I’ve been reading the series ‘Cycling Struggles’ on the weblog of Dave Horton a sociologist based in Lancaster. Despite the gloomy title these accounts of testimony, from people of various backgrounds, on their attitudes to cycling, are useful.
In an area flooded with projection, hearsay and simple-minded theory – they present real people considering real problems and weighing up real solutions. In particular they clarify that those who are frightened of cycling, or the idea of cycling, are drawn from the same population that creates the threat; a useful antidote to lazy assumptions, that everyone who doesn’t cycle has taken an active decision not to, and that the factors informing any decision are the same for everyone.
Here’s my own anecdotal contribution to the genre. An account of a true conversation from the streets of London. A strange story which highlights the complexity of human motivation.
We met in the basement garage of a grand office block near Holborn Circus, EC1. I checked his machine which was in good order. He’d recently started commuting – 5 kilometres throught the districts of Holborn, Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia and Marylebone – to Marylebone Station where he parked his bike overnight and caught a homeward train into the Chiltern Hills.
He was a strongly built, white man, in early middle age, smartly dressed in business clothes. I didn’t ask his job-description but guess it was salaried employment, legal or financial. He’d requested the meeting for guidance on riding from Holborn to Marylebone which he’d been doing for a couple of weeks. He told me he rode among the mighty Chilterns – on his other bike – at the weekends.
It was a dark Winter’s evening. We ran through the basics, how to choose where to ride on the road, passing junctions, overtaking parked cars. The guy was an easy student. His basic cycling skills were sound. As a qualified car-driver he understood the rules of traffic. He appeared socially confident.
We worked North and West taking it in turns to go ahead. The strange moment came as we moved into the university district of Bloomsbury, WC1 in the southern part of the London Borough of Camden.
As we turned on to Tavistock Place – where you have the option to travel on a narrow two-way, green-tarmac cycle-track on the North side of the road – my client exclaimed enthusiastically. “I like this bit.”
When I cautioned him not to ‘switch off’, that there was still potential danger, from turning traffic at every junction. I was shocked by his reply.
“Oh yeah” he said with a chuckle “I know it’s more dangerous, but I like it.” He continued to recount near-misses he’d witnessed – between turning motor-traffic and cycle-traffic on the side-path – in the few days he’d been riding the route.
I was too bemused to ask why he particularly liked riding on the green tarmac when he thought it held more danger than the rest of the route. And anyway he was paying me money to help him, not to interrogate the apparent contradictions of his feelings. Here was a person near the top of the pile. A man, white, English, prosperous, comfortable, at the peak of his powers, not the kind of person you’d expect to be willing to submit to extra perceived danger to avoid the risk of social conflict?
The rad-weg along Tavistock Place is sub-standard. I don’t recount this story to suggest that all side-path infrastructure for pedal-cycles and low-powered vehicles creates danger. It’s also worth noting that dangerous conflict between motor-traffic using the main carriageway and traffic on this newest layer of infrastructure – slotted between the footpath and the carriageway – seems to have reduced over the years, as people have got used to the third fragmentary network in South Camden. When it first went in some people told me how much they liked it, others complained what a nuisance it was. I was happy for the first group and told those who complained about it not to use it if they didn’t like it. To stay on the carriageway and stop moaning. That way there’d be more space for riders who wanted ‘their own’ strip of road.
Three network infrastructure can be a useful part of any exit strategy from motor-dependance but some people’s expectation of its ability to solve emotional problems about what people feel expected and entitled to do may be over-optimistic?
A significant number of those killed or injured by motor-vehicles while walking are on the dedicated network of the sidewalk, pavements. A 100 millimetre kerb may make people feel safe but if the driver of a heavy motor-vehicle goes out of control it may not be much help?
Redesigning street furniture doesn’t necessarily make people more careful or considerate. That can be a quicker, cheaper, more complicated process.