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Monday, 30 January 2012

Manchester Cycling Strategy

The Interim Strategy for Cycling in Manchester (draft) was recently brought to my attention via the GMCC. The draft can be found here (Hat tip: Manchester FOE). The Manchester Cycling Strategy (MCS) is a result of the Memorandum of Understanding between British Cycling and Manchester City Council. The executive summary on page 4 states,  "Manchester is the home of British Cycling - cycling's national governing body." Whilst it is true that British Cycling is the governing body of cyclesport, the relevance of British Cycling to transport cycling is at best, dubious. Whilst British Cycling have recently started to devote some attention to cycling as transport, they are first and foremost the governing body of cyclesport and not an organisation for furthering the aims of everyday folk who want to use a bike for transport.

The biggest problems in the MCS draft are often a result of this confusing mixture of sports promotion and facilitating cycling as transport. A good example to illustrate the absurdity of this is to consider motorsport. Whilst I am sure that there are a good number of people in Greater Manchester who participate in the various disciplines of motorsports, from rallying to formula three, the groups which represent these interests rarely weigh in on transport consultations such as the LTP3. Where they do decide to comment, it is extremely unlikely that they would try to present themselves as the 'voice of the motorist' because clearly they aren't - they are the voice of motorsports. Whilst these two groups are superficially similar, their interests, needs and wishes are (quite rightly) lobbied for by separate groups. 

In cycling, the distinction is less commonly made, perhaps because there are so few people who regularly use bicycles for any purpose. The problem with this is that cycling is conflated with cyclesport, giving cyclesport a louder voice than it perhaps deserves, whilst making cycling for transport less visible and less attractive to normal people who aren't interested in getting hot and sweaty in order to go shopping or to work.

This conflation of cycle sport with cycling for transport is illustrated well on page 5 which includes a list of headline figures for investment in 'cycling' over the past five years:

  • Over £3.2 million on infrastructure through LTP Highways Capital Programme
  • £518,000 on child cycle training
  • £56,000 promoting bike week
  • £24 million building the National Indoor BMX area
  • Over £12,000 in small grants to community groups
  • £2.5 million on promoting and supporting club and sport cycling
  • Over £250,000 on promoting cycling through initiatives such as Sky Rid [sic]
From this list, several issues stand out to me.
  1. Is all of this funding coming out of a single pot for 'cycling?'
  2. What does the National Indoor BMX Arena, supporting club and sport cycling and to a certain extent, the Sky Ride, have to do with cycling for transport?
  3. If (1.) is in fact the case, how can £24 million for the National Indoor BMX Arena and £2.5 million on promoting club and sport cycling be justified when only £3.2 million is spent on cycle infrastructure for transport cycling, which has the highest potential for growth and thus has easily the highest potential economic, social and public heath returns.
  4. The cyclesport-oriented aspects of this report should be part of a wider report on the uptake, promotion and enabling of sports in Manchester (which in itself is an important and laudable aim)
  5. The cycling for transport-oriented aspects of this report should be part of Manchester's wider transport strategy (and dramatically increased in their scope)
Where the report discusses strategies for increasing and improving cycling in Manchester it refers to the LTP3 plan mentioned previously. The LTP3 is worded in a way which allows for the construction of a real network of quality cycle corridors to Dutch standards, the result of which would be immense growth in transport cycling in Manchester and the enormous wider benefits that brings. Unfortunately, it is also vague enough to allow for little change from the status quo, beyond a bit of paint and some crap signage along back-streets; the sort of measures which have already been well-established to be ineffective. The strategy goes on to identify five 'key issues' holding back transport cycling in Manchester:
  • Addressing the demand for cycle parking
  • Making major junctions safer for cyclists
  • Working with partners to reduce cycle theft
  • Liaising with City Centre employers to improve workplace cycle parking and changing facilities
  • Improving opportunities to cross the inner ring road
Sadly, these issues are more likely 'things which existing cyclists would like fixed' rather than issues which hold back those who wish to cycle for transport but do not currently do so. These issues are likely to be along the lines of:
  • Fear of being killed or injured when cycling with motor traffic
  • Separated bicycle tracks on main roads
  • Junction designs put cyclists (and pedestrians) in unnecessary danger in order to prioritise private motor traffic
  • Rat-running makes riding on streets feel unsafe
All of these issues are tackled in The Netherlands road network model; busy main routes have separate tracks and motor-vehicle rat-running (and hence volume) is eliminated on streets where people live (making them attractive for cycling despite the lack of separation). Address these issues (even in the form of a barebones functional network) and cycling rates in Manchester could easily be increased to 10-15 times their current level. 

Despite the paramount importance of infrastructure in making cycling into a viable mode of transport for normal people, the only infrastructure mentioned in the MCS draft are the three cycle centres to be built in the city centre. These will only improve the experience for existing cyclists, they will provide little or no benefit for would-be cyclists. My mother doesn't ride a bike, not because there is nowhere for her to park her bike, shower and stash her lycras in a locker. She doesn't cycle because she (entirely understandably) feels unsafe when cycling on our roads as they currently exist. Providing facilities which would be unnecessary in a mainstream cycling culture is not the way to build a mainstream cycling culture. Where cycling for transport is mainstream, people ride in whatever clothing they need to be wearing at their destination (possibly in addition to a coat and gloves) with the idea of needing to shower and change after cycling to work being something which is utterly irrelevant in a mass cycling culture.

