Considerate Cycling 29: It’s very rare but when it happens you know it could have been avoided

Late on Sunday afternoon (March 10th) a woman in her 80s was walking along Church Walk (sometimes known as Lime Walk or Birdcage Walk) in Clifton, Bristol. A man, apparently in his 30s, riding his bicycle along the footpath, collided with her.

She made her way home, but by mid-day on Monday 11th an ambulance had been called and she was later found to have three cracked ribs, a cracked pelvis and badly bruised arms. At the time of writing she is in Bristol General Infirmary.

Can I raise my own voice a little to reinforce my view that cycling on footpaths of any kind demands a great deal of thoughtful consideration for others and (in my view) should not be done as a routine.

I have been told that the man in question was very apologetic and said “I rang my bell”. It reminded me of an incident I reported in this blog:

I hear from neighbours that Church Walk is often used by cyclists hurrying through and that it upsets them when it happens. I would urge everyone to treat footpaths as places where a great deal of care is needed. As a part of cyclists’ public campainging for better cycle facilities I think we should all be as cautious around pedestrians as we expect cars to be around bicycles. Personally I think that cycling along Church Walk (or any footpath like it that isn’t designated as a shared path) is reckless and unnecessary.

Considerate Cycling 28: Geese and Ganders

Chris and I are walkers. We bought our retirement flat in a place where all the main amenities would be within walking distance. Chris doesn’t cycle at all and the difficulties of Bristol’s primitive road network have put her off any idea of becoming a COTTA (Cyclist Of The Third Age).

Not that walking is straightforward, of course. Her main route to the larger shops takes her along a narrow pavement that has had a locked-up bicycle impeding a tight corner for most of this University year.

Like this:

That’s not her, by the way. You might be able to imagine how awkward this corner would be if you were carrying two shopping bags, especially if you hadn’t expected a bike to be there. We talked about telling the owner, with a polite note that the bike was a bit of a hazard at that particular place. Look at it from round the corner:

Even standing well out into the road, the bike is only just visible. Walking along the pavement it is invisible right up to the last few inches. Check the situation from this angle too:

It’s not good is it? However, life is short, we have learned to live with it and there are more pressing issues than inconsiderate cycle parking. We did nothing about it and walk in the road.

This morning however, there was a DEVELOPMENT.

Someone had attached a notice of some kind. Bristol City Council, it seemed, were taking ACTION! And judging by the wording on the notice, DRASTIC ACTION was imminent.

The bicycle is in such a condition that “it ought to be destroyed” and that if not moved within 24 hours, will be destroyed.

There could well be a joker at work here. Students are a humorous lot and what japes they occasionally spring on each other. But the notice looks, at least, like a very good forgery. I took the liberty of examining the obscured part of the notice.

I also thought (more seriously) about the hundreds of other obstructions left cluttering up pavements, crossings and junctions all over Bristol, day in and day out. They are so ubiquitous and so taken-for-granted that complaints are rare and actions even rarer. Look just round the corner from the poor beleaguered bicycle.

If I have a point here it is that when we leave a vehicle out in a public place consideration for others is worth thinking about. There is no specific right to put your bike, car, lorry or tank wherever you like and both collectively and individually we ought to take a lot more care than we do. In particular, Bristol City Council and its Officers could be more systematic about balancing the selfish urge to leave things wherever it suits us and the collective need to have highways, byways and footpaths free for people of all degrees or modes of mobility to move along. Geese, ganders, drivers, walkers, cyclists, disabled or otherwise: we all deserve a fair share of sauce.

Considerate Cycling 23: an email to city planners in Bristol

This morning I got an email from Steve Melia’s “Living Heart For Bristol” campaign. It was encouraging me to write to Bristol City Council about proposals to improve the part of Bristol that they call the Medieval Core. A lot of this part of the city was bombed in the Second World War, but the street plan and some of the buildings are still there. It’s a fascinating area to walk around, with all kinds of alley ways and hidden treasures.

The question at issue is the possibility that motorised traffic might be allowed to drive all the way through the centre of this wonderful area. An added ambiguity is a suggestion of some “shared space”, a phrase that I have had a go at elsewhere. Steve Melia’s response to the whole development is here.

