Cycling struggles, 4

Why don’t people cycle?

The last three posts showed how three different people cycle despite atrocious cycling conditions; this one shows how one person has decided not to cycle because of those conditions. Of course she’s not alone – indeed, this story was the one most frequently heard during the three years I spent understanding cycling.

It was a privilege to hear Holly’s story, and others like it; to listen to someone thoughtfully articulating their concerns about cycling. We need more people – and especially, of course, those with most power to implement change, to listen to stories such as these, and to hear the reasons why people don’t cycle, and what it will take to get them cycling.

4. Holly’s cycling story

For her everyday journeys, Holly either drives or walks. In recent years, partly out of environmental concerns, partly to stay fit and healthy, she has transferred more of her shorter trips from car to foot. She now walks almost all journeys of less than two miles. Utility walking makes sense for Holly. It provides training for the recreational walking she loves to do. A medical practitioner, she is also aware of the importance of walking to mental and physical health. And she knows how much money she’s saving, particularly in car parking costs.

But it could make more sense for Holly to cycle. As she says, “obviously in terms of time it would make sense to cycle the journeys that I do on foot.” And saving time is clearly important to her; she leads a busy life – juggling work, study, and an active social life.

And of course, not only could she save time by cycling some of her longer walking trips; its greater range means that cycling could replace more of her car trips – increasing her fitness, saving more money, and further reducing her environmental impact.

She can cycle.

I did my cycling proficiency at primary school, and I took a bike with me when I first went to University.”

But she is scared to cycle.

“I’m a complete coward when it comes to cycling on roads.”

She elaborates on her ‘cowardice’ (a word commonly used by people explaining their reasons for not cycling):

“Everybody I know who does a considerable amount of cycling at some point has been knocked off and hurt themselves in some way.

“As a driver, cyclists on the road just seem so vulnerable that I just don’t want to join them.”

Holly appreciates there are some off-road routes she could use for some of her ordinary journeys, but “even so you can’t avoid cycling on the road at some point, and if not cycling on the road then cycling on pavements which isn’t legal and does expose pedestrians to risk, which I can’t justify. So it’s just not something that I’d consider.”

Holly recognises there are more barriers to her cycling than fear of motorised traffic. She goes on:

“There are other factors as well, like what do you do with the bike when you get to wherever you’re going. If you can rely on somewhere safe to put it, then all well and good, but if you can’t then it’s something else you have to factor.

“You’ve got your cycle helmet, possibly reflective gear, which you’d have to then carry about with you. Or leave them with the bike, but for security reasons you wouldn’t do that either.”

But listen to what she says immediately after this:

“My ideal would be if it were possible, transport wise, for cycle paths to be absolutely physically removed from roads as in a proper kerb separating cyclists from traffic so that cyclists didn’t have to use the pavement but weren’t sharing the road with cars. Then cycling would definitely be an option and I’d find ways around the other inconveniences of cycling. But as it is, with cyclists having to mix with traffic, it just seems crazy.”

Some people might say that Holly is like many people, generally fearful. Indeed, I have in the past suggested that fear of cycling is just one manifestation of a broader, fearful culture. But Holly isn’t generally timid. She walks regularly and widely, including alone after dark along routes away from roads. When I ask directly if her walking is circumscribed, she responds: “I don’t really think about personal safety very much.”

Holly is fit, active, healthy, and environmentally concerned. She’s not afraid to walk. But she is afraid to cycle. Yet it’s clear to me that if conditions were different, she’d probably do so. And of course, she’s not alone. In fact, she’s in the majority, a big one.

Let’s look more closely at Holly’s idea of appropriate cycling infrastructure.

The current idea of cycling infrastructure, she tells me, “is to paint cycle paths on the road. But that’s just not going to do it, because there’s no physical barrier between the cyclists and the traffic.”

I mention some local examples of off-road infrastructure. “That’s ideal. That’s fine. That’s really good. If that could be extended it would be brilliant.

“But you still have to get there. At the moment it’s just not joined up. So it doesn’t work. It doesn’t help.”

This is something I heard time and again, across all four cities.

That’s the key message here – the big majority of people won’t cycle in an environment dominated by motorised traffic.

But there’s another issue my conversation with Holly brings up, which although it seems tangential is actually connected and worth mentioning. Although she’s uncomfortable telling me so, Holly has issues with the presence of cyclists on rural roads.

“It’s terrible, but in one respect, I actually feel that it’s not right that cyclists are on those roads.

 “But at the same time they’ve got just as much right to use those roads as car drivers.

“It doesn’t feel right in terms of my philosophy, about what’s right in terms of the environment and personal health and fitness, but just because of how dangerous [cycling on rural roads] is, I feel uncomfortable about it.

The presence of cyclists on rural roads upsets her, as a motorist.

“It’s country roads in general. It just, it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like it. It’s not good.”

If you do much rural road riding you’ll probably have come across people who are incredulous that you do so. And you’ll almost certainly have come across drivers who treat you as if you don’t belong there, and have no right to be there. Holly’s perspective is a benevolent rather than malevolent form of this attitude, and I think it’s widespread.

I think her discomfort about the presence of cyclists on rural roads is connected to her discomfort about the idea of herself cycling on urban roads, and that both are based on a sense that cyclists are anomalous, because bicycles and cars don’t mix, and as cars so dominate road space, cyclists have no place – no obvious place, no safe place, anywhereexcept when they’re separated from those vehicles which can (and of course do) kill them.

Of course, we can say that cycling’s place is everywhere – I do say that, I do think that, and (unless I’m with my children) I do act that way. But the big majority of people simply don’t agree. We can say cycling’s place is everywhere until we’re blue in the face, but it won’t build a culture of mass cycling. We cyclists will continue to have the good bits of cycling infrastructure more or less to ourselves, and we’ll continue to survive/thrive in the hostile conditions which prevail in its more general absence. And Holly won’t cycle.

The solutions are as simple and radical as they are obvious. We must undermine motorists’ current monopolisation of road space. We must fundamentally challenge motorists’ sense of entitlement to that space. We must pursue a radical programme of civilising motorised traffic. And if/where we’re not as a society prepared to do those things, we must build separate space for cycling.

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48 Responses to “Cycling struggles, 4”

  1. 3rdWorldCyclinginGB Says:

    In short the UK must do what most economically equivalent countries in Europe and many cities in America have been doing and are doing with increasing alacrity.

    The past day or so has shown that even pro cyclists and their support team (Bradley Wiggins and Shane Sutton) are not safe in the UK – how many journeys were they able to make on UK roads since the racing season finished before they were knocked down? It’s a shame on the nation. All in all the UK seems little better than the Yemen*. UK roads have become an uncivilised backwater for quality of life in general** – on top of all the factors you and Holly exemplify so well, the poor construction of roads and their shoddy repair shows a high degree of, if not incompetence, then carelessness, while the pollution from car exhausts came close to making me physically sick when I was out cycling today.

    In terms of what to do, passing presumed liability laws would be a good place to start (and probably the cheapest!).

