Monday, October 29, 2012

What is the problem?

Wednesday, 26th September 2012: Meetings in London are a bit like buses for me. There are none for a while and then several seem to come along together. As I mentioned the other day I try not to take the same route to the station each time – just for the change of scenery.

There has been a bit of a debate about Gilbert Road in Cambridge recently (Gilbert Road revisited & Gilbert Road Revisited – two different Bloggers). Which got me thinking and via the comments led to this blogger Bikemapper and his post A Strategic Cycle network which is further explained here.

It seems to me the first issue is do we agree on what we are trying to achieve? (and who is we).  Personally I feel that Gilbert Road has become a more agreeable road to cycle along for me. However much as I might wish it cycle campaigning is not and should not be about what makes routes more agreeable for me – although it might be about the same goals if there were enough “me”s.

In working out what we are trying to achieve then another way of considering is what problem(s) are we trying to fix? Well it seems to me that we have two factors to consider, the first is that the UK is under pressure to urbanise.  There are various factors that influence this including; an increasing population (52.4M 1960, 62.6M 2011) – more houses, cars, roads, increasing consolidation of services such as shops, hospitals, places of work – increasing daily distance we need to cover as individuals with the most growth being an increase in car and van travel. See Table 12.1 – Passenger transport: by mode (it downloads a PDF).

Billion Passenger kilometres

                           1971                         2007

Car and van                     313                          689
Bus and coach                  60                            50
Bicycle                               4                             4
Motorcycle                          4                             6
Rail                                   35                           59

There are caveats, but the picture is pretty clear, cars and vans account for most of the increase.  The trouble is that the motor vehicles need roads, fuel, they are noisy and pollute and are dangerous for vulnerable road users. I reckon that far from making life easier they have become a blight for many people.  (Note – my selection criteria for data is rather loose although official stats tend to win over other data.)

There are also  costs associated with these factors, whether it be health costs from pollution and obesity to UK economic problems because increasingly fuel is imported and so we are dependent upon external and diminishing external supplies for our energy.  Importing fuel to burn needlessly is basically like burning money. Of course all this driving around is good for the economy – right – well that is what some might say. However look at the Japanese, masters of whizzing people around willy-nilly – their economy is stagnant and has been for a while. ( A somewhat sensationalist piece from the DM which suggests the population of Britain will reach nearly 80million by 2050.)

So what problems are we trying to solve, well “quality of life” and the “economy” I reckon, we just don’t get it yet. Capitalism will work its effects ultimately – already energy costs are rising, if we don’t do anything petrol will get so expensive that it will limit everything from commuting to agriculture. We are already seeing rises in domestic energy costs. The trouble is country economies are a bit like super-tankers they taker a long time to turn and so long-term strategic planning is required. We need to start doing things differently now. Clearly the drive on sustainable energy sources is part of that change.

The Department of Energy & Climate Change monitors energy usage statistics and their data suggests that the household expenditure on energy (Solid fuels, gas, electricity, vehicle fuels etc) has increased by 50.9% from 2000 to 2011. That’s market forces for you – so we either get poorer or more effective in our use of energy.

Some hope that alternative sources of transport energy will be developed such as electric cars, whilst it might help cut imports  I reckon we need to be a bit more radical in our longer-term thinking and planning. On top of this we also have the uncertainties of climate change and an aging population to consider.

So back to cycling – well it would not fix everything, but it could and should be a big part of the change. The trouble is that we just don’t see it yet. We humans don’t really like change (except of the pay rise variety).  So I reckon our heads are in the sand on the role that cars play in society. 

Here in Cambridge, with its relatively high level of cycling (for the UK) the car is still king as far as I can see.  Just look at this article on the problems caused by bad parking by parents transporting their kids to and from school. There are loads of schools mentioned, the problem is endemic.  Although I would suspect that the issues are seen as more of the  “my car is being blocked by your car” variety rather than how do we change to transport landscape.

Enough ranting for now – what was it I was saying about car drivers and their expectations. My route to the station took me down Newmarket Road, this is the bit just past Meadowlands Road. I believe that this is a shared-use pavement, although it is not always that clear the Cambridgeshire County Council map shows the pavement bit as a link separate from traffic as well as the additional separate bus and cycle lane.

In case you are wondering about the pros and cons I would normally switch to the bus and cycle lane because this bit of shared use pavement is bumpy and has side roads along it as well as pedestrians.  The bus/cycle lane is ok except the lane traffic lights don’t go green for cyclists at the junction with Ditton Lane.

Many years ago, around 20, we were cycling along here with my son (6 or 7) on the shared-use path and he crashed into the bus shelter a little further along – causing me to do an unplanned dismount as well. Only pride was hurt fortunately, but it highlights the heritage of bad practice in providing provision for cyclists that still hangs over us.