I never like copying pre-prepared messages, so having looked though the consultation document. I wrote the following email:

Subject: Old City Consultation


Dear Planners

I have tried to have a good look at the pdf file (Old City Final Consolation Draft) outlining changes proposed for a renewed Old City. The first thing to say is that the pdf file is very unwieldy on my laptop screen and relatively low on detail so I might be making a point that is based on my misunderstanding of what is being suggested.

I am generally sympathetic to the descriptive analysis of the current situation and of the aspirations for improvement. Bristol has a splendid resource in these old streets and could do a lot more to make them more attractive, more accessible, more visible and therefore more valuable than they currently are.

The greatest concern I have with what I can guess from the consultation booklet is the long diagonal south west to north east corridor – including Corn Street. It looks as though that might be left open to through traffic, allowing cars and other vehicles to use some, or all, of it to drive through the area. This seems unnecessary and at odds with the character and purposes of that part. Arrangements to allow access and loading for some vehicles clearly need to be made – but these would best be tightly controlled and limited. Full pedestrianisation of the whole section would be the best solution, with adequate cycle parking at all access points. There seems little point in encouraging shared cycle/pedestrian space. This just makes life difficult for pedestrians and offers no great advantage to cyclists on longer journeys. (I cycle and walk in and around Bristol on a daily basis).

With this anxiety in mind, I wish you every success with the development – it should be a great boost to the commercial and cultural life of the City.

Yours sincerely

Sam Saunders

One thing I should emphasise is how HARD it was to read the consulation report – shuffling it around and flipping between magnification levels to try to move between text, image and street plan.

Considerate Cycling 18: A Simple Point

The point I want to make is very simple. It isn’t particularly contentious and it doesn’t take long to express.

My difficulty is that the hostile responses I sometimes get when I make it confirm the truth of what I am saying, while leaving my sceptical correspondents unconvinced.

I expect everyone has that experience at some time, so I hope you can read to the end of this short blog before hauling out the standard denials and shoving the point back where it came from.

Here’s the point itself. I have squeezed it into one tweet-length sentence:

Individual emotional comfort is more influential in decisions about personal daily travelling than any reported probability of physical harm

It has no full stop but it is exactly 140 characters long (including spaces). I’ll put it on the page once more, this time with a full stop.

“Individual emotional comfort is more influential in decisions about personal daily travelling than any reported probability of physical harm.”

As it stands it is a hypothesis. It’s a theory that needs to be tested in contexts that matter, and in ways that are relevant to strategies for transport engineering as much as for transport campaigning. For the time being though, I have a lifetime of experience, research training, friendly chat  and reading that leads me to believe that if I did all the scholarship, planned and executed excellent data gathering and then analysed my data with caution and good advice I would fail to refute the statement.

In plain language, I bet I would be able to show evidence that would change many people’s minds if they were open to mind changing on the basis of formal evidence. Most people aren’t, of course and that is a big part of my dilemma. It is a dilemma that applies just as much to me as it does to the confidently empirical engineer/campaigner who might be rejecting my hypothesis as it now stands.

That’s the formal half. Now the anecdotes. The important, influential half of this blog.

My wife is a pedestrian. Unusually she neither cycles nor drives.  She never took a driving test. Regular journeys of less than a mile (and many that are over a mile) are done on foot, often with shopping bags or other loads. Beyond that she uses the bus or train, and on rare special occasions she gets a taxi or a lift (not from me, we haven’t owned a car for years). She walks a lot. She walks every day and she has done for decades. She lived and worked in Bristol from the age of 17 and has recently returned after an absence of about 30 years.

She is delighted to be back. Moving here has been a really good one for both of us. But on one thing we cannot agree. She absolutely hates sharing her journeys with people on bicycles. She finds that Bristol City Council’s policy of creating shared space has contributed to (or arises from) an anarchic situation in which sudden close encounters between cyclists and pedestrians happen regularly in unexpected and emotionally disturbing ways. The legal situation is not the issue. Signage is ambiguous or inadequate everywhere and conflicts occur independently of the formal rules. She never knows what might happen next.

