Just Some Guy

5 February 2015

So there’s this guy, right?

Wednesday the fourth of February 2015 was a big day for him.

This guy, he rides bikes. Loves it. Thinks riding bikes is great. It’s freedom, it’s excitement, it’s all sorts of fun. Ask him what he’d do if he had a free weekend and he’d say ride a bike. Tell him he couldn’t do that, and he’ll say fiddle with his bike, or clean it, or something. Mountain biking, road racing, touring, BMX—doesn’t matter which he loves, but he loves it.

This guy rides on the road a bit. Might be a couple of miles to get to the trails or the skate park, might be the club bun run, might be a 400km audax, but he does it. And he’s ok with it. Maybe it’s not as nice as bombing down a trail or hauling some camping gear through the wilderness, but—hey—it’s still riding a bike. A day on the road’s better than a day in the office, right?

This guy sees the cycle lanes by the road and shakes his head. Man, they suck. Look at them. Sad bits of faded paint in the gutter, full of drains and broken glass. Stupid strips of red that disappear under rows of parked cars. Little pictures of bicycles painted on pavements—what’s that all about? You get ticketed for riding on the pavement, and then they tell you to ride on it? And they never go where you want anyway. Not that you’d really know, because they never have signposts.

This guy won’t be using those. No way, Hans Rey! The road is where he’s supposed to be. A bike is a vehicle, after all. It’s more like a motorbike than a pair of shoes, that’s for sure.

Now, this guy knows that when it comes to the road you’ve got to be a bit assertive. Keep people back when you need to turn, or when there’s a pinch point ahead. Claim a bit of road. Man up, get some confidence. Try and keep up with the traffic, then you can take the lane more easily when you need to. A bit of experience, that’s all it is. Bottom line is, assume they’re all out to get you. Basic stuff, right? That’s defensive riding: assume the worst, then stop it happening. It works. It’s worked all his life. These basic skills are what make you a Cyclist.

And this guy’s definitely a Cyclist. Not one of the POBs, the People On Bikes. They’re the ones who ride on pavements, with their crappy BSOs—Bicycle Shaped Objects, this guy calls them—wobbling about and riding in jeans and not even bothering with helmets or anything. They’re the reason he gets abuse from drivers. They’re the ones that give him a bad name. He’s not one of them.

Nope, proper Cyclists ride on the road, where bikes should be.

So anyway, this guy just sees more of these stupid cycle lanes and shared pavements getting built and he’s pretty unimpressed. Why are they doing that? Just get people to drive better. That’s the problem: the drivers. Not the bits of tarmac. They don’t suddenly hit you, it’s BMWs and Vauxhall Corsas and tipper trucks that hit you, and it’s the nut behind the wheel that’s the problem there. Fix the people, not the roads. Obvious. Why spend money on paint and useless bits of paving that don’t go anywhere when you could spend it on teaching drivers better and having a few more police on the road? Once you’ve sorted the bad drivers out, the roads will be safe.

And this guy’s right.

Well, he’s right in just one respect.

He’s right in that cycle facilities are crap. You only have to browse through the Bollocks Infra timeline to see that.

But he’s wrong on everything else.

You see, when this guy looks around him on the road, he notices that he’s everywhere. A lot of the people he sees are himself: male, wearing helmets and at least some lycra, riding bikes with skinny tyres and no mudguards, bum up and head down, some of them chasing Strava times on their way to the office. This guy gets away with saying “man up” to ride on the road simply because that really is the true nature of it.

Then this guy sees pictures of what goes on in the Netherlands. And the thing he notices first of all—the most startling aspect of these images—is that he’s not in them. He’s nowhere to be seen. No, wait. Here he is, on a ride in the country, on a nice quiet rural roa—hang on a minute, that’s not a road. That’s a cycle track.

And then he looks through the images again, and this time—realising that even Where’s Wally probably doesn’t wear a red-and-white jumper all the time—he starts to recognise himself. There he is, wearing his work clothes to ride to the office. And there he is again, in some jeans to go to the shops.

Then, gradually, he recognises the people around him. There’s his wife, who simply doesn’t want to ride on the road because it’s full of fast cars and big lorries. There’s his elder daughter, who he doesn’t allow to ride on the road because he knows she doesn’t have the skills yet—she’s not yet a Cyclist—and he doesn’t want her to get hurt. And then his youngest, who’s simply too young to be on the road. And there they are all together. And there are his neighbours. But also his parents and—good grief!—his grandparents are out there doing it, staying healthy, staying mobile, not having to worry about whether their ability to safely drive a car is ebbing away with the years.

Everybody’s out there, just using bikes.

And on Wednesday the fourth of February 2015, a door opened up to this different world.

For the first time in the UK, the decision was made to commence work on a piece of dedicated infrastructure that was unashamedly dedicated to mass cycling in both design and scale. Not a total dog’s dinner. Not a broken design resulting from a desire to be creative. Not a piece of Dutch design totally misinterpreted and abused. Not even something done properly but surrounded by stuff that isn’t, but a plan that offers genuine segregation of cycling traffic from motor traffic, and which has the continuity that’s required for people to choose it over the road alongside.

