Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The dangers facing long distance cyclists in the UK (and it's the same in many other places too)

Many British cyclists ride from Land's End to John o'Groats at some time or another. The distance between these two points, from the extreme South West of Cornwall to the extreme North East of Scotland, makes for the longest ride possible within the mainland of Great Britain without turning around. Riding LEJOG has become a sort of rite of passage amongst cyclists.

Yesterday, I read the sad news that two people riding from Land's End to John o'Groats had been killed by a truck on the A30 in Cornwall. I knew instantly the conditions under which this tragedy had occured because I rode there with a friend exactly seven years ago. In our write up of our ride we described this road as "lethal". We didn't mean this as a prediction.

The A30 near where the deaths occurred. I cycled here in 2007. Click for a larger image

A road like this with a 70 mph ( 113 km/h ) speed limit and no-where to go to get out of the way because the road has no hard-shoulder is hardly ideal for cycling. There is no good way to get out of the way of motor vehicles which present a danger. Where it is possible to pull off the asphalt surface your wheels drop from the hard edge of the asphalt an uncertain distance onto an unknown soft surface which will almost certainly cause a crash. However, in many places even this isn't possible because the safety barrier prevents cyclists from being able to get out of the way.

Why did we ride on the A30 ?
In our case we didn't actually set out to ride on busy roads like this because we knew they could be both dangerous and unpleasant. That's why we planned a route of about 1000 miles which would avoid the worst of the roads rather than taking the shortest possible route of about 870 miles which is largely in conditions like this. However progress is very slow if you try to follow small lanes, and it's not necessarily any safer because these also are not designed to make cycling either pleasant or safe. There are many blind corners from around which cars can suddenly appear and rough surfaces which can cause problems for cyclists are also common. That's why, even though our intention had been to find a more pleasant route, we ended up on the A30, as do so many LEJOG cyclists even if they had no desire to ride in such conditions as this.

We cut short our time on the A30 after being repeatedly passed too close by too many vehicles. The final straw was an incident in which two large articulated lorries, side by side with one slowly overtaking the other, passed us with just a few cm to spare and their horns blasting. We were definitely not having fun at this point so at the next junction we returned to the lanes.

A few days later
I returned home from this tour on a high. Several dangerous things had happened, but I'd survived them all. The experience is wonderful, but afterwards you have time to reflect on what could have happened.

In my case this reflection was partly prompted by one of my daughters, aged 13, saying to me that she thought she'd like to ride LEJOG when she was a little older. While overall I'd enjoyed the experience a lot, I didn't want her to put herself in this position. We already planned to emigrate to the Netherlands and thinking about the future safety of our children only made that idea more appealing (note: the idea stuck with my daughter and in 2016 she rode a similar distance in safety in the Netherlands)

Riding from Land's End to John o'Groats is enough to be a challenge, but this challenge should be against yourself, not against the danger from motor vehicles and dreadful conditions provided for cyclists on the roads of Britain.

The A30 is far from unique
The A30 is really a motorway in all but name. However, because no other road has been provided which offers anything like a direct route through the countryside in this part of the UK it is used by many cyclists making their LEJOG journey. Cycling conditions like this are far from unique.

There are many roads all across the UK which offer frightening and dangerous cycling conditions comparable with the A30. Many of them are in places where there is no good alternative route and so they serve as very effective deterrents against cycling even amongst people who like to cycle. Another example covered in a recent blog post from Cambridge was about the abuse meted out to a disabled person who dared to use the only route provided for him to travel a short distance from his village into the city.

A comparison with the Netherlands
While this unpleasant drama on the A30 was being written about in the UK, we were blissfully unaware of it here in the Netherlands:
This rather nice place for cycling is not a road. It's also not called a "super-wotsit" or a "mega-thingy". It's merely one of many very ordinary and mundanely "cycle-paths" in the Netherlands. My Mum's in the middle. Note that all types of cyclists benefit from cycle-paths like this and they use them for all types of journeys.
As it happens, my mother (aged 74) is visiting us at the moment and yesterday we went for a short tour together through the countryside. We took it easy and rode about 60 km through the countryside to sit at a beach and ride on a ferry. During our short tour we hardly saw any cars at all. Almost all the distance was covered on cycle-paths, many of them quite generously proportioned as shown in the photo above.

Cycle-path that we rode on between
a small town and village 20 km away
We would never have done this if we lived in the UK. It's simply not safe enough and not pleasant enough to do purely for the fun of it. In the UK we couldn't have ridden side by side for hour after hour in peace and enjoyed each others' company as we cycled.

While my mother is fit and enjoys cycling, she has never considered riding her bike the much shorter journey between her home and my sister's home in the UK. The distance is just 10 miles but conditions on the roads she would have to cycle on mean that it might as well be a thousand miles by bicycle.

