There is a unique section of shared space in Bristol where, on a good day, it is possible to see motor vehicles, a steam train, pedestrians and cyclists, all muddling along quite happily together. There are dockyard cranes and ships as well so it can get very exciting.
Today was quiet though and I was in an exploring mood. I had noticed that a new sign had appeared. I’m not sure when it landed but I decided to investigate its message.
It said “Caution Unsafe for cyclists, Rail tracks in surface. Moving trains and vehicles”. It offered an “Alternative Route”.
As I peered around, four or five other cyclists sailed straight past the warning and (presumably) to their doom. I took a chance on the painted recommendation and decided to bear right. I’m always on the look out for an alternative. The painted cycle lane looked very inviting.
But, oh dear.
After two arrows and two painted bikes, the lane ended abruptly at the tail end of a row of vehicles parked alongside a row of traffic cones.
I didn’t mnd at all of course. It was quiet, there was more than enough room between the vehicles and the fence and I had nothing better to do than wonder what was supposed to have happened here. I reached the other side of the Mshed safely and turned left to contnue my journey to Temple Meads via Queens Square. Once over the swing bridge I was only slightly alarmed by a girl on a bike coming straight for me on the wrong side of the cobbled road in my narrow cycle lane. All in a day’s considerate cycling , eh?
Cycling activist and writer David Hembrow has written a clear statement on the need to treat cycling safety as three different things. He describes “actual”, “subjective” and “social” safety. It’s in his blog here: http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2008/09/three-types-of-safety.html [first posted in 2008 and amended in December 2011]
This year, Safe Cycling has becomes a public issue, with The Times running a campaign and Parliament planning a debate in the House of Commons this week. Anticipating the debate and riding the heightened awareness, the Sustrans website has published findings from a telephone survey of 1,002 people aged 16 and over in the countries of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The headline is a bit stark:
“Half of people in UK fear our roads are unsafe for cycling”
However, for a closer look in this blog I called Sustrans who happily sent the 12 pages of tables from which they had drawn the bold conclusion.
The tables are typical of the summary statistics generated by questionnaire surveys of this type. The questions had been designed to gather background characteristics of each person questioned: data were collected on age, sex, marital status, socio-economic class, participation in work, and administrative region. Further questions asked for facts and opinions relevant to cycling, they were:
Q.1 Do you think it’s safe to cycle on roads in built up areas or not?
Q.2 Do you regularly, by this I mean more than once a month, cycle on roads in built-up areas, or not?
Q.3 What, if anything, would make you more likely to cycle or cycle more regularly, on roads in built-up areas?
Q.4 Some councils have reduced the speed limit on residential areas to 20 miles per hour to make the roads safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Do you think all councils should do the same or not?
Question 1 “do you think it’s safe… ” leaves out Hembrow’s idea of three kinds of “safe” and demands a simple Yes/No response. Question 3 asked about suggestions for improvements with the option to choose as many as were relevant. Slower cars as a result of lower speed limits; more marked cycle lanes; More care taken by drivers; More care taken by other cyclists; Nothing would persuade me; I do not have a bicycle; and I do not cycle at all.
Going through the 4 questions in turn.
When asked in Q.1″ Do you think it’s safe to cycle on roads in built up areas or not?” 24 didn’t know. Two thirds of these were female and 17 were over 64. But of the rest, 565 said No and 414 said Yes. On that measure, Sustrans’ headline is accurate: 56% responded to the safety question with a clear NO. They don’t feel that cycling in built up areas is safe. Females were more likely to say cycling was not safe (63%) and males less likely (49%). Different regions yielded different responses too: Scotland and the North West were at 60% and 62% saying NO, while Yorkshire and The Humber were more sanguine at 50% and The North East 52%.
On the question (Q.2) dividing the regular cyclists from the non or less-frequent cyclists the sample group had 194 classifying themselves as regular (more than once a month) cyclists, 342 as irregular (less than once a month) cyclists and 464 as non-cyclists. The interesting point here is that the number reporting that cycling is not safe in built up areas (565) outnumbers the number of people who say they cycle regularly (194) by nearly 3 to 1. However you look at that there are some cyclists who say they cycle more than once a month while agreeing that Britain’s urban roads are not safe for cycling.
When asked in Q.3 “What, if anything, would make you more likely to cycle or cycle more regularly, on roads in built-up areas?” ideas were suggested by the following numbers of respondents: More care taken by drivers 439; More marked cycle lanes 431; More care taken by other cyclists 370; Slower cars as a result of lower speed limits 276; Nothing would persuade me 127; I do not have a bicycle 33; 137 did not cycle at all; and 9 didn’t know. The surprises there perhaps are the smaller number calling for lower speed limits and the relatively small number who do not and would not 137 plus 127 (30%).
On the specific question of 20mph limits (Q.4) 70% thought all councils should adopt them. 66% of men and 75% of women agreed with the suggestion.
