Friday, 22 July 2011

The problem with assertive cycling

From Cycle of Futility:
I cycled down Queen Victoria Street towards Blackfriars Bridge: [picture] At this narrow point, I decided to “take the lane”, as I’ve been overtaken by buses here before and it’s a little close for comfort.
A black cab driver behind me became very angry, aggressively revving and trying to squeeze past. At the end of this section (about 15 seconds after the beginning of it), he leaned out his window as he overtook me and said, “Who do you think you are? I’ll slit your fucking throat.”
There was a police car stopped at the next set of traffic lights. I knocked on their window, reported what the taxi driver had said, and one of the two officers within asked both me and the driver to pull over.
PC Jeffreys then told me that I should not have been cycling in the middle of the road and that both parties were in his view in the wrong. He said that in future if I felt intimidated by a taxi driver behind me, the correct action would be to pull over to the side of the road, dismount my bicycle and wait until I no longer felt at risk.

All very routine stuff for this city of vehicular cycling, except for the involvement of the police. Outside the tiny area of the City of London one would have been unlikely to find any police with the time to get involved in an incident like this.

This account points up a major problem with the UK's officially-promoted doctrine of "assertive cycling", or "Cyclecraft-style cycling", or "Bikeability-style cycling", or whatever you want to call it. This problem has been noted before, in this perceptive piece on As Easy As Riding A Bike:
And this brings me to the other problem I have with the ‘primary position’. No-one seems to have told U.K. drivers about it. Putting yourself out in the middle [of the] road can, in my experience, appear to some drivers as an act of deliberate provocation. They don’t have a clue what you are doing.
Exactly. The problem with assertive cycling and the primary position is that they are techniques that are understood as correct and sensible road behaviour only by a tiny minority of road-users, those cyclists who have been trained in them. Nobody has told motorists about them, nobody has told police about them, and, in the unlikely event of an incident coming to court, nobody has told magistrates about them. They are not mentioned in the Highway Code, nor mentioned in the driving test. They are against "common sense" and against the expected norms of the road to the vast mass of road-users, who are likely to regard cyclists applying these principles as either obstructive, bloody-minded, "superior", or suicidal.

There is a fundamental difference between driver training, as in the driving test, and Bikeablilty. The driving test teaches people to obey road norms which are generally understood. Bikeablilty and
Cyclecraft teach people, at least in some respects, to try to go against the norms of the road. They are therefore based on a kind of lie. Because there is no point in society training one minority set of people to do one thing, while not having the guts to impose on everybody else the duty of allowing that minority set to do that thing. It is a glaring inconsistency, and just a recipe for conflict and aggression. As the blogger mentioned above puts it, assertive cycling is just a scheme that puts UK cyclists using it "between a rock and a hard place". Really, it is no way to promote cycling.

The phrase "primary position" itself embodies a dishonesty. The phrase, I believe, originally came from motorcycle training. But as applied to cycling, it doesn't make the same sense as it does in motorcycling. The "primary position" cannot be the primary position for cyclists on roads where the speeds are almost always far in excess of most people's top cycling speed. Some fit, young cyclists can cycle at 20 mph on the flat, but few of our roads have a 20mph limit, and in the more normal 30-limit urban areas, typical speeds are up to 45, in reality, where the roads can take it. So even fast cyclists stand little chance of maintaining the primary position most of the time. A more normal cycling speed, even with the current cadre of cyclists, would be 10–15mph. For them, in being sold this "primary position" theory, they are clearly being sold a lie. And this is to say nothing of the currently largely-excluded groups that we want to get on bikes: children, the unfit and the elderly, who are not going to do more than about 8 mph.

I'm not trying to discourage people from cycling on the roads – far from it. And I am not trying to encourage people to cycle "in the gutter", or to be overly deferential to motorists, or to put themselves in the dooring zone, if they can possibly avoid it, or put themselves in the position of being dangerously overtaken, if they can possibly avoid it. People should cycle on the roads using some of the techniques drawn from Cyclecraft and Bikeability, and using their own experience, judgement, and common-sense, and try to keep as safe as possible. I am not criticising anyone for cycling in any particular way, or for training anyone to cycle in any particular way. But I am pointing out, as many bloggers have pointed out before, that we have a big problem with the way we are trying to get people to cycle on the roads, trying to fit them in around a driving culture that is, in a basic way, not compatible with any type of cycling, assertive or otherwise.

