary. However, the article quickly falls into that peculiar trapping which appears to be unique to the English-speaking world; Dutch pick-and-mix.
Dutch pick-and-mix (a term I hope will catch-on) is the idea that picking and choosing randomly from all of the the pro-cycling measures employed by the Dutch (other than building cycle tracks alongside roads) can result in Dutch-levels of cycling. Dutch pick-and-mix is attractive to people who are ideologically opposed to the idea of any separation of cyclists and motor traffic; Matthew Wright’s choice, upon visiting The Netherlands, to ride on the main carriageway and shun the far superior adjacent cycle-only facility is a particularly informative one. By avoiding the cycle track-shaped elephant in the room, Dutch pick-and-mix offers campaigners and local authorities the easy way out; rather than making the main roads accessible to all cyclists by installing cycle tracks, a few blue signs can be used to direct cyclists via circuitous residential streets. Rather than addressing lethal junction designs, the roads in adjacent residential areas can have ’20’ painted onto them within a circle.
Whilst these measures are not a bad thing, they are completely, totally and utterly worthless if cyclists can’t use the roads which get them to the places they need to go; main roads. Dutch pick-and-mix fails as an approach not because there is a problem with lower residential speed limits and facilitating cycling on minor roads, these are good things, but because they don’t work unless they are built on a foundation of cycle tracks running alongside main roads. There is little point in creating an island of cycling paradise within a residential area if the main road connecting it to the next island of cycling paradise remains unchanged and hostile to cyclists. The Dutch pick-and-mix approach epitomised by ‘There’s more to ‘going Dutch’ than having a separate cycling lanemisses this point; there is more to ‘going Dutch’ than having a separate cycle lane, but without the main road network being fixed by the addition of separate cycle lanes, the rest of the measures used by the Dutch simply won’t work. Separate cycle lanes are the very foundation of going Dutch, whilst attempting to build something without first laying the foundations is pretty much what we’ve been doing in the UK for fifty years, an approach which has done little for anyone who wants to get around by bike.
In addition to a severe case of Dutch pick-and-mix, Matthew Wright’s article also falls foul of cherry-picking through the referencing of John Franklin’s page of cherry-picked research, which has been dissected here previously and rendered irrelevant by a much more honest and up-to-date equivalent started here.
Whilst it is true that separate cycle lanes are not the only measure involved in ‘going Dutch,’ suggesting that they are anything less than the very foundation of it is at best extremely naive and at worst shockingly dishonest. Articles such as ‘There’s more to ‘going Dutch’ than having a separate cycling lanesimply serve to spread the disinformation which has held back cycling in this country for decades. A Dutch pick-and-mix approach might seem appealing, because it is comparably easy, but without the foundation of separate cycle lanes on the worst parts of the road network, it can only be expected to deliver a continuation of the flat-lining of cycle rates and a continuation of the stream of avoidable deaths on our roads.