She knows full well that harm to pedestrians is rare, and when it does happen it is far more likely to be a motorised vehicle that causes it. We all know that. But no-one (even my wife, whose work was in medical laboratories) reflects on scientific knowledge before allowing adrenaline and discomfort to rush briefly through their calmness as a cyclist cuts across a road and  comes between two parked cars onto the pavement they are walking along.  When she feels a cyclist buzz behind her as she walks over a pedestrian crossing she doesn’t summon her rational self fast enough not to feel startled and threatened. Even as she walks along a completely empty footpath, memory and experience tells her that her attention level has to be higher than it was in calmer days, because last week this was the place that a bicycle appeared, as if from nowhere, at what felt like an excessive speed.

She feels angry, after the close pass by a perfectly well balanced attentive and silent cyclist doing 15-20 mph, that the cyclist has not taken into account the possibility that she might have skipped to the left, or suddenly stopped to blow her nose, or done some other ordinary pedestrian thing. As she calms down, of course, she forgets and she walks on. But the unpredictability of such encounters offers no useful learning. The simple peaceful experience of walking has become one or two degrees less comfortable, and she blames people on bicycles. She is adamantly against devoting scarce resources to cycle-friendly developments. She can be as sceptical and unreasonable about cyclists as cyclists can be about motorists. She looks around for new incidents to report back to me, in the same way that helmet camera users collect evidence to show YouTube that roads aren’t fair to them.

What this tells me is that emotions, immediate experiences and feelings are far more important in attitude formation and political support than cold dissection of “the facts”. The hard line of some cycling campaigners and the sometimes lax attitude to suboptimal degrees of separation of some traffic engineers can make the issue worse rather than better. Cyclists and engineers, of course, are subject to the same irrational influences on their own attitudes.

My view is that by itself, simple analysis of official data on traffic management will lead nowhere useful. What must be done is to give greater priority to how people feel and what people value. If we believe in evidence based policy, then we must stop using arithmetic for a while and start talking to people, systematically and at length. There are well-established methods for gathering rich qualitative data without resorting to the sterility and inflexibility of questionnaires. Someone somewhere has got to do that serious work and give confidence to politicians who have the inclination to adopt human solutions based on how people are rather than how they should be.

This blog was brought to you by the tweet:

Individual emotional comfort is more influential in decisions about personal daily travelling than any reported probability of physical harm

Considerate Cycling 16: Life sans Car


I first got a driving licence in 1971. But in the last 30 years I have only owned a car for two short periods, each of them for very specific reasons and neither of them lasting more than 2 years.

In that time I must have explained hundreds of times how liberating it is to not own a car and how much richer life is without one. Here are some of the stories I have told:

  1. When it was time to move I have spent up to 18 months finding somewhere to live that was close to basic services (supermarket, GP, schools, bus stops and rail links etc)
  2. I ride a bicycle and regard 10 miles (with public transport back-up) as a comfortable commuting distance.
  3. Unusual journeys like student moves, remote self-catering holidays or furniture deliveries can be done with a cheap hire car.
  4. My children have learned to swim, ride bikes, catch buses, trains and aeroplanes independently from an early age. They all happily walked to school from age 5 to 18 in all weathers. They all did the sports, music, clubs, cubs and trips that school and community allowed.
  5. Their grandmother lived with us into her 90s, and never had to stay in for want of a lift somewhere, despite increasing immobility.
  6. The money saved on vehicle excise duty, fuel, maintenance, insurance and depreciation has left plenty of money to pay for occasional taxis, hire cars, megabus or rail tickets.
  7. Health and fitness are blessings. All of us enjoy both in good measure.
  8. If others have offered a lift, or if I have ever asked for a lift, a reciprocal favour has always been easy to find.
  9. Planning journeys in advance has taken time and effort sometimes. This has been a useful discipline. It makes sure the journey is worth while and that we get the most out of it while using the least possible resource to achieve it. “Lets go out for a drive” is not in our vocabulary.
  10. I have learned to see and feel places I visit in a much more direct and engaging way than when I drive. Never having to find (and pay for) a parking space is a significant freedom.
  11. I meet, or at least interact with, lots of good, interesting and strange people. I have adventures. Getting lost is actually fun when you’re not on the M25 or heading south at 70mph when you should be going north.
  12. Road works become interesting and all other sites and sounds can be given as much attention as you like.