It won’t be perfect. But it will be a sea change in British cycling infrastructure, and it will be the decisive moment in Britain’s attitude towards cycling as a mode of transport to be valued, modelled, planned for, built for, and—crucially—used. It will be our one opportunity for real change.

So, whoever that guy is, this guy is looking from afar at the internationally-visible stage of London, as are many others not just in this country but around the globe.

We’re watching Britain finally “man up”, get a bit of confidence, and claim some road. Not just for the Cyclists, not just for the People On Bikes, but—most importantly of all—for the people who aren’t yet on bikes.

Welcome to the future. This time, it’s for everyone.

Comments

  1. ianmac55 5 February 2015 5:14pm #

    Exactly!

  2. Andy R. 5 February 2015 8:48pm #

    You Sir, must have just read this week’s editorial in the New Civil Engineer, “Safer cycling strategy has scared me off my bike”!

    Although ‘your guy’ didn’t go as far as ‘my guy’ in saying that the very idea of decent segregated infrastructure had actually scared him off his bike (or rather, the thought of sharing with the hoi polloi, those POBs – it wouldn’t surprise me if they actually hated lycra – heathens) .

    I’ve defended my colleagues in the past, but having read that piece of nonsense I can only shake my head in disbelief, and wonder at what crap infrastructure may still get designed and built if his sort of attitude persists in the profession.

    Andy R.

    • Bez 5 February 2015 9:06pm #

      Never heard of it. Just googled it and the piece you mention is subscriber-only. Bah 🙂

      • Andy R. 5 February 2015 11:19pm #

        Prepare to be stunned…read on;

        “After 12 years, three bikes, five crashes, two sprained limbs and one emergency operation, I have decided that 2015 is the year I give up commuting by bicycle.

        Why now? Well, there are a few reasons. For one, my work patterns have changed; I do go to more early meetings, late meetings and meetings that just aren’t right for turning up looking a bit dishevelled. And I am a bit older – I have to accept that I’m not as quick healing from those bumps and bangs as I used to be.

        But mostly, I’ve recognised the simple truth – it’s just too dangerous.

        Which is sad, as in the main I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed the freedom from the vagaries of public transport (and in London, there are plenty of those).

        I’ve enjoyed the daily workout I got from the 40km round trip. And I’ve definitely enjoyed the saving on rail fares.

        But I’ve concluded it’s just not worth the risk. And contrary to popular belief that risk does not come in the form of cars, vans, lorries or buses, all manically trying to knock off the innocent cyclist No, that risk comes from other cyclists. There are now just too many of them, and there is simply not enough space.

        And now we have the confirmation this week that London mayor Boris Johnson is spending multiple millions of pounds on a raft of segregated cycle “super highways”. And I’m sorry, but these are only going to make things worse.

        I’ve made clear my views on segregation in this column before and I stand by them. It is a terrible, terrible mistake.

        And this is not just me saying this. Other transportation professionals I have spoken with concur.

        Johnson should be applauded for his determination to make cycling safer. But the feeling is he is being badly advised. I say that because he actually solved the problem last year when, under his instruction, police officers were dispatched to supervise behaviours at key accident black spots across the capital.

        The impact was immediate. Accidents ceased.

        OK, it still didn’t solve the problem of the massive shortage of road capacity in our space-constrained capital city, but lane segregation won’t either. That’s actually going to reduce the space available even more.

        And what it is going to do in the process is make cyclists complacent about the hazards of cycling in the capital, making them all the more vulnerable when they eventually emerge from the protection of their segregated lanes – which will invariably be where the space is just too tight for segregation and actually the risk of conflict with cars is at its greatest.

        I say again, it is a terrible mistake.

        Making cycling safer is simple. You enforce the Highway Code – on all road users.

        The way we are going is a terrible mistake. It’s dangerous. And that, frankly, is a danger I’ve decided I can do without.”

        Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor.

        Andy R.

  3. simonstill (@simonstill) 6 February 2015 7:14am #

    Reading the whole thing he’s even more deluded than I thought – he thinks Safeway made a real difference. Not just a reduction in lawbreaking but “accidents” (see that word!), “accidents CEASED”

    I can’t believe this guy has an engineering qualification. Is he actually a journalist?

  4. gazza_d 6 February 2015 1:34pm #

    Perfect Bez, just perfect.

    I feel lucky in that at least 80% of my commute is either on traffic free paths & NCN, or semi-rural 3m shared paths. If I head to the datacentre it’s almost all traffic free.

    It is the infra that has kept me sane and cycling. A lot of it wasn’t there a year ago, when I extended to the full commute. I usually still wear cycle clobber (cos I get changed & it’s practical) & sometimes chase my personal strava times cos it’s fun. Riding in traffic isn’t fun though & most of the time it’s bum squeakingly scary shit as you play russian roulette.

