Wednesday 23 January 2013

Ice and snow

I've been off the bike for more than a week, following a fall on an icy road at a corner on a minor roundabout in North Brent. I turned left to exit the roundabout, but the Brompton continued in the same direction it had been travelling in, we parted company, and I ended up on my bottom, on the road, yelling. This is only a very minor road junction with little traffic, and had the 1930s builders of the road not decided to plonk a roundabout there, I would not have had to make a left, but would have been able to cycle straight on, and maybe would not have come off. Anyway, there were no cars on the road, but a number of people came to look and offer help as I made such a noise, and the first thing I asked them to do was to take the bike out of the road. They offered to get an ambulance, but I found I could get up, so it did not seem to be necessary. A kind lady, who was a health worker, offered to take me home, as she was driving in that direction anyway, so I accepted, and the Brompton could come in the car too, being a folding bike. My partner Helen, an A & E doctor, no less, diagnosed no broken bones, and no need for any treatment apart from painkillers and rest. I am now almost better.

There are a number of lessons arising from this. One is that Bromptons are poor snow bikes. The small area of tyre contact with the road, and possibly other aspects of the geometry, mean they are hard to control in slippery conditions, and it seems to be hard to come off one in a controlled fashion if the tyres start to slip. Others I have corresponded with since have noticed the same problems. My problem was no doubt exacerbated by me having pumped the tyres up to 100 PSI before going out. In icy conditions you should reduce your tyre pressures, perhaps to 60% of normal. Another lesson is not to trust weather forecasts. I certainly considered the issue of ice before I went out, and consulted the forecast, which showed ground temperatures in London remaining above freezing all night. This proved to be totally wrong, as by early evening there was already ice forming everywhere from the snow that had fallen during the day. I do in fact have a hybrid bike with fattish tyres, and I should have taken that instead, and left it at the nearest station to do the rest of the journey by tube.

As these lengthy spells of below-freezing weather, that we have not, in most of my lifetime, been used to in London and the South of England, seem to be becoming more common, a possible manifestation of climate change pushing the Gulf Stream southwards (though weather experts argue over the models), perhaps it is worth all of us getting the proper ice tyres with studs in, as advised by David Hembrow. Or, there is a more DIY solution: cable ties wrapped round wheels, as promoted by this entertaining little video:

More seriously, the whole thing points up some issues with the UK road environment, and its maintenance, as usual. Cyclists are often advised to choose back-street routes, particularly if they are "nervous" about dealing with traffic. Though I think I am not in that category, and I have, in the past, argued with some force that cyclists do not belong on the back streets any more than cars do, I have devised many quieter back-street routes in my part of outer London, which I often use (they are generally similar to the yellow routes shown on the TfL cycle guides). Unfortunately the strategy, for cyclists, of using minor roads, for comfort or self-protection, is not a good one when the snow falls, as the minor roads, if they are ever gritted, will be gritted after the man roads – seemingly irrespective of whether they are recommended or marked cycle routes. I fell off on the first night of frozen snow across Brent. The main roads were gritted that night or the next day, the minor roads over subsequent days. It was too late. And many of these "minor" roads, like the one I live on, Stag Lane, carry major traffic.

The late-or-never gritting of minor and semi-miror roads is clearly discriminatory to cyclists, who often use these routes in preference to the busier ones. The road environment of outer London is hazardous enough for cycling in normal conditions, but when snow and ice builds up, and is swept into the part of the road near the kerb that cyclists use, this makes it far more so. Cyclists must consider their course on the road very carefully, and make very rapid and risky decisions about whether it is safer to be nearer the kerb, or in the middle of the road, "in the way" of the motor traffic, where a fall could be all the more lethal due to the risk of being immediately run over. For the first couple of days of really bad weather, the general driving standard seems to improve, as motorists behave cautiously in unfamiliar conditions, and probably give cyclists more respect and leeway. But as the situation persists, soon things go back to normal, and they are taking as little care of us and each other as usual.

A week after my accident, all the significant roads in Brent had been gritted, and the passage of cars had removed the ice, though temperatures remained below zero. Here is Stag Lane on Monday.

