27 November 2013

Subjective safety matters for everyone

There are lots of jokes about the tensions, splits and divides in bike groups, but one of the joys of being involved with Pedal on Parliament has been our refusal to recognize those divides.  'We are everyone' we have said - cyclists and non-cyclists.  And our protests have been evidence of this - with all kinds of  people on bikes, and people on foot taking part.

But I'm becoming increasingly aware of a divide that threatens our insouciant claims to climb above these divisions.  I've put off blogging about this because I know it will open up tensions with people whose energy, commitment and sheer brilliance I admire tremendously.

Increasingly, I'm hearing the argument - in forums, blogs, on twitter, and in meetings -  that cyclists who find the roads  too dangerous should ride on the pavement.  This comes in different settings,  and is often presented as a reasonable alternative to the dangerous 'vehicular' cycling that has held sway until recently.  At times it is talked about as if it were a form of civil disobedience, a public rejection of the dire provision made for cyclists.

But an angry tone of justification is also heard, suggesting that cyclists have a right to that space. This is bolstered by the claim that when fixed penalty notices were introduced for pavement cyclingonly 'irresponsible' cycling was intended to be penalised.  And finally, the piece-de-resistance, that cyclists are only responsible for a tiny fraction of pedestrian deaths and serious injuries.

This is where the argument starts to go down hill.  Pedestrians understand that cyclists feel unsafe on the roads.  They understand the difference between reckless cycling and careful, cautious cycling.   But, they still find that space invasion threatening. Cyclists talk a lot about  subjective safety these days, but what about pedestrians?

And the most vulnerable among them - the elderly, the mobility impaired, and the young - are those who find it most terrifying to have a cyclist overtaking them.  That cyclist may be considerate and taking care, but just like those people who say 'he's harmless' while their dog barks at you, it's all subjective....  If you're in your 80s and get a broken hip as a result of a fall, it can be fatal.  So, we're not just talking about the effect of people feeling less mobile, getting out less, but about serious health consequences.

The real irony is that many of the same activists reject shared space. How we can say we don't want shared space, then claim pavements as a refuge, even temporarily, or as a political statement?

By invading pedestrians space, we are showing our disdain for them.  A cyclist-friendly pedestrian recently told me about waiting at a bust stop.  Just as the bus pulled up, a family cycled by on the pavement - between him and the open bus door - politely saying 'excuse me' as they went. On the one hand, it sounds like they were being considerate.  But on the other, why did they barge through? The signal being sent here - even with polite excuse me's -- is 'we're bigger, and faster: let us through'; we don't accept that from cars, why do we think its okay on bikes?

We are lucky enough to know two couples - friends and neighbours - who are die-hard, lifelong cyclists. Now in their 70s-90s, they cycled when it was trendy and when it was deeply unfashionable, and have gone places and done things on bikes that I can only dream of - racing, touring, youth hostelling, commuting - with much of their social lives revolving around bikes too. But they are horrified by the antics of cyclists now - rushing through parks, on the canalpath, across pedestrian crossings.  They understand that most cyclists don't behave that way, and that we shouldn't all  be tarred with the same brush, but they do not see cyclists as respecting them and their needs when they're not on their bikes.  When people like that fear going out on foot because of cyclists, we're doing something wrong.

If we want to support active travel, if we want pedestrians as allies, we need to take their needs and concerns more seriously.  And that's not going to be accomplished by advocating pavement cycling, or quoting statistics about how few people we kill as some perverse justification for holding their infrastructure hostage until we get some of our own.

I'm sorry if this sounds preachy.  We all need to make our own personal decisions about how we cycle and where. Like most of us, I've ridden on pavements here and there - where I didn't feel safe, where the infra didn't join up, where my bike rack is at the other end of a cobbled street,  but I'll be pushing my bike when I'm on the pavement from now on,  in the interests of solidarity and subjective safety for pedestrians of all varieties.

25 November 2013

Shared use: ad-hoc and short-sighted

In the past few days, more shared use signs have appeared around the city. Two of these cases are at St Andrew's Square, and on Princes St at the Mound (right).

These are busy streets and the implementation of tram tracks has made them unsafe for cyclists. So cyclists have been put onto the pavement, which seems guaranteed to make pedestrians unsafe instead.

This is not how transport systems should be designed. Nor some of the most iconic streets in a city that lays claim to being a tourist destination and aims to attract international business.

These little bits of non-joined up segments all have different signs, and most users don't recognize or understand them (as I've written about before, and as the recent newspaper stories make even clearer).   These cost-cutting mechanisms simply put cyclists and pedestrians into conflict, and will inevitably generate more anti-cyclist venom (and sell more papers for the local press).  None of them are intuitive or easy to follow.

Declaring spaces to be 'shared' does not make them into 'infrastructure'.  It just makes our streets more fragmented, incoherent and confusing, when we ought to be making them more inviting and pleasant.

These segments are the most egregious because they are on busy pavements that are really not suitable for cycling, but there's more planned elsewhere in the city as well, as I flagged in previous posts.

If I was more cynical, I'd think that the people who run the buses and trams didn't want us on the roads. There's a real irony that at present we have a Transport Leader who claims to want to support pedestrians, but our policies don't reflect that.  To be fair, that's in part because some of this infrastructure was designed three years ago, and a lot has changed since then.  But its also a case of officials wanting to have their cake and eat it too - the political costs of alienating pedestrians are clearly not up on their agenda, while cyclists are tossed a few crumbs to keep them happy.

21 November 2013

ASLs: red herrings?

I wrote this yesterday for the Scotsman, to accompany this article.  Not sure if it's gone in or not.  It's a slightly more critical take than the last time I blogged about ASLs  but not contradictory.

If you talk to drivers about ASZs, you get a lot of funny answers. Many seem honestly unaware that they have just crossed a stop line. One taxi driver told me that after 7.30pm they didn’t apply. Another driver – hearing my foreign accent - told me to learn the rules of the road (it’s rule 178 of the Highway Code if you want to check it out, and I’ve cycled here for nearly 20 years).
Stopping at a stopline is about the most basic skill driver needs, but it seems to bring out the worst in people. Drivers hate cyclists ‘getting a head start’ while cyclists will desperately try to get to the front of a queue of traffic to get into the perceived haven of the ASZ.
But ASZs aren’t about cyclists getting ‘ahead’. They’re about protecting cyclists from being ‘left-hooked’ by drivers turning while cyclists are going straight.
Every cyclist has had a driver tell them to get ‘out of the road’. But the gutter on the left is the most dangerous place for a cyclist, especially at junctions.
So, yes, it would be good if drivers stayed out of ASZs, and police enforced them.
But ASZs are also a red herring. They’re not big enough to protect cyclists from HGV’s blind spots and they can be dangerous to get to. Painting ASZs on roads is essentially a ‘tick-box’. It means the council can say ‘look we’ve taken cyclists into account’.
But if there’s not road space for cyclists to get there, or if there are parking bays on top of the cycle lanes, then the ASZ is basically useless.
If our junctions were properly designed for the safety of all users – pedestrians, cyclists, and motorised vehicles – we wouldn’t need ASZs at all.