15 May 2014

Easy for some...

I've been enjoying reading about one Mum's attempt to go car-free for a week in North London.  She's chronicled her struggle against the default option of taking the car, and highlighted the mental switch required.  But there's also the environment to deal with - although the two are inter-related, with the choices made about schools and activities rather profoundly shaping your transport options.

All of which makes me realise how lucky we are - living fairly happily as a 4 person car-free household.  We would love a car for getting out of the city and exploring more, especially when we have visitors,  but in our day to day activities, we're not suffering.  

From our home to the nearest public pool is under a 1/2 mile., the nearest public library is only 1/4 mile away.  School is 3/4 mile, even if it is up hill, and nursery is a pleasant 1/2 mile  stroll (although we did spend 3 years doing a 6 mile roundtrip to the eldest's nursery...). Our longest regular journey is 2 miles to dance classes - most of which is along the canal. The spanner in the works tends to be unpredictable things like birthday parties - especially from the nursery kids who seem to come from miles around.  

But unlike subversive suburbanite  we rarely agonize about our transport choices, which makes it easier.  The kids know that if we have to get somewhere, they have to saddle up - they've never known anything different. I've not yet had had to force them kicking and screaming on to the bike - despite seeing too many parents struggling to strap kids into their car seats. 

If we're going into town, we get a bus and if the weather's really vile - gale force winds for instance -- we'll call a cab, but that's pretty rare.  It helps that other parents are very kind about offering lifts when needed, but also that I don't think we're seen as particularly unusual. We're certainly not the only family in the area without a car, and even those who do have one often choose not to use it. 

If it really were difficult to live without a car, we'd probably have buckled down, sorted our licences and joined the car club. But when the inconveniences only surface once or twice a year, and the benefits are manifold, it's actually pretty easy to stay car-free.

12 May 2014

Forgiving infrastructure...

Making space for cycling has hit the main stream - big rides, campaigns, new guidance. It's all really good stuff, but I can't help feeling there's one small point that's missing. 

All the reasons given for infrastructural change/making space for cycling are brilliant - especially making people feel safer (often referred to as subjective safety).  But there's an aspect of this, which I think Kim Harding first helped me understand, which is underplayed.  

Essentially, most drivers are careful, considerate, and concerned about causing accidents.  That doesn't always mean they remember everything in the Highway Code, or even get it right every-time. But mostly, and most of the time, they're trying to get it right.  

The problem is that our infrastructure is currently very unforgiving. So, a small mistake, inattention, or just plain bad judgement can lead to very serious consequences. 

And this is why it is so scary to take kids out on the roads, because you can't always trust them to stay focussed.  And sometimes they look in the wrong direction, and their handlebars follow...  Or an adult cyclist hits a pothole, or gets a puncture....  Or a driver misjudges the distance of their overtake, or opens a car door without shoulder checking, or just forgets to indicate....

Infrastructure that 'forgives' these small mistakes by channelling bikes on the inside of cars, with space for doors, or making intersections safe for cyclists, is what makes us feel safer. 

So, when we call for redesigns around schools, on residential roads, commuter routes, shopping areas, it's not just about making it easier for people to cycle, shop and walk, nor about the environment and health, but it's also about making the environment shape how drivers, cyclists and pedestrians behave in it. 

Countries that have higher rates of cycling also have lower rates of injuries - especially deaths. It's not that their drivers are any better (although it probably does help that more of them cycle), it's that their environment is the fundamental determinant underlying the ways in which they interact. 

Maybe this was obvious to everyone else, but in a country where 'education' is prioritised above 'infrastructure' in the Road Safety Framework (link - see top of page 18), it seems like an important point to spell out. 

11 May 2014

The trouble with chicanes

A few years ago - maybe even just months ago - I didn't even know what a chicane was.   I've paid so little attention to them, that I don't even have a picture to show.  But suddenly, they're springing up everywhere like the new must have fashion accessory for bike paths.  

Like most cyclists, I've certainly cursed a chicane or two.  There's nothing worse than a bike gate that you can't get a bike through when its got a sleeping baby on the back. Not only is it bloody heavy to lift or slant, but it's likely to wake the baby up.  And it means you can't easily ride alone - you need someone to help you get the bike through.  All this even worse with a tandem - and ours is only a few inches longer than a 'normal' bike. Most times, the odd chicane on a rural route is survivable, if demoralising to a short middle-aged woman, but in recent months commuter routes all across Edinburgh seem to be festooned with them, and the more I learn, the less I like.

Scottish Transport's own guidance states explicitly "Access controls on cycle routes should be avoided wherever possible, and only used where there is a proven requirement."  and "Measures to slow cyclists down can include rumble surfaces, SLOW markings or staggered barriers. If staggered (chicane) barriers are used, the arrangement should be designed to slow cyclists rather than force them to dismount."

It also gives clear criteria for 'desirable' and 'absolute minimum' distances between the gates.  None of the chicanes put up recently conform to these criteria - although that seems to be a problem of implementation, rather than policy. 

But my real objection is that chicanes are so not the right tool for the purpose.  They don't minimize conflict - they create it.  They take a wide path, and narrow it down so that people are funnelled down the narrowest section.  

Pedestrians are being made into mobile traffic calming in much the same way that cyclists are used at pinch points and road build-outs.  

This is surely not actually what the pedestrians want?