Clearly this driver is far more important than us vulnerable road users – he probably didn’t want to get his tyres dirty either, so chose to block the pavement completely rather than chew up the grass.  This sort of thing is not unusual, it happens all over the place. As a consequence it might cause cyclists to switch over into the cycle/bus lane without looking properly or cycle on the grass, with the risk of skidding and maybe falling. Thanks Mr Motorist.

A Shared-use Pavement along Newmarket Road, Cambridge
being shared by a car!

As it happens I was a little late for the train and so had to concentrate on getting to the railway station. I got there in time and got a cycle parking space, but things went well. The train was on time also.  It seems to me that there has been a general improvement in the reliability of trains between Cambridge and King’s Cross, although there was a blip of problems during the Olympics.

My first meeting was in St Pancras – good to see a Brompton being used. Whenever I see one when I am in London I wish I had mine with me.

Brompton being wheeled through St Pancras

Both King’s Cross and St Pancras are looking pretty good nowadays.

A bit of PDA beneath the Clock – St Pancras

Later on in the day as I was walking to another meeting there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the rain. The chap on his bike in the middle of the junction had dropped something. Now most motorists seem to think that blasting the horn helps already ruffled road users get their act together more quickly – wrong. Cast you mind back to learning to drive, when you stalled as the traffic lights turned green did the irate beeps behind you make it easier to smoothly pull away without stalling again. Of course they bl**dy didn’t and neither did it help this chap on his bike sort out his load and get going.

Laden Cyclist – somewhere in London

As luck would have it the rain had moved on through Cambridge, when I got back to the station. I found myself cycling through loads of puddles home but didn’t get wet. 


  1. Thanks for the link, Jme.

    The first issue, you say, is do we agree on what we are trying to achieve? I don't know that we do. David Arditti (Voleospeed) has suggested that what we need is a strategic network of routes that look really attractive to cycle on? Leaving aside the issue of how this might be achieved, do you agree with this?

    What do you think of this map? As strategic networks go, do you think it is of sufficient density?

    David Hembrow commented on my blog to say that he didn't think so. Probably he is right, in which case would this be better, do you think?

    "Bike paths," the New York Daily News recently opined, "need to flow like bloodstreams: we need networks, not snippets." If the red routes are the arteries, then the blue routes would be the arterioles, and the local routes, such as to school, would be the capillaries. Does that strike you as about right?

  2. One of my concerns is that cycling is not really taken seriously as a mode of transport. Hence my interest in your approach - which takes a network view and so can promote discussion about what is required.

    We cyclists often stumble on the question of what might make a route "attractive". Indeed if we are to attract more people to use cycling as a mode of transport then we need to know their answers. Depending upon what type of cycling I am doing then my answers would differ. However I do come back to whether one problem is that cycling is considered a leisure activity rather than a transport activity. To be attractive as a means of transport cycling routes need to be perceived as efficient and safe.

    To be efficient then cycle paths need to be direct and have priority over other modes of transport. To be perceived as safe then there needs to be more segregation.

    So I agree that there needs to be a strategic network of routes, that take into account the areas of travel. For instance in the case of Cambridge both the Science Park near Milton and the Addenbrooke's site would seem to be important destinations.

    To use the bloodstream analogy - then a strategic network needs to provide appropriate flow to the important "organs" of a city (such as places of work and education). I would consider one important goal of a strategic network would be to get a significant modal shift from cars to cycles for transport to and from schools. Safety would an important factor and given schools can have 500 - 1,000 plus pupils (here in Cambridge) then the routes would also have to be capable of supporting a reasonable flow.

    The question is whether there is the political appetite, here in Cambridge attempts to make it easier for pupils to cycle to school have been met with opposition because it might take away free transport. (Milton to Impington, Oakington to Impington.)

  3. Excellent stuff, Jme. I really like the way you have expanded on the bloodstream analogy.

    Have you read Freewheeler's latest blog yet? He writes: "A genuine Cycle Action Plan should, to my mind, have two basic features. First and foremost it needs to build a network of primary segregated cycle track routes across the [city]; secondly it would close all residential areas to rat-running."

    Freewheeler explains that these primary routes would be "safe, convenient, attractive segregated cycling routes (which obviously would require priority over all side roads and dedicated cycling-only green phases at major junctions)."

    I wholeheartedly accept this, and given what you have written, I would think that you do too. The question is, how do we get there?

    The most pragmatic way forward is expressed in an EU publication entitled Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities. The article published on the Movement for Liveable London website is based heavily on the ideas contained within this handbook.