    but see especially the video –

  2. Ann Furtado Says:

    These interviews all make very interesting and stimulating reading but an awful lot of things are mixed in together which makes it hard to tease out sane ‘conclusions’ of any kind. Obviously you were able to personally appraise Holly but you give the rest of us no personal details other than that she is a medical practitioner. I’m afraid that makes me immediately suspicious of her attitudes because medics often have issues around safety and health and what they think is ‘safe’ behaviour. On the basis of what you have written, I rather doubt that she would ever cycle, whatever the infrastructure, and she offers quite a lot of prejudice rather than informed opinion. Almost all those associated with the medical field will stoutly demand the imposition of helmet wearing on everyone regardless of the statistics associated with this which show that helmet wearing does not bring significant benefits.
    Machines of all kinds, by their metal nature and ability to kill, crush and maim and be out of control, are not good for vulnerable bodies but machines are controlled by people and perhaps we need to address attitudes as much as infrastructure.
    Just as machine usage in factories and on farms is controlled by an understanding of the need to operate the machinery properly and with due regard for human safety perhaps we need to address the attitudes of car drivers towards others.
    If there is political will (maybe driven by interest groups/ordinary citizens) then change can be brought about – for instance, despite climate change deniers just go and look at Defra’s website and you can see evidence that the government can decide to promote a particular perspective. Unfortunately, it takes time to change minds and there seems to be a decidedly dogged and unpleasant attitude towards others once many Brits get behind a wheel.
    Separated cycle paths etc, can be great but in our crowded little island, there is never going to be enough room for a totally segregated system and I’m not sure wanting such doesn’t smack of ghettoisation anyway (cycle paths are not often well maintained). I immediately suspect Holly of being part of the ‘surface all playgrounds, cut down all trees, stop people doing anything even slightly risky like swimming in rivers’ and so on.
    I’ve got a daughter learning to drive and she tells me that her instructor is really hot on her looking out for and behaving properly towards cyclists, there is also much more in the current Highway Code about shared use of roads. This autumn the Dept for Transport is running a Think Cyclist campaign endorsed by the motoring organisations. A friend who recently got caught in a speed trap did a Speed Awareness Course and told me that the course instructor emphasised the dangers of speed and the need to look out for other road users. She said there were a fair number of aggressive drivers on the course who thought it was ok to text when driving and who complained about people who drove slowly (i.e. less than the speed limit!). She said cycling came up and there was a grudging acceptance of cyclists and then immediately demands that cyclists obey the rules of the road if they want to be taken seriously.
    It is horrible to cycle in heavy traffic and on A roads, I don’t do it unless absolutely necessary and I admire the people you have interviewed who do. But how balanced are these interviews as a cross section of people who cycle in the UK? I think we’d all agree that we’d like better facilities but we also need to change minds and I think that might be happening but not quickly enough. I agree with the poster above that a change in legal liability in accidents would go a long way towards influencing behaviour on the roads.
    I just came back from Boston in the US and was impressed by a Dutch-like behaviour towards pedestrians and cyclists and a general obedience of speed limits. I asked some Americans about it and they said the police were very evident and very hot on enforcement. So maybe that’s something else we could pay attention to. Sorry for all the words! Thanks Dave for providing such a stimulating blog!

    • samsaundersbristol Says:

      “…makes it hard to tease out sane conclusions of any kind.”

      I agree with you Ann. But I think the difficulty is inevitable. Perversely, that’s what appeals to me so much about this set of vignettes. Decision makers need to confront the subtlety and the complexity and the uncertainty of life and accept it all as real and valid. Validity is not the private preserve of science and logic. Simple, simplistic and just plain idiotic policies will always prevail as long as policy makers believe that remedies are simple or that sums of money can be easily translated into helpful action.

      The subject here (Holly) might be all the things you say she is or she might not – but it doesn’t matter. She was a real person who said what she said – and it’s real people who will be using our roads, pavements and cycle paths in the future. Those paths may never join up completely, but we can do a lot by making more and more of them join up.

      I’m pretty confident that we have already gone way beyond coping with the cars we already have on our roads, Numbers have started to decline and will have to decline further for everyone’s sake. Plans should already be being made to reduce the road space currently available to cars.

      • Luke Says:

        Let’s say for the sake of argument Holly is a cautious person (though not wanting to cycle with traffic puts her in with 95% of the population, so there’s not much evidence of that). Shouldn’t we aim to make conditions bearable for cautious people (and unfit people, old people, children, people utterly uninterested in cycling, fit people who can’t always be bothered to do keep up with traffic etc)?

  3. Two Wheel Travel Says:

    Great post. After the 2 high profile motorist->cyclist accidents in the the UK in the last day I have been looking at roadway fatalities stats of cyclists. I’m surprised, and sounds like you won’t be, that the UK has a higher per capita rate of cyclist deaths on the roadways than the US or even here in Poland. The last bit surprised me the most. The roadways and motorists here in Poland are about as inhospitable as it gets.
    Unfortunately the solution lies far beyond just physical infrastructure, which is only the first step. The root is (re)training ourselves and our politicians to demand legislative solutions to protect vulnerable roadway users along with stronger enforcement and punishment for offenders.
    That unfortunately is a very long road ( or path, if you will :))

  4. atomheartfather Says:

    Dave, I think you owe it to Holly to give her a week’s holiday in Copenhagen to see how her infrastructure dreams get realised in practice.

    Seriously, I understand Ann’s hesitations in accepting Holly’s reasons for not cycling at face value, but in the end such doubts can only be tested by putting those who claim they would only cycle if.. in more ideal circumstances, like Copenhagen. This is precisely what the Beauty and the Bike project did, and found that within hours all pur participants were happy to use the bicycle as their preferred mode of transport. And not just because they had appointments to make. One participant who refused to cycle in the UK much like Holly, both before and after visiting Bremen, actually went out on her own on her bicycle in Bremen on a number of occasions to simply enjoy her new-found freedom. These documented examples might be anecdotal, but they are all adding up to a considerable weight of evidence for the kind of infrastructure Holly imagines.

    Perhaps we are looking the wrong way when we compare the UK with the Netherlands, Denmark or Germany. We tend to focus on transport, or even cycling, policy. But the role of cycling in cities like Copenhagen is part of a deeper thinking about urban development. Jan Gehl, after all, is not a cycling advocate but an urban planner. And at this level of policy thinking, cycling is well and truly marginalised in the UK. I recall recently reading the Local Transport Plan 3 for Darlington, one of the original Cycling Demonstration Towns, where it was stated that cycling was not a serious economic motor for the town, and should therefore not play a prominent role in urban planning. This is the nub of the UK problem. As long as cycling policy is seen by planners as essentially a leisure question rather than a means of, say, moving goods (a current policy focus in Germany), it will be treated like play areas and bouncy castles. Cycling policy should not be sitting alongside the municipal floral displays that populate so many British roundabouts. It should be part of the urban plan that removes the need for roundabouts altogether.

  5. Don Says:

    I found Holly’s story fascinating and I must admit that the doubts that Ann describes never came into my mind. Unless Dave has missed out some of her account (and I don’t believe he has), then I’m not sure that Ann’s suspicions about her are correct. Holly seems to me to be a pretty well rounded character, who voices completely normal concerns. Its just such a pity that some cycling campaigners in the UK seem completely deaf to her needs and concerns.

    I was fascinated by her attitude to rural roads and this is not something that had ever occurred to me. As a driver, I expect to find horses/tractors/cyclists and what have you around every blind corner and drive accordingly. That might have something to do with 15 years as a Police advanced driver though..

    As a cyclist, however, I am much more in tune with her opinions. I have almost completely withdrawn from cycling on rural roads now, except when I have to cross them on an MTB ride. I used to enjoy day rides on my road bike, but now find the thought pretty unpleasant. There’s only so many times I can cope with being passed at 50+mph with no room whatsoever for error on anyone’s part.

    Dave, I have to take issue with your comment that “we’ll continue to survive/thrive in the hostile conditions which prevail in its [infrastructure] more general absence”. I think this should be tempered with the caveat that one can only thrive in these conditions for so long. I am a 46 year old Police officer. I am used to being in dangerous situations, but I now fear I am becoming ‘too old’ to exist as a cyclist on the UK’s roads.

    Thank you for a fascinating series of articles. I look forward to reading more of them.

  6. Mark W Says:

    Great post. Keep up this series.

  7. Dave Horton Says:

    Thanks all, for your responses.

    A few things:

    First, Don, yes, fair enough, sorry! I was lazy and glossed too much in that sentence. What I meant is roughly this: the difficult conditions for cycling mean that, so long as we survive, we develop identities as ‘cyclists’. When we get attached to those (minority, hard-won, elite) cyclist identities then we can sometimes start to ‘thrive’ on the inhospitable conditions which are required for their reproduction. I think this has happened in the UK, and is one of the reasons for the divide between the perspectives of ‘hardcore cyclists’ (such as me) on the one hand, and ‘ordinary people’ (such as Holly) on the other. My privilege as a sociologist is in being able to confront ‘the other’ (people such as Holly). My hope is that in doing so I am sometimes able to see things a bit differently, and to offer a fresh perspective.

    Your sense that you’ve had enough, dicing with death on a daily basis on the UK’s roads, is one which I accept entirely. And of course it’s an outrage, that so many people struggle so long and hard to do something which is widely seen as ‘good’, before eventually thinking ‘sod this’, and giving up.

    Second, atomheartfather, absolutely! Thanks. I am 99% sure that Holly would cycle if we made cycling the obvious and ordinary way of moving around, which is what we must do. I think that the biggest ‘misunderstanding’ (sorry, that’s too arrogant, but I’ll keep it there as short-hand) I come across, in discussions of modal shift, is that this shift has to be individual and voluntary. No! It has to be social and structured! People will cycle when we make them cycle, through ensuring that everything – from the ease, safety and speed of the journey, to messages in the media – points in that direction. And as you so rightly suggest, ‘ordinary’ people will take cycling seriously when cycling is taken seriously by urban planning (and politicians).

    Third, Ann, I’m sorry if I made Holly’s story confused. My responsibility as the sociological author is to try to render transparent other people’s experiences, and to interpret what those experiences might mean. My goal with this series is to build up a body of qualitative evidence, and to assess ‘what it all means’ at the end, although I can’t help throwing in analyses along the way, especially of course when those analyses are anyway ‘screaming out’ at us (which personally, I think they are here – when it comes to some key reasons why ‘ordinary people don’t cycle’).

    On the question of how ‘balanced’ are these stories, from my experience as a sociologist who has spent the last eight years (since 2004) with a primary (most of my colleagues would no doubt say ‘weirdly single-tracked’!) focus on cycling, I would argue strongly that they are. I will admit to ‘plucking’ out for closer analysis those research encounters which for some reason have ‘stuck with me’, and a plausible reason they have stuck with me is that they are somehow ‘sensational’; but I think the key reason they have stuck with me is that they are exemplary, or emblematic, of wider issues – these individual ‘case-studies’ illuminate specific issues which are visible across the broader qualitative data set. In these stories key ‘tropes’ are concentrated, if you will.

    But also, everyone has ‘cycling stories’; it’s just as a society we’ve not been interested in them, and don’t stop to listen to them. One of my tasks as a sociologist who is committed to making cycling mainstream is to render them visible, audible. For entirely understandable reasons, cycling campaigners have had a bit of a monopoly on ‘cycling stories’; but it’s time we heard the cycling stories of those who don’t cycle, sometimes cycle, or have stopped cycling. These stories will challenge some cherished perspectives, we might not want to hear them, we might distrust them – but if we want to build cycling, we need to hear them. And hearing them is only the first step, towards acting on them.

    That’s more than enough from me for now!

    All the best


  8. Tim Jones Says:

    Great stuff Dave. You should really be being paid for providing a ‘narrative analysis’ of this data. You are doing the very thing that we needed more time to do within the project!

    I need to look into whether there is any funding out there to do this (and when my desk is a bit clearer to help you identify useful accounts anyway)…


    Sent from my iPhone

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Tim. Of course it’d be nice to be getting paid, but it’s more important that we capitalise on this data now. What with The Times’ Cities Fit for Cycling campaign, our magnificent year of cycle sport success, now the ‘accidents’ in which Bradley Wiggins and Shane Sutton were both wiped out by cars within 24 hours of one another, and the forthcoming parliamentary inquiry into how to get people cycling, there’s a synergy of events which mean – I’m fairly sure – things which wouldn’t ordinarily happen could, just could, happen, or rather – be made to happen. Partly, my conviction of this is my long hours spent studying social movements coming back to haunt me. Movements rise and fall, have effects or disappear without trace, for a whole range of reasons, but the zeitgeist (or broader cultural climate) and political opportunities are clearly key.

      Besides, I got a very decent wage for the three years I spent with you on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. So I’m certainly not going to moan about the lack of a wage now. (Though I certainly agree that something’s gone awry with academia, when the people who did the research only get a proper chance to think and write about that research when their contracts have ended!)

      It’d be great to have stories which you unearthed during the project up here too, but don’t worry if you don’t manage to find the time to do it – I’ve got a whole bagful to be going on with!

      Cheers for now

  9. ann furtado Says:

    Hi Dave, I didn’t think Holly’s story came across as confused, I just wondered about her. I am always interested in people’s stories but I always about their general life perspectives and how these are produced by the job they do, environment they live in, etc. In this case, I was interested in Holly’s risk perceptions and what might be driving that.
    I do a lot of rural road riding and I was shocked by her strong opinions – which is not to say that I’ve never had a close shave or seen some shocking driving on country lanes but to think cyclists shouldn’t be there is a bit strange. Possibly a policeman has a similarly somewhat biassed opinion, I once talked to a female police officer about a lone 100 mile ride I had done and she sucked through her teeth and reeled off a list of things that might have happened to me on the basis of her work experience but actually I had a great time and was perfectly safe!
    I’m a supposedly qualified cycle instructor, I’ve cycled many miles all my adult life, led rides for the CTC and have worked in a woman’s cycle cooperative. I think a gender perspective is important, women do think differently to men and tend to be much more cautious, hence, the data about women being more likely to be mown down by left turning lorries because they cling to the gutter.
    There’ve been a couple of interesting programmes on tv this week about safety on British roads which included some interesting statistics on accidents amongst male/female, young/older drivers and a driving test which compared younger and older drivers, the former were quite sure they were much better drivers but the test proved them wrong, of course.
    British roads are not pleasant for the most part for cyclists, but I would just like to argue that we might try to get past ingrained attitudes in a number of ways. One of the problems with thinking that infrastructure is the answer is that you then get drivers shouting at cyclists for being on the road because there is a cycle track nearby – this happens regularly where I live now.
    I’ve done some qualititative social science research and I know that sometimes the answer does appear to shout out at you so I do value what you have written, just enjoy the musing over it!
    cheers Ann

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Ann. Although of course, if that cycling infrastructure were to be so good that we’d all want to be riding on it – and that’s what we’re aiming for – then we wouldn’t have to be on those roads which some motorists think we shouldn’t be on. Yes, we might risk losing our ‘right’ to those roads (culturally if not necessarily legally), but that would I think be a price worth paying for democratic cycling in place of the elite cycling we have currently. (Currently, of course the vast majority of people don’t have the ‘right’ to cycle on those roads (culturally if not necessarily legally) anyway.
      All the best

    • DG Says:

      Ann: I didn’t wonder about Holly’s opinions but I did about your prejudice against medics – I think you should read about this cycle commuting doctor: There’s no reason why many women shouldn’t share your experiences of A-road cycling but right now you’re in a tiny minority. You won’t encourage many people to join you by belittling their concerns. I don’t blame anyone for thinking motor vehicles get priority – that’s the way most of our roads appear. Subjective safety is the main issue for the majority of the population (‘perception = reality’). Infrastructure is probably the only thing that can help change attitudes long term – see:

      • ann furtado Says:

        Wow, I won’t be bothering to read this blog again or waste my time posting. I don’t think I am in a minority but I do think that maybe you are prejudiced against women. Or shall I say blinkered which is not what I would expect from an academic. I was not belittling Holly’s views or being prejudiced against medics, merely quoting my life experience of mixing with them gained particularly while I was doing my MSc in Medical Anthropology at Brunel University. I notice you didn’t confront the policeman who posted using his status as a policeman to bolster his own opinions. I can see, as can other posters, that you think the only way forward is infrastructure, well so glad to see social science falling down the usual hole of starting out with the answer you prefer and tailoring your research to fit the end product you want. And a social scientist who doesn’t take into account varying perspectives based on the class, status or gender is a very peculiar researcher indeed. So, let’s see how quickly you take down this comment because I can see that your mode of operating is to favour those who agree with you? How did you get your funding? The mind boggles.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Dear Ann
        I genuinely have very little idea what I’ve done to incur your wrath (other, perhaps, than say something with which you disagree? Or are you perhaps confusing my views with those expressed by DG in his comment in response to yours on Holly’s story?), but please don’t worry, I have no interest in removing your post – I believe passionately in grassroots, democratic politics, and in people’s abilities to look at the evidence before them and reach their own judgements.
        I’m sorry you won’t return to my blog again. I have appreciated and enjoyed your comments; I think they were contributing to a mature and potentially productive discussion.
        But thanks for your interest and time up until now, and my very best wishes

        PS – two things, for the record:

        1. I believe there’s an awful lot more to the production of cycling than infrastructure alone. But I do believe that development of the right kind of infrastructure is essential if cycling is ever to become a major means of urban mobility. (And my personal, quasi-private ‘dream’ is that the bicycle has become the dominant vehicle of intra-urban mobility across affluent societies such as the UK within my lifetime – which, with a lot of luck, I take to be possibly another 30 years.)