In summary, the results of this survey show that a lot of people regard cycling in built up areas as not safe. Their focus on “more care” from drivers and other cyclists suggests that Henbrow’s “subjective” and “social” dimensions of safety are very important. The broad agreement with a 20mph limit is encouraging.
One strong message for the current campaign is that 431 (53%) of the sample would see extra cycle paths as being the kind of safety improvement that could persuade them to cycle more than they do. There do seem to be people out there who are ready to be persuaded. Their anxiety about others behaviour might be a question to pursue with more qualitative research. In the context of a harsher economy and a move towards greater individualism the urge to compete rather than cooperate might be getting stronger.
Another significant figure is in the age data. The 16-24 age group had 52% reporting that they cycled at last once a month. For each subsequent age group the proportion of self-declared cyclists was dramatically lower: 22% of the 25-34s, 20% of the 35-44s, 16% of the 45-54s, 11% of the 55-64s and 6% of the over 64s.
In the second half of the 1960s I spent a summer month living with the Trignac family in the Department of Lot-et-Garonne in France. I more or less earned my keep by doing odd jobs on the farm and loading up produce for the market. Picking peaches was one of the jobs. The old horse in this picture helped us by moving a cart from tree to tree to carry the boxes as we filled them.
At the end of the first day I was covered with a red itchy rash. It was very uncomfortable and despite the joy of fresh, juicy, ripe peaches to eat I wasn’t happy.
The family smiled when I showed them. They had known it would happen and had wisely said nothing. I was told to have a cold shower and remember that unless I avoided scratching myself when picking peaches this would happen every day. They were right.
I wonder if reacting to the soft downy fluff of non-cyclist commentary that lands on the sensitive skin of us cyclists is in any way like rubbing at the soft downy fluff of the peaches that I used to pick? If it was or if we could hypnotise ourselves into believing it was then maybe we wouldn’t get the bad rash we create by scratching at it?
At the end of a day on the road there could be a shower, some clean clothes and unblemished skin – just so long as we hadn’t scratched the minor irritations of the day. All the peaches and none of the rash.
Whiteladies Road in Bristol has had a lot of work done to make it usable as part of the Greater Bristol Bus Network (GBBN). At the southern end there is a strange intersection with Queens Road (and others) which has just had a very short piece of advisory cycle lane added. This first picture shows the lane sweeping to the right across what used to be a continuous forward lane (the straight ahead arrow is still dimly visible). It has been changed into a left exit (as if from a roundabout).
The cyclist in this first picture is planning to stay in the advisory cycle lane around the curve and take the next exit into Whiteladies Road. The #8 bus (one every 12 minutes on weekdays) is going to follow its usual route, straight over those two sets of dotted lines, and the driver is indicating left.
False Friend Part Two
The cyclist had suddenly realised what was happening. He hadn’t looked round, indicated or moved out but at this point he was slowing to a halt. He put his left foot on the kerb and he waited as the bus went past.
OK. Once the bus had gone he set off again. His wife had already cycled ahead and was waiting for him at the other side of the intersection in Whiteladies Road. She had approached the intersection in the right hand of two lanes, and gradually moved into and across the left hand lane as she passed the beginning of the cycle lane, just in time to turn left into Whiteladies Road without interference.
A minute or two later two more cyclists are showing how the intersection might be used. One is on the outside lane that has a right turn arrow painted, the other is on the inside lane that has (I think) a straight ahead arrow. Neither has indicated so far.
Late on Sunday afternoon, with traffic pretty quiet these two looked pretty safe as they swung round the turn. They are well away from the advisory cycle lane.
And off they went into the distance, with the last of the GBBN roadworks twinkling a red light.
To see a map of the junction as it used to be, Google Satellite is very useful. I was standing on the footpath for less than ten minutes as I watched and took a few pictures. There was a steady stream of traffic but nothing like midweek busy times. Motor vehicles were approaching at 30 mph or more and only about half were indicating, whichever way they left the junction. It seemed to me that the probability of a collision between a vehicle and a bicycle on that few metres of advisory cycle lane, sometime bewween now and next year, was high. It would be safer to just remove it, allowing the confident and skilled cyclist to occupy the primary position, indicating first right, then left, to get into Whiteladies Road. Anyone more timid or inexperienced would do well to stop and wait for a break in the traffic, or even to dismount and use the small island to walk across in two stages.
In other words this advisory cycle lane is use to man nor beast. It offers an illusion of safety to the unwary and a nonsensical road position to the experienced. It is what we might call a False Friend and we already have far too many of those. I am pretty sure that First Bus drivers will have noted the problem and warned their colleagues already.
Yesterday The Times published an article by Assistant News Editor Lech Mintowt-Czvz in its Cities Fit For Cycling campaign. http://tinyurl.com/7jwfhxz
The piece was his justification for making a personal decision at each red traffic light as to whether he was right, as a cyclist at the head a queue of traffic, to set off a few seconds before the light changed, regardless of the legal requirement to wait.
Despite having being once prosecuted for anticipating the green, then fined and sent for cycle training, he says he intends to do it again if it keeps him safe.