    The essential thing is take those first steps towards the development of "a network of primary segregated cycle track routes". That means planning the network (on a map) and then getting out on the ground and looking at the feasibility of this plan. What would you need to do in order to get the network up and running? What would you want the routes on this network to look like in an ideal world?

    My preference is for segregated two-way cycle tracks, as in this example from AsEasyAsRiding. (This sort of infrastructure can accommodate up to 14,000 bikes an hour.) But however you want your cycle network to look, it's important that there is a timetable in place, otherwise things can easily drift.

    In order to get the network up and running, it may be necessary to implement a number of priority interventions (even if these are just interim measures), but this done, no more delays, get the network up and running.

    In the same way that, if you decide to build a house, once the plans have been drawn up and construction work begun, you would lay the foundations all at once, so you would also introduce the network all in one go. According to Cycling: the way ahead, this is "a prudent course to follow."

    Once the network has been introduced, it's just a question then of developing the network according to the timetable. Obviously the locally-elected politicians need to bring the public along with them, but in truth, the public are generally receptive to initiatives such as this, particularly if it is properly explained to them.

    1. Yes I have read Freewheeler's latest post and as you say I agree with it and your preference for segregated cycle track routes.

      So why isn't it happening? I fear that the view that the motor vehicle represents progress over the bicycle is so entrenched that such an approach is considered unthinkable as it would move motor vehicles down the pecking order - then how would we proclaim our status to our fellow citizens!

  4. Interesting, Jme, that in your blog you ask whether or not we (advocates of mass cycling) agree on what we are trying to achieve. (By implication, the answer is no.) But in your comment above, it's the motor lobby that is hindering the development of an amenable cycling environment.

    If cycling advocates were united on the fundamentals, beginning with the not unreasonable demand to introduce a functioning cycle network, do you honestly believe that the motor lobby would put up any resistance at all?

  5. To clarify I think we don't agree on how to achieve our goals rather than on what the goal might be. The lack of agreement ranges from segregation or not, to how to lobby for the changes.

    However even if we were to agree I reckon we would still get resistance from both the motoring lobby and those who resist change.

    Mind you I also think that the situation will have to change as the cost of energy will continue to rise along with the economic and political implications behind its importation.

  6. We do agree on what we are trying to achieve? But we don't agree how to get there?

    If the thing that we want to achieve is a strategic network of routes that look really attractive to cycle on, as David Arditti has suggested, then why is there no town or city in the country that has even a strategic network, never mind one that is really attractive to cycle on?

    Perhaps you're right to say that even if we were to agree on how to get what we would like, there would still be resistance; but it would be disparate, and not really very effective: cyclists are their own worst enemies.

    1. Hi Tom,

      Sorry, I was a bit unclear there. What I meant is that I reckon the overall goal is to get more people cycling (and fewer people using motor cars). I am not sure that cyclists are in agreement about how we might do that or what an acceptable level of quality might be for a strategic network. Over the years I have changed from viewing segregated cycle routes as unnecessary to now fully supporting them. (I see a strategic cycling network as a means to an end to deliver a healthier, happier and more pleasant place to live.)

      There are also issues of cost and fitting a decent cycle network into a road system designed for motor traffic by transport experts focused on motor traffic flow. Look at the fixation on cycling helmets and high-vis in much official literature in the UK, cycling can be inherently safe - look at the Dutch levels of helmet wearing/accidents - an existence proof that cycling safety should be inherent in the network.


  7. Hi Jamie, I see what you mean: more cycling in towns and cities - fewer journeys under five miles made by car - better quality of the urban environment - happier, healthier population.

    If that is the 'end', a strategic network of high quality routes is the 'means' to that end. Given that your philosophy of life is summed up, in part, by the maxim, "structure provides a framework to push and experiment", it is not so much of a surprise that you would agree with this.

    Introducing a cycle network so that if functions, albeit at a minimum level, would not be opposed by the motoring lobby, nor by those who resist change. All of the opposition would come from within the cycling community. And yet, strange to tell, Cycling: the way ahead regards this approach as "a prudent course to follow." It's the tried and tested method, it comes highly recommended, and yet it is routinely ignored.

    I was recently told that, whilst a strategic plan is agreeable, in Britain we don't do things that way: "We do things piecemeal in practice. Look what happened when Wren tried to rebuild London compared to Haussmann in Paris." This is as good a reason as any that I have heard not to plan, study and then introduce a strategic network of cycle routes (as a sort of progenitor to a quality network).

    1. Piecemeal aptly describes the provision for cycling in Cambridge that's for sure...

      Mind you the everyday politics and budgets associated with strategic routes are not always that easy - the The Chisholm Trail has/is requiring a lot of effort from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign.