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.