Friday, 16 May 2014

Barriers

My other half loves her bike but - like a lot of the bikes quietly rusting in Britain's cupboards, sheds and garages - it doesn't get used often. Up until the weekend just past, the last time she cycled it properly in anger was Pedal for Scotland in September which we both managed to complete in six hours - not too bad considering she'd done no prior training and was on a 7 speed roadster (replete with basket).
Just like this one

With the better weather *ahem* she expressed a notion to get back on it to go to work. Bear in mind she drives 3 miles into the city every day - yes, paying the exorbitant parking fees at Candleriggs carpark (although her office provides a discount because she potentially uses the car during work hours). She is, in a sense, the archetypal single occupant commuter. If anyone can and should be persuaded to try swapping the car for a bike for at least some journeys to work, it's her.

A trip to the pub on Sunday night on her beloved bike had reignited her enthusiasm to try the commute again. As she was worried about the route to take, I said I would come along with her for a bit of support, before heading off on my usual path to work. Hence our first attempt on Monday.  After a bit of huffing and puffing to get up and ready on time, there we were. She in her normal work clothes; me in my typical commuting gear: shorts, t-shirt, trainers, gloves, (nnnnngh!) helmet, googles (hey, I'm going 14 miles, give me a break!). Alas, just as we were leaving the house, a little drizzle started to fall and that seemed to sap her already crumbling confidence - in the end she decided to forgo the cycle in favour of the blessed Fiat 500. Remembering what happened last time she lost her will at the last minute - namely, me deciding to get all juvenile and huffy with her, resulting in the bike going back in the cupboard for six months - I shrugged my shoulders (whilst making pains to be patient and accommodating) and went on my usual way. She told me later that, as she sat in the inevitable traffic jam at the roadworks on Cathcart Road, she felt like the universe was laughing at her.

On Tuesday, I couldn't persuade her to get out of bed on time and I needed to leave for work, but I made to sure to leave the cupboard key and anything else she might need. Conditions couldn't be better: absolutely glorious sunshine pretty much all day. I spoke to her from the office: Did she cycle? No. Did she walk? No. Did she drive in? Yes, but again felt guilty about it and envious of those not in the crowd of cars grinding their way to the Clyde.

Wednesday was a similar story and it became increasingly clear that the enthusiasm for it had drained. I asked her to list why she felt unwilling to try again. Here's a short summary of the main reasons she decided not to cycle:
  1.     She's afraid to use the roads
  2.     She felt intimidated by other cyclists 
  3.     She felt intimidated by other road users
I'm going to go through each point in turn, as each in its own way highlights what's wrong with cycling in Scotland.

Fear of the roads

To people well-versed in the language of cycle advocacy and campaigning, this might seem an obvious thing to say, but it bears repeating because clearly the people that matter aren't hearing the message: to all but the most fearless and dedicated enthusiasts, the roads are fundamentally hostile and unwelcoming. All of the other points people make about barriers to cycling (including pretty much all the ones listed here by the Cycle Hack team) have their roots here.

Regardless of any measures put in place - the so-called "quiet-ways" and back roads, the little bits and pieces of infrastructure like the cycle contra-flows and the bollards - there are parts of almost any route which have the potential to be terrifying. Every traffic engineer should have the following maxim drummed into them: as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a bike route is only as useful as its most hazardous section. Let's look at a couple of the on-road routes we could take from the south-side to the city centre.

We live south of the Clyde, which means that you need to get over the water, somehow, to get to the centre. In the centre (i.e. the area bound by the Kingston Motorway Bridge to the west and the edge of Glasgow Green to the east), there are six river crossings: four road (Oswald Street Bridge, Glasgow Bridge, Victoria Bridge and Albert Bridge) and two pedestrian (Tradeston Bridge and South Portland Street Suspension Bridge).

If you want to travel to the eastern half - Merchant City, George Square or by Strathclyde University - the most direct route is over the Victoria Bridge. Indeed, the official "cycle route" directs you this way. Southbound there's a bus/taxi/cycle lane (whoopie!) but Northbound on the bridge, there are no cycle paths - hence you need to mix with busy traffic. Once you reach the north bank, you are faced with an expansive five-point junction, an area which became notorious last year as the site of the Clutha Vaults helicopter crash. Not visible in the street-view image below is the Advanced Stop-Line box - a feature routinely ignored by drivers of course.