The MCS at least does not explicitly exclude measures which would actually allow cycling for transport to grow, but unfortunately it takes the traditional approach of 'tinkering around the edges,' focussing on marginal improvements for existing cyclists whilst completely ignoring the reasons why normal people would never consider cycling for transport. In addition to the desperate need for vastly increasing the scope of the measures proposed to increase cycling for transport, the inclusion of so much irrelevant material pertaining to cyclesport confuses the issues for all users of cycles. Ideally, the cyclesport content in the MCS should exist as a part of a wider 'Sport in Manchester' strategy in order to prevent the needs of those participating in these two largely unrelated activities being confused. The report also focusses on leisure cycling separately. It is my belief that leisure cycling does not require a huge amount of specific 'strategy' to grow, provided that cycles are considered during the design or renovation of parks & towpaths etc. The measures which will make cycling for transport attractive to normal people will also increase the appeal of cycling for leisure.

Friday, 27 January 2012

To its Logical Conclusion

I was stunned this week by some quotes from the Association of British Drivers which were featured in a post from As Easy As Riding A Bike. Whilst the criminal behaviour of motorists being rationalised by a motoring organisation is far from new, I found the sheer unashamed stupidity of what was being said really quite shocking.

"Because speed limits are set below the level at which the majority of drivers consider to be reasonable, you get a very high level of non-compliance. And you get a greater disparity of speeds – you get more frustration, [...] that will result in a large queue of drivers behind, who simply want to drive at what they consider to be normal speeds, and that leads to frustration, dangerous overtaking… "

A responsible drivers' organisation might suggest that a driver who gets so frustrated by having to drive within the law that they might attempt a manoeuvre which not only puts themselves in danger, but endangers the lives of innocent people might be better off not being allowed to drive at all, this is the ABD, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the ABD literally don't know the meaning of the word 'responsibility.' It is interesting to try to apply the ABD's logic to other areas:


"Because the definition of theft is are set below the level at which thieves consider to be reasonable, you get a very high level of non-compliance. And you get a greater disparity of theft – you get more frustration, [...] as thieves try not to steal, and that leads to frustration, and when it gets released, events such as the August riots happen… "

Domestic Abuse:

"Because the definition of domestic abuse is are set below the level at which abusive partners consider to be reasonable, you get a very high level of non-compliance. And you get a greater disparity of beating – you get more frustration, [...] as abusive partners try not to beat their partners, and that leads to frustration, and when it gets released, it leads to serious injuries and even deaths… "

Road Safety:

"No, not lower speeds – lower speed limits. Because speed limits are set below the level at which the majority of drivers consider to be reasonable, you get a very high level of non-compliance. And you get a greater disparity of speeds – you get more frustration, because a small minority of drivers will obey the speed limit, even if they think it’s really silly, and that will result in a large queue of drivers behind, who simply want to drive at what they consider to be normal speeds, and that leads to frustration, dangerous overtaking… It also can lead to long queues of traffic, which prevent side road traffic from entering, or crossing, a main road. So you get these additional conflicts, even road rage, as a result. So if you have sensibly-set speed limits, which means set at the 85th percentile, which is the level that 85% of drivers wouldn’t exceed anyway, experience has shown – this goes back, certainly in the United States, to the late 1930s – that is the safest level at which to set speeds, speed limits, and you get the lowest casualty rates."

Oh wait, that one was real. The ABD goes on to use that brilliant debating tactic of pretending that something which is bullshit is actually backed by science (brilliantly debunked later in the original post). Their website actually displays this crap proudly on their homepage, but they have made it even more entertaining to read: 

"The ABD calls for the use of sensible speed limits that are based upon well established scientific road safety principles, not political correctness, emotive hysteria, or vociferous local activists."

Ahh yes, that well established scientific principle of 'Be safe: drive as fast as you want, wherever you want.' I really admire the balls they show by calling their made-up science 'well-established.' In fact is it so well established that it goes against everything that every bit of real road safety research and every road safety organisation in the whole world is saying. If that's not well established, I don't know what is! To make this statement of idiocy even more delicious, they included the Daily Mail's favourite phrase, 'political correctness' 
(They cleverly use the original meaning of the phrase, which is, 'Stuff what I done don't like').

Monday, 23 January 2012

CEoGB Policy Bash

On the weekend of the 28th of January there will be a meeting to really hammer down CEoGB policy. The agenda for the event can be found on the CEoGB website. If you wish to be involved, please email It will be a great opportunity to have your say about exactly how the UK's brightest new cycling organisation pursues its ultimate goal of a real return to everyday cycling in the UK.