This picture points up another bit of iniquity. By this stage, it would probably be safer to cycle than to walk. The road is totally clear, but the pavements are a treacherous sheet of foot-compacted re-frozen snow. No attempt has been made to treat them at all. So far as I know, no pavements in Brent are gritted. So the man that you see in the picture has to walk on the road. Where he encounters a parked car, he will have to decide whether it is safer to walk round it on the road, or on the glassy pavement.

This policy of not gritting or salting the pavements means that the old, disabled and frail are trapped in their homes. There is no way that they could contemplate walking roads like these. I think twice about it. But somehow, in this car-dominated society, nobody seems to think this is a scandal (apart possibly from Living Streets, who have a low-key campaign on the subject). And then we wonder what is stopping us as a nation from being "active".

In the Netherlands, as Bicycledutch helpfully tells us, and demonstrates with his videos, in general all the paths and roads cyclists need to use are kept completely clear of ice and snow: in a colder climate than we have in England. The same does not appear to be the case for the pavements, and it is curious, to our eyes, to see, in his video, pedestrians walking in the snow rather than on the cleared cycle track. It would be interesting to know what the Dutch policy is on this. The Dutch are now advancing the idea of heated bike paths, but those in the video of s'Hertogenbosch are cleared by a machine that sprays a salt solution. Another point to note is that the Dutch utility bike is typically better-adapted to snow and ice than the British road bike, with fatter tyres, and very stable geometry.

I have seen it reported that cycling drops off by about 30% in the Dutch winter, compared with summer. I've not seen any figure for how much lower cycling rates are in winter than summer for the UK (it may not have been reliably measured), but my guess is that the seasonal difference here is much larger. This is not the result of a more severe climate; our climate is milder. It is a result of the generally far lower level of care in this country for cyclists' safety. For the Dutch cyclist on his or her traffic-free paths and tracks, snow is a minor inconvenience, maybe even a bit of fun. For the British cyclist, it is another compounding, complex hazard in the environment of aggressively, uncomprehendingly-driven motor traffic, where the slightest slip could well prove fatal. More snow and ice is forecast for England over the next week. Take care out there if you do brave the roads. You might like to look at this fuller set of tips for winter cycling from

Thursday 3 January 2013

Cycling revolutions

This, again, is a long blog post that I started many months ago, and just got round to completing. Some of the statistics may now be updateable, with new data, which I will be interested to hear about, but, so far as I know, any new data don't change much that I have to say here. In the meantime, both At War With the Motorist (back in April) and As Easy As Riding a Bike (just the other day) have published pieces which cover which cover a certain amount of similar ground, and I recommend you to read those as well.

Joe Dunckley, in his notebook, has been doing a great job of collecting quotes from past parliamentary debates on cycling, going back to the 1980s and 90s. The titles he puts on the posts makes the point of this: titles like "more from the archives of history repeating", "yet more from the archives of the cycling revolution". For when you read these, it all sounds like it was said in the  parliamentary debate on cycling we had just back in February 2012.

Simon Hughes, 27 April 1984:
It is encouraging that in this city, part of which I represent, where one would imagine cycling to be the least acceptable form of transport because of the hazards and the heavy traffic, there has been a cycle use increase of about 20 per cent. per year in the past four or five years. Cycling now makes up approximately 4 per cent. of all trips. The interesting additional statistic that is thrown in is that cycles comprise 25 per cent. of all vehicle flows at some major junctions. I did not realise that they were that thick on the ground, but that is the trend.
Lynda Chalker, 16 May 1985:
Cycling has always been popular with the young. In recent years, it has become more popular with adults. I am told that bike sales now outnumber car sales. The reasons are clear. Cycling is a cheap, personal and healthy way to travel. For many local journeys, it can be the quickest. On those grounds alone, I am glad to see the increase in cycling popularity.
John Bowis, 23 November 1989:
I do not know how often my right hon. and learned Friend pedals to work, but I am sure that he agrees with me that the growth in cycling as a form of transport is very welcome.
Anthony Steen, 16 November 1990:
Great progress has been made in our major cities to provide for cyclists. I think that about 90,000 cyclists come into London every day, and the number is increasing. Are the Government going to make progress, so that cars are cleared off the principal routes and cycle tracks are provided throughout the capital, so that we can get about much better on two wheels than on four?
This kind of thing goes on and on. The point has been made by other bloggers before, and I have discussed it before. Actually, I don't need to be shown the quotes. I was there, cycling in London in 1980s. I remember this stuff.

