A little while ago, I wrote this post on the National Cycle Network Route 2 between Worthing & Brighton. More specifically, this point where the approach to a junction opens out to 3 lanes heading westbound into Worthing on a 30mph road, perfect for putting your foot down, sticking your finger up to ‘the man’ (or ‘society’ as I like to call it) and competing in testosterone fuelled gladiatorial combat for the road ahead. This stretch of cycle path runs along a converted pavement (sorry, ‘shared use facility’) and is wide enough to intimidate pedestrians or for two cyclists to pass with enough space for a Kleenex tissue, laid side on, between handlebar ends.
However, extensive gas main works needed to be carried out recently and something so extraordinary occurred that West Sussex County Council and their private contractors could actually be praised for….well, kind of helping cycling a little bit, albeit on an accidental technicality. Firstly, this is how it looked before…
Anyone on a bicycle would have to negotiate a weird slalom of street furniture before picking up the segregated narrow cycle path along the beach. And here is a close up…
To reiterate, this is a National Cycle Network route. The on-road cycle path terminates in a left turn arrow directing a bicycle rider to cross a shared bit of pavement (coloured red) to then pick up the segregated route into town. The bi-directional seafront path is barely wider than the on-road strip of green paint you can see in the picture above but is always far more pleasant than the road and you get the bonus of a beautiful sea view.
However, when the road works had been completed and the barriers cleared away, just look at what they’d done….
Yes! They had realigned the street furniture to allow easier passage for cyclists (and even pedestrians as cyclists were no longer weaving about and the sight lines had improved)!
…and the picture below is looking back towards Brighton, also showing what I meant earlier about the on-road path terminating in a left turn.
Staying with the photo above, what I personally would have done was reduce the carriageway to two lanes (one right turn, one straight ahead), removed the pedestrian refuge and widened the seafront path to not only improve the comfort of cyclists, pedestrians, parents with pushchairs and mobility scooter users (of which there are many in Worthing) but you could even add planting to create a far nicer and sustainable gateway into Worthing. After all, the road is 30mph all the way from Worthing to Brighton.
West Sussex County Council has yet to wake up to the genuine benefits to tourism and local businesses that the bicycle could bring as it remains stuck in a Thatcherite time warp. It provides cycle facilities that constantly look like they were designed as an afterthought or the result of a drunken bet, even despite the highways budget going up this year. That said, I wish to acknowledge that this realignment of street furniture is an improvement however trivial or accidental it may be.
I was cycling my merry way home this evening as I usually do along the seafront from Brighton to Worthing. The Sturmey Archer 3 speed was ticking away like a pacemaker made for Bez from Happy Mondays and the sea breeze was slowly caressing my slowly dwindling hair. Just outside Worthing on the edge of Lancing Beach, I normally encounter this…….
It’s obviously a skip, but it was placed right in the middle of the cycle path to prevent access to the neighbouring greensward by Gypsies and Travelling folk who are despised in Britain slightly more than cyclists, although it’s a very close call. The Daily Mail rule of thumb is that cyclists don’t pay Road Tax (which hasn’t existed since 1937) but Travellers don’t pay any tax (allegedly). We ignore the fact that Vodafone and other large corporations get away with not paying their fair share to the tune of billions because in modern Britain its just easier to pick on minorities. Anyway, imagine my surprise when I came across this…..
The structure on the left already had the seating stripped out to remove the homeless people who would sleep there occasionally and had been given a shiny new coat of red, white and blue, I assume due to the forthcoming Jubilee celebrations. In the patch of brown where the skip was there is now a shiny new blue sculptural bollard announcing that you are now entering or leaving Lancing Beach.
Unlike the other black columnar art installations you can see, there is nothing reflective at all on it. The picture above shows a bit more context – like the fact that cyclists following the path from Worthing have to do a 90 degree right turn (there is a high white wall just set back to the right) so as they accelerate away, provided they haven’t hit any oncoming cyclists or pedestrians, they can collide with the art installation. The words ‘Lancing Beach’ can be the last thing they remember as they gracefully slip into unconsciousness, with the gentle crashing of waves to keep them company. It’s all part of the rich kaleidoscope that is riding a bicycle in Britain.
This weekend marks the AGM of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain and will be held in Bath & Bristol (details here). Since the Embassy started last year, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to be shown around infrastructure ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous via the Scottish (which at times also veered toward the ridiculous). Although we shall be kicking off with a leisurely jaunt along the Bath Bristol Railway Path which I’m really looking forward to, the pace will only quicken when we discuss what we are as an organisation and where we’re going.
