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 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?

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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Etape du Crap

My last post plundered some of the wonderful images sent in to the Warrington Cycle Campaign for their ‘Facility of the Month’ pages (and to reiterate, buy the book and send it to your local Highways Authority. Proceeds to CTC’s Cyclists Defence Fund).

In September 2001, this wonderful Turning Circle/Bicycle Layby/No, I actually have no idea what they were thinking either, was Facility of the Month. It is in the Campaign’s home turf of Warrington.

Yesterday, it surfaced again in the Daily Mail (and thanks to Lazy Bicycle Blog for the heads up). I was quite glad to see that ‘Silly Season’ has returned a little bit in the face of a potential humanitarian crisis in Libya.

It is the latest example in a long line of questionable planning decisions by councils – a cycle lane measuring just 15ft long.

Cyclists using the roads of Warrington, Cheshire, are apparently supposed to use the semi-circular track to help them get ahead of drivers.

Alternatively, this road to nowhere could have been designed by local pen-pushers to help cyclists execute a U-turn on a leafy avenue which runs between the Stockton Heath and Appleton areas of the town.

The spare-lane has been cut into the verge, covered in tarmac before a white cycle symbol was painted onto it – presumably to make sure there was no doubt as to who this strange example of highway planning was for.

The highway blunder was spotted by DSA Licensed driving instructor, Dave Horgan of Horgis School of Motoring.

‘The council need to think twice before putting up confusing signs and this sort of thing is an example,’ he said.

‘This is one of the reasons it costs so much to learn to drive nowadays.’

I’m a little stumped as what Mr Horgan’s comments mean as this nugget of infrastructure doesn’t appear to have been signed, has been sitting there for 10 years as forlorn as a Verve album and is probably ignored by motorists driving past as though their cars will detonate if they drop below 50mph. I also feel that there may be other real and pressing factors as to why the cost of a driving test has risen so much such as Middle East instability or the fact that insurance is seen as peripheral to many motorists yet operating a mobile phone is essential.

Anyway, Tuesdays post along with the above mentioned article got me thinking further about interesting ways to highlight the drivel that Councils have been getting away with for years in the name of ‘sustainability’. The sort of stuff that allows them to produce brochures and plans that gloss over their jeopardising cyclist and pedestrian safety and not understanding the bicycle as a simple and effective mode of transport.

I would like to suggest organising a bicycle race using a particular British town or city’s cycle infrastructure ONLY. I originally wanted road cyclists to be involved but that would probably be suicidal for them and their bikes in particular so maybe just mountain bikes instead – after all, many ‘Town Centre Links’ or ‘Greenways’ are not too dissimilar to ‘North Shore’. If held on the weekend, it may have to be abandoned due to parked cars. I believe however, if it took off, that it should be called ‘Etape du Crap’ or even ‘Crap Etape!’ (said in exactly the same way children would say ‘Crackerjack!’) although feel free to chip in with your own suggestions. In fact, if you commute and you get to an awful bit of cycle infrastructure, just yell ‘Crap Etape!’ before riding it. Passers by may wonder what the Hell you’re doing but at least you might feel better.

'...and the peloton steams over the tactile paving toward the...oh, bugger'

Just a thought.

In the meantime, here’s another post from Mark Wagenbuur via David Hembrow’s ‘View from the Cycle Path’. Please note that even when a full-blown construction project is on, the temporary cycle lanes are better than most British cycle infrastructure. Even when just a diversion, I would like some of what they’re having.

Cycle Campaigning Simplified No 4 – Highways Departments & Cycling Officers

St. Ig - The Patron Saint of County Council Highways Departments

WARNING: THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS AN OFFENSIVE ACRONYM

In the same way that the Department for Transport had Cycling England to keep at arms length at national level, so it holds with Highways Departments and Cycling Officers at County Council level.

From a cycle campaigning perspective, Highways Officers are often like Mrs Mainwaring in Dad’s Army; often spoken of but never seen. You will however be familiar with their work all around you from stunning seaside paths to safe, direct town centre links. You get the chance to comment when these incredible schemes have already been designed and programmed to be built. This is called ‘consultation’ to compliment their range of extensive sustainable strategy consultation solutions, as we have seen before.

You may be lucky enough in your campaign group to get a visit from the County Cycling Officer. This role has to be the most tragic in Local Government; if they were put anywhere else in the World of cycling, they would be a valuable asset as they are usually very nice, proactive people with an exhaustive knowledge of cycling infrastructure. They probably thought they could join their council with a view to changing things for the cycling good before encountering deeply car-centric Local Councillors and a Highways Department that sees cycling infrastructure as something poor people or vegans with a fetish for beads might use. The job role ends up being a combination of Harbinger of Doom and Eunuch. They are sent to cycling forums and meetings for the following reasons;

  • to explain why the crappy scheme set out before you is being built and why you should consider yourselves lucky to have it.
  • because the highways departments know that the schemes are crap and can’t be bothered to hear feedback, however constructive, for future schemes as cyclists demands will only push project costs up and goes against their training.
  • to explain why the entire cycling budget has been cut and is now reliant on Developers money.
  • to tell you why your hopes and dreams of a modal shift toward to cycling using proven continental methods will never happen. This will be told with a simmering, but castrated fury (Male Officers) or a simmering, but close to tears look (Female Officers).

It would be wrong to say that all Highways Departments are hostile to cycling and walking; some are certainly hostile, but many simply don’t know how to cater for other non-motorised transport modes (that ironically were there first). Cycling doesn’t fit into their engineering education with all its computer generated models and road enhancement guidelines. As a result, they shovel cyclists off the roads onto converted pavements, thinking they are doing the right thing in the name of road safety, without taking any road space from motorists. Cycling, as a result, becomes more dangerous and unappealing to the masses. Cyclists choosing to remain on the roads (that they also pay for) sometimes get verbal or physical abuse from motorists and simply face a more dangerous road environment due to motorists not expecting anything else to be there.

In summary, I like to affectionately call them Councils Utilising Negligent Transport Schemes and I think you should too. A wonderful example of Councils Utilising Negligent Transport Schemes may be found in Waltham Forest and for Councils Utilising Negligent Transport Schemes at their worst across the UK, you must visit Pete Owen’s magnificent compilation for Warrington Cycle Campaign here.

Deepest apologies for the harsh acronym. But I’m right.