Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 6 – British Cycle Infrastructure

Apparently, Brooks also dabbled in Surrealism whilst developing their prototypes before they settled on a traditional leather saddle.

According to Wikipedia,

‘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.

Ceci n’est pas une cyclepath
(Pease Pottage, West Sussex)

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.

No funny caption, just marvel at the surreal incompetence (from ‘Facility of the Month – January 2012)

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]:

Dirt Cheap

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 may have read. These facilities are defined by lycra clad experienced cyclists who correctly and pointedly use the road next to it, 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 a bottle of ‘White Lightning’. 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 accidentally.

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’ where painting the previous three categories a shade of Barclays blue creates continuity and changes it magically for the better for some reason. This is often the most tragic of categories as 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, sometimes with 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?

Please also see:

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 1: Class

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 2: Culture of Fear

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 3: DANGER!

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 4: Driving is Easier

Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 5: Bicycle Maintenance

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4 thoughts on “Why People in the UK Don’t Cycle No 6 – British Cycle Infrastructure”

  1. Part of the surrealism of British Cycling infrastructure, is that while it is often located where it isn’t needed, it often isn’t located where it is needed. For instance cycle lanes are often found on roads, but almost always disappear at junctions, where the greatest hazard exists. Similarly, cycle routes often terminate for no obvious reason, forcing the cyclist to continue their journey along a hostile and dangerous A-road.

  2. It is always entertaining to point out that for the price of 50 metres of motorway you get 1.6 Km of quality city tracks on rebuilt city streets or 32 Km of rural cycle route, then watch them grope for an answer… 😉

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