Sunday 16 January 2011

What won’t bring about mass cycling (4) Cycle training

Cycle training will help you to adjust to this…

If you want to understand all that’s rotten in the state of establishment British cycle campaigning, look no further then this document.

It acknowledges the fundamental reason why most of the population has no interest in cycling:

Fear of traffic and feelings of vulnerability

And then it offers solutions, of which the primary one is

Targeted cyclist training

In other words, its solution to people’s reluctance to cycle among motor vehicles is to treat this as a personal behavioural problem, not as one of infrastructure or the street environment or a mass motorized transport culture.

If you are afraid of cycling amid high volumes of motor traffic or if you feel vulnerable in an environment filled with people operating dangerous machinery in a criminally negligent way, then it’s YOU who is the problem. Your fears must be addressed in two ways.

Firstly, you must be persuaded that your perceptions are false and that cycling in what you regard as a hostile and dangerous environment is actually perfectly safe.

Secondly, you must be taught how, as a cyclist, to adapt your behaviour to this environment. You must be trained.

'Cyclists fare best when they are recognised to be and act as the operators of vehicles' is a universal maxim, perhaps best expressed in the Stationary Office cycling manual 'Cyclecraft' written by John Franklin. Central to the 'vehicular cycling' approach are the principles of assertive and defensive cycling.

I find the concept of ‘defensive cycling’ quite an interesting one, because it tacitly accepts that there is an offensive going on. And cycle training is basically all about accommodating yourself to the mass-motorized battlefield.

In itself ‘Cyclecraft’ makes sense for hardcore vehicular cyclists. It’s all about minimising risk to yourself by making your presence very visible to motorists, by occupying the centre of the carriageway when appropriate (for example, when approaching a pinchpoint), and by being assertive, confident and giving clear hand signals. ‘Cyclecraft’ advice includes stuff like this:

Multi-lane manoeuvres (such as to turn right off a dual carriageway) are generally regarded as some of the more difficult ones for a cyclist to make. In fact, cyclists can make such manoeuvres without great difficulty, but to do so requires knowledge of the appropriate vehicular cycling technique.

It doesn’t just require cycling technique, however. It also requires nerves of steel. It also doesn’t work if the volume of traffic is high and vehicles are bunched close together and travelling that much faster than you are – a not uncommon phenomenon on ‘A’ roads. And these days you will see very, very few cyclists on British dual carriageways or out-of-town ‘A’ roads, for the very good reason that they are terrifying and very unpleasant places to cycle. The same applies to rural roads. And assertive cycling quite often leads to the blowing of a car horn or the screaming of obscenities by motorized terrorists who resent being held up even for a few seconds by a cyclist or a group of cyclists.

Proponents of defensive cycling breezily assert that If you ride confidently, obey the rules, wear visible clothing and control your space you shouldn’t have any problems. And there is no shortage of people urging people to realize that cycling is safe and to get their children cycling to school.

But this depends on what kind of environment you cycle in, and for most towns and cities in Britain this is sheer fantasy. It’s even worse in the USA. It’s a bleak irony that one fervent proponent of the thesis that The belief that cycling in traffic is dangerous is widespread but cannot be supported through accident and fatality statistics was subsequently run down and killed by a drunk driver.

More cyclists on roads shared with reckless drivers does not necessarily lead to ‘safety in numbers’. Indeed, The most recent Department for Transport (DfT) statistics show that the number of those hurt, as a proportion of total miles cycled, went up by 1 per cent between 2008 and 2009.

Almost all cycling bloggers report unhappy interactions with motorists. Cycling bloggers as diverse as Rob Ainsley and Martin Porter scrupulously obey the rules, but still report having very bad experiences. Fairly regularly. And the more you cycle, the more you are exposed to risk, and the more likely you are to have these unpleasant experiences. YouTube is crammed with videos like this one:

Once you start insisting on cyclists wearing ‘visible clothing’ (sic) your argument then starts to blur with the bogus, blood-drenched ideology of ‘road safety’, which puts all the emphasis on the victim and diverts attention from the source of the danger. And in a sense ‘Cyclecraft’ and ‘road safety’ have a lot in common in so far as they accept the transport status quo and demand that cyclists adjust to it. And of course when the roads are full of drivers who are using mobile phones, or glancing at paperwork, or are otherwise distracted, it makes sense to wear reflective yellow or a brightly coloured cycle helmet. And once you start NOT conforming to car-centric values and rules, then you, the cyclist, become the problem.

Cyclists who jump red lights annoy drivers and give us all a bad name. Obey traffic signals, they’re the law and you’re subject to the law.

