Most evenings, as I head home towards reunion with the Invisible Visible Woman, I pedal, as I’ve noted before, in the footsteps of Roman soldiers along
Cycle Superhighway 7. But, on nights of the light, misty rain that are a spring
and autumn speciality of London’s weather, something unusual happens. As I and
other cyclists swing onto a section of the Cycle Superhighway by London , we veer out of the marked,
blue-painted part of the road that’s meant to be reserved for us. We all know
by now that the marking was done on the cheap with a simple layer of blue gloss
paint. In such weather, it becomes scarily slippery. We consequently sit
towards the outside of the near-side lane. The sight of the line of bikes, all frightened to use a
dangerous facility intended to keep us safe, always leads me to raise at least a mental, mildly amused eyebrow. Kennington Park
I smile a similarly wry inward smile when cycling along any
section of pavement (sidewalk, American readers) that’s been divided between
pedestrians and cyclists. The standard
practice is to mark the separate pedestrians and cyclist sides with ridged tiles (to help vision-impaired people). The ridged tiles on the cyclists’ side are laid parallel to the
bike’s wheels, however. Those on the pedestrian side run acrossways. A
reasonably cautious cyclist consequently has to veer onto
the pedestrian side at the tiles, to avoid the small but real danger the ridges will catch his front wheel. Having
narrowly missed crashing after catching my wheel a few times on such a tile, I’m
unwilling to take more chances. UK
Given the number of motorists I’ve already had tell me in Britain that I shouldn’t be outside some rebranded gutter masquerading as a cycle lane, it made me worry what kind of message a heavy concentration on segregated lanes would send. Certain motorists would quickly come to think of on-road cycling as banned.
|Roadworks in the City: guess which transport mode|
everyone decided was dispensable
My main thought as I negotiate these obstacles (or, more properly, “cycle facilities”) is to wonder whether their designers are even vaguely familiar with a bicycle and its basic physical properties. I think we can dismiss out of hand the idea that they might actually regularly ride a velocipede.
However, there’s a second, more serious thought. If this is the rich world’s idea of cycling infrastructure, why are so many cycling organisations pressing for more of it?
Such a notion pitches me, of course, into a bitter intra-cyclist dispute. It echoes, in a way, the divisions everywhere among oppressed groups seeking greater freedom. Do we seek, like pedalling Malcolm Xs, the segregation of the separate cycle facility, using mainly lanes free of our motor-powered oppressors? Or do we pursue peacefully the dream of integration, winning the right to the respect we deserve on the wider, more diverse society of the road?
It’s worth saying, of course, that I am as open as the next person to enjoying a car-free environment. When visiting my parents-in-law, I cycle to their church in north Wales partly on a tarmac path along an old railway line. On a Sunday morning, with few runners or other cyclists about, it can be one of the purest, most uncomplicated bike-riding experiences available. One of the most enjoyable cycle facilities to use in London is a fully segregated cycle lane along Cable Street in the East End. The absence on most of the route of worries about car behaviour is undoubtedly one of its attractions.
It’s the difference in stress levels using such routes that leads admirable campaigners in many countries to demand better, separate cycle provision. In the UK, it’s currently common for such campaigners to say cycling will remain a niche activity for the eccentric few (such as the Invisible Visible Man) until the country bosts the same kind of network of segregated cycle routes as the mass-cycling Netherlands or Denmark. They look at people like me who think there are chances of forging a basic understanding between road users and shake their heads. Isn’t it sad how determined we are to restrict cycling to ourselves and a few other members of the privileged middle classes?