The reason is simple; it could have been a predictable year in cycle campaigning. Some additional decent momentum with LCC and their Love London Go Dutch Campaign building up to Mayoral elections followed by the Parliamentary Bike Ride followed by Bike Week with its accompanying optimism of rising numbers of cyclists followed by everyone going on their holidays and then the cycling numbers receding as Autumn takes hold.
But on 4 November 2011, Mary Bowers, a 24-year-old Journalist for the Times was knocked off her bicycle and to this day tragically remains in a coma. And The Times decided to do something about it.
To say the World of cycle campaigning as a result lurched to breakneck speed would be bordering on reckless understatement. Cycling was suddenly thrust beyond the realm of cycling magazines, blogs and internet forums and out far, far into the public domain. Every day brought a new initiative, pledge or commitment from politicians and officials in National and Local Government. There were excellent protest events organised such as Pedal on Parliament in Edinburgh and of course London Cycling Campaign’s excellent ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ ride, both remarkably well attended considering the atrocious weather that usually marks the transition to a British Summer. Thanks to The Times Cities Safe for Cycling campaign, I make the suggestion that more was achieved for cyclists than established campaigns had been trying to do for years [through no fault of their own, I hasten to add].
Or has it? Now that the dust has cleared, the protest rides ridden and the best Parliamentary china has been cleared away, I’ve listed below some of the key points and achievements extracted from a report by the jolly nice instigator of The Times campaign, Kaya Burgess.
Prime Minister David Cameron, Opposition leader Ed Miliband, Mayor of London Boris Johnson, Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson and Mayor of Salford Ian Stewart have all backed The Times’s campaign, while Cambridge, Brighton and Leeds councils have all voted through official support and ten cities back the campaign. A host of famous names also backed the campaign in the first few weeks.
Futuristic projects to build elevated, enclosed cycle lanes would cost a prohibitive £38 million per kilometre. But less hi-tech projects have been constructed at a far more economical cost, such as elevated tracks in Copenhagen and pedestrian and cycle-friendly bridges in Cambridge.
Polls conducted by The Times revealed much about the habits of drivers and cyclists, while more than 10,000 submissions were added to a reader-generated map of Britain, showing where the most dangerous spots for cyclists can be found.
By the way, here is The Times’s ‘Cities Safe for Cycling’ Manifesto
Great stuff (especially when you consider the timeframe) but you will note that there are a lot of pledges, ‘calls for…’, ‘explores..’ and reviews but as to whether this will turn into firm action (and more crucially, funding for that action) remains to be seen. I personally still remain severely sceptical about the state of infrastructure in this country which is the best chance we have of increasing numbers of everyday cyclists through subjective safety. This is why I feel that there will always be a need for a Cycling Embassy of Great Britain as long as it never deviates from its core mantra of ‘Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure [to aid and assist training, promotion et al]’. Even when other groups launch campaigns pushing for Dutch Infrastructure such as LCC, or start holding policy reviews about ‘Going Dutch’, we should still be there to assist or support if needed but mostly developing our knowledge base and demonstrating what ‘Going Dutch’ actually means as a benchmark. We should all know only too well that to deviate or go for compromise will force us down the wrong road (pardon the pun) again with yet more crap infrastructure. And no cycling organisation wants that. Much of our current infrastructure continues to be a published joke, designed and built with the same result as a Toddler group given the chance to design the successor to Trident. However if it starts to join up in their idea of a network, cyclists right to certain roads could be brushed aside as easily as Cycling England. And don’t think it can’t happen.
People are still signing up to the Embassy website, making generous donations and giving some excellent reasons for joining which is fantastic and I thank you personally for placing your faith in our fledgling organisation. I shall be reading out some of the reasons at the AGM (not giving names or details away of course) as they really warrant a listen. Above all, we need fresh input (and a new Press Officer) so please, please come along and help shape our destiny. Some good ideas have already been submitted for discussion and it won’t be the same without you. I’ve even ordered nice weather for you so you have no excuse.
After having a think on the Brompton this morning (I’m commuting 24 miles a day on the Brompton at the moment in training for this in case anyone wants to pop along for support), I was trying to think of a metaphor or some such that best summed up the frustration of taking perfectly good ideas from Europe and getting them back to Britain.
Suddenly, the classic ‘Penguin Game’ from ‘Jeux Sans frontieres’ leapt to mind. Take a look and imagine Britain enjoying playing in Europe, not taking it that seriously and getting tangled up occasionally but when a good idea tries to get carried back it either gets spilt, spoilt or upset in some way. The coloured water represents Dutch cycling infrastructure. But I think you guessed that already. I know it’s not a cycling clip but enjoy one of my favourite TV moments and see you in beautiful Bath & Bristol this weekend.