In the UK, certainly as long as I can remember, we have been in a perpetual state of declaring a New Dawn for cycling, a new Bicycle Age, a Cycling Revolution, or some such phrase. And we are always getting cycling levels being declared to be on the up, and increases in cycling in our cities the like of which nobody has ever seen before. And yet the statistics say this:

Compiled by Jim Gleeson
Or, in the similar but not identical graph in the BMA's Healthy Transport = Healthy Lives report that takes it to 2010 (this graph is not per person, so population increase has an effect):

All those quotes, and many more like them, come from the period when cycling was in gentle decay from a small temporary high that it achieved in 1982. There was another temporary high in 1976. These two can be seen to be quite significant changes on the general post-1970 baseline: increases of about 70% on that. What was the reason for them? The first high followed the oil price shocks of 1973-4 and the stock market crash in the same period, which led to the 1970s recession. The second high followed the 1979 energy crisis which led to the early 1980s recession. We can see that cycling does well in recessions, and modern recessions have been triggered by large increases in the price of oil. The same effect, one may reasonably conclude, has been occurring in the last few years.

Oil price change 1966-2006 extracted from graph by TomTheHand on Wikipedia

It is slightly intersting that cycling declined 1977–79 when the price of oil did not. It seems like cycling is related to the rate of change of the oil price rather than its absolute level: in other words, there is dynamic adjustment, and when the price of oil has held constant, cycling continues to fall, for whatever reason: because of an intensification of anti-cycling planning policies in the 1970s, perhaps. Since 2002 the price of oil has risen relentlessly.

Here is another graph, and one which seems to partially contradict the earlier ones:

From TfL Travel in London Report 4

It seems from this that on the major roads in London at least, cycling increased very significantly during the first decade of the century, from an average in the 1990s of about 0.27 to 0.48 in the units of this survey, a 70% increase (but not the "doubling" often mentioned). However, the DfT's figures are somewhat different. This is taken from Healthy Transport = Healthy Lives again:

The trends are the same but the amplitudes are not. The change here is from a 1990s average of around 280,000 vehicle miles to 390,000, a rather more modest 40% increase. I don't know why these two assessments of cycling change in London are so different. There has clearly been a noticeable increase, but its scale is often exaggerated. And I do believe the increase has been an almost wholly central and inner London phenomenon. From where I sit, three miles from the edge of the urban area on the north-west side of London, there has been little detectable sign of an increase in cycling in the decade I have been living here. I don' have separate time series graphs for outer London that cover the last decade unfortunately, I only have the data that Jim Gleeson extracted from the censuses to 2001, and that only covered cycling to work, not all cycling. That showed that trends in outer and inner London have historically been completely opposed.

Cycling to work is always the most robust form of utility cycling. The 0.3% of all school journeys in Brent by bike tells its own story.

It may be that other major city centres have experienced cycling increases similar to that of London, but, again, I have no data on these. The fact that the national growth in cycling over the same period appears to have been so modest suggests that either the London case is unique, or it is not, but there has been a counterbalancing decline in suburban and rural areas, as in the earlier historic pattern in London. In any cases, it seems special factors must have been operating in London, not generally replicated across the country.

If we look into motor vehicle flows in London, we find this:

From TfL Traffic levels on major roads in Greater London
Driving peaked in 1999, a year when the oil price was near its modern bottom. There was another peak in 2006, which was also a peak year for cycling; perhaps this was an effect of the London bombings of 2005 frightening people off public transport, though it seems delayed. Otherwise there has been a decline during this century.

I reach a few general conclusions from all this.

Firstly, we've never had a "cycling revolution" in Britain when people have said in the past that we were having one, and there's no good reason to believe we are having one now.

Secondly, without significant change to the cycling conditions, in terms of the infrastructure provided for cycling, there is a rough correlation between the price of fuel and and the numbers taking up cycling. This may not necessarily be a direct causality in terms of people being priced off motorised transport, but an indirect link through the general state of the economy and amount of disposable income people have.

Thirdly, as less people drive, more people cycle. This is not surprising. The two modes share many characteristics, including independence, self-reliance, and door-to-door character, and thus appeal to the same desires in people and to the same "types" of people. There is likely to be an interchange between the two. Also, of course, it could be that less motor traffic on the roads makes people feel it is safer or more pleasant to cycle, though this is more doubtful, since it could also lead to an increase in average vehicle speeds through less congestion, which would mitigate against safety.