But of course red light jumping is simply the expression of what might be called a massive culture of unofficial cyclecraft, which includes things like cycling on the footway or riding up one-way streets the ‘wrong’ way. The vast majority of cyclists are not members of cycling organisations and almost certainly have little interest in, or knowledge of, the politics of cycling or the debates which rage on blogs or cycling threads. Ordinary cyclists just get on with it, in their own way. They have no mission, other than their own safety and convenience, which they work out on their own terms. The reality might be deplorable but I would argue that this is a response to a vehicular cycling infrastructure which they perceive as slowing them down or as dangerous.

The transport status quo is all about accommodating, managing and prioritizing motor vehicle flow. Establishment British cycle campaigning is basically about seeking to ameliorate conditions for vehicular cyclists within this framework. But many cyclists disobey this status quo for two reasons. The first one is safety. Some cyclists perceive themselves to be safer riding along the footway. It may also be safer to jump a red light, no matter how much this scandalizes cycling campaigners. The second one is convenience. The transport status quo is indifferent to the convenience of cyclists, so cyclists adapt accordingly, finding their own unofficial desire lines.

John Franklin doesn’t see it like that. Instead he argues that

In recent years, the deliberate disobeying of red lights and other controls has much increased – all practices that are consistent with the changing perception of cycling to a non-vehicular activity.

Similarly, he thinks people cycle on pavements because they have been corrupted by ‘shared use’ off-road cycling infrastructure. Franklin argues:

Most of the pavement cycling I see is alongside roads with sufficiently little traffic to pose no realistic difficulty to anyone.

The problem with that kind of attitude is that John Franklin’s 'realism' is not shared by other people. And in fact a road used by few drivers can be far more frightening and dangerous than one which is full of motor vehicles. Where there are few other drivers and the road is empty, there’s much more of a temptation to speed. Traffic congestion and crawling motor vehicles make for safer cycling – but not necessarily enjoyable cycling.

The reality, I suggest, is quite the opposite of Franklin’s interpretation. The rise in the kind of rule-breaking cycling behaviour described is consistent with a huge rise in vehicle ownership and use. Franklin is keen to blame the temptations of off-road infrastructure for this bad behaviour, but this is simply him imposing his prejudice against segregated cycling onto reality. He’s seeing things through the wrong end of the telescope. The behaviour he deplores is precisely a response to the atrocious conditions which the ‘vehicular cycling’ ideology has bequeathed cyclists in what is now one of the most backward and stagnant cycling nations in Europe.

Cyclists respond through their behaviour to the inconvenience and danger inherent in a car-centric and heavily motorized road network. If you expect people to cycle but don’t provide them with a safe or convenient infrastructure they will adapt their behaviour accordingly.

Trying to sell cycling as an attractive travel mode is negated both by the personal experience of non-cyclists – they can see at a glance that the roads are filled both with big intimidating vehicles like lorries and with drivers behaving recklessly – and by perceptions of cyclists as people who need to dress up in safety gear and wear a safety helmet.

It is all very well talking about a ‘culture of fear’ but many cyclists are afraid and I think they are right to be. No matter how logical the arguments against cycle helmets may seem to a cycling campaigner, huge numbers of riders still prefer to use them. It is perfectly true that cycle helmet campaigns possess an evangelical incoherence but so does ‘road safety’ and ‘vehicular cycling’. Insisting that cycling is not dangerous is not fundamentally different to insisting that a cycle helmet will protect you from the consequences of a traffic collision. If it isn’t dangerous then why is ‘defensive cycling’ at the heart of vehicular cycling campaigning? Here in London any person in their right minds would perceive Vauxhall gyratory as dangerous for cyclists. Or the Tottenham Hale gyratory. Or the Aldwych gyratory. Or Marble Arch. And all the cycle training in the world isn’t going to get the masses using them. Nor is advice like If it’s rush hour and it’s a major roundabout just get off your bike and walk across it. That negates the whole point of urban cycling – maneuverability and speed.

Trying to sell cycling as something which can be rendered agreeable by battlefield training and a uniform seems to me a non-starter. But the problem isn’t one of marketing, it’s one of product. You can devote huge sums to advertising a product, and you may get lots of people to try it once, but if the product is crap – or at least if it is perceived as dangerous or inconvenient and unenjoyable - they won’t buy it again. The recent DfT report revealing that two out of three drivers who gave up the car for cycling subsequently reverted to their cars was very revealing. Other local studies from around Britain indicate that when you can effect a small modal shift away from the car, drivers switch to public transport, not cycling.