For the risks are never entirely within the control of the cyclist, no matter in what style they cycle. Cycling in primary position reduces the chance of dooring incidents, and many junction incidents, but it increases the chances of being hit from behind, which are not negligible, and, in preventing some dangerous overtakes, increases the likelihood of aggressive behaviour from many motorists when they are encountered elsewhere on the journey.

One result of the aggression and hostility they encounter on the roads is that too many people give up cycling, whatever training you give them. The effects of promotion and training are offset by recidivism. A report from Transport for London published in December 2010, Analysis of Cycling Potential, drew attention to this (p. 44):
Evidence suggests that the growth in cycle travel between 2001 and 2008 was largely caused by cyclists increasing their cycle trip-making. There is no evidence of a net increase in the number of cyclists overall, although this disguises a level of "churn", so that some people stop cycling whilst others start. LTDS [London Travel Demand Survey] showed an increase of only 3 per cent in the number of people who ever cycle between 2005/6 and 2008/9 but an increase of nearly 50 per cent in the proportion of cyclists who cycled frequently. A very small number of cyclists account for a large proportion of trips – recent analysis of LTDS found that around 2% of London residents cycle as their main mode of travel to work, yet this group accounts for around half of all cycle trips made in London (for all trip purposes). So, although many people have taken up cycling in the past decade, a similar number have stopped cycling - i.e. there has been "churn" but no change at an aggregate level.
The report further noted, on p. 45,
Research exploring the barriers to cycling and the factors which would encourage people to cycle more found that frequent cyclists were more likely to be put off by their experiences with traffic and other road users and to mention practical barriers, such as a lack of suitable parking or shower facilities (TfL Cycling Behaviour Survey 2010). For all groups, including frequent cyclists, safety was the most significant barrier to cycling in general and for specific trips. This suggests that, in order to realise the remaining potential from existing frequent cyclists, practical measures to increase safety and improve the provision of facilities will be the most effective.
So even "frequent cyclists", whom one would suppose would be the "hardened" ones, are "put off by their experience with traffic" and need "practical measures to increase safety and improve the provision of facilities".

I would agree with all TfL's report says, and only question why TfL and Boris Johnson are not doing more to put into practice what it so clearly says about the need for "practical measures to increase safety and improve the provision of facilities". But we do need to stop pretending that Bikeability-style training, trying to fit cyclists in around the dangerous behaviour that is the norm on the roads at the moment, is any real solution. 

The theory that training people in assertive cycling techniques can play any significant part in reviving cycling in the UK is in error in a similar way to the ideas around Shared Space that I have criticised quite a bit on this blog. The thing in common is that word I used (or coined, as it is not recognised by my computer's dictionary), ahistorical: meaning that the theory holds little water when viewed in the context of historical change, and the reasons for that change. The recent history of cycling in the UK, and many other western countries, is that cyclists have been driven off the roads by the increase in volume, speed and power of motor vehicles and aggression of their drivers. The claim that cyclists themselves can undo this damage merely through changing the way that they cycle – cycling assertively, as compared with however they used to cycle in the "golden days" of cycling – which is, in the end, what the claim is, that underlies the push for ever more Bikeability-style training, is decidedly far-fetched.

It is so far-fetched as not to be credible. And it is not backed-up by the evidence, which is that, as TfL's report says, there has been no change in the actual number of people cycling, despite the big training push of the last decade. However you try to train cyclists to deal with traffic, the frequency of the type of incident with which this post began means that most people will continue to give up under current conditions. The answer, as we know from extensive international experience, is the provision of facilities that separate cyclists from fast and aggressively-driven motor traffic. Training cyclists to pretend to be motorcyclists is not the answer.


  1. I agree with you about the perils of putting too much faith in the primary position. There's a need for pragmatism and adapting to the environment.

    It's clear from looking at the Netherlands that Bikeability is only necessary here because of our hostile roads environment. I learnt to ride a bike in the 60s. At that time car ownership was lower, the cars were less powerful (hot hatches were some way off) and it was possible for youngsters to learn by riding on residential roads.

    I was riding to school unaccompanied on suburban roads (including crossing a main road) from the age of 7. That would be an act of madness in today's conditions, so I accept that Bikeability training is a necessary but insufficient safety measure.

