Thursday, 22 November 2007

Any path is only a path

Any path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you ... Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question ... Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't, it is of no use. (Carlos Castenada, The Teachings of Don Juan)

In a paper written for the Borough Cycling Officers' Group in November 2002, I said one or two things which I now believe to be incorrect:

'The temptation to consider what ought to be the case is difficult to resist. Of course the LCN ought to be be able to 'cater for all age groups whether they are new to cycling or are already existing cyclists.' The reality, unfortunately, is that this is far too difficult to actualise in anything other than the very long-term.

'The question, For whom is the LCN being designed? is fraught with pitfalls. If we design a cycle network with one group in mind, it is conceivable that we would discriminate against another group. Still, the above-mentioned catchall phrase is glib and largely meaningless.

'The provision of journeys to school is best undertaken at a local level--in terms of planning at the very least. Assuming that you are prepared to accept this way of thinking, then straightaway we can dismiss this blanket notion that the LCN 'should cater for all age groups', at least in the short-term.

'Amongst adult cyclists, we can--at a very simplistic level--divide them into two groups: the tortoises and the hares. The LCN+ has clearly been conceived with the hares in mind, presumably because they have the loudest and most co-ordinated voice. And yet, at the last BCOG meeting, Rose Ades tried to have us believe that, somehow, the LCN+ is going to be suitable for journeys up to four miles. I wish her no disrespect, but who is she kidding? If it looks like an elephant, if it sounds like an elephant, and if it feels like an elephant, why don't we call it an elephant? If the LCN+ is a 'slimmed-down network [...] reflecting key strategic commuter routes', why do we try to pretend it is something else?

'I believe it is more useful to design facilities with tortoises in mind, for several very good reasons. More than anything else, we want to attract new cyclists onto the road, because this creates a virtuous circle: more cyclists, fewer cars, better quality of alternatives, more cyclists, fewer cars, better quality of alternatives ... New cyclists are most likely to be tortoises first and then, if they proceed at all, hares second. If cycle schemes are created only with the hares in mind, it is conceivable that new cyclists (tortoises) may not feel comfortable with such facilities and will therefore not be enticed onto the roads.

'Worst case then, it is possible that the number of cyclists in London will continue to fall--there being very few new cyclists to replace those that have called it a day--with the result that only a hardcore minority will remain. Prejudices against cyclists may therefore harden, rather than soften, and then where will we be? Even if you reject this rather bleak picture, it seems silly to design cycling facilities for hares when the tortoises represent the mainstream and, thus, the more engaging element of the cycling fraternity.

'To conclude, it is reasonable to suppose that facilities and/or routes designed for tortoises could be useful to hares, but it is unreasonable to suppose that facilities and/or routes designed for hares could be useful to tortoises.'

'More than anything else,' I was saying in November 2002, 'we want to attract new cyclists onto the road.'

This way of thinking was informed by the concept of 'critical mass', whereby one thing--more people cycling--leads to another thing--safer cycling for everyone.

In November 2002 I could see the virtue of this idea. By August 2004 I had abandoned it.

On the 26th of that month, I wrote to Ken Livingstone reminding him that the complicated engineering works that are a necessary feature of the LCN+ would take time to deliver.

'Whilst this process is ongoing,' I continued, 'it ought to be remembered that there are already 650,000 cyclists in London, and their needs are more pressing than the needs of would-be or might-do cyclists. So perhaps it would be more prudent to sort out a network that would be useful to existing cyclists first.'

The single biggest problem with the old LCN was that too many of the routes were poorly signed, which meant that cyclists were only able to use the network by referring to a map every five minutes. (In effect this meant they weren’t really able to use it at all.)

For example, a study conducted by Southwark a few years ago determined that three in five cyclists were not even aware that a cycle by-pass at the Elephant & Castle had been constructed. Now, with respect, there doesn’t seem to be very much point in spending loads and loads of money improving the basic cycle infrastructure in London if too few people know that the work has been done.

And yet, if the network were to be well signed, I feel certain that cyclists would use it: just because they use Route X now, let's say, does not mean they would continue to use it if Route Y became available.

Some people say that the entire road network should be safe enough for cyclists of all age groups to use. I agree. Now, where did I leave my magic wand?

