Why People In The UK Don’t Cycle No 3 – DANGER!

The Guildford school run

According to Wikipedia, a ‘Parallel universe or alternative reality is a self-contained separate reality coexisting with one’s own….Fantasy has long borrowed the idea of “another world” from myth, legend and religion. Heaven, Hell, Olympus, Valhalla are all “alternative universes” different from the familiar material realm’. I would also like to tentatively add cycling.

To seasoned cyclists, the world of cycling is a vast one. It’s a world of touring, mountain biking, commuting and racing. Of hybrids, recumbents, fixed wheels, hub gears, single speeds, drop bars, carbon, steel and child seats. Of Bromptons and Moultons and old classic Bikertons. Of segregation, integration, helmets, high viz and ‘cycle chic’. All of this is passionately discussed and debated on cycling websites, forums, blogs, twitter accounts and the good old printed press.

But take just one small side step away from that world, and the average Briton can be happily and totally ignorant of cycling for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t take a lot to make that side step; just looking at the busy roads around where they live usually does it. And then going indoors.

If you were to walk up to a non-cyclist in the street with a clipboard and once you’ve convinced them that you’re not after any money, ask them why they don’t cycle the main reason will be that the roads are too dangerous.

And that is where you should conclude your survey.

You could lead them to all sorts of statistics. You can point out that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the dangers. But the same can be said for running with the Bulls in Pamplona – If you run through the streets as a large group, you achieve a critical mass so when the Bull goes charging in only a small percentage get injured.

You could ask them to consider the fact that by driving, they are part of the problem. But the majority of Britons are happy not to ‘rock the boat’, to be a part of the silent majority whilst silently praying that the cost of motoring doesn’t escalate too much. Many would love to cycle, they really would. But they simply don’t know how to start or who to ask for advice or they simply haven’t got the time. And besides, the roads are too dangerous.

It doesn’t matter what the per mile rates for cycling death or injury is. You can train all the adults and children that you like to ride bicycles. But if the roads around them look dangerous, all that effort would have been wasted and some more bicycles are left rusting in sheds. Cycle Campaigners simply cannot grasp the fact that there are many people in the UK that have never cycled. At all. Not just ‘never cycled on a Brooks saddle’, I mean never cycled. What’s worse is that unless campaign organisations start understanding the magnitude of the problem, many more people may never experience the fun and liberation of cycling either.

My 12 mile commute to work is along the A259 from Worthing to Brighton. As I’ve written before, although it quite a wide road in places, it’s very busy with the infamous school runs and white van men and lots of HGV’s serving Shoreham Port. I passed my cycling proficiency in 1979. I’ve raced Mountain Bikes at World Cup level, I’ve helped teach beginners how to ride, I’ve commuted through Central London and through open countryside for years and yet I still find that stretch of road quite hostile. At work, my non-cycling colleagues hold me in the same regard as the Jackass team. To reiterate, this is just for riding a bicycle.

If you need further evidence that the roads are dangerous, then you need look no further than that doyen of local newspaper letters pages, the pavement cyclist. These will generally be novice cyclists that find a particular piece of road intimidating (maybe based on how they drive it) or believe that they can cycle on any pavement because the council has painted a bicycle symbol on some of them so it must be alright. Many pavement cyclists simply don’t want to be classified as cyclists or be bound by any of the laws of the land such as lights, reflectors or being the bicycle’s lawful owner. 

I believe that two things have to happen in the UK; there has to be seismic change away from draconian car-centric policy (in particular the misguided notion that motoring is the key to growth, jobs and prosperity) to open up our cities, towns and countryside alike, and there has to be a combination of speed reduction and infrastructure based preferably on the Dutch model (meaning a combination of methods and NOT only about segregated cycle paths). Above all, Government Departments and local councils have to realise what the definition of ‘Sustainable transport’ actually is (Hint: not widening or extending roads). If this doesn’t happen, then cycling will remain a counter-cultural curiosity, something that can be held at arms length and forgotten as easily as Cycling England.

There have been massive debates on blogs recently about such issues as segregation versus vehicular cycling or adopting Strict Liability laws such as in most of mainland Europe. Lots of great stuff was discussed by some very knowledgeable and lovely people. But if I was to discuss these issues with my wife’s friends or with acquaintances in my old village local, they would look at me as though I was from a parallel universe. If British cycling limps along its current path, it might as well be.

24 thoughts on “Why People In The UK Don’t Cycle No 3 – DANGER!”