        2. The article for which I appear to be best known, ‘Fear of Cycling’ (available to read on this site) argues a position which I suspect you’d share. I wrote it in around 2005. I have written other articles (e.g. ‘Bicycle Film Festivals: Taking a cultural approach to cycling promotion’) arguing for a cultural rather than infrastructural approach to cycling promotion. Contrary to what you suggest, I started work on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project in 2008 extremely skeptical that separate quality provision for cycling along the biggest and busiest roads was the solution to making UK cycling democratic. However, three years spent talking to hundreds of people across four cities forced me to confront, and to some extent shift away from, that original position.

  10. Peter Thompson Says:

    All this dialogue is very interesting. I have been cycling regularly, on and off, for recreation and to get places, for around 30 years. I also drive.
    Firstly, it is clearly ludicrous to think that every city, town, village and country road is ever going to be fitted out with an independent, separate cycle network. The best we can hope for is that the crummy provision made so far in cities like London and Oxford will gradually increase, to at least deal with the most popular routes, and where it can physically be achieved. The degree of priority given to this by the politicians controlling purse-strings will depend on how much ear-bashing they get, so we need to keep campaigning. Meanwhile, it is not really fair to say urban planners are not at least beginning to take cycling seriously as the first-choice transport mode; it IS happening, even if slowly.
    Yes, yes, yes, there needs to be a change in attitude! In fact, several! The hierarchy of status in all urban areas should be: pedestrians: cyclists: motor vehicles. For some reason, in this country, we all seem to think (this evidently includes Holly) that occupying a car conveys some superior status, which entitles us to drive at speeds we choose, wherever we choose, unobstructed, and to park wherever we want, whenever we want. And when we cycle, we get incensed by walkers on the cycle track, and even in designated ‘shared space’, we resent being obstructed by pedestrians. In Germany, in suburbia, my experience has been that car-drivers are wary even of overtaking pedestrians on footpaths, for fear that the latter may unpredictably step into their path. I am told this is engendered by draconian penalties for causing injuries with a car, and the view that the least vulnerable are the most responsible for the consequences, whatever the cause. I am not pessimistic that we will never get to the same state here; I just think we are 30-odd years behind the times. But I think things are changing, slowly.
    Touch wood, I have not (yet) suffered injury on my bike at the hands of a motorist. But I ALWAYS cycle defensively; I never make right turns without being certain that there are no cars near enough to hurt, even if they haven’t seen me; I check for escape routes whenever vehicles pass; I recognise that any vehicle overtaking may turn left across my bows, and I try and be ready to take avoiding action at all times; I realise that at night, even with lights, I am pretty near invisible to cars, and behave accordingly; and so on.
    I think the key to safe cycling for all is all the above things – infrastructure, attitude and awareness. It is no good campaigning just for better urban design, harsher penalties and better policing, or even eductaion; we have to campaign for all of these, all the time.

  11. ann furtado Says:

    Dear Peter, I agree with every word you say, you won’t find much favour here though, strangely this guy seems to think that his desire for infrastructure will somehow magically produce funding and space to put in cycle paths in every street and alleyway so that thenceforth all cyclists will be forced to use them and magically, the whole population will take to bikes! Dream on.

    • samsaundersbristol Says:

      Ann and Peter, without wanting to deny the honesty of what you have said in these two posts I would suggest that you might not have fully understood the nature of what this series of blogs has been. As a social researcher, the author is trying (and succeeding, I think) to represent the lives and outlooks of people whose experiences of and attitudes to cycling are not necessarily coherent or politically astute, but which are “normal” and honest and which absolutely need to be heard and taken into account.

      This said, there is no sense in which you can “disagree” with the person the author calls “Holly” in the blog. That person is not a campaigner or a transport planner. Her story gives us one in a series of opportunities to reflect on the complexity of cycling’s relationship to people’s lives and to consider the poverty of all our policy suggestions. They also give us pause to think about the routine shortcut phrases and justifications that cloud our thinking about transport.

      Peter, you write:
      “it is clearly ludicrous to think that every city, town, village and country road is ever going to be fitted out with an independent, separate cycle network. The best we can hope for is…”

      and in so doing you express very concisely and convincingly a very commonly-held idea. I was very struck by it and puzzled for sometime before I started to unravel why I felt that you have got something wrong. For one you thing you use a ploy of recognising your own straw man (“clearly ludicrous to think”) but you spell it out nonetheless. It is ludicrous, everyone knows it’s ludicrous and no one is espousing it. It seems only relevant so that you can recognise the poverty and inefficiency of what we have and reduce hopes for making things much better. Such concessions are, I believe, very helpful escape routes for planners and politicians who (even today) are not at all well versed in progressive transport planning and who are only too pleased to have voices saying that we don’t really want things to be re-thought or that there is no articulate set of demands being made.

      I say this, not with any sense of a better model, but only with a hope that campaigning, policy making and practice can become much better informed and be more wisely guided in the decade ahead. Professional studies and rich conceptual understanding are really needed so that slogans and gruffly expressed personal opinions can be noted, but not used as principles or policy guidelines.

      • Peter Thompson Says:

        I’m not sure what exactly you are suggesting I have got wrong; I very happy to be corrected if I have got something wrong, but you don’t make it clear what that is. I fully recognise the “poverty and inefficiency” of what we have, and I agree that we should campaign strenuously to make the physical infrastructure better for cycling, indeed, I say so. But I believe that it IS unrealistic to think that we can provide physical cycling infrasructure, independent of motor vehicle and pedestrian infrastructure, EVERYWHERE; in mediaeval cities like Oxford this would be impossible without demolishing historic buildings and streets. Of course this is a commonly-held idea – it is patently true. I am not suggesting that because dedicated cycling infrasructure cannot be provided everywhere, it should not be provided at all; I am suggesteing we should campaign for it to be provided wherever and whenever it is physically possible to do so. But we have to campaign ALSO for changes in attitude, and greater awareness. Changes in attitude include that of highway authorities, so that they consider properly when, where and how dedicated cycling infrastructure can be provided, as a matter of course, as well as that of motorists and pedestrians, who should not regard cyclists as ‘the enemy’ (it is, after all, to their benefit that as many people cycle as possible – cycling-sympathetic behaviour by motorists is no more than furthering self-interest).
        I don’t think it is particularly helpful for the commentary on the original blog to become a semantic dialogue about what the commentators mean. We need to get more people cycling, and fewer being killed, not hold a philosophical debate. We’ll be discussing angels on pin-heads next!

    • atomheartfather Says:


      I don’t think it’s angels on pin heads to suggest that you are barking up the wrong tree by bringing forward the “we can’t build cycling infrastructure here, there, almost anywhere” argument. It’s exactly this refrain that has dogged these debates in the UK for decades.

      Putting the sociology aside for a minute, and considering cycling advocacy, the issue is not “how much infrastructure”, but guiding principles. If you care to look for these in countries where considerable infrastructure has been built, you will find a very simple paradigm, one that the CTC has only recently woken up to – the speed/traffic count graph. This gives guidance as to where types of infrastructure are, or are not, required, depending on traffic numbers and traffic speed. A very simple and obvious principle – the more and the faster the motorised traffic, the greater the onus on authorities to provide safe cycling infrastructure. These technical issues about narrow streets, historical buildings etc etc are placed in a clear perspective – the greater the need for safe infrastructure, the greater the effort and financing.

      It would save the UK’s cycling campaigners a hell of a lot of hot air if we could all agree on this simple approach. And cut out a lot of crap about roads being “too narrow” when exactly the same width roads in cycling-friendly countries have good quality infrastructure in place.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Just to jump in because I’m keen to avoid what I see may be happening here – I think there’s a danger of creating a polarised division between two positions which are actually in broad agreement.