View Larger Map

Further ahead and slightly to the left is Stockwell Street - the road to the oblique right is Bridgegate (which we met in a previous blog). Bisecting the junction east/west along the Broomielaw is the NCR75, which follows along the river-front  - a secluded and socially insecure route after dark. Due to a distinct lack of permeable routes north, heading either way along the NCR leads to what amounts to a detour directing you onto further busy roads. Going back to the bridge, the left-hand lane is a mandatory left-turn for all vehicles except bikes, buses and taxis but, in practice, to travel straight-on without being left-hooked you have to make your way into the right-hand lane and hope that you arrive at the junction on a red light. If you want to go anywhere directly, you have to deal with this busy, frightening junction. Your reward after that? A series of bus gates. As you may recall, Stockwell Street is one of the main routes for buses, as such you often have queues of them behind you as you press northward. Not fun. Turning right can be more fraught, as the sweeping bend of Bridgegate tempts drivers to race along towards King Street, not forgetting the dedicated lane for entrance to the car park, forcing you to hover in the middle lane.

The alternatives are two-fold:

To divert about half a mile west by Sheriff Court, along another secluded riverside path to the suspension bridge, which brings you out on the Broomielaw, here:


View Larger Map

Thereafter, you cross the road, then take a circuitous route along a cycle contra-flow behind the back of the St. Enoch Centre - another main cross-town route for buses and quite dingy - then double-back along Argyle Street (admittedly on a pedestrian precinct). Not particularly intuitive nor appealing.

Otherwise, head over to and across the Albert Bridge to Saltmarket. Yet again, there are no facilities for bikes on this four lane bridge:


View Larger Map

Saltmarket leads northwards to Glasgow Cross, High Street, Springburn and ultimately the M8 and M80 motorways - hence this is a major route for motor vehicles heading towards the north of the city, the east end and beyond. As a result, it varies between being a choked log-jam or a racetrack. Glasgow Cross is of course nightmarish in and of itself, but at least there's the option of diverting onto to one-way system on Parnie Street via the short bike-permeable path.

If you forgo on-road routes, what options do you have? You could try the off-road routes, if only they were actually usable. We've not directly encountered it before, but the concept dual-networks is at the heart of most local authority cycle strategies. The core idea is that you have one route for novices, and one for experienced users (a.ka. the fearless and the stupid). This leads to the conclusion that inexperienced or nervous cycle users are sacrificing comfort and safety for inconvenient, circuitous and indirect routes. The bankruptcy of this approach becomes apparent when you look at these "quiet" routes, as it turns out that there's no such thing really because inevitably one has to mix back onto busy roads.

Here's an illustration of an (almost) car-free route across the Clyde, via Glasgow Green and into the city centre



The illustrated route takes you on a detour through the Green and along one of the short sections of bi-directional segregated cycle lane along London Road. The trouble is, like a lot of Glasgow's infrastructure, it just kind of gives up when it gets difficult. Instead of continuing on through Trongate, the path diverts south and east along James Morrison Street and St. Andrews Street and ends up... back at the permeable route to Parnie Street. Every other route requires time on the roads with buses and other motor traffic. Thus, for the traffic-phobic bike user, the only other alternative is to cycle on the pavement or dismount. Effectively the road-averse bike user has - paraphrasing cycle campaigner Katja Leyendekker - to hop frog-like between lilly-pads of safer infrastructure, enduring often unpleasantly busy roads and junctions in the process.

The kind of people who can deal with the horrid parts are already sufficiently resilient enough to handle other roads, thus making the off-road infrastructure somewhat redundant. Hence, instead of concentrating on building infrastructure that can be used by all, the dual-network paradigm is a strategy that fails both the experienced and the nervous.


Intimidation

 

This is probably the most confounding one for me, because its an invidious, subtle barrier; one not created by tarmac, kerbs and paint, but by social attitude and tribalism. I'll look at both elements together (but in separate sub-sections).

...From Cyclists

 

No-one she saw on a bike (including me, to my shame) looked like her. The cyclists she sees coming from the south-side look like, well, "Cyclists" with a capital "C": day-glo yellow jackets, helmets, Lycra jerseys with sporting logos, Lycra trousers, wrap-around shades, fingerless gloves, sleek road bikes, mostly pedalled by men. Everyone looking serious and determined - as if they belonged there.