‘Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur…’
‘As they [Surrealists] developed their philosophy, they believed that Surrealism would advocate the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination…’
Although the epicentre of the Surrealist movement is cited as Paris immediately following, and as a reaction to The Great War, I would argue that Highways Authorities in Great Britain in the late 20th/early 21st centuries are a worthy successor through their Surrealist installations across the land, never short on elements of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non-sequiturs.
One would have thought it simple to design for the bicycle. After all it’s so simple, a child can use it. A surrealist juxtaposition forms because Britain excels in making the most complicated mode of transport simple and the simplest modes of transport complicated.
Warrington Cycle Campaign started it’s always entertaining ‘Cycle Facility of the Month’ back in March 2001. They even have a book out first published in November 2007 (proceeds to CTC’s worthy Cyclists Defence Fund). The problem is that it’s a few years on and highways authorities across the land either still haven’t got to grips with the bicycle, or simply see the bicycle as an imposition to ‘progress’, or are utterly hostile to the bicycle based on prejudices that really shouldn’t be lurking in any professional environment. Local cycle campaign groups are only usually consulted when the plans are programmed for construction so even if they object it’s too late. But at least Officials can then say that they’ve consulted with those ‘cyclists’ whilst rolling their eyes and ticking another box.
When a new road is constructed, motorists are drawn to it because it offers speed, directness & quality of surface. It is often touted as the ‘solution’ to a problem that nobody seems guilty of creating but that doesn’t matter anymore because thanks to the new road, the problem will never, ever occur again. Apparently. When a new cycle path is constructed, cyclists shy away from it because they don’t need surrealism on the way to work or school. They are often ponderous, indirect and are often barely converted pavements with poor sight lines, overgrown vegetation and of course pedestrians, who are probably wondering what they did to deserve such Hell.
There are four classifications of cycle infrastructure in Britain [as I see it based on observations at local cycle campaigning level]:
Usually a ‘Town Centre’ route from an outlying suburb where you may get to your end destination in under three days – Directional signs only. Inexplicable Dropped Kerbs also fall into this category.
Cheap and You Should Consider Yourselves Grateful
Usually a ‘Town Centre’ route from an outlying suburb where you may get to your end destination in under a day – Combination of directional and ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs, some converted pavements and on road cycle-paths (paint only) – some of it possibly paid for by Section 106 money if it runs past a new development. Tactile paving is provided to catch bicycle tyres and trip the elderly (even more lethal in snow). This is to fulfill standards that the designer might have glanced at. These facilities are defied by lycra clad experienced cyclists who correctly and pointedly use the road next to it. They are often armed with cameras to record abuse from motorists who think they should be using something that Salvador Dali couldn’t have thought up even after an evening on Lambrini. Some ‘safe routes to schools’ often fall into this category – great ideas but the children still have to dress so they are visible from Neptune and are no match for a Land Rover containing children that are more important, apparently.
Ridiculously Expensive [According to Comments Section in Local Newspaper].
This is generally a scheme that has had money donated from an external source such as Sustrans. This fact of course goes straight over the heads of local newspaper letter writers and Wetherspoons Pub Frequenters who never let things like cold, hard facts get in the way of prejudice. Schemes vary from more expensive ‘Town Centre Links’ as mentioned above, ‘Railway Station links’ where at the end of a hard ride we are supposed to have a post-coital cigarette at seeing the amount of cycle parking provided (some of it under cover), converted paths through parks and lightly converted canal paths with strange gates at either end looking like the entrance to Narnia complete with dog walkers. Also Beeching-era railway lines that make great cycle paths by accident. These former railway lines will get incredibly muddy in winter but the thought of tarmac horrifies local residents who claim it urbanises the countryside. Although they’d think nothing of it being destroyed for a relief road it if it aided congestion.
F*ck me, HOW MUCH!!
The above phrase is often spoken by both cyclist and member of the general public, but for differing reasons. Still far, far cheaper than a road scheme, this is where we enter Grand Designs such as ‘Cycle Superhighways’. Although the latest iteration of Superhighway has proved to be incredibly successful, this is often the most tragic of categories as, particularly outside London, so much is often promised and some political will has been found before the cold hands of compromise and lobbying strangle the usefulness out of it, resulting in the worst possible outcomes. This category also includes well used segregated bi-directional cycle paths that are in reality for unbelievably narrow people or the population of Lilliput, often going from somewhere to nowhere because they aren’t part of a decent, coherant network. These are generally routes that people currently use and would use because they follow the desire lines for the commuting public. As a result, they are generally heavily trafficked and therefore the stakes (and costs) are considerably higher. A lot of the money would have been spent on Feasibility Studies alone.
