Thursday 2 October 2008

Distraction technologies

Most people recognise that there are good reasons to try to reduce the proportion of journeys made by driving.

There are many things out there which may may look initially like a good idea to help to achieve this, but most are simply distractions.

One high-tech device that occasionally gets a bit of publicity is the Segway. It travels at the speed of a slow cyclist over a distance that anyone can cover on a bike, and it's expensive. However, it's championed by some as a "breakthrough".

So, what's not to like ?
  • There's no-where to put any luggage or shopping except in a rucksack or other bag on the person.
  • There's no way to carry a passenger (either child or adult)
  • It's slow compared with a bicycle. Just 20 km/h (12.5 mph) maximum speed.
  • It's very heavy to lift (around 50 kg) if you should need to move it. So forget carrying it onto a train, for instance.
  • It uses batteries which will at some stage have to be disposed of or recycled.
  • It is utterly dead in the water if the battery runs out as you're riding it.
  • It does not promote physical fitness
  • It costs... HOW MUCH ?
And that cost is of course a complete killer. $5,350 to $6,400 in the US plus another $1600 or so every 2 to 3 years when the battery needs replacing. Are you going to buy one for each of your children to ride to school ?

I've tried the Segway. It's a very neat device, technically clever and as easy to control as its promoters say. I didn't fall of it like George Bush did. I also think the developers did very well to produce it at all. However, that doesn't get over the basic pointlessness of the device. A bicycle is more useful in every way.

Mind you, there's no end to the silly ideas which get a bit of publicity every so often. Some people simply can't get used to the idea that bicycles actually are a really good way of getting about and they'll suggest virtually anything else. The Independent has even recently suggested that cycle lanes should be shared with horses. There are many impracticalities (e.g. are there enough stables should everyone decide to ride a horse ? Who will look after them ? How many injuries will be caused due to people thrown from horses ?) and I can also think of a brown, slippery and very smelly reason why this is a bad idea...

The Guardian writes about Fiat supporting a competition which picked a modified snowboard with handlebars as a good transportation alternative. They suggest that a skateboard would be a better alternative. It sometimes seems anything is to be considered in place of the already existing and proven bicycle.

I've nothing against horses, segways, snowboards, nor the people who ride any of these things. However, they are all examples of distraction technologies. Things that are promoted as ideal forms of transport when they are not, and when the truly practical alternative - the bicycle - is ignored by the British press, even though they're susceptible to reproducing the most preposterous green wash.

Even over emphasis on cycle training is missing the point. The reason that people don't cycle is that cycling feels unsafe. It is also viewed as inconvenient. If you really want to increase the rate of cycling, you need to tackle these problems directly by increasing subjective safety and directness so that people find cycling an attractive means of transport.

8th April 2009 update. Here's another example. I also recently wrote about over-reliance on the price of fuel.

Update 2014: This stuff just keeps on coming. There's now a proposal for London to have "Skycycle", a network of cycle-paths built in the sky. This is a proposal for a very sparse network (220 km in total, about the same as the length of cycle-paths in Assen, but London's population is more than 100x as large) which won't go near most homes or most destinations. It's another distraction from what is really needed.

Luckily, it's crazy enough that it'll probably never be built. However, it will waste time, and London really does not have time to waste.

The picture at the top is of another, older, distraction technology: The "Bicycle Railroad". This was a late 19th century idea of a pedal powered monorail, which come back time and time again. This example is in the Velorama bicycle museum.


Bob said...

Hello David,

Nice blog you have. I'm a Dutchman living in Germany so I am experiencing the exact opposite of you. Coming from Amsterdam I moved to Erfurt, which is an extremely bicycle-unfriendly city. There are virtually no bicycle lanes, you have the share the road with the cars allthough the road is often too narrow so that I force the cars to wait for me. A lot of times the sidewalk must be used by bicyclist as well, but the pedestrians seem unaware of that. They're often angry with bicyclists because they feel we're taking away their space.
On the largest square in the city it is forbidden to ride bicycles during the daytime. The police sometimes set up traps and catches bicyclists that ignore this rule...
I could go on and on but you catch my drift.
When I read your descriptions of Assen and its bicycle lanes I really envy you.

WestfieldWanderer said...

Where I live in the Depths of Darkest Somerset here in the UK cyclists have been sharing country lanes and bridleways with horses for the past 130 years or so; sharing cycle lanes with them doesn't seem such an issue to me.

As for horses being "distraction technology", well, as horse power was probably the first non human powered transport heaven knows how many thousands of years ago, it's been one hell of a distraction! :-)

David Hembrow said...

I also have no problem with sharing the roads with horses in the countryside. Horses are few and far between and generally don't cause a problem - beyond occasionally making bridleway surfaces in the UK rather difficult for cyclists.

However, the Independent articles includes a suggestion that bike lanes in London ought to be adapted for horses and horse travel should become much more common.

That's the reason why they're a "distraction technology" in this context. The practical way of the masses getting about that the Independent ought to be writing about is the bicycle.