If we are relying on higher fuel costs and less traffic to lead to more cycling in the long term, however, I think we are taking an exceptionally risk bet. There is a respectable expert opinion that 2013 or 2014 may see energy prices starting to head down again. An enormous amount of new energy capacity is going to be opened up in the USA, which may well become independent of imported energy in the near future. This will affect world markets and oil may become cheaper again. There may be a global economic recovery, and motor traffic, as it generally does in economic recoveries, may start to rise again in the UK. I have never particularly believed in the theories either of "peak oil" or "peak car". We have yet to see, but I would not be surprised to see all these trends going into reverse in the next 18 months. Our cycling upturn, slight as it is nationally, without massive reinforcement from improved infrastructure, of which there is little sign, could easily collapse.

I'd like to consider the concept of "traffic reduction" further, and its relationship to the promotion of cycling. In cycle campaigning meetings and briefings one hears and reads of this "traffic reduction" concept an awful lot. It's pretty much a universal article of faith amongst campaigners, not only for cycling, but also for the vaguer notions of "liveable cities" or "streets for people", that "traffic reduction" is what we must aim for, as a primary goal. It's often given as a "first ask" in policy papers and positions put to government. In the CTC's Hierarchy of Provision for cycling, which I have criticised in detail before, "traffic volume reduction" is placed as the top option, the first preference amongst the measures recommended for encouraging cycling on roads:

I was in fact at a meeting of cycling, pedestrian and "liveable streets" campaigners not long ago when the chair of the meeting stated as a self-evident, incontrovertible fact (in his opinion) that whatever else people in the room may disagree on, they must all be able to agree on the desirability of "traffic reduction" as a primary aim. In fact he went so far as to say there could be no place in such a meeting for anyone who disagreed with that. So I left.

For, ever the contrarian, I think this is simply the wrong way to address the problem. I believe cities would be nicer if they had less traffic certainly, but to demand "traffic reduction" as a primary aim, a first step, is to get the necessary causalities inverted. It won't happen like that. For one thing, if you ask politicians for traffic reduction, you are asking them for a negative thing,  for a reduction in a quantity that they associate with activity, industry, prosperity and freedom. They may say they agree with you that there is "too much traffic", but deep down (with the exception of a few Green politicians) they don't believe we should try to suppress motor traffic, in general, for the benefit of cyclists and pedestrians. Ask for "traffic reduction", as a fist aim, from a conventional politician, and you are on to a loser.

Traffic reduction, as desirable as it may be, short of economic collapse, which I don't think we want,  can only come about through modal shift to the bike and bike-connected public transport (such as trains with bike parking or bike hire at the stations). Walking cannot take up many of these journeys. The modal shift has to start first before traffic starts to go down. Traffic reduction should not be the primary aim as it is not the first step in the sequence. This is where the CTC Hierarchy gets it profoundly wrong.

The first step, the primary thing to call for, is not traffic reduction, but separation of bikes from motor vehicles. CTC, and with it, many other cycling and sustainable city campaigns and campaigners, can't quite move themselves over to this new paradigm, to make this leap, because their entire history has been one of fighting for something else: peaceful integration. Call it "mutual respect", call it "shared streets", call it what you will, it's a concept with which I, for one, have made a decisive break, having seen what actually works to achieve virtually everything I want to see for cycling, and transport more widely, in the Netherlands (in its most developed form). What works is separation. Separation allows bike traffic to be bike traffic and motor traffic (in the sense of significant flows on distributor roads) to be motor traffic, without interference of the two modes with one another or mutual compromise, and with far higher levels of safety. Traffic in Dutch towns can be "tamed" as a political reality because the mode shares are so different there, and the rock on which the cycling mode share is built is comprehensive separation from motor traffic. The vast majority of the population will not consider cycling at all without that. Then you have elements like lower speed limits, woonerven, stricter liability, etc., as extras on top of all that.

(It is true that the CTC have now stated talking about segregation more, because their members have demanded it, but they are talking about it with the degree of commitment of an alcoholic being dragged to a temperance meeting, saying only they will "support segregation where there is the will to do it well", which doesn't exactly sound like an agressive campaign for the conditions needed for mass cycling. In reality I think they still cannot get their collective head around the idea that cyclists and motor vehicles should in general have their own, separate space.)

