Tuesday 3 December 2013

London's cyclists are not to blame for London's low cycling modal share, it's the politicians who should take the blame

Low cycling nations and low cycling cities don't have a problem with how well cycling is marketed, they have a problem with how well their infrastructure works for cycling.

Six Londoners died in a short period of time recently and this has been followed by protests including a "Die In".

Neither London's Mayor, Boris Johnson nor the Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, appear to be aware of their role in what has happened. Both have made remarks on the lines of that there is nothing they could do by changing infrastructure which would reduce the incidence of deaths. They are  deliberately misleading people and the people they are misleading most are those who voted them.

Cycle-paths are one of the forms of
infrastructure which keep Dutch
cyclists safe.
Here in the Netherlands we have infrastructure which reduces the incidence of cyclist deaths. We used it every day. I've offered my time twice to the Mayor in order to demonstrate what it is and how it works, but it would seem that he's not very interested in knowing what he needs to do to keep cyclists safe.

Yesterday evening I watched a news programme from the UK in which Andrew Gilligan blamed cycling campaigners for making cycling look dangerous. He suggested that cyclists making cycling sound dangerous this was the reason why a BBC survey revealed that a fifth of London's cycle commuters have stopped cycling. Yes, he actually laid blame on the people who promote cycling. This is a disgraceful distortion of what is actually happening under his watch.

Back in March, just after Boris Johnson appointed his friend as cycling commissioner, I was skeptical of their motives and suggested that this was a time when campaigners would need to become more busy than before. It was clear then that London would rely on hype, exaggeration and marketing rather than actually building the infrastructure that was required to make change happen. I gave he post the tag "broken promises" because even as they made their promises, it was obvious that they would be broken. Nothing that has happened in London since that time reduces my skepticism.

It's possible to ride for six years without incident
A few days back I realised that while up to six years ago I had quite regular unpleasant experiences when cycling, I'd now had six years of having no unpleasant experiences at all, not having been cut up even once, until that run of six years was broken just one month ago. What is special about six years ? Six years ago we emigrated from the UK and we've lived in the Netherlands since that time. Why one month ? One month ago I rode a bike for just a few hours in London and it reminded me what it is like to ride a bike in the UK.

Why isn't it like this for everyone ?
In order to encourage people to ride bicycles, the choice of doing so has to be made easy. Routes taken by bicycle need to be direct, they need to be as free as possible of stops, and the conditions need to be and to feel very safe. Unless cycling is subjectively safe, most of the population will never cycle.

The best way of improving both actual safety and subjective safety is to do one simple thing: remove motor vehicles from the spaces where cyclists ride.

The BBC's survey revealed a fifth of cyclists had been involved in a collision. This is not just a problem with subjective safety, but of whether people are injured or die when cycling. It's not a marketing problem which can be solved by not talking about dying, it's a problem with the experience that people have if they get on a bicycle, which in London is always tense.

Two-thirds of London cyclists admit they sometimes ride on pavements to avoid busy junctions. They do this not because it's convenient (it's not) but because it feels safer than continuing their journey on the road. To solve problems like this we first have to understand them.

London cyclists don't dress like this
because it's fashionable but because
they are scared
In one of my very first posts on this blog, more than five years ago, I noted that "Cyclists are the pit-canaries of the roads. If they're numerous, dressed in ordinary clothing and wide-ranging in age you can tell that you are in a location where cycling is "normal" in society and where it is safe enough, and feels subjectively safe enough, that everyone cycles. If people feel they have to dress to be safe then this is a sign that they do not have adequate subjective safety."

London's cyclists still look very much like the pit canaries of the road and there are good reasons why. If you cycle in London then you have to be concerned about your own safety. The BBC survey included several questions about subjective safety. For instance, one question asked whether people thought their family and friends were safe when cycling. Nearly 70% said no. The low subjective safety is why people wear bright colours, helmets and face masks. These are not fashion accessories, they're tools for survival. They're not worn because someone said it was unsafe, they're worn because people feel unsafe when cycling.

Until London gets to grips with why people feel unsafe when cycling and until the city starts to do something about the reasons why people feel unsafe by building infrastructure makes cycling attractive to everyone, the city will not see a rise in cycling to levels comparable with the Netherlands.

Cycling in London doesn't need marketing, it needs infrastructure !

The same principles apply everywhere
Any place which has given inadequate attention to making cycling safe, convenient and enjoyable will see stagnation at a low percentage of journeys by bike as only people who particularly like cycling will ride bikes.

Journeys by bike in London never broke through even 5% of the total. Sadly, this decline has occurred before the city has even done one percent of what it needed to do to make mass cycling happen in the first place. However, declines can happen anywhere and examples of it happening should be a warning to us all.