In the UK and other similar countries, many short distances like this can be cycled only by those people who might set off to ride a thousand miles, such as myself or the unfortunate victims of yesterday's crash.

Cycling campaigners place too much emphasis on cities
While the most obvious place to start is with emphasizing infrastructure within cities, it is not only within cities that we need to provide better conditions for cyclists - cycling should be viable as a safe option for all journeys including shorter and longer distances to and between villages, for holiday trips and for people making long tours.

Judy riding home from holiday last
year. Judy never rode so far as 130
km a day in the UK but cycle-paths
like this make such longer touring
distances accessible to more people.
The challenge is against yourself,
not against the danger of traffic.
Good cycling infrastructure benefits everyone. It's not just for people like my mother when they are on holiday, but also people like myself who are keen on cycling every-day. I was always a keen cyclist but I ride far more kilometres each year now than I ever did when I lived in the UK. Why ? That's simple. It's more pleasant and it's more convenient here. We ride long distances without ever having to "share the road" with motorised vehicles travelling at 113 km/h and therefore everyone does it more often.

The same comprehensive network of high quality cycle-routes which best serves local cycling and children going to school is also the best infrastructure to serve fast cyclists and longer distance tourers. All cycling in the Netherlands is safe.

My thoughts are with the families of those killed yesterday, and indeed with the families and victims of all road crashes, whether cyclists, pedestrians, equestrians, motor cyclists or drivers. The greatest danger to all these groups comes from motor vehicles, primarily the vast number of private cars. Especially where they mix with more vulnerable road users, the result is all too often lethal. Back in 1896, the coroner who investigated the very first death due to a car said "This must never happen again". How did we become so passive about something which was is no longer an exceptional cause of death but which now kills 1.2 million people every year ?

Other reading
I also covered the danger of British dual carriageway A-roads back in 2010.

The cyclists killed yesterday have been named as Andrew McMenigall and Toby Wallace. They were riding to raise money for the very worthwhile Kirsten Scott Memorial Trust.

Problems like those which occur on Britain's roads are not limited to that country. On Monday night, cyclists all the way around on the opposite side of the world in New Zealand were killed and injured when riding on a similarly unsuitable road despite taking the precautions of riding single-file and having lights on during the daytime. Road design which causes this degree of conflict is lethal for cyclists everywhere that it exists.


Jasper Bierhoff said...

It's clear that whoever approved that road for bicycle use has no conception of road safety at all. Utter madness.

Magic Bullet said...

On top of that, there's somthing like 'good sailorship' (goed zeemanschap in Dutch, I'm not sure about the correctness of the translation). This is rule nr.1 on the water. It means that the captain is responsable for taking the right decisions for the safety of his ship, crew and passengers. This can overrule any other regulation. If something is allowed, doesn't mean it's a wise thing to do. If, in hind sight, the captain did something according to the rules but still put his passengers, crew or ship to danger, he can still be sued.

Cycling on such a road is bad sailorship to me. The lack of alternative cycling tracks is, to my opinion again, no excuse for any individual to make a positive decision on cycling on that track of the A30.

So, 3 causes:
- road design
- cyclist
- car driver

All in all, these are very sad tragedies.

David Hembrow said...

Jasper: there's no good alternative to using roads like this in the UK because very often they are the only route provided.

Magic Bullet: We are very lucky in the Netherlands to have the best cycling infrastructure of any nation. This makes it possible to practice "goed zeemanschap" every time and everywhere that we cycle. People living in other countries are not so lucky as us.

Anyone who cycles in other countries has to ride in places where "goed zeemanschap" is impossible. The alternative to taking risks when cycling is to not cycle at all. Not cycling at all is of course the choice of the majority of the populations of these other countries and this is the case because people are scared to cycle.

The importance of decent quality infrastructure, as we have in the Netherlands and which enables you and every other Dutch cyclist to practice "goed zeemanschap" is almost impossible to over-state. It is the almost complete absence of this high quality infrastructure which the Dutch take for granted that prevents people from cycling elsewhere.

This is true not only in the countryside but also in cities and towns. The situation on the A30 is not at all unusual. On that same tour I found myself on dangerous roads on many occasions including here - the only signposted route to my destination, here - busy with logging trucks, no other road available, here - on the left with the cars, the red is for buses in the opposite direction. Even my commute for several years looked partly like this (100 km/h speed limit).

This is half a km from where we used to live. Note the small blue right turn for cyclists sign on the left of the road which tells you that to take a right turn you need to be in the fourth lane across when you get to the junction. This is a school route.

Would you advise anyone to cycle in conditions like those I've shown you ? Do you think that perhaps the quality of the infrastructure is important after all ?