    All the population forecasts point to an ageing population. With more older people on the roads (including cyclists and pedestrians), we will see more congestion and slower reaction times. At some stage 20 mph speed limits in built up areas will become inevitable. Just as variable speed limits on the M25 have improved traffic flows, so will reducing speed limits on urban and semi-urban roads.

    If motorists are constrained to 20 mph on roads used frequently by cyclists, many of the safety issues around the compulsion to overtake cyclists will hopefully diminish.

  2. Forgetting to train car drivers is clearly demonstrated by the so called Cycle Superhighways; apparently the small rectangular markers you see in the middle of the lane when the blue cycle lane vanishes are there to indicate cyclists should be in primary position. Oh wait, they forgot to tell even cyclists that. (Saw gaz from sillycyclists make that comment somewhere so take it with grain of salt.)

  3. Good post. I agree with much of this but will say that done well, "assertive" techniques reduce conflict not increase it. Negotiation is key. There is more to it then just "taking the lane". As I have said many times though it is not for everyone.

    You say:

    "But I am pointing out, as many bloggers have pointed out before, that we have a big problem with the way we are trying to get people to cycle on the roads, trying to fit them in around a driving culture that is, in a basic way, not compatible with any type of cycling, assertive or otherwise."

    The sad fact is that "we", as a society, are not trying to get people to cycle in any meaningfull way. Cycle Training is the VERY MINIMUM that the gov. can do. They are doing as little as possible for cycling and cyclists. If we really are 1% of mode nationally we should have 1% at least of the transport budget. This would be a massive increase. In London we should have about 4% of the transport budget! Enough for plenty of groovey lanes/junction treatments/raised footplates to rest a foot on at junctions or anything else we want!

    The level of spending on cycling represents the authorities actually discouraging cycling. Don't believe their hype. Boris is bunk!

    But.... They can't stop it! People want to ride. Or I should say they do in London at least. I will go on helping those who want help, one at a time.

    My personal and very non scientific view is that cycling numbers in London are badly undercounted. This suits local authorities who can do nothing for us. They have read all the same papers as all us lot. They know what needs to be done. Local authority officers want to do things that would help to grow cycling but they don't make the decisions. The elected folk do that.

    Political will is the key. Without it there is no chance of anything happening and discussion of what needs to be done is largely just chat.


  4. I too am sceptical about the stats. It is not a scientific observation I know, but over the last 5 years or so I have noticed that there are more and more people around me as I make my daily journey into the Blackfriars area. My journeys are largely the daily commute so concentrated into a short interval in morning and evening, but I do also see more cyclists around when I do business journeys during the day.

    If the surveys are correct and this represents a minuscule increase in the number of cyclists, but cycling more frequently, then the people around me must be shuttling backwards and forwards so that they can cross Blackfriars Bridge northbound more than once each morning!

    On taking the lane, I do it. Perhaps it is because I am bold to the point of recklessness, perhaps because I am a grumpy middle-aged man who enjoys winding up cabbies (lowest form of life in my view), perhaps that is because, as a "city slicker" I know that in fact I contribute a great deal more to the cost of roads (through general taxation) than the so-called road-tax-paying cabbies and white van drivers itching to overtake me. However, I also feel safer that way. The banal risk from the inattention and tunnel vision which seems to afflict most people the instant they sit behind the wheel is, I think, reduced because you are harder to miss (figuratively speaking) and the other end of the spectrum, pure thuggery, is thankfully still rare - I really believe that most motorist behaviour is not malicious.

    Would I advise other people to do the same? Well, no amount of argument will convince my wife to veer rightwards away from the kerb, and she is largely intimidated from cycling on busy roads. And the Franklin ideology (for ideology is what it is) has much dafter moments. I particularly treasure the one about cadence - maintain about 80 rpm so that you can achieve a sprint speed of 20mph as you go through a roundabout to reduce conflict with motor vehicles. That one had me rolling in the aisles.

    So, what do we do? There is no use ranting on a blog where perhaps a thousand broadly like-minded people will agree with you, much of the way if not all. The Franklin dogma is accepted by the DfT as received wisdom. Either one argues for the DfT to withdraw their support from this baleful document, or that they should make its key recommendations about primary position etc a compulsory part of the knowledge of all motorists, so they know what a cyclist is going to do and precisely why. You might get to the new drivers as you could make this a part of the curriculum for the written exam in the driving test, but how to get to established drivers? Advertising? Like you I am pretty sceptical about trainign, advertising etc as pro-cycling measures but has it ever really been tried? Considerable sums have been spent on "Think Bike", with Stirling Moss and other motoring celebrities hammering home the message, but of course "Bike" means "Motorbike". I don't think I have ever seen anything remotely similar for cyclists.

