Be careful what you wish for: the unintended consequences of segregation…

Great piece by Carlton Reid, editor of and and co-author of the new Bike to Work Book. Carlton Reid has been writing about bicycles and travel for 23 years. He has written for newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent.

‘Where do I stand on the issue of segregated cycle facilities? You could say I’m middle of the road.

But not in the wishy-washy sense. I love roads. I want to keep riding on them. And I want others to join me, and ride in safety by doing so.

Where’s this angst coming from? Myself, and the CTC, are getting a mauling over on ibikelondon for daring to suggest it’s pie-in-the-sky to demand segregated cycle routes from a car-fixated Government that is representative of a car-fixated society.

SHORT VERSION: Shy bairns get nowt so why don’t I shout from the roof-tops my view that cities would be more civilised places if they were friendlier to cyclists? I do shout that, but is the ‘we ought to have Dutch-style cycle infrastructure, and we ought to have it now’ vision ever going to work in the UK? My view is that such a stance – while visionary and laudable – is easily ignored. Far better to push for lots of little achievable goals, which will eventually coalesce, and by which time we might actually have a society less in thrall to the car.

LONG VERSION, videos and pics: read on

Sorry to prick bubbles, but we ain’t gonna get, any time soon, the sort of cycle infrastructure we’d all love. For a start, we all want different kinds of segregated routes (wouldn’t it be great if pedestrians stayed in their bits of turf, too?) and we only want quality segregated routes but what you and I think are routes fit for use don’t usually get built: instead we’re too often fobbed off with second-rate infrastructure that’s sometimes worse than useless, but we’re expected to use it regardless.

In such a car-centric society as the UK it is politically naive to believe meaningful space will be taken away from cars without a massive and democratic reaction against such a move. … There’s no will from national leaders for such a revolution nor is there any cash.

At the local level it’s just as bad, perhaps even worse. Local highways departments have been car-centric for many years. A council may have one lonely cycling officer, but these positions rarely carry power, and are being chopped anyway. The majority of local councillors – with a normal windscreen perspective, and one eye on the ballot box – are pro-motoring; some are actively anti-cycling.

Motormyopia is endemic. Mad, bad and sad, but true. In the meantime, we have to build alliances with other active travel and true road safety organisations, not be single issue campaigners. A number of prominent bloggers have recently had Cyclepath to Damascus conversions and now insist that cycling won’t grow in the UK without Dutch-style cycling facilities. But, in the car-centric UK, ‘infrastructure or nothing’ is a position doomed to failure.

Videos like the one above show what can be done when there’s the political will to make radical changes, and I’m all for provision of the routes such as the ones featured.

But, depressing though it is, we have to recognise we’re not going to get anything good for cycling from the present administration. There’s an awful lot of opposition from powerful figures, and from the majority of voters, to anything that smacks of taking space and ‘rights’ away from motorists.

Cycle campaigners can dream all they like but there’s got to be a realisation there’s an existing cycle network: roads. Roads go everywhere; segregated cycle facilities in the UK never do, and probably never would. They don’t in the Netherlands or Copenhagen, either. Check out the video of Dutch cyclists merging on to roads below, or go there (I have): yes, there are some wonderful segregated facilities but there are also lots of places when cyclists have to mix it with other traffic. I’ve seen this in even the most bicycle-friendly parts of the Netherlands.

Good infrastructure design is key but the real difference in the Netherlands is driver attitudes to cyclists, backed up with legislation should a driver dare to use the fatally-flawed ‘I didn’t see you’ excuse.

And in Freiburg, Copenhagen, and other bike-friendly places, motorised traffic is more mindful of cyclists. This doesn’t yet happen in the the UK because there’s scant legal protection for cyclists, and there are not enough of us. It’s chicken and egg, of course, but fantasising about a utopia where segregated cycle facilities cure all carries the very real risk of marginalising cycling (think Milton Keynes).

It’s perfectly valid to pine for utopia, but delusional to think it can ever materialise. Naturally, it’s a good negotiating technique to shoot for the moon, never say never, but dreamers make for poor deal-makers. Visionaries can dream the future, can push for the future, but it’s deal-makers who build the future.

The fantastic cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands took many years to develop and cycling was given both cash and clout. In the UK, no amount of pushing from a small number of visionaries will change the motorised status quo any time soon.

For a start, we need to make the best of what we’ve got. As roads go everywhere, we need to keep access to those roads for the current crop of cyclists and for future generations. Roads are not dangerous; it’s the bad drivers on them that are dangerous.

Those vividly in favour of segregation above all else say we will only get a mass cycling culture in this country if we build protected cycle lanes (both sides of the road, thank you very much). Think of the children! Think of grannies! Think of teenage girls! None of those would ever want to cycle next to thundering lorries or ‘claim their lane’ in Forester-style heroics. Thing is, such people are being attracted to cycling, despite the often cruddy conditions out there.