And we still haven’t mastered junctions.
British Cycle Infrastructure is the result of the end users being treated like flies on a cow – consistently being swatted away as tiny annoyances and occasionally being given dung to feast on (that’s also cheap to purchase). If you look at a Dutch Streetscape, you are often under no illusion what local and national Government thinks of the bicycle. It is also easy to conclude what local and national British Governments think by looking at our streetscapes and this is yet another factor which, to the general public, makes the act of riding a bicycle as appealing as Badger Baiting with Peter Andre. This is yet another reason that makes the simple act of riding a bicycle continue to be seen as a peripheral, specialist and potentially dangerous activity (no movement ever got anywhere telling the general public how they should be feeling. If it looks dangerous, then that as they say is that).
Having said that, I do wish to acknowledge at this point that we do have excellent cycle training and trainers in this country doing invaluable work (often for free). I am making the argument that infrastructure done correctly would amplify their efforts a great deal. It’s also worth acknowledging the biggest irony that, thanks to organisations like CTC, there are reasonably good cycle infrastructure guidelines already out there.
I leave you with a film I made for the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain (our AGM is later this month – be there!!); the first three clips were shot on a David Hembrow Study Tour of Assen and Groningen whilst the final clip is of my everyday commute between Worthing and Brighton. When I arrived at the ferry port in the Netherlands, to make a train connection, I cycled the 37km from Hook of Holland to Rotterdam with a friend without consulting any maps or GPS and without hi-viz, helmets, hassle, fear or intimidation. Now think about the last time you rode a bicycle in the UK. Yes, surreal isn’t it?
Last Monday night I was sat on the floor in my Kitchen putting a new inner tube and front tyre on my Brompton. I set a new personal best by only swearing twice as I put all my ‘manly’ effort into levering the tyre over the rim – which felt like my attempt to push over Stonehenge whilst on a family trip aged 4.
I enjoy a little bit of bicycle maintenance from time to time, but only a little. Actually, if I was really honest, I’d rather pour a nice glass of deeply refreshing beer, sit back and relax in the knowledge that someone else is doing it and that I’m doing my bit for the local economy – and Worthing has some excellent local bike shops. Last week, the chain snapped on my Dutch Bike whilst sauntering along the seafront (still a few miles from home) just as the Heavens decided to provide Niagara Fallsian levels of precipitation. I could have tried to fix it, removing the chaincase piece by piece, getting colder and wetter and miserable. Instead I tethered the bike at the nearest Railway Station (as the peak time bike ban was still in force), discovered a pub I’d never seen before and had a very reasonably priced and tasty pint of ale with chatty locals after booking the bike in to a local shop. A bit of an inconvenience but it’s my main mode of transport and it’s still way, way cheaper than motoring.
If we can assume for a moment that a barrier to people not cycling in the UK is lack of confidence on our Nations roads and cycle infrastructure designed on a faulty Etch a Sketch, then a lack of confidence in cycle maintenance must also be added to the list.
If your car breaks down, you have the safety of a metal box to lock yourself in whilst a breakdown recovery service can come and carry out the work required or get you home if necessary. You can be a car owner without having to know the slightest thing about how it actually works beyond where the various fluids go and where to put some air from time to time. The motorist is divorced further from the workings of their machines by the fact that they now need specialised computers to ‘diagnose’ any problems or faults. In the past, to open a car bonnet in the village where I grew up would be to attract the attention of every man within a 5 mile radius, each with their own ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ to offer, even non-car owners. Nowadays, motorists have to endure the qualified mechanic or ‘Diagnostic Centre’. I personally dread this; partly because I barely use the family car so the cost always seems out of proportion, partly because I speak like a BBC Radio 4 Continuity Announcer which seems to invite an extra ‘0’ to the final total and mainly because the cretins know they can say what they like and I sagely nod my head to anything because in reality I simply don’t care.
To a general public now completely divorced from car repair (or most sorts of domestic appliance repair), to speak to them about bicycle repair is to speak to them about the life of Alan Titchmarch in Esperanto. Later this year, Bike Week will be held where local cycle organisations & campaigns get their time to shine by holding cycling related rides and events. Usually at such events is what’s called a ‘Dr Bike’ stand, where the public can get their bikes checked out by a friendly & knowledgeable volunteer. Personally, I can remember looking with horror at such events as parents would turn up ensuring that their children had the latest safety equipment such as brightly coloured helmets and hi-viz but had neglected to notice that the brake blocks were missing. Buying safety equipment is of course easy and instantly demonstrates to other parents that they carewhilst beautifully covering the death trap issue.