Or else, how do you 'create an environment where both goods vehicles and cyclists can safely share the same road space'?

In the final analysis, it should always be remembered that the whole point of having a cycle network is to show people which routes are the most suitable for cycling. If not now, then at least at some point in the future, these routes need to be safer, relatively, than other routes.

Despite all the will in the world, it is unrealistic to expect that the entire road network could be made safe enough for, say, an unaccompanied twelve year-old child to use, at least in the short-term.

If this is accepted, who would then deny the utility of ensuring that as many routes as possible are made safe?

The cycle network needs to be comprehensive and city-wide. Indeed, the European Cycling Federation--the world's largest cycling advocacy organisation, which counts Sustrans, LCC and CTC among its members--assert it as 'a basic precondition'.

I have tested my design using the origin and destination examples of a thousand bus journeys, and, on paper at least, I have yet to find it wanting. This is not something to be sniffed at.

As I said in my first letter to the Mayor, it should be our very earnest desire to ensure that no one is killed or seriously injured whilst using the routes on the London Cycle Network. Accidents will happen, of course, but if cyclists would use the network that has been created for them, and if no one were killed or seriously injured thereon, then, as surely as a dog follows its nose, the number of cycling casualties would fall.

Ah, but there is 'a much more extensive network of functioning routes,' as shown in the London Cycle Guides.

If you are one of the significant minority who cannot read a map, to what extent is a route already functioning if it is not well-signed? How would you distinguish a particular back street (as it is marked on the map) from any of the others?

Lest we forget, the London Cycle Guides show routes which are 'less well known, and less obvious' (Julie Bernard).

If a route is meaningful and direct--and (safe and) pleasant--it is likely to be extremely useful to cyclists.

Strange to tell, but even though such routes already exist and are already functioning, many of them are not well-signed. Why not?

Is it simply because, to quote Rose Ades, 'there are significant issues around signing [...] that make it impractical (because the costs outweigh the benefits) to sign a more extensive network'?

No, not even the stanchest advocate of the London Cycle Guides would deny that to read a map whilst cycling (i.e. moving) is almost impossible to do safely. Of course a comprehensive and city-wide cycle network should be properly signed.

Nigel Butterworth at Westminster has long advocated marking the routes on the LCN by painting 'markers' onto the road surface (thereby reducing the clutter caused by an excessive use of street signs).

Good enough for Westminster but not good enough for TfL? How odd.

Another mistake I made in my paper to the Borough Cycling Officers' Group in November 2002 was to say that if the plans for a spine network were carried through, 'it is possible that the number of cyclists in London will continue to fall'.

I am really disappointed with myself at this because I ought to have known better. For example, a comprehensive survey carried out by the DoT in New York at the time established that 45% of the population would be prepared to use the bicycle for journeys of up to five miles, whereas just nine per cent would use it for journeys of five miles or more.

Therefore, on completion of the LCN+, it is probable that there will still be an increase in the number of cyclists, even if that increase is only about a fifth of what it might otherwise have been ...

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, told USA Today that the number of cyclists in the capital had doubled over the last five years (See 'The Right Impression').

Actually, in the past five years London has seen recorded journeys by bike double. 59 000 cycle journeys a week were recorded on Transport for London’s road network (TLRN) in 2000 compared to 119 000 a week in 2005 (BBC London website, 15 November 2007).

As I understand things, the 2001 census showed that 650 000 cyclists in London made an average of 300 000 cycle journeys a day.

BBC London now report that 60 000 more journeys are made by bicycle each week.

This equates to 12 000 more journeys each day, let's say.

Thus, the number of cycle journeys has increased by only 4%.

I have not been able to confirm if the number of cyclists in London has doubled over the last five years, as the Mayor claimed.

The European Commission publication, Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities, suggests that creating facilities for cyclists 'requires a certain amount of skill, entails explainations, and has to be implemented gradually.'

When this was written, the greatest danger to cyclists was reckoned to be deeply-held prejudices. Whether or not this is still the case, I do not know; but that the development of a meaningful cycle infrastructure is a marathon and not a sprint is absolutely not in dispute.

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