I could go on and on. But the one thing I wold insist on is that if you react by thinking “it’s alright for him, but…” it would be that owning a car is a choice you make, and it’s a choice that you can unmake if you want to – dependent only on how serious you are about it. I suppose cigarettes and alcohol can be “impossible” to give up too.

So if you like cars, enjoy driving cars and see cars as a great contribution to national and global life, that’s fine by me. Carry on driving them and carry on encouraging the kids to be dependent too. But as it gets more difficult to park, as costs continue to climb, as regulations and routes get more and more restrictive, don’t claim a priority for your old-fashioned romantic mode of transport – make your move. I have some tips on how to do that painlessly. Coming up in the next blog.

Considerate Cycling 12: Don’t Scratch And It Won’t Itch

M. Trignac and Horse. Colayrac-Saint-Cirq 1960s

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.

The Highway As A Free Car Park

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.

Whatever You Can Get Away With 01

I once attended a lecture on “The functions of the excess profit of the monopolist” given by the Dean of Social Sciences, Professor Walter Hagenbuch to a large number of undergraduates at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

At that stage in my life I had not mastered the distinction between teleology and tautology. But I could tell a pile of uncritical junk from valuable analysis when I heard it and I never attended another economics lecture at the University. It’s a shame, because I found much later that there is a lot to be valued in the discipline.

Last night, for example, stumbling through Skidelsky’s biography of Keynes, I read the following quote form Keynes’s first commercially published book:

“How long will it be found necessary to pay City men so entirely out of proportion to what other servants of society commonly receive for performing social services not less useful or difficult?”

John Maynard Keynes (1913) Indian Currency and Finance

A good question. A provisional answer would be “at least a century”. It dawns on me (again) that labour markets are markets like any other. Whatever the Hagenbuchs might say, it’s a power thing. A bit of supply and demand and a few lines on a graph might help our materialist cause but in the end it’s down to who is on your side, who makes the rules, who polices the rules, and how easy it is to avoid the wrath of the mob. “Whatever You Can Get Away With” as I like to say.

Considerate Cycling 9: Blog Transfer 2

"Hawk Eyes"
Hawk Eyes Supporting Ginger And The Wildhearts on December 13th 2011

Even in a world that isn’t very friendly to bicycles, I enjoy pottering around Bristol and its surrounding countryside two or three times a week.

Inevitably I see a lot and think a little while I am out and about.  I don’t get as cross as I used to about other people doing reckless, thoughtless or selfish things on the roads and paths. Most of their DNA and a lot of their experiences are very similar to my own. None of them have any more control over their world than I do. So I would like to be as considerate as my bad temper will allow.

Anyway, I’ve started blogging a bit and I hope to do a bit more. The first attempts were in Blogger – just over here. I decided to change to WordPress because one or two people suggested Blogger was a bit awkward for comments, and it certainly  wasn’t all that straightforward for constructing and changing blogs. It’s good to learn new things.

This is by way of an introduction and a test. I have it in mind to write about the concept of shared space and the queer things I have heard and read about it in recent days.

I take photographs as well. There are lots more on Flickr just here

Considerate Cycling 4: A First Comment on Bristol

I went for a bike ride around Bristol yesterday. I set off along Clifton Down, went across to Redland and then Stokes Croft, meandered through parts of the City Centre, and then made my way onto the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, coming home via Fishponds Road, Old Market and Park Row.

I didn’t have any destination in mind, I was just following sign posts and whims to get a feel for how well the road system guided and protected cyclists in general. I tried hard to use cycling facilities as much as possible, and I didn’t take a map or other information with me.

It’s always a pleasure to be out on a bike in good weather, so I did enjoy the experience. But if you ask me whether Bristol is a cycle-friendly city I would have to say that it falls a wee bit short of being so. I don’t want to make detailed observations of specific aspects, or offer comparisons with other places. Engineers and planners do all that for a living, and when I’m cycling I’m not that interested in the technical niceties. I’m reporting raw impressions here – the immediate feelings and experiences that would affect my willingness to evangelise for cycling as a great way to travel through and around the city.

What follows is a list of the most obvious problems that cropped up, or gradually accumulated over the couple of hours that I was out and about. Long as it is, it isn’t exhaustive.