One solution would be to give more choice to the public of a type of bicycle that has been around for a very long time and is still more relevant for the majority of journeys that they would take. Dutch Bikes and roadsters built for sheer utility are, as a rule, incredibly low maintenance as gears, brakes and chain are enclosed. I have barely had to touch my Batavus Old Dutch in a year and a half of hard use (chain and rear tyre aside), doing 24 miles a weekday plus weekend duties and being left outside in all elements allied to a salty sea breeze.
Here are selected extracts from the response I got from David Hembrow
‘……There are just as many ‘cyclists’ here as in any other country, and they’re just as likely to do their own maintenance.
All my “cycling friends” do their own maintenance, and they all ride around with tools and spare tubes etc., though some may take more difficult jobs to a shop.
However, because of the wide demographics of cycling in the Netherlands, many people who ride bikes in the Netherlands, including many who ride long distances regularly, simply aren’t the sort of person who likes mucking about them. These are the people who perhaps wouldn’t ride bikes if they didn’t live here.
Many people have a bicycle shop which they use regularly, and Dutch bike shops offer “spring maintenance” deals and such-like, so that many people take their bikes into the shop regularly as they would a car for an MOT test. Such a test will typically include an all-in price to repair minor items such as cables or brake pads, but you’ll get an extra bill for more expensive parts.
There’s a definite demographic/class split between the “ride the bike into the ground” types (students etc. I’ve even seen a student in Groningen riding a bike which no longer had handlebars) and those who ride very nice bikes which are well maintained (bank managers etc.).
The time before that was when my ‘fast binders’ snapped while riding and got so entangled in the back wheel that it couldn’t even turn anymore, that must have been a year before that. So I’d say it comes in the shop about once a year and I try not to touch it other than that. But I do fix little things, changed the batteries of my back light and just last week the saddle got loose and the front suddenly pointed upwards… very unpleasant… had to unscrew a screw, put it horizontal again and then I fastened the screw again. The sort of things you don’t get your hands dirty with.
I would fix a punctured tire, but the last time that happened to me must be over 10 years ago. (and tomorrow no doubt… when you say such things).
The ‘s-Hertogenbosch bike is a similar story. I doubt that one has been in the shop in the last two years. It is 27 years old now I think. But I did some maintenance on that one… The original dynamo was slipping and that was because it didn’t turn so well anymore. When it snowed I didn’t have any light anymore. So I bought a new dynamo and actually exchanged it (two screws and two wires I think, about 10 minutes). Before that I actually put it upside down one day… I had to. There was something wrong with the chain for months but the noise it made became audible on the videos… I was too lazy to get it to a shop but one day I got brave and put it upside down. I opened the chain guard (I actually understood how to do that) to find a meter of ribbon people put around presents entangled around the chain and back wheel. I cut it loose and took it out and actually put some grease on the still original chain. Closed the chain guard and it was like new again… That must have been the most elaborate thing I ever did to any bike I ever owned…
So… really not much I do, but I do fix little things sometimes. But the bikes are so low maintenance that you hardly ever have to do something. I do not use services that you can call. I live within walking distance of several workshops. So I can pick and choose. Same in Utrecht. Even the parking facility there offers repairs.
He goes on to state that his partner owns a Mountain Bike which has to be serviced far more than any Dutch Bike (and gets constantly teased about as a result). This is because if you introduce 24 more gears, you introduce more components and more chances for things to go wrong. I own a Mountain Bike because I’ve always loved it, racing my Muddy Fox Courier as a child. I still like to potter along the South Downs Way and other trails around Surrey, Hampshire and West Sussex. However, there are many out there that would just like to go to the shops and get a pint of milk and thankfully there are a more few utility bikes coming on to the market, offering low maintenance, simplistic ways of getting about.
I leave you with a rare treat from the British Council film archive. Good to watch with a Gin and Tonic instead of tinkering with bikes in my humble opinion. Most of the country thinks the same way 🙂
How a Bicycle is Made (1946)
A Bicycle Factory ‘The process of manufacture is traced from the beginning; the design on paper and the raw materials. We see what goes to make the steel tubes of the frames, the handle bars, the gear wheels, the pedal cranks, the pedals, the spokes, the wheels and the hubs, until at last the complete bicycle is ready for testing.’