        Certainly, I agree with what I hear Peter saying – “yes, we need radically improved infrastructure for cycling, but the project of creating that will inevitably be slow, messy and will vary across space.” I think that’s all quite obviously true.

        But Sam and atomheartfather clearly make an important point, which I take to be “we shouldn’t sabotage the possibility of widespread quality cycling infrastructure by suggesting it’s an unattainable/naive ambition”. Absolutely – one of the crucial tasks ahead of us is to redefine what’s possible, to stretch our imaginative horizons.

        I don’t see these ‘opposing views’ as at all incompatible. I think you’re talking with similar intentions towards the same broad goals.

        So please, a plea, consensus over competition/contradiction if at all possible – in making these comments, we are engaged in a project which is an important part of the broader project of mainstreaming cycling. (In contrast to some people, I believe debates such as these are crucial to a paradigm shift in how we make short urban journeys, not a distraction from more important work.)

        I don’t mean to be censorious (though in truth I am probably feeling slightly ‘pricked’ by my first experience of ‘nastiness’ on this blog – something which I knew was at some point inevitable but which I’d also hoped wouldn’t happen). I don’t want to stifle disagreement, but please let’s recognize convergence as much as divergence.

        Thanks! And best wishes

  12. Mark Reilly Says:

    Hi Dave

    Great site, I have just spent the last week or so going through your recent posts, so I hope to stay on topic for this one.

    I started commuting by cycle about 3 years ago, I was previously a “leisure” cyclist. At the time I started a new contract at a firm with offices at the end of the Leeds Liverpool canal (which runs near my home and I used frequently at weekends), without this off road alternative (and the showers and secure parking) I would not have made the switch. (BTW the canal was also my way of avoiding hills but that’s another article!).

    Since then I have changed offices and use roads much more, infact the last few times I have gone into Leeds I have cycled down the A65 as it is quicker and drier. The A65 has a large amount of painted bike lanes and a new extensive bus lane which cycles can use. It feels safe to me.

    However I am rather concerned about how quickly I have become a non-normal cyclist. As I can get showered and changed at work, I do wear the dreaded Lycra as it dries out during the day, helmet (mainly for overhanging branches), recently a hi viz vest, and a tube scarf/mask to keep my ears and mouth warm (don’t ask).

    I would love to see more separated cycling provision, but I can see that we have a massive chicken and egg situation. However I do think that there may be many small incremental steps we could take.
    The first being dividing roads between through roads and residential, and like the Dutch system, give pedestrians and cyclists priority on residential roads, a step further than the current 20mph campaign. The benefit would be that cyclists would be happy to make the short “normal” type journeys. Such as cycling to the shops, to school etc. It would also be relatively easy to join these residential “islands” together with special crossings etc.
    The downside would be that no doubt some (many) motorists would assume cyclists were excluded from through roads, which would not be the case.

    If we could get people out on regular local rides, I’m sure a number would follow me to regular commuting.

    Also as someone who lives in the borders between town and country, we have large amounts of pavements which no one ever uses, the possibility of making these into shared cycle/ pedestrian paths for a minimal costs, seems pretty obvious.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Mark

      Welcome to the blog, and thanks so much for recounting your experiences. It’s great to hear of a ‘successful transition’ (sorry if that sounds at all patronising, it’s certainly not meant to!).

      It’s possible to read your experiences in two ways, isn’t it? On the one hand, you exemplify the possibility of successfully becoming an ‘everyday cyclist’ – you demonstrate that someone, who might once not have thought it possible, can ride confidently on busy roads as they are. But on the other hand, and as you say, does your experience also demonstrate that in order to do so, you must ‘become a cyclist’? Of course I applaud your achievements, but I guess what we’re ultimately aiming for is for people to ride to work without having to ‘become cyclists’. I’m not sure how far you commute, but would it be *theoretically* possible, in another world, to do what you do now yet ‘remain normal’?! (i.e. not wear lycra, or hi-viz, or helmet, or need to shower? Would you/could you ride without those things?)

      I absolutely agree with you on incremental steps. (I doubt that change ever occurs any other way, actually – even sociological analyses of so-called momentous events such as the ‘falling’ of the Berlin Wall and the ending of apartheid tend to note the long-term processes and aggregation of small actions which lie behind such ‘moments’) The kinds of changes you suggest are, I think, the ones which those who know better than me use to explain the big rise in cycling across the London Borough of Hackney in recent years. And I absolutely agree with you, too, that the re-allocation of inter-urban road verges to cycling is so obviously the right thing to do I find it hard to believe it’s still not really happening.

      As you might know, Leeds was one of the case study cities of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. You perhaps won’t be surprised to hear that I personally found it the most hostile to cycling of the four cities (but that’s in large part because it was also the biggest). To generalise across our participants, they also found it the least hospitable city for cycling.

      Thanks again for reading, and more particularly for commenting. And keep riding!

      Best wishes

  13. SirVelo Says:

    In reply to your correspondent, Ann, a few points:

    “Separated cycle paths etc, can be great but in our crowded little island, there is never going to be enough room for a totally segregated system and I’m not sure wanting such doesn’t smack of ghettoisation anyway (cycle paths are not often well maintained).”

    Firstly, as the tenth largest island in the world out of over 100,000 populated islands, Britain is in the top 0.001% of inhabited islands; so definitely not a small island!

    Secondly, and more relevantly, the Dutch can manage it, and they are not exactly renowned for their empty prairies.

    Third, just because cycle paths are poorly maintained currently, does not mean that we should not be lobbying for far better infrastructure.

    Finally, we are not going to change motorists’ attitudes; ever. Let’s not pretend that this situation will change. build high quality segregated dedicated cycling infrastructure and Go Dutch!

    • Mark Reilly Says:

      While I totally agree with your strategic aims, ignoring motorists as a whole is counterproductive.

      Firstly not every motorist is a Top Gear petrol head, so we shouldn’t treat them as such (in the same way as all cyclist don’t agree – as we are finding out on here!). As recreational cycling becomes more popular we may even get quite a large cross over of cyclist / drivers.

      Secondly self interest is an important motivator for a lot of people (most of us if we are totally honest), so we need to show motorists who don’t cycle that they may benefit from improved cycle infrastructure. It seems pretty obvious if we increase the number of cyclists, we reduce car traffis, so journey times will fall for those unable or unwilling to stop driving.
      While I have no figures, and I accept that imperical evidence can often be wrong, but small reductions in traffic in Leeds (school holidays or ven just Fridays) has a large impact on journey times. If we could get hard evidence of this and say to the reluctant motorists, evidence shows these schemes recude traffic by x% and journey times by y%

      Unfortunaley we are all figting for the scraps from the road budget, and given the numbers of cyclists we will need to make allies to get anywhere.

      • SirVelo Says:

        I wasn’t actually recommending that we ignore motorists. If you read what I wrote you will see that I said that motorists’ attitudes were not going to change any time soon. In effect, I was saying that road conditions are not likely to improve for cyclists in the foreseeable future; therefore, the only way forward is to press for better segregated infrastructure.

        I am sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that while Boris Johnson et al rave about how safe cycling is, when most people try it they realise soon enough what the reality is and give up. If, in a year when British cyclists contributed more gold medals to the Olympic tally than any other group of sportsmen and women, we are still being bullied off the roads, then I think that says everything one wants to know about “sharing” the roads.