Cycle training is important to British cycle campaigning because it is a vehicular cycling strategy. If you don’t agree with segregation, then this is what you are left with – adapting cycling behaviour to the status quo. And as a campaign strategy it has blatantly and dismally failed. Over the past decade the ambitious targets for modal share which were established at the start of the century in towns and cities across Britain (“Go for growth!”) have crumbled to dust. The response of the cycle campaign establishment is, as always, one of complete amnesia, icy silence and… fabulous, exciting and yet more utterly unrealistic new targets for 2020 or 2025. For establishment cycle campaigners, Britain is forever on the edge of a cycling renaissance. No one is more in denial than a conventional cycling campaigner.


The centrality of ‘cycle training’ as the panacea for non-cyclist’s fears is rooted in the prevailing ideology of British cycle campaigners. But the dark side of cycle training is that it has become a substitute for safe, convenient, segregated cycling infrastructure on the Dutch model – the one cycling strategy with a proven record of spectacular success.

It’s no coincidence that two of the leading opponents of segregated cycling infrastructure are also the authors of the two leading books on how to cope in modern urban traffic, i.e. John Forester in the USA (whose book Effective Cycling was first published in 1984) and John Franklin in the UK (whose book Cyclecraft first appeared in 1988).

Franklin’s hostility to off-road infrastructure is rooted in the notion that it’s dangerous and has a high casualty rate which often goes unrecorded. He also argues that such infrastructure slows cyclists down:

Efficient and speedy cycling is important if cycling is to compete as a mode of transport with the car. Road-side paths of almost any kind prevent this and make cycling slow and dangerous.

That’s certainly true of most British cycle paths. It’s utterly untrue of cycle paths in the Netherlands, however, which are not slow.

Franklin asserts:

Recent research in Europe and America suggests strongly that the greatest influence on cycling safety is the number of cyclists, not infrastructure. Better safety comes from more cycling, not the other way about, nor is safety in any way improved by moving away from a vehicular basis.

It’s as if the Netherlands doesn’t exist.

Except that it does for Franklin, in this form:

Bicycle facilities of the Netherlands

Safety problems of two-way cycle tracks at junctions almost insuperable

This turns out to be a claim made at a Dutch transport conference 34 years ago, at a time when the Netherlands was just about to start reversing its car dependency. And yet people still triumphantly quote Franklin’s collection of yellowing, out-of-date material on cycling threads and in comments boxes.

In reality nowadays

Dutch cyclists are not only the safest in the world, but also the Dutch cycle more than people of any other nation. Almost the whole population (93%) rides a bike at least once a week. Every type of person cycles. The infrastructure is the reason why.

Got that? The Netherlands offers an experience which is more or less impossible in any British town and city, like, say, an unbroken 10 minutes of cycling.

To any Dutch person it would seem a very quaint idea that you needed to read a book about ‘cyclecraft’ and be trained in ‘defensive cycling’ before you could ride a bike. But then Dutch cyclists are visibly relaxed, don’t feel the need to wear special equipment, and do things which would be regarded as seriously anti-social in Britain. They ride two-to-a-bike. They ride side by side. (I was once cycling alongside a friend in Hackney when a police car cut us up, braked, and a furious police officer sprang out and screamed that we were slowing down the traffic and that I would be arrested if I didn’t cycle in single file.)

You only have to look at the faces of cyclists in London to see that a lot of the time it’s not fun but stressful. You can’t relax, ever. You have to be permanently on your guard. You have to watch out for drivers. It’s true: you have to cycle defensively.

There’s a throwaway remark by Carlton Reid which I find very revealing. He says a mass cycling culture doesn't require enjoyment, it just requires lots of people cycling.

I think he’s wrong. I think cyclists in Denmark and the Netherlands find it enjoyable. And if cycling isn’t enjoyable you aren’t ever going to get a mass cycling culture.

But even if he’s right

Mass bicycle use, if it were ever to be achieved without any changes to the roads, would likely make little improvement to the quality of our environs. They would still be smelly, smoggy, noisy, nasty stressful places.

Which is why the reallocation of road space away from cars is at the heart of humanizing our towns and cities, and making them more attractive for walking, cycling and living. And historically the Dutch started out on that path by firstly creating segregated bike grids on major routes in towns and cities. They made cycling attractive, convenient, safe and enjoyable. That was how the Dutch cycling revolution started and how car dependency began to be reversed.