It's not only London which has seen cyclists give up. Once mighty Denmark has unfortunately also seen the equivalent of one in eight cyclists give up. This decline came about for the same reasons as the decline in London. They ignored the importance of building good enough infrastructure and tried to use marketing to fill in the gaps. Voluminous international publicity turned out not to be enough to make people feel safe when they experienced problems on a daily basis such as junction designs which cause conflict and have killed seven Copenhageners already this year. While it may still seem a step beyond what many nations have, to copy Denmark's "success" actually means to copy what doesn't work in Denmark. That's why I suggest that the Netherlands remains easily the best country to try to emulate.

While the Netherlands is currently on top that doesn't mean that this country is any more immune to these issues than any other. Plenty of Dutch people take what they have for granted and simply don't know why it is that they cycle. Denmark should especially serve as a warning to the Netherlands as policies and practices from there and marketed to this country could reasonably be expected to end with the same result here as they did where they came from.

The Dutch don't cycle because it's "in their blood" but for the same reasons as anyone else would cycle given conditions which made cycling into an easy option to choose. When cycling is convenient, offers direct and uninterrupted journeys and both feels and is safe then people choose to cycle. When conditions are merely adequate and when incidents happen often enough that people remember them and become concerned about their safety, cycling will stagnate or drop.

Not all Dutch cities grow cycling at the same rate. Here, just like everywhere else, people cycle in response to infrastructure and not in response to marketing.

Hope for the future
Cycling needs actions, not words. A million volumes of marketing material do not have the same value as one metre of good quality cycle-path, and that's universally true. To a first approximation, cycling modal share is proportional to expenditure. Politicians control the funds and they need to release them in order that cycling can grow, not make excuses for inaction or blame cyclists for their own misfortune.

The Netherlands achieved its cycling success by building a remarkable country-wide network of world class infrastructure and not by marketing. Other countries could achieve the same results in the same way. There is no proven alternative method which leads to true mass cycling.

Update 6 December 2013
Usage of London's bike share system is also falling. This is also being blamed on cyclists. When I was in London a few weeks ago I tried the system and found it to work well enough as a civil amenity. However, I also cautioned that it's not cycling infrastructure.

For four and a half years I've been writing about the limits of London's bike share system and how it can never lead to a real cycling "revolution" in the city. Bike share answers the wrong question. London's problem was never a shortage of bicycles, but was always a shortage of pleasant conditions for cycling.

London's aim should be to become a city of ten million cyclists. This will never happen while instead of fixing the infrastructure, London's politicians seek to pass the blame for the majority of the population being scared to cycle onto the few people brave enough to do it.


TownBikeMark said...

Well, maybe in London, but not elsewhere in the UK ie where I am. It's all too apparent that people just don't see cycling as a substitute for the short journeys they make by car - even cyclists...

Based on what I see and hear, I'm afraid most people still see pushbikes as for sport, leisure or child's toys. That's why they don't cycle, not because they're afraid to.

David Hembrow said...

Mark, you've missed the point a little I'm afraid. At this time, almost no-one sees cycling as a sensible form of transport anywhere in the UK, including London. In comparison, almost all Dutch people do see cycling as a sensible form of transport.

This huge difference comes not because the people of the two countries are different nor because the journeys that they make are different. It comes because in the Netherlands, cycling is not only safe but also convenient and pleasant.

That's what makes cycling into something more than a sport and leisure activity. It's not forced upon anyone, it simply becomes part of the normal routine because it works.

However, I think you're also wrong about people not being afraid.

As it happens I spent some years in the UK working each summer on cycle promotion. I'd drive a huge van around the country stuffed full of bikes and we'd pull up at council events, companies, schools and other places where we were invited to show people both bicycles and cycling.

I went to all parts of the country from the South West to Wales to Northern cities, into Scotland, back down the East coast through East Anglia and London etc.

The response from the people we met was quite uniform whatever their location. Almost everyone wanted to ride our bikes. We'd often have queues and it could be exhausting work with people often jumping on bikes before we had a chance to talk to them at all. They'd all ride around with broad smiles on their faces on a closed traffic free track. However, suggest to one of the wearers of those smiles that they could do the same in order to go to work and almost all of them immediately said it would be much too dangerous. That was easily the number one reason.

It's not the first thing that comes to mind until they get on a bike because first of all they see no utility in it because of the idea that these are but playthings, but yes, people really are afraid to cycle.

TownBikeMark said...