  14. ann furtado Says:

    I have been trying to unsubscribe from this blog but the software seems unable to cope with that. To quote from the Guardian today:
    “@felixcat – The last person I’d ask for advice on whether cycling’s a good idea would be anyone at the sharp end of the health service.
    They’re hardly going to have the most well balanced perspective seeing as almost every cyclist they’ll see has been in an incident.”
    Oh good, not just me then who thinks people’s opinions might come from somewhere as opposed to nowhere. It would be nice if subtlety could come in somewhere too – I was not ‘disagreeing’ with Holly (how could I?), I was instead expressing doubt as to the edited version of her story, which is what was presented, because, as presented, I thought she sounded so doubtful and so full of opinions herself about cyclists being on the road that the idea of her joining them seemed rather far-fetched to me. I work in adult education and I know only too well how to hear someone expressing all sorts of logical reasons why they can’t do something when actually they simply don’t want to (however much you would like to make them do whatever it is).
    As for ‘build high quality segregated dedicated cycling infrastructure and Go Dutch’ – for god’s sake!! maybe I just spent too long working alongside the south east regional director of Sustrans and watching him beat his head against the wall of intransigence and lack of money in the UK public authorities – and this was BEFORE the economic downturn. Yes, let’s all hope and have ideas and you never know, in 30 years it might have all changed but I thought this was a serious exchange of ideas, not a pub table.
    And that brings me to my last point, I was not expressing wrath, Dave, but exasperation that a blog that appeared to offer something serious coming out of a professional sociologist actually seemed to side step every question I asked in all seriousness (have you really not come across or considered issues like risk perception and the strange fact that women might think and behave differently to men, where incidentally are the women other than myself commenting on this blog?) in favour of policemen thinking Holly was robust and ‘normal’, well fine, glad you like his opinion. Peter Thompson comes across as the sanest person who has commented so far and in addition to feeling you were simply not interested in what I had to say (in fact I thought you were rude), I found myself thinking that I had had far too many debates like this around pub tables to feel I wanted anymore in writing.
    I’ll now try and unsubscribe again and I hope it works this time.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Are there so few women’s voices because there are so few women cyclists?

      And are there so few women cyclists because prevailing cycling conditions produce a ‘macho’ culture of cycling?

      Isn’t that the gender(ed) politics of contemporary British cycling?

      • Peter Thompson Says:

        And are there so few women cyclists because prevailing cycling conditions produce a ‘macho’ culture of cycling?

        I am the sole active male Sustrans Ranger in our group at the moment. In Oxford there is Isis, the women-only cycling group, and the Broken Spoke Bike Coop, which is a women-run bicycle workshop. The streets are full of young mothers taking kids to school on tricycles and trailers, smart business women commuting, and grannies doing the shopping. Admittedly this is only anecdotal evidence, but I think the answer to your question, Dave, is “NO”.

        From SirVelo: “Finally, we are not going to change motorists’ attitudes; ever.”

        Why not? As I have previously said, we need infrastructure, and we need changed attitudes. German motorists are tigers on the autobahn, but complete pussycats in cities and suburbs. Likewise pretty well everywhere else in Europe. We might be 40 years behind, but we’ll get there.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Thanks Peter – fair enough. (Though I’m sure you realise Oxford is not typical of the UK as a whole.) Also, just to note, I’m talking gender here – it’s perfectly possible for women to develop a macho attitude to cycling, whether in order to survive on the streets, or to participate in a macho cycling culture. (You’re aware, I think, that I’m throwing out ideas – not stating opinions, let alone ‘facts’.)

        And certainly, I take Ann’s point, that women contributors to this blog are in a clear minority; and am wondering why that is ..

        I think your response to SirVelo falls into the thesis/antithesis frame, doesn’t it? So I’ll try the synthesis! 😉 Of course motorists attitudes can be shifted. But surely one reason why motorists in a country such as Germany (we spent 3 weeks cycling there this summer) are more considerate towards cyclists is because extensive segregation of motorists from cyclists on the biggest and busiest roads has removed the major potential sites of contestation and conflict, so that it’s much easier for ‘both sides’ to live and let live when they do meet (which is under much more civilised conditions – it’s harder for a motorist to be a tiger when they’ve had their tiger-ness regulated by speed limits and other legislation).

        Thanks again for your super contributions.

        Best wishes


      • Peter Thompson Says:

        Yes, Dave, I realise is untypical (though certainly not unique in the UK). Incidentally, Oxford City Council are currently consulting on proposals for ‘Oxford – Cycle City’, to realise “…. a vision for Oxford to be one of the truly great cycling cities of Europe.”. Some way to go!

        I don’t think I should show my fellow Sustrans Rangers your suggestion that they may be ‘macho’! I don’t think it sounds like a compliment, but I am sure Ann will know better than I!

        I entirely agree with you about the kind of measures which may engender the different attitude of German drivers. The point I was making was that I don’t think Brits are genetically engineered to be immune to an attitude shift.

        Interesting blog – thanks!

      • atomheartfather Says:

        An interesting point just raised about German drivers, and trying to engender the same in Brits. Perhaps also relevant to the Oxford experience (I would dearly like to know of any studies that examine the reasons for Oxford’s relatively high cycling rates).

        In Bremen we often play the “identify the car number plate” game when watching how drivers behave, particularly at junctions between main roads and side roads. In Bremen, the rules and behaviour that follows are clear – on turning off a main road onto a side road, drivers should look out for, and always give way to, passing pedestrians and cyclists. 99% of Bremen drivers behave in this way. But there are also visiting drivers who do not, and their origin can obviously be identified from their number plates, from nearby, less cycling-friendly, towns like Osnabruck and Verden for example. Whilst no scientific count has yet been carried out, it is clear from observation that the origin of the car has an effect on behaviour, despite operating under exactly the same laws.

        Perhaps these differences in motorist behaviour are pretty subtle when compared to UK experiences – Verden drivers, after all, visibly accept they are in the wrong when challenged about right of way at junctions (something I have personally often had to do). My Darlington experience (I’ll say Darlington rather than UK) is that motorists more often than not (with the “polite/considerate driver” exceptions in mind) are relatively unaware of pedestrians/cyclists in these situations, since they regard their right to road space as paramount, even at junctions, and apply all their attention to other motorists instead. Drivers of police vehicles behave this way all the time.

        But I think this suggests that there is a lot that COULD be done locally, given an understanding of the dialectics at work between infrastructure, culture, laws, and behaviour. Something that we as cycling advocates argued for in Darlington throughout the Cycling Demonstration Towns period.

      • ann furtado Says:

        It would be interesting to have some statistics on the number of women cyclists. There might not be women cyclists commenting on this blog because they are busy taking the kids to school before going to work – there are lots of them right now cycling with their kids past my window probably because the bit of Oxford I live in has fantastic cycle tracks leading to the local primary schools allowing everyone to cycle unthreatened by cars. There we are, an argument for the importance of infrastructure.
        We do have an active women’s cycle group in Oxford, there are others in other places, I read about them in Sustrans literature and in CTC literature. The Sustrans schemes such as Bike It and Bicycle Belles have brought women back to cycling as did the CTC scheme of the past called Five Miles to Fabulous. I hated the latter at the time but it was pretty successful in that it addressed female concerns around not being able to cycle far and looking stupid on a bike because of being unattractive for various reasons.
        Women are naturally more cautious, not all, and its a sterotype that can be shot down but doing so just avoids thinking about what that might mean. So cycle tracks will probably attract women back to cycling but then when they want to cycle a bit further, they enounter cars and it doesn’t take many incidents to put a person off. I was once chased down a road by a white van driver who was furious at me for taking up a correct right turn position coming out of a side road. He tried to run me down because I had ‘got in his way’. I was pretty scared and actually I usually take side road routes if I can and it takes a lot to get me on an A road.
        I think we need approaches on many fronts and I daresay you are doing a good job Dave of putting forward the arguments you are pursueing and being able to access change level organisations. This is a stressed little island where population pressures show themselves on the roads and people behave badly sometimes because of that. I remain optimistic that attitudes are changing because I do find that drivers also appear to give cyclists room. Maybe geography is another consideration since my view is probably influenced by living somewhere where there is a high rate of cycling evidenced by numbers of cyclists on the roads and the endless, dreary, repetitive motorist/cyclists arguments that appear in the local paper week after week. Ah well, each to his own.

    • Don Says:

      I wish I hadn’t left it so long to re-visit this article. While Ann seems to have had trouble unsubscribing from the comments, my subscription seems to have gone awry! Probably my error..

      I felt compelled to respond because I think Ann has completely mis-understood my comments, stereotyping me in the process. I do not suggest for one moment that cyclists do not belong on rural roads. Nor did I describe Holly as ‘robust’ or ‘normal’. I merely gave my opinion that she sounded a fairly well balanced individual with ‘normal’ concerns.

      My fascination with Holly’s comment about riding on rural roads had nothing to do with my occupation, but with my experiences as a cyclist (and driver). I had never considered this ‘benevolent anti-cycling’ attitude before and I am interested that it could be so widespread. I have already stated that when driving on rural roads I adjust my own driving style accordingly. I am neither surpised nor upset (just the opposite in fact) to meet cyclists on such roads. It is a pity that a significant minority of motorists do not act in the same manner.