    Is it worth giving a try, if only to exclude it emppirically as asolution?

  5. @ Paul M

    “The Franklin dogma is accepted by the DfT as received wisdom”

    The problem is that it is received wisdom for most cycle campaigners, most cycle campaign groups and, most of all, the CTC and CycleNation. Campaigning effort is directed at ameliorating conditions for cyclists in a vehicular cycling environment. This strategy has dismally failed to make cycling popular. As David has said before on this blog, the cycle campaign community needs to speak with one voice when engaging with power. The problem is that this voice articulates vehicular cycling, and has done for decades. At present there is no sign that ‘going Dutch’ is being embraced by those who are deemed to represent cycling apart from the London Cycling Campaign (to my mind, a little tepidly).

    The internet has opened up a space in which cyclists can challenge the received wisdom of the official gatekeepers of UK cycle campaigning. I suspect the recent change in vision and strategy by the London Cycling Campaign owes at least something both to the criticism the LCC has received from bloggers, and their personal citations of bad experiences and bad infrastructure.

    As for cycling stats. The distinction between cyclists and cycle trips is an interesting one, in so far as what is measured is trips not cyclists. But even if it is true that the official figures under-count, so what? That hypothetical underestimate is of no real relevance because cycling remains a marginal activity for most Londoners and always will do given the current infrastructure and levels of motor traffic. Even if the true modal share for London was 5 per cent not 2 per cent, this would still be a risible figure.

    However, subjective impressions are hardly a substitute for screen counts. Bear in mind that London cycling modal share statistics relate to Greater London, not just popular inner London commuter routes, and they also count weekends, not just weekdays.

    I’m quite sure that by 2026 the target of 5 per cent modal share will not have been reached. I doubt if it even reaches 3 per cent by then.

    The Camden cycle tracks saga shows what can be achieved by a small, determined group of cycling campaigners. It also shows how other cycle campaigners were a serious obstacle to the achievement of good high quality cycling infrastructure.

  6. @ Freewheeler

    "It also shows how other cycle campaigners were a serious obstacle to the achievement of good high quality cycling infrastructure."

    Is the Camden cycle track (Tavistock etc.) "good high quality cycling infrastructure"?

    Not really. It's a chilling indictment of the state of play that this is the best we could do in London.

    My reading of David's excellent history on this was that it was the taxi lot who opposed one way operation of the road which would have allowed a wider lane for bikes and helped with some of the poor junction issues along the way. Conflicting opinions with other groups can't have helped either as you point out. However, the group who made that lane happen had the backing of elected members of the council which is key.

    I still maintain that the point about which, if any, intervention would be best, is moot in the context of lack of political will. If we, as a society, wanted this we would be attacking on all fronts... Training/lanes/20mph./legal changes/tax breaks and many others.... All good tools, in my view.

    We need leadership. Leadership prepared to look to the future and make positive plans that extend beyond their terms of office. Instead, we have a corrupted political process overseen by media who we cannot trust. Who will stand up and do what needs to be done? Boris? Ha!

  7. I too am not sure the TfL survey figures are correct. They are based on a travel demand survey which is people really making their own assessment of how much they cycle, which may not be accurate. It does seem intuitively unlikely that the greatly increased screen counts on some central London commuter routes really are just due to previously existing cyclists making more trips. There is always a problem of definition of who is or was a "cyclist". On the other hand, I see no evidence that cycling in outer London, which is most of the city, is increasing. Conditions in outer London I think are still getting worse.

    As regards the Camden cycle tracks, and how "high quality" they are, though they have their problems, despite these I still classify them, by their results, most definitely as "successful facilities", and I have no problem holding them up as examples (as I have been doing in this blog) that should be imitated and developed.