I hope this blog post has gone some way to raising your awareness of the scale of the problem outside this country, and I can only hope that it will make you rethink the criticisms you have made of me before now. Those criticisms were based on your previous ignorance of the facts.

b33k34 said...


The problem is actually the other way around. This road would have started off as a small lane at some point in distant history. It's not that it was 'approved for bike use' it's that it was repeatedly 'upgraded' to allow motor vehicles to travel in greater numbers and at greater speed without providing any safe facilities for cyclists to use (whether directly alongside or nearby).

Jasper Bierhoff said...

David, are there any places in the world outside the Netherlands right now that show promise with regards to cycling infrastructure?
I know there's comparatively good facilities in places like Denmark and Germany but is any place truly aspiring to "go Dutch" and make cycling infrastructure a priority rather than an afterthought?

I read your post about the visitors from Norway. The Scandinavian countries are progressive minded and have a penchant for modern design, is anything starting to happen there?

David Hembrow said...

b33k34: This is true of many roads in the UK but not necessarily of many dual carriageways or motorways which often were built new in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, these new designs also in many cases included no thought whatsoever about how their more vulnerable users would use them.

Jasper, I hope you're right about Norway, but as with everywhere else I'll wait for evidence before celebrating success.

Denmark and Germany are interesting in that they both have done quite a lot, but they also both stopped short of doing what is really required to make cycling so accessible to all as it is in the Netherlands.

However, NL isn't perfect either.

I am in some ways quite concerned about what is happening here. I think it would be very easy for the Netherlands to start to go backwards in cycling. All it requires is that people who don't really understand why it is that the Dutch people cycle so much as they do should gain too much power. This could have happened if the ridiculous idea of Shared Space had become more popular than it is, for instance. We now also have threats from scaremongerers and a whole new generation of infrastructure designers who have grown up taking the mostly very well designed infrastructure of the country for granted and may try to make a name for themselves by changing things for the worse or by emphasizing the wrong things.

Richard Adamfi said...

I clicked on the 'scaremongering' tag and the most recent article was from 2001 about helmets. Has something more recent happened for you to make that comment?

David Hembrow said...

Richard: Actually the last bit about deliberate scaremongering in Holland on this blog dates from 2010. However, yes there have been other examples. I'm afraid that many Dutch people simply don't understand how lucky they are. Amongst what is thankfully still a small minority here there is an idea here that Australian ideas about compulsion for helmets might be a good thing. I prefer not to give them publicity.

Jasper Bierhoff said...

Another death.

bronbaderos said...

Hello, (pardon my English if applicable, I'm Dutch-but not drunk-)

I'm some sort of an enlightened person. I can explain further if you ask about it. And now some of my enlightenment is going over to you..


I am Dutch, but never really realized that much as I saw about cycling. The subject now appears before me as a good thing. Because cycling

- encourages peoples self sufficiency a lot

- I see an extra amount of peace of mind compared to nations that don't cycle that much

- Being more disconnected from the car industry seems to be a good thing

- An obligation to be in motion (fitness health). Many people cycling as a habit will at some point no longer be able to think outside a bicycle as a means of transportation

- It is ethically physically more responsible for humans, and also compared to current technical status of this time. However viewed, it, something like that results in being e.g. happy. Taking a big heavy car with you especially in transport within the city is too much. Going by foot is too little. A bicycle (especially with a transmission) seems to be just right.

Wisdom/enlightenment doesn't always bring about the most nice thing to hear. But it doesn't have to be as bad as it looks.

Somehow a pity maybe you moved to the Netherlands. I'm sure you would enjoy getting bicycles more normalized in the U.K. I recently heard in the news that the U.K. is very interested in it. Of course enthusiastic people who also understand and know about it are very important in that case.

Another thing is: how to not have ,,going Dutch = more cycling'' or ,,getting it to be normal''. It is something that works universally and therefore possibly a bother to see it as anything else.

Point 2 in this is: of course yet, that is what people say. And on the other hand it doesn't matter or something to go on about that much/too little a problem as a fact/something to mention to people it could concern. E.g. to a bicycle god like you ((:). As long as Dutch people are not equal to the universal facts that have to do with cycling.

It is a common mistake in other subjects too. An example is democracy. It is something that has universal consequences. Not specifically cultural. There is the risk of it being a bother to cultures if universal facts are being called one with only one specific culture all the time/ or however the problem lies. It sooner is then is not a blockage in that case.

An interesting idea is I think how can the United Kingdom be that by itself. And thus having more possibility to benefit from it. I think re looking the cycling principles. E.g. better saddles, tires that can't get flat..

I'm not sure this is a good post to post.

Friendly greetings,