  1. A nice summary. It comes down to the three most important things for encouraging cycling. subjective safety, subjective safety and subjective safety. Without this, people are simply to scared.

    I must emphasize, though, that the Dutch model goes well beyond just speed reduction and cycle paths. The design of the roads is different, but the design of routes even more so. Car drivers simply can’t use a large number of the roads if they want to get to their destination. Through routes for motorists are designed out, emptying the roads of cars and leading to segregation without a cycle path in sight.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I always try to go out of my way to point out that ‘the Dutch model’ doesn’t mean segregated paths everywhere. However, I probably don’t go far enough into the depth and range of solutions and as your blog testifies, there’s always some new discovery or delight that puts our County Council Highways Departments in the Dark Ages.

  2. The current plan by Vauxhall MP, Kate Hoey, to ban cycling on the Thames Path supported by her belief that there’s an excellent cycle route in the form of the parallel A-road and red route shows the lack of understanding of how to nurture cycling that is endemic in England. My take on it can be found at:

    If people aren’t happy to let their kids cycle on it, then it’s time to check for motor-centric provision.

    1. I have been following this with interest, partly because I lived in Oval for a while (and cycled to Camden High Street every day) but also becuase the South Bank is my favourite area of London (and Gordons Wine Bar over the bridge in Villiers Street is a nice place to park a Brompton)

      You’ve picked up on a very important point; that if opening up the Thames Path to cyclists is to work, there needs to be signage indicating considerate cycling with occasional enforcement. When Worthing Promenade recently reopened to cyclists, special signs were put up reminding everyone that pedestrians have priority and to cycle with respect for others (I’ll paste a picture soon).

      Another thing to bear in mind is that although the Thames Path can get incredibly busy with tourists and people out for a stroll, safe cycling has been unofficially trialled for years, I assume without incident. Finally, there is clearly demand for a traffic free route as the roads around therre are simply not conducive to pleasant cycling (unless you’re in full body armour). I’ve commuted along such delights as Vauxhall Cross and Parliament Square and I had to cycle very aggressively and not really in the spirit of fun and freedom at all. As the Skyride in September proved, if you provide a safe traffic free environment for cyclists to enjoy London, they will come.

  3. I cycled home a couple of days ago along here (http://is.gd/gVTge). Not so long ago I was given a fixed penalty for cycling on the pavement. This time I saw a Dad on his bike, little one on the back, another one behind. On the pavement.

    And I thought “He would have been ticketed too.” What’s depressing is that this is the South Circular. Doesn’t look it in the pic, but is an insanely busy piece of road with no cycling facilities at all, and I wouldn’t want any inexperienced cyclist to plan to make their way down it. (Sighs)

    1. Looks like a perfectly nice stretch of road to me. I jest of course.

      To me, Red Routes are the worst of all Worlds; the ‘no stopping’ element not only raises traffic speed but also motorists expectations that they will be able to drive faster on these routes. Hence the increased frustration when they can’t.

      Experienced UK cyclists may sneer at the Netherlands. To them I simply repeat the following mantra, ‘30% modal share, 30% modal share, 30% modal share……’

  4. ‘30% modal share’, lol, good one :). I’ve seen a few ‘experienced’ UK cyclists utter that Dutch people on bikes are ‘not as good on bikes as UK cyclists’, sort of pointing out the reason for needing bike paths…

    Another one (from someone who actually takes people on tours here) would be that we all cycle here for one reason only: NL is flat as a pancake. Showing this person the 70% modal share drop between 1950-1970 was too much for him to handle/compute. One can only sigh and move on. 🙂

    1. Amsterdamize

      To such people I also point out that Switzerland has a higher cycling modal share than the UK at 9% and as we all know, Switzerland is also flat [if you compare it to Nepal or Bolivia].