Personally, I feel that the CEoGB cannot be too specific in setting out what is and is not acceptable when building infrastructure for cyclists. The present guidelines allow for really quite good cycle infrastructure to be built in the UK, however they are too easily open to the kind of abuse which results in useless facilities which do nothing to help cycling at all, merely providing fodder for Facility of the Month. I find it baffling that such dangerous (and functionally useless) facilities exist in the same country in which I once had to take a workplace safety training course in order to use a step-ladder. Providing the DfT with a set of rules for cycle infrastructure where useful, legally-binding minimum infrastructure standards are set based on the speed and volume of motor traffic and where the difference between roadsstreets and lanes, along with the measures each of these requires to make cycling viable for normal people, is clearly defined. At the moment, the established norm is that 'people have their place, but the car must come first,' what we need to work towards is the making idea that 'cars have their place, but people must come first' the new norm.

With the new standards being a legally-binding minimum standard, we will need realistic final compliance dates. One potential method would be to have several compliance dates, a compliance date for a minimum functional network of cycle paths along the main roads in the most highly populated cities (London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow etc.) followed by a date for smaller cities and towns and final dates for complete compliance dates. I'd like to see a minimum functional network of cycle routes along main roads as a priority. There's no point in trying to tinker around the edges with sign-posting 'quiet routes' along back-streets as these areas are already less problematic and are the routes people ideally wish to use to get around. The main roads are the currently the biggest problem for cycling and any approach which ignores fixing the problem of main roads in favour of relegating cyclists to often circuitous routes along back-streets sends a message of cycling not being taken seriously as a mode of transport. Such schemes will fail, as they consistently have in the past.

An interesting idea (although one not likely to happen) is to take the scientific approach and do an experiment. Choose a decent number of towns with broadly similar sizes, population densities, employment rates and geography and split them into three groups. In the first group, re-design the road network in-line with the measures used in The Netherlands. In the second group, waste invest the same amount of money on more traditional British approaches to encouraging cycling, 'promote cycling through advertising campaigns, cycle training, handing out lights and high vis, cycle maintenance workshops, building town centre cycle enclosures with lockers and showers and asking motorists to be nicer to cyclists. The third groups would be the control group. In all three groups, modal share amongst all modes of transport would need to be thoroughly monitored, with demographic information also being useful. Run the experiment for ten years and then publish. I think we all know what the results would be, but at least it'd start an 'interesting' thread on Cyclechat.

Interestingly, this central policy of the Cycling Embassy will actually benefit everyone, not just cyclists. Ending the system whereby our streets and roads are effectively ruled by those who are most able to get their own way by (intentionally or otherwise) intimidating other more vulnerable road users comes with huge and obvious benefits which are simply too numerous to mention in the scope of this piece. Needless to say, anyone who is ever a pedestrian, ever rides a bike, is (or may ever be) disabled or elderly, is (or has, may one day have, or was once) a child, owns or works for (or may one day do so) a retail-based business or who pays (or may one day pay) any form of tax in the UK (amongst many, many other groups) has everything to gain from the UK road network being dragged into the 21st century, closely in line with the system used in The Netherlands today.

Put simply, the Dutch system of Sustainable Safety takes the approach that sometimes people can be dicks. Once you accept this, it becomes easily possible to utilise the design of the roads, streets and lanes themselves in order to minimise the harm resulting from this inevitable fact of life. If you want to have your say on the specifics of this infrastructure, or how we go about lobbying for it, the policy bash is your chance to get involved.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Places for People

I came across this earlier today in Macclesfield. It's nothing out of the ordinary, a van parked illegally, partially on double yellow lines and at the intersection with a minor road, blocking the route for pedestrians and making it less safe when they do try and cross. The sort of thing you might see hundreds of times in a typical week in the UK. What tickled me was the company branding, the van belongs to a company called Places for People.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Recurring Themes

Once again we find ourselves in January, and once again I find myself writing about an incident where someone has attempted, without provocation, to use a motor vehicle as a weapon to either intimidate or assault me. Once again, the sole reason behind this appears to be something as innocuous as my choice of transport mode. Once again the driver and occupants of the vehicle were around 17-19 years of age and once again they were exclusively male.

The sad thing is that most regular cyclists have similar stories of unprovoked aggression from motorists. Most regular cyclists I have spoken to have at least one story of a motorist attempting to intimidate them or cause actual bodily harm for no other reason that they had the sheer audacity to choose to get around on a bike. 

A significant minority of the general population seem to have the capacity to behave like this. When using public transport or on foot they might be a nuisance to others. On a bicycle they may risk causing injury to others and themselves in the process. In a car, they are able to kill and maim without any risk of coming to harm themselves. Interestingly, the behaviour of this fraction of the general public receives by far the most attention from the mainstream press when they also happen to ride bicycles.

Perhaps it is time to seriously examine the idea of including a thorough psychological examination in the process of licensing drivers. In addition to weeding out those who clearly are not able to behave appropriately when operating a dangerous machine in a public place, it will also help put people off driving in general by increasing the costs and hassle associated with learning and continuing to drive. This can only be a good thing for everyone.