Separation, as practiced in the Netherlands and other successful cycling places, works in a wide variety of ways of course. It can be effected using cycle paths away from roads, cycle tracks and lanes on roads (with necessary junction signalling arrangements to create separation in time where cycle and motor traffic flows must cross on the same level), bicycle streets, and almost traffic-free access roads. Even without the building of cycle tracks or new cycle paths, traffic systems can be rearranged so that the routes for cyclists and drivers are comprehensively separated, and, as Mark Wagenbuur and David Hembrow have often explained, this is a major part of the Dutch solution, particularly in older urban areas that were not originally designed around the bike.

I'm a segregationist, not a traffic reductionist. I'm not a campaigner for less mobility, or less travel, or less economic activity. In a sense, I don't mind whether motor traffic reduces or not, because I know that with comprehensive segregation, it doesn't matter to cyclists what motor traffic does. That's of course a narrowly, selfishly pro-cycling position, because we do need traffic reduction for other reasons, not least for reducing pollution and greenhouse emissions. In practice, I know that a modal shift to cycling will cause traffic reduction, and that this will make many other desirable changes to our towns and cities politically practicable.

I know that many other cyclists think the same way as me. I recall a comment by a cyclist, on a thread on another blog which I can't now find, and so can't quote accurately. It was a response to a policy discussion on all these issues I am dealing with here, on the position of the CTC, the Hierarchy of Provision, and so forth. That cyclist said something like "I wish the CTC would stop going onbout traffic reduction. I cycle to work on a main road with a huge amount of traffic. I don't care about traffic reduction. I just want a road designed so the drivers can't keep trying to kill me."

When I first started saying, in London cycling circles, that segregation was what we needed, one of the standard counter-arguments was "But you can't have it everywhere". My response tended to be, either: "Well, or course, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try it in some places, to see what the effect is", or: "Of course, we don't need it everywhere, we only need it on a sparse network of a few routes, to attract hesitant people into cycling". But I see now that I was too conservative. Those critics were wrong. It is possible to have separation everywhere. It's the system today in the Netherlands (which it was not 20 years ago, so I can be forgiven for having been a bit too cautious then). And it is desirable too.

It took the Dutch long time to achieve, and there are still a few bits left to fill in, where there is still not separation of cyclists from significant flows of motor traffic, but that's the principle they are working to, as part of the doctrine of sustainable safety, and in most places they have achieved it. "Separation everywhere" does not mean that cyclists never encounter, or never have to negotiate with, motor vehicles, but it does mean that the major flows are always separated. Cyclists still must, of course, encounter cars, driven slowly in general, on access roads, but there is simply not the jousting for space on through roads that is the bread-and-butter of cycling in the UK. You are never placed in the position of being on a potential collision course with fast motor traffic, as you are constantly on UK roads. This was achieved through separation, not through having a primary aim of motor traffic reduction. Traffic reduction has come about because people have felt it is safe to cycle. That has caused a modal shift and allowed, politically, more and more space to be transferred to cycling.

To start to separate you do need to start to take space away from cars, particularly in city centres. That reduces the capacity for motor traffic, which itself is likely to force some traffic reduction, as congestion is self-limiting. But to say we need traffic reduction to get people cycling is to put the cart before the horse. And to say we need to reduce traffic before we segregate (as UK campaigners have sometimes done) is also wrong.  More cycling does go with traffic reduction, but that's a trivial observation, a sort of transport parallel of the scientific principle of conservation of matter (or "mass-energy" in physics). You get more of one type of thing, you've got to have less of the other, because, in the transport case, people have to continue to be able to get around. The observation doesn't solve the problem that people don't want to change when the alternative seems unattractive. It leaves us just, in the essentially un-engineered UK case, with an economic balance, with people moving over to cycling because motoring or public transport becomes unaffordable, and that trend can, and probably will, change direction at some point. And it won't give us mass cycling anyway (more than a few percent mode share), without an economic and social upheaval.

Putting faith in a cycling revolution built on traffic reduction owing to peak oil, peak car, or other economic or social projections I fear is a weak gamble. If we want a cycling revolution, we have to engineer it, with tarmac, concrete, bridges and underpasses, signs, signals, and law enforcement. That's the lesson I take from the histories of cycling in the UK and in the Netherlands.