Cyclists "belonging"

To the average non-cycling public, the people above may as well be dressed like this:

With apologies to the Morris Dancers out there but you are the go-to image for naffness

She didn't feel like she belonged, in her normal work clothing, her ladies roadster with its wicker basket, her helmet-less head. And despite my joke up there, it wasn't a case of her being "above" them - more just an anxiety about not being taken seriously. No doubt people reading this will say that you do get normal-looking people on bikes, but they are a small minority and mainly restricted to particular areas like the bohemian west end. Residential south-side cycling is still dominated by "Cyclists".

It's perhaps an easy thing for cycle advocates to dismiss as frivolous, but people care about their appearance - in particular people care how they look in relation to their peers. Despite messages from media telling us to "be ourselves" and to "stand out from the crowd", social signifiers are powerful tools for coercive behaviour. Think about the number of industries that rely on this phenomenon - PR, cosmetics, plastic surgeons, weight-loss clinics - whole swathes of retail business depending on people trying to fit in.

Modern British cycling, with its overwhelming emphasis on sport, racing, danger and excitement, has rendered what should be a utilitarian transport mode into another consumerist money-pit of a past-time like golf, where having "all the kit" becomes the over-riding imperative. Thus, people who don't conform to that image become marginalized - an "outgroup of an outgroup" if you will. Right about now, as the weather improves and night-time riding becomes a distant memory, you'll already see snooty references in cycling circles to "bike-shaped objects", where "fair weather" riders start invading the space of the "proper" cyclists. This is a symptom of the cosetted, exclusive attitude of the cycle club set - the sort of attitude that's kept organisations like the CTC back in the vehicularist stone-age for decades. They are a small clique that's happy to maintain its precious niche; a contented 2% who profess a right to mix with traffic, yelling "you just need to keep your wits about you!" as they sprint off onto the next insane six lane junction.

There is no such equivalent with motoring. Yes, there are divisions within the body of drivers. You get motor enthusiasts, their hobby mainly expressed through the vehicle itself rather than apparel - either by exotic body modification or through the maintenance of immaculate vintage models.They are but a small part of the overall driving demographic, which covers large parts of the spectrum of British society. The vast majority of car-owning drivers recognise their vehicle as merely a convenient transportation tool. Most pertinently to cycling, there isn't an assumption that operating a car automatically means you have any interest in motor-sport. You never see people dressed up in full racing overalls away from a track and there certainly isn't an expected "typical driver" look - jumping into the brief in whatever you happen to be wearing is not taboo, nor is there an expectation for people to wear protective gear while operating their vehicle.

Alas, while British cycling is still dominated by the sporting enthusiast, hobbyist, PPE-wearing demographic, it will remain unattractive to the majority of the public; tragically this includes those who would derive the most benefit,  the elderly or infirm for example. Cycling into old age is common in the Netherlands - indeed as this article by Mark Treasure illustrates, it can be liberating for those who find walking difficult.

... from other Road Users

This one surprised me a little, although it probably ought not have done, given my subscriptions to the channels of various "cam-cyclists" - people who record their journeys and post the most egregious examples of poor road user behaviour in order to name and shame the perpetrators.

She'd made vague mention of an incident encountered last year on a stretch of road I've discussed before - Polmadie Road. As you may recall, most of this road has recently had its footways converted to shared use, thus legitimizing what a number of people previously did anyway (illegally). Again, I'm no fan of shared use, but I can see why someone like my partner might feel safer on the pavement than mixing with the cars and HGVs heading onto the M74 motorway. Apparently, one day last year as we cycled by, someone shouted something at her from a passing vehicle. I don't remember this happening but if even if I did, I wouldn't have thought much of it myself, I guess because I'm inured to this sort of behaviour.

I've had people "buzzing" me as they drove past, I've had people deliberately spray me with their windscreen washers and I've had objects thrown at me.  I remember confronting someone at the lights who had previously shouted at me from the passenger window. He became immediately apologetic and blamed it on the recent breakdown in his marriage; he even meekly offered me a drink from his bottle of Mad Dog (I respectfully declined). All of these things happened when I cycling my bike on the road - never on the pavement (shared use, naturally). It never occurred to me that the same might happen to someone on the pavement.