I have, as it happens, a fundamental distrust of the idea of segregating any groups of people that can’t seem to get along. But I’m worried about the practicality of cutting cyclists off from other traffic too.
|Nørrebrogade: exhibit A in the segregationists' case|
It’s certainly hard to feel too sceptical about segregation standing in the morning on Nørrebrogade, in Copenhagen, the street that carries traffic from the west of Copenhagen over a string of lakes into the city centre. I went to look at it in late 2009 and, even towards the end of the rush hour, there were hundreds of bikes streaming down neat, segregated cycle lanes. Niels Tørsløv, the head of Copenhagen’s city traffic department, told me the city timed the traffic lights to fit in with the flow of bikes, rather than cars. One of the major controversies he was tackling was over the number of cargo bikes in the city. He was having to widen the cycle lanes to make it easier to overtake them. Such are the problems of directing traffic in a city where 37 per cent of people get to work, school or college by bike.
|A Copenhagen motorist helpfully illustrates|
the Invisible Visible Man's point about side-street conflicts
But, according to Mr Tørsløv, the segregated lanes only rearranged the accidents, putting them at the intersections between roads and cycle paths, rather than at even spaces along the roads. Copenhagen put in the cycle lanes, he said, only because they encouraged people to cycle – cycling numbers rose 10 per cent when a street gained a cycle lane. I happened later the same day to see a motorist knock off a cyclist using a segregated cycle lane.
After that visit, I started to notice, as I sped along Cable Street towards meetings in Canary Wharf, how disproportionately at risk I was from motorists pulling across my path at side streets. I was out of their eye line and difficult to see.
|The Invisible Visible Man's hired cruiser bike.|
He's not on it - but obviously
drivers saw it like this all the time
My experiences last week in the US (the reason, dear readers, for the late production of this latest blog post) underlined my worries about segregation. Unable to bear any longer missing my bike languishing across the Atlantic, I hired a cheap cruiser bike and headed across the causeway from Miami Beach into downtown Miami proper. I was encouraged at points to see cycle lanes marked on the road. But then I spotted a sign with a bike picture and the words “may use full lane”. This was a rare piece of permission, I realised. The painted lanes were less a facility than a prison, confining me to the fringes of the roads.
|A whole lane? The City of Miami, for once, spoils cyclists|
I’m consequently positioning myself in the middle of the lane, staring round at any potentially menacing drivers - and pedalling my way into the camp that says cyclists and motor vehicles broadly have to coexist in most city streets. This action will, I know, put me, to some advocates, irrevocably in the Not a Good Person camp. They will look upon me henceforth the way a reactionary newspaper columnist would if he had seen me cycle through a red light and mount a pavement, mouthing obscenities.
Yet I’m reluctant to side firmly with either camp because bike behaviour doesn’t seem to me the most important issue on the roads. Watching politicians’ obvious nervousness when discussing road funding in the UK this week has illustrated how fear of drivers continues to drive attitudes about how roads are used. The same fear holds back police forces from tackling speeding, driving while distracted and the other driver behaviour that puts some cyclists off. After a driver threatened to assault me recently, the police showed no interest in investigating the driving offence that led to the confrontation. The driver had deliberately pulled his car across the path of a cyclist in, I suspect, full view of a CCTV camera. It would have been a “disproportionate use of police resources” to try to retrieve the film.
There doesn’t even seem to be an appetite for explaining the law. Many drivers, I suspect, don’t actually understand they’re not meant to intrude into cycle-only stop areas or that cyclists are allowed to ride outside cycle lanes. It would take too much courage to embark on a simple public information campaign.
Motorists’ attitudes are certainly not immutable – I’ve referred before to the transformation in views about drink driving in many countries as an example. It’s my guess that, if motorists were behaving better, far fewer people would yearn for the apparent sanctuary of segregated lanes. Meanwhile, if the apathetic planners currently in charge in many western countries set about building new cycle infrastructure, it’s a fair bet it would tend more to keep cyclists out of motorists’ way than to help cyclists.
It's unfortunate, too, if the debate polarises advocates into backing two separate approaches. Some places – the busy roads by the Thames in London, for instance – look perfectly set up for separate cycle lanes. The narrow streets in the City of London look best suited to assertive, on-the-road cycling. Many junctions need redesigning. Others would be fine if the current ignored rules were enforced.
But, for the moment, cyclists’ real needs are so far from policy makers’ minds that they’ve built a “Cycle Superhighway” out of stuff that makes bikes skid. I’d prioritise changing motorists’ and officials’ thinking over pressing the same people to build more of their flawed idea of cycling facilities.