But, then again, why would hesitant cyclists ride on busy roads? Far better to stick to the side roads, where there’s less chance of meeting juggernauts. Standard advice for newbies is find quieter routes, something that can now be done online or via the iPhone journey planning app I created for the Bike Hub levy fund.

Don’t talk segregation; talk short-cuts. Campaigning for closing off a road entrance here and there would do far more good than demanding Dutch-style protection, and demanding it now, now, now.

In central London, there are an amazing amount of new cyclists appearing. On the roads. And they are not all ‘cyclists’; most of the newbies are ‘people on bikes’. Sure, protected cycle lanes on every road would encourage even more newbies to hop on bikes but such a radical redesign of the country flies in the face of British history. For 100 years, our roads have been modified to suit the motorcar. 1930s trunk roads which were built with adjoining protected cycle lanes were long ago changed into race-tracks for cars. This was wrong and uncivilised but motormyopia is so virulent in the UK it’s going to take a miracle to reverse a century of short-sightedness.

Waiting for a miracle can lead to inaction in the here and now. One of the problems with aiming for the sky is it’s an awfully long way away and it’s easy to get discouraged when you’re hardly off the ground, never mind making it into the troposphere. Yet there are many, many things that can improve the lot of cyclists at local and national levels: the aggregation of marginal gains is a concept from sport cycling but can be just as easily applied to cycle campaigning.

To get more people to use bikes requires much more than just infrastructure. Build it and they will come is true only in part. The UK Government is willing to spend millions of pounds creating an ‘electric vehicle recharging infrastructure’ but isn’t relying on that alone, it is also going to bribe early adopters with fat grants. (Now you could argue that the Government ought to do that for cycling, too. It would be fair and sensible to do so, but the windscreen perspective of this Government and all previous ones, too, is too entrenched).

The rise in cycling in recent years might be just a trickle compared to 31 million cars on the roads but all snowballs start small.

Yes, modal share is still pitifully low, but it’s definitely growing (DfT Excel stats). And it’s growing without widespread segregation. At some major junctions in rush-hour London, 30 or 40 cyclists are at the head of queues. Cars and trucks can’t get past. A major modal share shift won’t happen overnight but – with Government support of cycling or not – it’s coming. Gridlock, Peak Oil, piss-poor public transport and other factors, will see to that.

On many stretches of road, segregated facilities make sense and I’d be first in line calling for their introduction, but to have as your chief aim the demand for an infrastructure spend of billions when cycling isn’t even getting millions right now means your aim can be dismissed as fantasy by the powers-that-be. We need many smaller aims, not just one big one.

We have to share the road, we have to live in the real world, not pin hopes on pipe-dreams. Santa Claus does not exist.

I, too, hate, and campaign against, dangerous driving; but partition – easier said than done – is not the only answer. It may not even be the best answer.

I’m a multi-discipline cyclist, mostly I ride a cargo bike in civvies but now and then switch to roadie mode when I ride my full-carbon race machine. I’m male, fit and fast, but I don’t consider myself just a so-called ‘vehicular cyclist’. I use and mightily approve of segregated facilities, when they’re worthwhile, but no UK Government is going to build a perfect cycle network from my house to every single destination I ever want to get to.

However, there’s an imperfect road system that does this and I want to keep the right to ride on roads. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying all cyclists should use dual carriageways in order to maintain cycle use on those highways but I want to make my own route decisions, I don’t want to be channelled.

In the Netherlands, use of some cycle paths is obligatory. Cyclists are forbidden from roads where this is the case. Imagine, if you will, some crappy segregated route local to you that you had to use even though you knew the road route was quicker, cleaner, better; perhaps even safer. You’d want to use that, but couldn’t. Segregation has the potential to bite back.

We need to campaign to curb idiot motorists; we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking partition is a panacea.

It’s worth remembering the desire for partition isn’t unique to cyclists. Segregation is something motorists have campaigned for since the early days of motoring. With cyclists off the road, motorists assume they’ll be able to drive faster (they won’t, of course, it’s the hundreds of cars in front of them holding them up, not cyclists).

Motorways were the result of this desire for obstruction-free driving. We really don’t want more and more public highways to be turned over to motorised traffic only. Be careful what you wish for.

I am not advocating martyrdom. I don’t ride on roads as an act of defiance. I don’t allow my kids to cycle to school on roads as a form of protest. It’s all to do with practicality. Roads go everywhere so, as the Reid family is a cycling family, we accept that the majority of our riding will be on roads. Yes, we get bullied and buzzed by ignorant, uncaring motorists – which irks me no end – but segregated routes without a sea-change in driver attitudes, and stiff penalties for infractions, bring their own potential problems, such as turn zone crashes and other nasties.

Bikeability cycle training has the same ‘real world’ aim. It doesn’t teach kids how to ride on segregated cycle facilities, it teaches them how to cycle on roads. One of the weaknesses of ‘cycle proficiency’ was cycling lessons in playgrounds, not on roads.

We must not buckle when bullied. We should stand up for our rights. The UK road network does not belong to motorists, as I bang on about on, it belongs to us all. We must not cede rights in return for a few slivers of narrow tarmac bounded by kerbs.