      It’s the failure to accept the blindingly obvious that gets me (and others). The car has won the battle here, but that does not mean to say its won the war. We just need to redesign the battlefield so everyone wins. 🙂

      1. Why not? After all we’re ‘just’ building a new single carriageway bypass in Sefton and ‘just’ making ‘improvements’ to M5 J29, east of Exeter, and ‘just’ building a bypass to the north of Lancaster, connecting the port of Heysham to the M6 and…….:-)

    2. “NL is flat as a pancake” – which leads to rather nasty winds. Speaking personally I’d rather have hills, where you are sure of having a downhill going the other way (and perhaps a nice view too!) than a headwind that veers to always be in your face 🙂

  5. I don’t know if this is going to be under “Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle” -Parts 4 and 5, but let me suggest:
    You are encouraged to DRIVE by:
    * Declining motoring costs (despite other costs going up).Tthis happens at the same time as being told that you have “paid for the road”, and that you are being ripped off, extorted, “hammered”, “hit” etc.
    * Not having to obey the law – or even having your law and rule-breaking colluded with by the “road safety” lobby as it idiot-proofs your motoring environment.
    * Having all the relevant infrastructure – multi-storey car parks, spaces at homes and retail outlets etc. rganised around cars.
    * Increasing the length of journeys to fit in with car-dominated transport policies, thus making it less easy to cycle.

    Subtly, but persistently, create the idea that anybody not motoring (unless it is long distance train or commuting in city centres where it is more difficult to drive) is some kind of idiot or pauper. Creating the role of the motorist who is both some kind of hero (“important for the economy”) and also a victim (spending too much “tax” and being subject to the danger of “unsafe roads”, i.e. ones with treees by the side that have not (yet) been cut down to allow you crash in comfort.

    In other words, as with most cycling questions, it’s not why people don’t cycle, but why people drive.

    And then you can be in your own little box, seperated from the big bad world (but I think you covered that in “Culture of Fear”)

    1. Good points, Robert. As important as the “cycling is too dangerous” thought is the “there is no way I could manage without a car” one. Perhaps the latter thought is the largest block to sustainable transport being taken seriously in the UK. Cyclists are seen as idiots and paupers.

      Even families on long-term benefit are provided with “essential” cars by the state (a nice new “people carrier” every five years for the family I’m thinking of, the parents of whom haven’t done a days’ work for decades).

      Both UK government and media seem to be strongly controlled by the motor industry (with their jobs and advertising budgets). We follow the USA in this, sadly. Henry Ford knew what he was doing…

  6. Thanks fonant.

    On your “couldn’t manage without a car” point: I have been coming up aginst this for twenty five years, during which time car ownership has at elast doubled – including people who somehow seemed to “manage” beforehand. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    We ha to argue that motoring needs to be controlled in terms of danger, and paid for (see http://rdrf.org.uk/2010/01/a-very-moderate-suggestion on our website for stuff about the cost of motoring).

    In case anybody argues about how poorer motorists (ther eally poor tend not to drive) couldn’t pay if theer was proper fuel taxation and/or carbon reationing, point out that poorer people can’t get on the property ladder, or have reasonable rented accomodation, might not have reasonable jobs or indeed any at all, worse or no pensions, etc. etc. Your poiunt about the family on benefits is interesting: they may suffer with inadeqaute housing, employment, health care, eductaion etc. – but they can get a car.

    I’s not just the success of advertsiing or the bullying of big corporations. It’s that the masses can be kept under control by the promise of a car (among other things).

    Check out that the excuse makers really can’t manage without a car for all their journeys – there are probably some that even they could share a car, use PT or cycle/walk for, or get goods delievered or work from home. If they still can’t live a reasonable life for ther est of their journeys, tell them they should get their fellow motorists who are driivng without “having to” to stop: the onus should be on them.

    And then of course they should still pay for it andy the law.

  7. I’m with Robert I think. I think most people use their car because their car is more convenient. I’m a cyclist and even I do this. Two real world reasons for not cycling I’ve heard in my office:
    – I have to drop the kids off at/pick the kids up from school on time
    – I can’t be bothered to maintain a bike
    Cars keep you dry and warm/cool, get you places quickly, don’t make you sweaty, don’t need any special clothing, don’t find hills a struggle, easily carry other people, kids and luggage/shopping.

    I actually have to go to a lot of effort to cycle. If I wanted to make the 1.5 mile trip to my parents’ house right now I’d have to remember to take the lock, put some hi-viz on, put my gloves on, walk to the shed, unlock the bike, walk back down the garden, lock the back door, tuck my trousers into my socks, take stuff off when I got there and lock the bike only to have to unlock the bike and put it all back on again for the journey home. To drive I’d have to remember to put my glasses on, walk out the front door, get in the car and go.

    YES, some of that is because of the bike I use and choices I make. But it’s a real faff!

    I think that the only way to get people out of cars is to make using a car inconvenient. Reduce parking spaces, make more bus and cycle lanes that use up public road infrastructure, put 20mph speed limits in place, make more roads one way making journeys longer, raise petrol taxes for personal use, neglect the road infrastructure and invest in sustainable transport instead. Oh, and change the weather.