    I hope (and expect) that the schemes in London have the desired effect and really massively increase the uptake of normal people cycling. I hope then that national leadership will finally accept that “build it properly and they will come” for cycling does work and is the right thing to do.

    fingers crossed

  5. Stephan Matthiesen 6 February 2015 3:37pm #

    But if cyclists are not forced onto busy roads, their skills will decline. Just like they don’t allow crocodiles lurking at traffic lights, and now nobody has any crocodile-handling skills. This is just the nanny state gone crazy. Or have you recently seen somebody winning a fight with a crocodile? There you see! Stop this nonsense before its too late.

    • David Robjant 7 February 2015 1:42pm #

      Satire claxon. (they need to be told)

    • WildNorthlands 13 February 2015 11:17am #

      Actually you still need skills to ride safely on segregated paths – just different skills.

  6. Simon H 6 February 2015 7:13pm #

    I note our NCE editor guy doesn’t say how many of the crashes were caused by “other cyclists” and whether the emergency operation was after hitting/being hit by one.

  7. Paul McMillan 6 February 2015 9:32pm #

    “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

    I’m a result of the current system, one of those guys.
    I cycle to work (almost) every day. I love it.
    Regardless of the weather, my mood, (the lack of) cycling infrastructure.
    These things don’t stop me.

    My 8 year old loves cycling. He always wants to go out with me.
    Instead,
    we take the train to the park, or drive (10 miles) to the nearest segregated cycle path where we can cycle as far as we want.
    I hope my son doesn’t have to be one of those guys,
    who do it regardless of,
    and not because of.

    • johnthemonkey 16 February 2015 8:24am #

      I’m one of those guys, and I don’t love it. I’m painfully aware of just how little my skills, and assertiveness do for me when a driver is determined to pass me. Or is simply too intent on not spilling the mug of tea they’re drinking at the wheel to bother about me much. Or feels aggreived enough at my presence to do something intentionally dangerous out of spite.

  8. Dan B 7 February 2015 10:34am #

    I used to be one of “those guys”. When Brighton was planning it’s Lewes Road scheme with bus-stop-bypasses I had several arguments with my father, who is involved in transport planning there. I thought passengers would be hurt, and that it was a terrible idea. Integration, not segregation, was best.

    Then something happened. I bought a ‘new’ bike – a 1960’s Elswick Hopper, with dynamo, hub-gearing and rod brakes – for my local journeys to the shops. EVERYTHING changed. The way I rode changed – I can’t “take the lane”, and the time lag for acceleration and braking is measured in full seconds. I ride in normal clothes. I don’t wear a helmet – I tried it once and I felt less safe, because it changed how I thought about my riding. My top speed is lower, so riding ‘with’ the traffic is simply impossible for me (and I’m not slow on a road bike – I cruise at about 22mph). Cycling is an entirely different activity when on this bike, and I absolutely love it.

    Integrationists should ALL be made to ride a similar bike for 2 weeks – it changes you, and how you approach roads and cycling. I still ride road bikes in lycra and a helmet and I commute in London on a track bike, so I still ‘take the lane’ and ride fast with the traffic on a daily basis. However, this is no longer how I WANT to ride, but a tool for dealing with the awful road situation I’m forced to deal with daily. It certainly isn’t how the vast majority of people want to ride, and I’d love not to have to.

    I was wrong, and I’m sorry.

    • ianmac55 7 February 2015 6:55pm #

      Spot on. I can be one of those guys. Or I can go cycling with my wife – in normal clothes, to the shops, for pleasure, to a pub or restaurant, folding our bikes to hop on a tram … in Belgium & Holland. Then we come back home and she won’t do those things.

    • Sarah 28 May 2016 7:33am #

      I don’t buy the argument that riding a slower bike for a few weeks is enough to bring about some sort of Damascene conversion.

      I was cycling home yesterday evening (in Germany) when I saw a skateboarder taking the lane to make a direct left turn at a junction with right-turn, left-turn and straight-on lanes. Simple, elegant, efficient and not all that dangerous, given that the posted speed limit was 30 km/h and that drivers are fairly used to keeping an eye out for human-powered vehicles in a city with a 30% mode share for cycling.

  9. Peter Jeffers 10 February 2015 9:52am #

    Brilliant well written and true, cycling on the whole isn’t a dangerous activity but would be made a whole lot better with enforcement of road regulations where people respected each other.

  10. Geoff Hickman (@steppenjiff) 10 February 2015 4:05pm #

    Nice work Bez. I think this is my favourite thing you have written. (Maybe ’cause it didn’t scare the crap out of me for a change) 🙂

  11. Veronica 12 February 2015 12:33am #

    Excellent work.
    Yes, I am not a proper cyclist and I don’t like to be called so. As my (Danish) husband one day said “I didn’t know we are a cyclist family until we moved to the UK”
    I love the freedom of cycling and that I do not need to dress-up in funny spandex cloth when going to work or to buy my groceries or collecting my children from school.
    I am always amazed with the driving culture in the UK. But that just shows the lack of enforcement that we have in this country.

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