  1. Nothing persists. There are starts and beginnings in all sorts of places. Frequently during my journey a cycle lane, some cycle crossing lights, or a direction sign  attracted my attention. Most of them petered out pretty quickly, some of them almost immediately. Very little seemed to be joined up or continuous. The Bristol and Bath Railway Path is the obvious exception, but finding its start without maps, trials and errors is as good as impossible. Once on it, leaving Bristol is easy enough – just keep going. But getting back into Bristol is a magical mystery tour. Visitors from Bath will find precious little help in getting to the nice bits: there is certainly no consistent, obvious and reliable signage through the wilderness once the path has been left behind.
  2. Permission to cycle is confusing. I know from careful reading of specialised maps that some parts of Bristol permit cycling in shared areas that were originally built for pedestrians. Other very similar areas are designated as non-cycling. But in neither case, on the ground, is it obvious whether cycling is permitted or not. The result is that there is some cycling in almost every situation – legal or not. Those who no longer care cycle regardless of regulations. Those who would like to be legal have no way of knowing (from what they see around them) whether cycling is allowed or not.
  3. Road crossings and junctions are confusing. Some combinations of lights, dropped curbs, road surface marking and signs are bewildering (perhaps I’m just too old to cope?). The only way to avoid the confusion is to ignore them and keep a close eye on the traffic and the real hazards around you.
  4. Some cycle lanes are worse than useless. A cycle lane alongside parked cars is an invitation to take risks. I passed a couple of sections yesterday, and I know that there are others around the city. In my opinion you can have parked cars or a cycle lane, but not both. Being guided to pass within inches of parked cars on your left, while vehicle traffic passes inches to your right feels wrong. When I cycle past parked cars, I normally make sure that there is at least the width of an opened door between me and the cars. If this means taking a bigger chunk of the highway, I look behind me and then move further out from the hazard than a cycle lane normally provides for.
  5. Facilities are badly maintained. Paint on a road lasts a year or maybe two. There are plenty of lane markings and cycle symbols in Bristol that have been reduced to illegible flecks. Being early Autumn I noticed that many of the pretty and useful painted signs along the Bristol and Bath Railway Path are now obscured with mud and leaves. I had been looking so that I would know the name of my exit point. Direction signs for cyclist routes are easy to turn round,and some have been. It only takes one puzzling experience to lose confidence in all of them.
  6. Road names and confirmatory route signs are less common than I need them to be. Given that direction signs are few and far between, the help given by periodic confirmation of where I am and and where I am heading is reassuring. If you already know the way, of course, this doesn’t apply. But after a mile or so on an unknown road I like to know that I am (or are not) still heading towards City Centre, or wherever else it was that the first sign had directed me. Major roads have all this covered very well for motor vehicle traffic. Cycling, with its shorter distances and slower speeds benefits from equivalent treatment.
  7. Major roundabouts are not designed with cycling in mind. One or two large and busy roundabouts had significant problems with lane choice for cyclists. On one occasion a lane marked with my intended destination on approach to the roundabout left me in the wrong place for safe exit, requiring a move across to a different lane while on the roundabout. Not a good feeling.
  8. Roads are littered with stationary vehicles. Whatever the rules seems to say, there are always vehicles parked on double yellow lines, junctions, pavements, at bus stops and on cycle lanes. Each one, I’m sure, is only there “for a minute or two” but every stretch of road seems to have at least one, obscuring a view of the road, narrowing the carriageway or stopping traffic. Vehicles waiting right up at the cycling advanced stop line are common.

However dismal all that sounds, I am still happy to keep cycling around the city. I enjoy it. The problems I found are ones I can manage and I will gradually learn to cope with or avoid the worst bits. But would I recommend, Boris Johnson style, that beginners or school children should simply ride with confidence, quick wits and the Highway Code for guidance?

No, I wouldn’t.

Cunning, intuition, experience, good balance, strong legs, quick eyesight, research, patience and a friendly guide or mentor are all needed to get the full access to all the areas that you might want. Compared with the Dutch town I spent two weeks in during the 1970s, Bristol feels more like 1870, just like all the other lovely English cities I know. General enslavement to the motor car looks as hard to escape as it ever was.