Extreme straw men and reductionist thinking.

It is frustrating that there seems to be so much disagreement between different cycle campaigners regarding what is required to get more people cycling in Britain. What is particularly annoying is that a lot of the arguments seem to centre around a question of what is the single intervention that would get more people on to their bikes. The problem is that there is not a single intervention that is likely to succeed in achieving such an end. What is needed is a wide range of different interventions that feed from one-another to make cycling much more attractive than motoring in the urban environment.

It is easy to get the impression that ‘segregation’ is proposed by many as the be-all-and-end-all of everyday cycling. Whether or not this is just a strawman, or really is being proposed as the sole solution, I think there are 2 problems with such an idea in the UK context. The first is that such a concept comes with a great deal of baggage as a result of the dreadful infrastructure that has been put in place in the past, consisting largely of painted gutters and narrow lanes that push the cyclist into what is often the worst possible road position as far as safety is concerned. The fact that such baggage automatically turns a great many existing cycle users against the idea suggests that perhaps a different, less extreme presentation might be appropriate. The second problem with it is that the message that seems to come across is that all you need to do is to create a completely separate infrastructure for cyclists in which there is absolutely no contact between cyclists and motor vehicles, and cyclists will come flocking. Unfortunately, as Carlton Reid illustrates in an interesting article about Stevenage (http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com/stevenage/), whilst it may have been an important element in making cycling more attractive in successful cycling countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, it is far from sufficient.

Unfortunately, the term ‘segregation’ seems to conjure up in the mind of many British protagonists the idea that a completely separate infrastructure should be built replicating every existing route in a city, specifically for cyclists, such a system being provided in addition to the existing provision for motor vehicles. This would be quite unrealistic, at least in the short term, and would anyway be solving the wrong problem. The emphasis that is needed is not one that focuses on removing bicycles from the existing roads, but rather one that focuses on removing some or all motor vehicles from (some of) the existing roads to make them more pleasant for everybody, including bicycle users. Indeed, as illustrated by a particularly good article by David Hembrow (http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2012/04/100-segregation-of-bikes-and-cars.html), such an emphasis  aligns very well with what appears to have been provided in the Netherlands.

The strawman of total segregation needs to be countered by presenting instead a concept of good design in which motor vehicles and cyclists only ever share spaces where traffic volumes, speeds and attitudes are not likely to strike terror into the heart of the average bicycle user. An important aspect of such a design concepts would be that cycle provision is made not in addition to, but instead of some motoring provision. This would also shift the emphasis away from arguing about how to provide for cyclists in the current environment towards discussing how to reclaim the urban environment from the blight of motor-centric planning for the benefit of everyone, not just cyclists.

There will, of course, remain significant amounts of space in which cycle users and pedestrians must co-exist with motor vehicles, even if only for access rather than through-traffic. In these places, it is necessary to reduce maximum speeds and volumes of motor traffic, and some significant progress appears to be being made only recently, thanks in no small part to Rod King and the 20’s Plenty movement (http://www.20splentyforus.org.uk/). Again, this appears to be very much in line with the approach taken in successful cycle using countries such as the Netherlands.

However, even if speed limits were to be reduced widely across such areas, there still remains a significant problem of attitudes among motorists in the UK. (For example, the following is just the tip of  very large iceberg: http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/News/Police-hunt-for-driver-who-did-this-to-cyclist-01032013.htm). I find very surprising the extent to which the importance of this issue seems to be denied by many people who are advocates of a ‘Dutch style’ approach to cycle provision. Even with significant separation between motor vehicle and cycles, there are still many occasions when the two potentially come into conflict. There are plenty of images and videos from the Netherlands of cycle traffic and motor traffic crossing one-another. In many cases, the road markings are such that the cycle traffic has priority over the motor traffic. As a fairly confident cycle user in the UK, I would have to say that such an arrangement here would make me feel extremely uncomfortable; scared even. This is absolutely due to my experience of a small but significant proportion of UK motorists.

If this problem of motorist attitudes is to be addressed, it will require, at the very least, motorist education coupled with changes to law enforcement and in some cases to the law itself. The police have demonstrated time after time that they really are not prepared to enforce the existing criminal laws as they apply to motorists (see, for example http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeWiYtf_gIM). There is also the serious imbalance that exists in UK civil law, whereby the victim in a motor vehicle collision with a vulnerable road user is required to prove fault on the part of the motorist in order for that motorist (or their insurance provider) to be held liable for damages, something that is usually very difficult even if the driver was indeed at fault.

The latter brings to mind another of the strawman arguments that appears to be made quite frequently. The way to address this problem of liability is to introduce a legal obligation for motorists to be presumed liable for such damages unless they can prove significant negligence or even intent on the part of the vulnerable road user. This principle is referred to as ‘presumed’ liability. I have blogged before about what this really means (http://www.happycyclist.org/?p=429), and in an earlier article about the dire attitude our government seems to hold about the principle (http://www.happycyclist.org/?p=152). Unfortunately, calls for such a change in the law seem to result in a reaction from some cycle campaigners pointing out that presumed liability (or strict liability as is often incorrectly named) will not magically make all drivers behave well overnight. (See, for example http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/strict-liability-in-the-netherlands/) Well, I agree that such a change on its own will not cause a dramatic change in driver behaviour to happen, but neither can I find anyone else who believes it will. That does not mean, however that it is not a change worth making. The law should be changed in this way if only because it is fair and just that anyone who brings a dangerous machine into a public space should expect to bear responsibility for the consequences when it hurts someone. More than this, though, the very fact that such a change was made would certainly not harm any attempts towards driving home the message that driving is a privilege, not a right, and brings with it some serious responsibilities. I would even go so far as to suggest that anyone in the Netherlands who claims that presumed liability is not really relevant has probably never cycled in British rush hour traffic.

These are just some examples of how I think there is a damaging tendency to adopt reductionist thinking to what is actually a complex set of intertwined issues and approaches. Unless you have done a controlled experiment in which you have tried to achieve high rates of cycle use with and without a particular measure, it is not reasonable to discount that measure as part of a holistic solution, and such an experiment is really not possible. If we do not adopt a more holistic approach that embraces a range of different but complementary measures, there is a danger that each and every component of a viable solution will be rejected because it alone will not achieve the desired result.



This entry was posted in Article, Road Justice, Space for Cycling. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Extreme straw men and reductionist thinking.

  1. Helen Enevoldson says:

    I’m glad to learn that you are riding again. Are you coming to next week’s Cycle Forum. Via GMCC I’ve learned that Councillor Critchley has proposed a motion for a 20mph speed limit in reidential areas. It is likely, as in the case of Wigan, that the money will come from Public Health.

    I’d like to add that I’ve learned a lot from your videos, and I plan further ahead and I am more likely to take up primary position in places where I didn’t before. I’m sure it is a gender (no testosterone) thing, but it doesn’t come naturally. The task to get more women cycling is an uphill one.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.