      However, I have to empathise with Holly when it comes to my own personal experiences of cycling. I am not a particularly risk averse person – I can’t afford to be in my job – but I simply find most rural roads too stressful to enjoy riding on for any distance. I used to do a lot of road riding and I’m not a timid cyclist, but now the ‘spark’ has gone. Perhaps its an age thing, or the fact that I am now a parent. I am annoyed with myself for feeling this way, but I’m more angry at the road designs and driving standards that have forced me off certain roads.

      I would never use my occupation to ‘bolster’ my opinions and I think this accusation is grossly unfair. I am merely trying to point out that – as a fairly fit individual in a somewhat risky (at times) job – I still get scared when cycling on the roads. I cannot blame Holly for feeling the same way. I would hope that, as a qualified cycling instructor, Ann would understand that.

      Thanks again Dr. Horton for a superbly researched and well reasoned series of articles.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Thanks Don

        I think (and I myself suffer from it big-time!) there’s a real schizophrenia within UK (and more widely) cycling advocacy.

        On the one hand, we love cycling, and we often feel evangelical about it.

        On the other hand, I think it’d be a very, very unusual cyclist (I’m not sure whether I’ve ever met one – but maybe there are track cyclists, mountain bikers or leisure cyclists who never ride on or even think about the roads?) who doesn’t have serious concerns and reservations about the cycling environment.

        If we evangelise about cycling without recognising people’s anxieties we are naive. I think that naive advocacy of cycling doesn’t work. I also think it’s dishonest.

        If we allow our concerns and reservations about cycling conditions to prevent our cycling advocacy we are defeated. Defeatism is no way to a cycling future. We cannot afford politically to be quiet.

        Therefore I think we have no choice but to ‘own up’ to cycling’s problems, and figure out how best to deal with them, whilst being resolute in the undoubted wisdom of a cycling future.

        I absolutely empathise with you – I do not consider myself timid. I ride all the time. I love cycling. But I am sometimes uncomfortable and occasionally feel insecure whilst cycling. And that is just me – if I’m riding with my children, and/or I’m thinking of people who’ve not ridden much riding, that sense of discomfort and those worries about feeling insecure magnify. And cycling promotion is not about me, it’s about those other people!

        Best wishes

  15. SirVelo Says:

    I’m not sure what the above is all about, but I will leave it there. Suffice to say, that I think the vast majority of readers of this blog will have considered Dave to be one of the most equitable and equable of all bloggers.

    However, I do have an issue with Holly’s stated problem of encountering cyclists on rural roads. Although she acknowledges that cyclists have a perfect right to the road she implies that she feels they should not really be on these roads, because they cause her, qua motorist, “problems”. I struggle to understand this POV. I mean, just how difficult is it to execute a perfectly safe passing manoeuvre on a cyclist. I drive and I ride. When I am driving, when I note a cyclist ahead of me, I prepare to slow down; I scan the road ahead and decide whether there is sufficient space for me to pass while leaving a good 1.5m of space,and without the possibility of meeting an oncoming vehicle simultaneously. If the manoeuvre cannot safely be accomplished, I reduce my speed to that of the cyclist, and wait approx 5-10m behind them until I am confident that I can overtake safely.

    Now, in all seriousness, what is there in that that causes the Hollys of this world such angst? If Holly really does not feel confident in this, one has to ask whether she is really competent to be on the roads at all; and I mean as a motorist, not just as a cyclist.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks SirVelo.

      I don’t disagree with you, BUT I’d just like to record that there are quite a few rural roads on which I regularly ride (although I of course try to avoid them) where – as a cyclist – *I* feel a bit uncomfortable, because I recognise that my presence causes difficulties (and stress) for motorists. At one level, of course, that’s just ‘tough’ for them; but at another level, it’s me – on my bike – who’s the vulnerable party; I’d rather not have stressed motorists behind me.

      So my discomfort is caused mainly by my sense that motorists around me might try to negotiate my presence in hazardous ways. These roads typically have poor sight lines (well, they are country lanes! – if ones which carry a lot of traffic, especially at peak times), and – correspondingly – often solid white lines down their centres (to prevent motorists overtaking – sometimes I take primary position, to prevent them overtaking me; sometimes not – I feel I have a pretty good ‘sixth sense’, and can judge impatient motorists who are best let past), and most important – their speed limits are too high, so that even those drivers who would prefer not to overtake me/us (for I’m often riding in a group) feel pressured to do so by the drivers behind them.

      You drive in cycle-friendly ways, perhaps partly because you are a cyclist. Most cyclists are drivers, and I’d therefore tend to rust their driving. But most drivers are not cyclists, so I’d tend not to trust theirs; not because their malicious, but simply because they can’t so easily take/understand our perspective.

      Basically, I think there’s a bit more going on here than your response allows, no?

      Also, I’d say there are an awful lot of reluctant drivers out there; people who would much rather not drive, but feel unable to organise their lives in any other way. Many of these drivers are anxious.

      All the best


  16. Gareth Rees Says:

    Another thought-provoking portrait. Thank you for posting this series, which continues to be fascinating.

    Holly’s comments about cyclists on rural roads are depressing. If it’s “not good” for cyclists to use rural roads, then how are we supposed to get from one place to another?

    Motorists have a high-quality high-speed network of motorways and trunk roads from which cyclists are banned by law or severely discouraged by the volume and speed of traffic. It’s surely not too much to ask for us to use the remaining parts of the rural road network (which are often indirect, hilly, poorly maintained, and not gritted in winter).

    I have spent so much time fiddling with routes on Google Maps (and in the days before online mapping, covering the floor with paper maps) just in order to plan routes that stay out of the way of motorised traffic as much as possible. But whatever one does as a cyclist to be courteous to other road users, it’s never enough.

    I guess most people aren’t interested in answering the question, “how are cyclists supposed to get from one place to another?” It’s not their problem, after all.

    • SirVelo Says:

      Gareth, it really depends on what type of rural road is being referred to; it may be that Holly’s idea of a rural road is an ‘A’ road, where the national speed limit applies. I get the impression that Holly is not one to go “off piste” as it were and venture down minor roads where the satnav does not tell her to. However that may be, I think you and I would agree that ‘A’ roads are not particularly pleasant roads on which to cycle, and ones we would habitually avoid. However, I think, with a little ingenuity, one can still find roads which, outside of peak hours, have relatively little motor traffic and are accessible to most cyclists.

      Like you, I use maps to devise routes which will be as free from traffic as possible; although unlike you I still prefer to use the laminated OS Landranger maps as one gets an idea of contours, gradients, potential for scenic interest, and width of road which is not possible from Google maps.

      I’m afraid that if Holly, and people like her, still take exception to my being on these roads then it’s tough! I will continue to exercise (in all senses) my right to be there, and will not ride in the gutter in abject apology for my existence.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Thanks Gareth and John

        Holly began by referring to one specific road upon which she drives reasonably regularly; it’s the kind of road which we all probably know well – linking the city with the rural commuter belt. A generation ago, it would have been little more than what we’d call ‘a lane’ (well, this particular road is two lanes, but it’s not a B road), but with the explosion in car use (as well as many drivers’ attempts to avoid rush-hour congestion on bigger roads by using such ‘lanes’) and the ease of ‘living in the country’ which unthinking car use has created, it’s now a busy road at peak times (outside of peak times it retains some of its lane-like qualities).

        In the name of both work and leisure, I rode on this road a lot. In the middle of the day, it was actually quite pleasant to ride, but before 9:30 in the morning and after 3 o’clock in the afternoon (until early evening) it’s a different story.

        The main problem with it and roads like it, I think, is that drivers have come to expect to treat what is in effect an ‘overblown’ lane as, almost, a motorway. People are in a hurry, and people expect to be able to drive as fast as they want (I’m not sure what the speed limit is (I’ll check, when I’m next in the area – I just tried to find out on-line, but couldn’t), but whatever it is, it’s far too high – roads such as these should be subject to the kind of more civilised speed limit which people are increasingly demanding within the city). And at peak times when there’s lots of traffic, the implicit rule seems to be – mainly through tacit coercion (“come on, we’re all in a hurry …”), sometimes through overt bullying – that cars travel closer to the speed of the fastest car rather than to the speed of the slowest.