    But really, what politician’s going to do any of that? They’d never get elected on those pledges.

    So what DO we do?

    (I don’t have an answer to that).

    1. I certainly agree that its a real faff and I think it has A LOT to do with our choice of bike. Even with my Brompton it’s a case of carrying it out the door, unfolding it, putting the lights on (as keeping them on affects the fold) and then I have a fairly limited range. However, you are oversimplifying the car. It’s not simply a case of finding your keys or putting on the correct glasses. It’s making sure that you have paid the correct duty based on emissions, that the vehicle is roadworthy, and is insured – and that’s before you’ve turned the key. Then there’s the absolute concentration you SHOULD be paying in your duty to other road users before the stress of finding a parking space at the other end. That element tends to get glossed over in the advertising.

      As for the things that you list to make a car inconvenient – no politician is going to get elected on those pledges because they are completely negative and would be seen as a ‘War on the Motorist’ because they don’t know that they’re cyclists and pedestrians yet. If you played to the positives such as more active lifestyle, longevity added to that life, less expense, greater happiness, freedom and that endorphin charged sense of achievement of getting from A to B completely under your own steam, suddenly it seems quite nice doesn’t it?

      As far as the weather is concerned, people can get just as soaked walking to the car park. We’re a nation of four seasons and each one has something to enjoy. Or you can just shut yourself away in a metal box before being permanently shut away in a wooden one.

      Play to the positives. Play to the positives 🙂

    2. Depends where you are, I suppose, but here in Lancing our bikes are much more convenient than our car for almost all our journeys: to the shops, taking the twins to school, getting into Worthing, etc.

      We have Dutch bikes which have:
      1) Integral locks with captive key when the lock is open: never any need to look for a lock or its key.
      2) Hub gears, hub brakes, full chain case, dress guard, mudguards: nothing dirty on the bike at all, no need to look for trouser clips, tuck trousers into socks, or wear any special clothing at all.
      3) Integral lights (hub dymano on mine – zero noise!) so never any need to find lights, and you never get caught out by unexpected night riding.
      4) Upright riding position for comfort, prop stands for parking anywhere, not just where there are parking stands.
      5) Rear racks with always-fitted pannier bags for carrying shopping, laptop for meetings, etc.

      I will often jump on my bike to post a letter a few hundred yards down the road, it’s so easy to use. Apparently people in Holland do the same: it’s simpler to jump on a Dutch bike than walk for amazingly short journeys, so you don’t see that many people walking.

      On the car side, it’s lovely and warm and dry, and has built-in music, but:
      1) Costs £60 to fill up the tank with diesel, this will only get more expensive with time.
      2) Costs a fortune to park, if you can find a space.
      3) Gets stuck in traffic on every journey, often making it slower than cycling would have been.
      4) Costs a few thousand per year just to have, even if we didn’t use it at all: MoT test, insurance, depreciation, car tax.

  8. A lot of interesting views on why people don’t cycle in the UK on here. I moved to Germany 10 years ago and now live in Switzerland, and cycle more each year. Apart from all the usual reasons of being healthier, and cleaner air I also find a lot more people here like to do it, young and old (and I mean OLD). The main reason though is that in mainland Europe, where cycling has not been driven to a third class activity, drivers are more aware of cyclists, show consideration for them (yes really) even in cities, and has been pointed out already, planning includes cycle use.
    I used to live in Warrington, that introduced cyleway from East to West across the town many years back. Routes that take you up to the main, very busy and very fast, roundabout in the centre and stop, with no easy way across. The UK needs to look at cycle use as a whole, not, as I feel at times, a whim to green voters (no offence to any greens meant here).
    As for cycling on the pavements – if it wasn’t safe on the roads in the UK I did it too. In Germany they will fine you for cycling in pedestrian areas, which I agree with, but up to these they have cycleways. As for the Dutch….. One reason we see more bad Dutch riders (wrong way on a one way street at night with no lights for example) is that under Dutch law the motorist is at fault in an accident, so some really don’t care. In their case the law is not just a guardian angel, but a reason to do as they like.
    I would like to think that if I move back to the UK that I would find changes, but my short visits don’t give me much hope for that…
    To all the activists, I ask to keep up the pressure, one day they may sit up and take notice, and our kids can then enjoy going out on their bikes without leaving parents in fear for their lives.

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