I think his justification is weak and I think that his publishing it is tactically wrong.
My reasoning is as follows.
The first point is one he recognises: without a social contract based on law being generally obeyed, social life becomes difficult. Moving in traffic demands a minimum level of trust that what should happen generally does or at least should happen. There are more than enough hazards already without arbitrary but personally advantageous decisions becoming the norm.
My second point of concern is with his suggestion that the Highway Code, in effect, is insisting he should run the “risk of being maimed or killed by an inattentive driver” by waiting for the green light to show. He knows that such deaths have occurred in London. Advanced Stop Lanes can put a cyclist just ahead of a lorry whose cab is so high that the cyclist cannot always be seen (either ahead or to the side) . So his policy, decided in advance, is to set off early and avoid death by being faster through the junction than the lorry if circumstances demand it.
“Recently I approached a notoriously dangerous junction I knew that in half a second the lights would switch, that the other lanes were already at red and had stopped. I ran the red light. videos showed me how little lorry drivers can see of cyclists from their cabs.”
An immediate counter to this is that there are alternative and safer ways of avoiding the problem. The Highway Code does not insist on getting to work ahead of the crowd. It tends to suggest considerate and cautious behaviour. One suggestion I would offer is to avoid the pole position in the first place. If timely eye contact with the driver seems unlikely or impossible, I would simply wait well behind such a vehicle, in the “primary position” and not in the lead-in lane to the ASL (assuming there is one). If I don’t feel confident of being able to make a safe crossing at lights, because of traffic volume or junction design common sense suggests I should dismount and find a safe place to cross on foot. It seems to me that counting on my own strength and speed to out-cycle a lorry with an unsighted driver (if that is what Lech Mintowt-Czvz is doing) would incur unnecessary additional risks of its own while achieving little gain in journey time.
My third point is the tactical issue that arises from the context of the article: it was written as part of a newspaper campaign for cycling in cities to be made safer. By trying to defend the frequently-made accusation that cyclists “always jump red lights” he has been guilty of the classic error of feeding the trolls. He has thrown bait to the flippant and thoughtless by engaging them in their own chosen swamp.
In much better news, I notice that this morning’s Times has a refinement of the issue, one already normal in The Netherlands and called for by cyclists generally, the cycle-only phase at major junctions. http://tinyurl.com/6w38rez Challenging the Highway Code is the last thing cyclists need to be seen doing at this promising stage in the debate.
Sometimes we forget just how much our common sense and comfort can be usurped by the motor car. We love them and need them so much, we get confused. It’s all too easy to let our dotage blind us to otherwise obvious realities.
Let me give one example. We generally assume, without actually recognising it or saying so out loud, that the highway is a free car park. The highway is, of course and without question, a normal and perfectly acceptable place to leave a car all day, overnight, or even for weeks at a time. In the absence of strong reminders not to we assume an absolute right to park wherever and however we choose.
So, in this Bristol street, with no signs to say “NO, DON’T!”, a Renault driver (picture above) has been flustered, a bit late for work and not very good at accurate parking, perhaps. Never mind, it happens to us all and no one was watching. Twelve inches or so from the curb isn’t that much and no one will mind.
However, as well as being a quiet residential street, this particular free car park is also a public highway with plenty of people with good reason to want to travel along it. The width of the road was set in the middle of the nineteenth century and hasn’t changed since. Notice the vehicle at the top. It is about to collect rubbish from the street’s eight houses (some in multi-occupation) and then from the 32 appartments at the other end of the street that no one can see from the top.
The van driver has seen a problem and is turning round to get a better run at it. He is planning to reverse down.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the street a Royal Mail van has made deliveries to the 32 appartments (not visible in the picture) and is setting off to complete a good morning’s work (see above).
At this stage, the refuse vehicle has had to stop part way down and its driver has got out to scratch his head and suck his teeth. He’s a bit stuck. The gap between the parked cars is obviously too narrow and after some discussion the crew have run down the street to haul the wheelie bins from the eight houses all the way back up. I wonder if they will get a bonus? The Royal Mail van has to wait. There is no other way out.
But then, after a wait of only five minutes the Royal Mail van and another car are able to get on with their lives. So all is well (see picture below).
Well, all would be well, but for the 32 appartments who have not had their rubbish collected at all. So the the whole process will have to start again tomorrow.
While I chatted to the driver of the refuse van, the subject of fire engines and ambulances cropped up. I happened to mention that the 32 appartments are part of an over-60s’ development and that paramedic vehicles make frequent calls. He told me that Bristol is generally terrible for access along the highways. He is too tactful to mention their other primary purpose as free car parks.
All this is known to Bristol City Council of course. But our innocent Renault driver will remain as oblivious as all the other people who are simply pleased to know about a handy free car park near to the offices and shops, conveniently placed right beside a public highway.
The Highway Code (bless it) says: (para 243) “DO NOT stop or park … anywhere where you would prevent access for Emergency Services …” Roughly translated into English this means that you can prevent access for Emergency Services if you want, but if things go wrong you might get blamed.