        In this kind of environment the person on a bicycle is, of course, likely to be experienced by your average cycling-illiterate motorist as a source of stress, an irritant, an unwelcome hindrance.

        There must be huge suppressed demand for cycling because of ‘commuter’ roads such as these. At key times each day, they become virtually monopolised by motorised traffic, so that anyone who dares to venture onto them by bike can feel themselves to be – and is often made to feel – an impostor. How many people who live in outlying villages would start cycling to work in the nearby town or city if these roads were civilised? At the moment, they’re race tracks. They’re brutal. They brutalise drivers. And they practically eradicate cycling.

        The current focus on the city is good, but we’ve got to remember to look more widely too. It’s not just the city. Driving is a practice which has developed too strong a sense of entitlement, wherever it is practised.

        Holly went on from talking about her discomfort with cyclists along this particular road, to talk about driving on rural roads in general. She generalised out from her discomforting experience of dealing with cyclists along this one road, as it were ‘tarring all cyclists on all roads with the same (we might say ‘prejudiced’, we might say ‘anti-cyclist’, we might say ‘understandable’) brush’.

        Like both of you, I will continue to use roads which I am entitled to use. Sometimes I feel nervous using such roads. I always ride on roads such as these with utmost vigilance. But it is outrageous that I/we must transform ourselves into (highly vulnerable) mobile traffic calming devices in order to protect ourselves riding along such roads; and it is unsurprising that we are in such a tiny minority, in being prepared to tolerate such conditions.

        Is it any wonder that we become campaigners?!

        Thanks for your contributions, much appreciated.

        Very best wishes


  17. Anna Says:

    Blimey, there’s nothing like a blog to encourage the cycling fraternity to descend into the kind of self distruct mode that distracts from real campaigning and addressing the problems all cyclists face out there. Let’s cool it guys, I do not think I have accused anyone of anything. I expressed my opinions just like everyone else. I do think it is interesting that the Holly piece has raised so many comments and such disagreement. I wonder (cos that’s what I like to do, and not with any ulterior motive) why.
    For the record, I also have moments of terror on the road, I continue to cycle because I enjoy it and sometimes because I have to. I take routes that feel safe to me and am happy to declare that I am quite cowardly enough to avoid routes that are overly congested. I will walk across a busy junction with my bike – no problem. I do not think I have stereotyped anyone, when I respond to someone’s comment, I usually go back and read that comment and sometimes I use the same phrases that they have in order to be accurate and so as to NOT misquote.
    Let’s just focus on cycling. I am sure that the interview with Holly filled many pages and that we were given a selection of material to illustrate how one particular person who doesn’t cycle much, if at all, reacts to cyclists on the road.
    There is quite a paradox in being a cyclist – on the one hand bikes encourage and allow us to be very individualist, we can go where and when we want on a steed that offers few limits. The limits come from sharing the road with nasty metal machines that can kill and maim, who wouldn’t be frighened? And sometimes fear brings anger, let’s turn the anger to good use and direct it towards useful outcomes, not each other. 🙂

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Ann, great stuff. And yes, I want this blog to encourage thought, to provoke discussion, but above all to inspire action. If on the whole it’s providing people with ammunition that “it’s all a waste of time; we’ll never change anything” then I’ll stop. There’s a world out there needs changing and we’re the people to change it. It’s good to be angry, there’s a lot to be angry about! But one of the wonderful things about cycling is it’s not remote, abstract, distant – there’s a street outside your window which can be changed, a bike in your backyard which can be ridden, and politicians in your town hall who are there to hear your views!

  18. Cycling Struggles – a summary | Thinking About Cycling Says:

    […] the abstract Holly (Cycling Struggles, 4) sees cycling as a good thing, but in practice she considers it much too dangerous and won’t ride […]

  19. goetzendaemmerung Says:

    I cycle a lot on rural roads in Germany, where I live now, and I have boundless admiration for how considerately drivers here manage to interact with cyclists.

    But I also feel a empathy (to a degree) with drivers like Holly who feel a bit uncomfortable in the presence of cyclists. I think that drivers tend to blame cyclists for the aggressive way other drivers sometimes treat them when they drive at “cyclist speed” until it is safe to overtake. Once a motorist sees a cyclist, slows and starts scanning the road for a safe place to overtake, other traffic can start to catch up from behind, and the driver can feel trapped between the cyclist and following traffic, and pressured: the cyclist wants the driver to slow down and overtake safely, following drivers may want the driver to speed up and overtake dangerously (and express that by tailgating.)

    At weekends I share the roads with motorcyclists who are drawn to the very things that also entice me onto particular roads: hills, bends, scenery. So cars or milk lorries trying to overtake me may also have motorcyclists to contend with. Among other things …

    A few months ago, I was cycling along a fairly busy rural road, I was taking a Sunday morning shortcut on a road I wouldn’t normally use, and I was slightly nervous. A car overtook me without letting an oncoming car pass first, but that was OK, there was space for all three of us, and nobody was going too fast. A buzzard then flew out of a tree on my right, swooped down low over the road and (almost?) landed on the bonnet of the oncoming car, flapping its wings so that they were practically touching the car windscreen as it tried to balance, and then dropping down into the long grass on the far verge..

    • Dave Horton Says:

      That’s a really good point, goetzendaemmerung, and one consistent with research (I recall research for a report by the Transport Research Laboratory a few years ago now, examining drivers’ attitudes to cyclists, which found that drivers worry about holding other drivers up, and so become more likely to overtake (including overtaking badly) a cyclist when they’re approached by other drivers from behind).

      Slightly incidentally, amongst the worst overtaking I experience here in the UK is when drivers of cars following immediately behind a car which is overtaking you – the cyclist – simply (mindlessly?) follow the first car, using the space it’s creating as an opportunity to follow suit, but without examining whether the situation has changed since the first driver made the decision to overtake. Of course, more than likely, it has! And there are now vehicles approaching in the other direction. The frequent result is the driver realises too late that they’ve made a mistake, and either comes back in on you, the cyclist, and/or forces the driver approaching in the opposite direction to hit their brakes, hard! I’ve not seen any research on this, but my sense is that it’s a growing (but probably unreported, except when it ends terribly) problem (perhaps as tail-gating has increased, the roads have become more busy, everyday life more harried, etc).

      Your buzzard story illustrates how we so typically travel with minimal margins for error. I’ve cycled in Germany, and it sounds like you’d agree with me that the typical margins for error are greater there than they are here. We rely on those margins to prevent ‘an incident’ being ‘a tragedy’ or ‘a crime’; but sometimes perhaps all road users are a little too cavalier towards them (personally I find some motorcyclists on our local roads ridiculously – I want to say ‘criminally’ – cavalier to them).

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and analyses; they’re great to have.
      Best wishes

  20. Anna Says:

    The situation you describe regarding driver behaviour and overtaking cyclists is one that is familiar to me and it does seem to be getting worse as roads get busier. Regarding the latter, it’s recently come to my attention that the latest satnavs monitor traffic conditions and reroute drivers down local roads in order to avoid jams. My local roads definitely feature streams of cars now in a way that never happened before and it makes rural cycling much less of a pleasure. I wish I could move oop north to those empty roads you photograph. It seems like an example of a sadly skewed society that we would rather allow all roads to become filled with cars rather than spend money on promoting and supporting other forms of transport.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Maybe it comes down to how densely an area is developed, and levels of car use, but it feels that some parts of the country are perhaps better than others at routing motorised vehicles onto the bigger roads, and ‘leaving’ the back lanes (where they exist) for light local traffic, cyclists and horse riders. But yes, I guess sat nav is subverting such attempts. We’re very lucky, up here, to have generally quiet roads, but it still pays to pick your time and route if you’re able. (I have a real intolerance of speeding motorcycles, which can make finding good routes – particularly on weekends at this time of year – difficult; and if I’m doing a longer ride on a weekday there are sections of my route which I’ll aim to complete outside of the morning and afternoon ‘rush hours’.)

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