I’m not against quality, NL-style bicycle infrastructure. Far from it. I’d love to see lots of extra facilities, it’s just I don’t want anything taken away. I want the cycle path and the road: I don’t want any cycling group to sign away my right to ride on roads.

A council could one day wrest an agreement from a local cycle group to cede rights on a certain road in return for a cycle facility close by. But will this facility be as useful as the existing road? Will cyclists get priority at junctions, or will they be bought off with fancy promises but then the actual facility adds time to commutes, fills with debris, and is eventually forgotten by the council? “Hey, we gave you bolshy cyclists your cycle facility, now stay off the rest of the local road network.”

If the current Government feels it can easily turn off cycling’s money, yet give £5000 sweeteners to rich buyers of electric cars, and spend billions on trunk roads and motorways in our supposed ‘age of austerity’, we’re not going to get very far by demanding infrastructure and pointing to countries where such infrastructure is either in place already or where it’s being installed. It’s easy for politicians to say ‘ah, yes, but that’s Amsterdam/New York City/Bogota, that won’t work here.’ Of course, it would work here – something Cycling England’s Cycling Demonstration Towns prove – but if this Government is happy to scrap the cheap-as-chips Cycling England and put nothing in its place, we’re up against an immovable foe. So, don’t fight this beast head-on, or alone. We have to be more subtle, more multi-faceted, more willing to align with other groups – such as pedestrian orgs – who also want to tame car speeds.

There are 245,000 miles of roads in the UK. Are those in favour of widespread segregation expecting 245,000 miles of segregated routes? That would cost billions upon billions.

No? Are pro-segregationists therefore asking for some lesser mileage of segregation? Yes? Me too. But at the same time we need to change motorists’ behaviour, not just lobby for miles and miles of raised kerbs and bollards. Without such a legally-enforced change in driver attitudes we wouldn’t get very far. Literally.

Of course, given that the current Transport Secretary believes he’s on a pro-motorist crusade, reining in drivers is also pretty much a pipe-dream but let’s keep our campaigning widely focussed, not fixated on a single issue such as segregation over all else. A good start would be to clamour for slower speed limits, curtailment of pavement parking (pavements can be considered segregated infrastructure for pedestrians, but that doesn’t stop motorists encroaching on this infrastructure), and the introduction of ’strict liability’, which would shift the insurance-related presumption for blame in car v bike incidents to motorists. Roadpeace and CTC are hot on this topic.

These measures, along with segregation, is what makes the Netherlands such a strong cycling country.

Segregation – which, I’ll stress again is a good thing…when done to a high standard – is merely one part of a much bigger picture. And part of that bigger picture is trying to work with the present administration. Sadly, Hammond is pro-car, pro-motorway and will splash just the barest minimum of cash on sustainable travel. No amount of starry-eyed optimism or we-can-make-it-happen-if-only-we-thought-big will change that. The political will for a radical rethink of urban transport in this country is just not there.

Building cycle infrastructure – like building any infrastructure – is a costly, long-term project. It needs politicians with a 20-50 year perspective but the great majority are short-termist, always looking at the quick fix, something that might get them elected next time round.

There’s no Ken Livingstone style figure waiting in the wings, ready to roll out cycle infrastructure if only he/she was given the chance. No mainstream political party in the UK is progressive enough to be truly pro-bicycle.

This doesn’t mean we should give up, but it does mean we have to be clever about what we push for. And we need to think strategically, rather than fixate on just one goal.

The 6th Century Chinese military leader Sun Tzu stressed the importance of positioning in strategy, and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. In ‘The Art of War’ he wrote that strategic thinking requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions.

Cycle advocates need to have lots of weapons in their arsenal, not just one. Sun Tzu’s probable view of the ’segregation or nothing’ strategy? Easily defeated because not flexible enough.

Instead, how about pushing for lots of smaller goals? This is a stealth tactic that can work. For instance, in your locality, campaign for a certain road to be closed to traffic with bollards. Just one road. Not much to ask for. But then, after this success, pick another road and work hard on getting that closed to cars, too. Do this lots of times and, eventually, there will be a permeable network for cyclists.

By asking for too much, too soon, we don’t come over as pragmatic or sensible. But even our best arguments, our best weapons, won’t work on central Government as it stands: to propel the active travel agenda we have to stop pushing against the pricks. We’ll have to see the back of Hoverboard Hammond before any real progress can be made, and it will probably need a whole new administration before our arguments are genuinely heard again.

Caroline Lucas for transport secretary! Julian Huppert for minister in charge of cycling! Steven Norris and Lord Adonis as ’special advisors’! See, I can be a dreamer, too.

Take a look at this video I shot as part of an all-party parliamentary fact-finding visit to the Netherlands. It shows why ’strict liability’ is one of the, ahem, driving forces for better road manners. But it also shows Dutch cyclists aren’t all on fancy-schmancy segregated routes: much of the cycling portrayed is on roads. You know, with cars.



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