John Franklin has always been a major obstacle to such a reallocation of street space by virtue of his fervent promotion of vehicular cycling and antipathy to off-road cycling. Back in 1998 he wrote a shit-stirring open letter to John Grimshaw of Sustrans, objecting to that organisation’s commitment to off-road cycling infrastructure:

I have noticed a considerable maturing of the views of cycle campaigners in recent years based, no doubt, on experience in the real world. With this has come increased recognition of the limitations of cycle facilities and of the need to integrate rather than segregate cyclists in traffic. I was delighted only a few weeks ago to learn that one CCN group, whom I had given up as a lost cause in terms of cycling policy, has by its own admission made a U-turn away from segregation and in favour of a minimum facilities approach. I sense that Sustrans is becoming more and more isolated in the direction it is taking, and that this will lead to increased friction at both national and local levels. There is already a feeling in many places that Sustrans too often runs rough-shod over the views of local cyclists. Is it really in the best interests of any of us for this to continue?

I am copying this letter to the CTC, and I will circulate it within CCN and to other parties, as I feel it important for these matters to be considered as widely as possible.

Sustrans was not accountable to Franklin and his associates or to British cycling organisations and therefore survived his discontent, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a supposedly professional organisation with Franklin at its heart should still be issuing the cycling world's tepid equivalent of a fatwa. That the guardians of vehicular cycle campaigning feel rattled by a pro-Dutch blog like this one is curiously revelatory. (And just for the record this blog had never had a word to say about the policies of Cyclenation prior to its bizarre and inaccurate – and since modified and toned-down - ‘national statement’. I didn't even know that Cyclenation had a cycling policy, since I understood it to be a company that facilitated cycling conferences. Which as far as I can tell is basically what it is. But the heartwarming upside of being denounced by Cyclenation is a surge in this blog's readership and an increase in its listed Followers.)

Franklin’s diatribe against Sustrans provoked a retort from Paul Gannon of the Camden cycling campaign, who argued that Franklin demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of cycling in the Netherlands.

Before long Franklin was in Camden, insisting among other things that

segregation is in itself unsafe;

segregation doesn't make for more cyclists

Franklin seems on the face of it to have won. Thereafter Paul Gannon appears to vanish from the world of cycle campaigning. Today the Camden group unequivocally states We are involved in campaigns for better on-road cycle routes. (How successful this has been remains problematic.) Until very recently segregation seemed to vanish from overt debate within the world of cycle campaigning. The last reference I can find to it online is back in 2003 when Christian Woolmar (another major player in the world of cycle campaigning) informed delegates at a conference:

Many cyclists are wrong to argue for totally segregated facilities. They won’t happen.

Franklin, in the interim, went from strength to strength. If you look at Cyclenation conference presentations dating back to 2001 you’ll see that John Franklin pops up five times, in 2009 (twice), 2007, 2004 and 2001, more than any other listed speaker. (Naturally there is not a single speaker listed during the first decade of the twenty-first century talking about cycling in Denmark or the Netherlands; the British cycle campaign establishment remains fundamentally parochial.) Today John Franklin is a revered figure, although to me he’s probably the individual who, across the broad field of cycle campaigning, has personally done the most to damage the cause of mass cycling in Britain. And today (to revert to where this post first started) even Sustrans now lends its name to on-road cycle campaigning. Franklin's rout of the opposition is nothing if not impressive.

But leaving aside the demonstrable failure of the vehicular cycling strategies which have been at the heart of cycle campaigning in Britain over the past decades, there is one final irony. The proponents of cycle training patronisingly tell non-cyclists to overcome their fears and get some cycle training, but they are personally unwilling to come to terms with their own basic anxiety. This was articulated as long ago as 1937 by the CTC:

A great deal of the cycle-path propaganda is based on a desire to remove cyclists from the roads. That is why the request for cycle paths is so often accompanied by a suggestion that their use should be enforced by law. Therein lies a serious threat to cycling.

(cited here)

The problem is that by shunning Dutch-style cycle paths and dogmatically defending the right to ride on 'A' roads, establishment cycle campaigning has left us with the worst of both worlds. Cycling has massively contracted and only the most diehard rider wants to cycle on roads like the A1 or the A3 or the A11 or the A12. Meanwhile where segregated infrastructure does exist in the UK it is notoriously mediocre and bears no resemblance to Dutch infrastructure at all. The CTC opposed segregated cycle paths but it passionately embraced motorways. That would get drivers off main roads and leave them clear for cyclists. And didn’t that idea work out well…

As far as the Netherlands are concerned, here are some examples of cyclepaths alongside roads where you're not allowed to cycle: first example; second example; third example. But who would want to cycle on roads like those when you have a safe, good quality cycle path?

As for Britain. Cycle training first started in 1947. Around the time that cycling in Britain peaked and then began its historic decline. So if anything, cycle training is historically associated with contraction and decline, not growth.

(Below) Defective cyclecraft on the Aldwych gyratory. Clear hand signals and they’ve ‘taken the road’. But foolishly they’ve forgotten their 'visible clothing'.