    As regards what type of intervention is most likely to be effectively implemented given current constraints of political will, I am certain it is dedicated infrastructure, which is precisely why I write about this so much. I really do not see any prospect of the political will developing to limit speeds to the levels they would need to be limited to, to create the right environment for mass cycling, without dedicated infrastructure as well. As I indicated, I think 20 mph is still far too high to work for most potential cyclists, who will only do about 8, and will still feel far too much motor threat in a 20mph environment (which will really be about 25 average). I think many cycling campaigners are just "not in the real world" on this point, because they assume the cyclists of the future will be like them. They won't. Given that we have not even got politically anywhere near the extensive adoption of 20, which is not slow enough to work on its own, I really don't see slower speeds as the correct main goal for campaigning. I remember when Tony Blair was in his second term, there was a huge push on 20mph from a big coalition of voluntary groups, and everybody seemed to think it was in the bag and "just round the corner". It wasn't, it was miles from the political mainstream, and I still think it is.


  8. Then there is the matter of doing things to try to change motorists' behaviour, like teaching them to cycle in their test and suchlike. Again, I think these are light-years away from political likelihood. At War on the Motorist did an excellent post on how the evidence is against "behaviour improving" initiatives working. And the reason I describe the whole DfT Bikeability thing as "dishonest" is that, while they are telling cyclists to "take primary", I don't believe they would ever go out with a campaign telling motorists "Let cyclists take this position - don't overtake them - let them occupy the middle of the lane". They just wouldn't do this because it would be too sensitive – Mondeo Man wouldn't stand for it. He would say "Why should cyclists stop me from driving at 30?" The result is that they are dishonestly telling cyclists to do a thing which they are not prepared to try to enforce cyclists' right to do. They are just telling cyclists to lay their lives on the line and act as human traffic calming without any support from the law. So in the current climate, I don't think seeking behaviour change is a politically practical goal either.

    The reasons I think infrastructure is by far the most likely campaign to succeed is that, firstly, in the Camden schemes and a few others across the country, we have already got very close to what we actually need. And secondly, we do have organisations that are supposed to be implementing infrastructure solutions. One is Sustrans. Another is TfL: although at the moment their Superhighways are a long way from being satisfactory, this is supposed to be what they are about. We therefore have points of pressure on infrastructure that put success potentially much closer than on speed limits and behaviour change. It is only a matter of getting the designs right and the required allocation of space. I really don't think it is the wholly improbable political mountain to climb that the other two are.

    In this I differ radically from CTC, who always talk as if getting satisfactory infrastructure is an impossible dream, as here, and seem to think that speed limits and behaviour change are the best things to campaign for. In this I think they are wrong. They are trying to get the really hard things rather than the easier one, and this reflects their historical ideological anti-infrastructure stance. Of the various improbable changes that might bring about mass cycling in the UK, I think implementation of excellent infrastructure is by far the least improbable.

  9. I teach a course called CAN-BIKE here in Vancouver BC, Canada. The C-B level 2 course is a whole weekend's worth of skills and traffic theory. The central principles are very similar to the assertive cycling content I'm seeing here in relation to Bikeability in the UK.

    My CAN-BIKE classes were always a big hit and boy was I a good salesman! Then one time a student who happened to be a well-educated planning engineer tore a strip off me. "Where are you getting this stuff? Who says ride a meter from curbs? Why a meter? What about slower cyclists? Can you back any of this up with concrete, scientific evidence?" He was incredulous that here we were telling people to go ahead and ride a meter or more from curbs, take the lane, etc and doing so on the basis of, in the words of the writer of this post, "received wisdom". In this case, received from John Forrester, whose book "Effective Cycling" was published in 1977 and gave birth to this whole movement in North america. CAN-BIKE still uses so-called statistics from Forrester's book that are unattributed, impossible to prove and in all likelihood, completely erroneous.

    Recently a very thorough and scrupulously scientific study was done by researchers at the University of British Columbia
    that all but discredits some of the dearly held precepts ofCAN-BIKE and yet the course and its proponents carry on because no one in authority knows anything about cycling and they assume that "those people" (cyclists) must all speak with one voice. The Canadian government just gave a bunch of money to spread the CAN-BIKE orthodoxy to more Canadian kids.

    I agree that assertive cycling is a useful if not necessary component of any cyclist's vocabulary and of course I take however much of the road I need at any given moment. I've been harrassed plenty over the years and recently have adopted a much more submissive game on the roads, and it has worked wonderfully. I now make a great show of ceding the road when I can and stay well to the right when conditions allow, letting drivers ease by confident that they are not going to come near me, and also feeling the love and acceptance my position on the road bespeaks. In other words, like any skilled submissive, I am still the one in control of the situation.