The under-defined objection bothered me on my ride in to work, hence I emailed her to provide a bit more detail. Here was her response:


It’s the fact that you are almost ‘on-show’ for the passing motorists who already hate you for being a cyclist anyway.  Your point about it being the same as a pedestrian isn’t the same though, and you saying it is is just nonsense.  Drivers don’t hate pedestrians – if anything they feel sorry for them.  However, most drivers DO hate cyclists and that is the perception when you are on the road.  You’re waiting on them to beep the horn or shout something at you and since its happened at that bit of road before Its fresh in my memory.  I guess they resent even the fact that you can go on the pavement too.

That’s my issue at the moment and it puts dread in my stomach rather than the fun of say…cycling along to the pub and back.

(the reference to pedestrians was me saying that, legally, people on foot and bikes have equal legal status on shared use pavements - there should be no reason for drivers to treat the two groups differently)

Now, she doesn't know the politics of cycling - she is just someone that occasionally uses a bike. She hasn't been coached how to respond to cycle-related questions and she doesn't have an in-depth knowledge of the standard discourse in cycle advocacy like I do. Therefore I'd argue that this response is as honest as you could expect from any member of a focus group or survey. And her perception is thus: "people hate cyclists" (although I'm not sure why drivers would feel sorry for pedestrians, but that's another matter). This, aside from the fear of roads, seems to be the main thing holding her back from commuting to work. I personally find this enormously sad. It makes me angry now to think of the thoughtless actions of one idiot in a car has - in a way - stopped her in her tracks, and that ashamed that I was unaware that this had even happened.

I guess as cycle advocates, it can be easy to forget seemingly small but poisonous factors like social disapproval and random abuse from strangers. Perhaps some wear this as badge of pride - being regarded as different or interesting enough to be hated could be comforting for those of a more subversive or perverse mindset. For most, having a thick skin is a simply pre-requisite for facing the street environment on the saddle. But it ought to be different. Why should someone be treated any differently for the mode of locomotion they happen to use at a particular moment? Would it have made a difference to the loudmouth in the car if we had been dismounted at the time?

Many commentators disapprove of explicit comparisons to the politics of civil rights, on the basis that cycling is a voluntary activity, as opposed to a fixed personal attribute like race or sexuality - you aren't "born" a cyclist after all - but there has to be an acknowledgement of this behaviour as a form of bigotry. Anti-cycling rhetoric harms people in very real ways - both physically and emotionally - and yet it is one of the last areas of discourse in civil society where it is deemed acceptable to hold pathologically hostile views. In particular, the arbitrary nature of the justification for abuse - the choice of transport - surely allows some parallels to be drawn with the legal protections recently afforded to other legitimately acknowledged hate-groups who also "self-select" to a degree, such as goths and punks.

I have no doubt that cycle-related bigotry would fade away if cycle culture properly returned to the UK, but that would need a lot more people to be cycling in the first place - a seemingly impossible paradox to solve.

...

This is where politicians must show leadership and foresight. In the potted history of politics, there have been several examples where policy has been shifted in the the teeth of fierce reactionary opposition and a populist backlash - not because they were vote winners or because they reflected "the will of the people" but because they were the right thing to do: prison reforms, abolishing the death penalty, legalising homosexuality and insuring the reproductive rights of women. Things that only affect a small fraction of people, who thus rely on the moral authority and rectitude of government to protect them from the rule of the mob.


Government at all levels needs to overrule the instincts of the public on cycling policy - for our own good, we need executives and legislators brave enough to shatter our infantile delusions regarding the fabled "war on the motorist". In a sense, despite what I've said above, I believe that drivers would adapt to new conditions. If the true cost of a motor-centric society were publicly analysed, critiqued and condemned - say in a public enquiry - the case for making crucial environmental changes that benefit us all could be made. We need a bottom-to-top reassessment of our built environment - how do we actually want our villages, towns and cities to function? Who are they meant to serve? Mainly, we need to separate policy from instinct and dogma by stressing the importance of proper evidence in the decision-making process.

Without this sort of approach, I fear cycling will continue to stagnate, with millions of people like my partner who desperately want to get on their bikes to work, but feel thwarted by hostile infrastructure and negative societal norms. I will still try to break down barriers where I can...