Where I live, you can get about all over the town without using a main road. I feel safe (never complacent mind) and there's new segregated cyclepaths being laid all the time it seems, as well as in neighbouring towns. London IS a different matter. On two recent occasions, one of them WAS a bit scary, the cycle lanes were a bit too close to buses for comfort, but at Dulwich, it was fine.

MY cycling is convenient and pleasant - just like that in the Netherlands. I'm sure it is for those who cycle in a similar manner. Then again, my slow, utility bikes are pleasant and convenient as that's the way they're meant to be.

The cycling lobby and bike business haven't been promoting slow, utility cycling as well as they might have; if they had, it might be more popular. As it is, I only have to look at a UK cycling forum, in the majority of bikeshops and pick up a UK cycling magazine to see that there's still some way to go.

I would have to look at facts from unbiased sources so I could draw a balanced conclusion as to what is happening with regard to cycling in the UK; I cannot help but feel that no matter what our government did, it would never be enough as it is Tory, whilst the cycling lobby tends to be left...

As it is, I'm rather enjoying my cycling and all I need is more money to buy the fantastic stuff from Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Holland.

TownBikeMark said...

Oh, and by the way Dave,the reason many UK cyclists wear helmets and bright clothing in daylight as well as night may be because they're afraid. Or it could be because our current Highway Code recommends it.

I wear my everyday street clothes and always have except at night when I wear a high vis vest.

Hackney Cyclist said...

I was watching the "how the Dutch got their cycle paths" videos again recently and was struck by the comments from dutch peope on a reddit thread about it

"I'm dutch, and i had no idea we were so unique in this. For some reason the presence of those paths only seems logical to me."

"I'm dutch as well and I never realised it until I saw people in London protesting for them on Tv. Apparently almost no other country has it, which is very weird.
I cycle to school everyday, I cycle to my friends, I cycle everywhere"

"Even though we're one of the few (or only) country with such an cycle infrastructure, i feel like the other countries are the ones that are abnormal for not having it."

All of which I agree with. Whenever I visit the Netherlands I'm immediately taken aback by the huge amount of kids and old people cycling. As someone who cycles almost exclusively in London everyday I'm just not used to it. After a day or two though it just seems totally normal and the way it should be.

I was at the TFL die in and we're not 'dangerising' cycling. It can be quite dangerous to cycle in London, almost everyone who does it regularly will have a 'close call' anecdote. Whilst you are statistically unlikely to die in a cycle collision in London it still feels dangerous; there is hardly a moment when you are not 'on guard' and the vast majority of London residents simply will not consider it. They're, understandably, fearful of cycling on five-lane wide gyratories with lorries so they get the tube, even if it takes longer and is expensive. No amount of training or TFL publicity will persuade them otherwise.

The Dutch have it spot on. Almost nobody wears helmets or high-viz as there is no need. Cars and bikes generally do not mix on the same roads and that is how it should be. Bikes are not cars, in the same way as pedestrians are not cars and should not be treated in the same way. Making yourself visible, 'taking the lane' and educating drivers will all help to protect yourself on the road but not sharing the road is much more pleasant and safer for everyone; cyclists and pedestrians.

Anonymous said...

Gilligan shows us his real job once again: to deflect criticism away from the Mayor. Look how good he is at that! Shame he's not so good with the cycling stuff though.

Unknown said...

It's totally down to infrastructure, however this government bows to banks and public pressure alone. We have to generate public pressure and get the media on our side in the way they are about benefit cheats - something that is a tiny problem but has been given a disproportionate amount of action.
Somehow we have to light a fire, one that starts a chain reaction, clearly it's not death that will do that - there's already been too many. Something else, a good script, a good film, it's people or a person, we need to get to grips with playing the government at their own game.

litsl said...

I commute 5000 miles a year in central london. This weekend I'm taking the kids to Chessington just 7 miles away. I have a surly big dummy cargo bike where both kids can sit on the back in comfort with a 'hooptie' roll cage around them, both in child seats. Sad then that i cant find a suitable road to travel only 7 miles to Chessington (my daily commute is 27 miles round trip).

This is totally ridiculous.

Holland-Cycling.com said...

It takes a Brit living and cycling in the Netherlands to really get to the heart of the problem! Thanks for that.

I've been getting really frustrated hearing a lot of nonsense on this topic. "Cycling is dangerous." I think the Dutch have proved that it doesn't need to be, if you're willing to take cyclists seriously and invest in them - helmet legislation is simply not enough...

How I've longed to invite UK politicians over to the Netherlands for a cycle ride so they can experience themselves what can be achieved if the will is there.

David Hembrow said...

Holland-cycling: If you find any politicians who want to come, please send them in our direction. We have many years of experience of not just taking people for a pleasant ride but also explaining how and why it is pleasant.