Wednesday, 28 October 2015

In which UK cycling is lacking the Pit of Success

There is in programming a concept called the Pit of Success.

Success should not be a mountain summit that you work towards, but rather a pit that you can fall into. Failure should not be a pit that you accidentally fall into, but hidden behind barriers that you have to deliberately circumvent.

The author of the article I linked to describes it like this:
a well-designed system makes it easy to do the right things and annoying (but not impossible) to do the wrong things

This sounds intuitively obvious, but it can be difficult for the designers of any system to achieve. It is easy to leave pits of failure all over the place: simply don't consider any user different to yourself, who knows less than you, or who might make a mistake, and bam! There they are, lurking.

Some examples in transport

Transport for London have already applied this principle to a lot of their transport infrastructure.

Take modern tube stations. It is very easy to leave your train and head straight for the surface with everyone else, and very difficult to find a passage which will take you against the flow. The pit of success: easy to do the right thing, annoying (but not impossible) to do the wrong thing.

Or take Oyster cards: touch in when you arrive, touch out when you leave. You always have a valid ticket for the journey you are making. Not paying for the correct journey involves deliberately circumventing the system, which is annoying, though not impossible.
(For comparison, the ticketing system for mainline trains is a Pit of Failure: it is frequently more difficult to buy the correct ticket than to evade the fare entirely. Achieving success is an uphill struggle.)

Why is this relevant to cycling?

A lot of poor cycling infrastructure is not poor because of inherent failures. (Although a lot is.)

Inherent failures are simple to explain to people: I can't cycle through lampposts. I can't cycle up stairs. My handlebars won't fit through that narrow gap. But simply fixing these obvious mistakes is not enough.

A lot of cycling infrastructure is poor because it does not make it easy to do the right things or annoying to do the wrong things.

The right thing is cycling safely and legally; the wrong thing is breaking the law or endangering yourself or others.

Cycling is easy when the infrastructure makes it:

  • physically easy
    • easy to maintain a continuous speed, not lots of starting and stopping
    • no unnecessary hills
    • no bumps and jolts
  • mentally easy
    • obvious what behaviour is expected at every point
    • obvious which direction the route goes next
    • no conflict with motor vehicles
    • no conflict with pedestrians
  • convenient
    • possible to get to workplaces, schools, shops, and other destinations
    • no large detours

Almost every route I've tried in London - including NCN4 - is not actually impossible to do on a bike. But it is annoying, and certainly not easy.

It is easy to get lost. It is easy to suddenly find yourself on a fast, multi-lane road with no visible exit. It is easy to take short-cuts across the pavement. It is easy to jump red lights. It is easy to filter up the left-hand side of a lorry into the driver's blind spot.
It is difficult to maintain a steady speed. It is difficult to find a smooth route. It is difficult to know where to position yourself in the road. It is difficult to travel directly from start to destination.

These should be the other way around.

And in The Netherlands, they are. Why not here?

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

In which there are not just 2 kinds of cyclist

Intimidated or lost

How travelling in London normally works

You wend slowly through your home area until you reach the main road / bus / tube, which you can then take until you reach your destination area, at which point a little further wiggling is required.

How cycling works

When travelling by bike, however, you instead have 2 options:

1) Follow the route you would take if you were in a car. This will be direct and well-signposted. It will also be one of the most unpleasant experiences of your day.

2) Attempt to follow a parallel route on quiet back streets. This will be almost double the distance, have no useful signposts, and require stopping every couple of minutes (for junctions, pinch points, checking a map, squeezing through barriers, retracing your steps...). You will definitely be late.


Because in this country, cyclists must fall into two categories: "confident" and "timid". And infrastructure is designed accordingly.

Here's a breakdown of the usual caricatures:

confident timid
experienced inexperienced
male female
young old
adult with children / child
in a rush time to spare
likes traffic hates traffic
wants a direct route  doesn't mind an indirect route
Enthusiast cycles for leisure

London has, so far, explicitly designed for these two groups, with "Superhighways" for the confident, and "Quietways" for the timid.

Reading down each list, you form clear mental pictures: the young man in his Lycra, on his fast bike, pedalling furiously past all the cars on his way to work. The older woman on her bike, with her grandchild pedalling along next to her, off down the canal towpath for a bit of fresh air.

Unfortunately, there are some equally compelling pictures missing entirely:

The teenage girl, flying along because she's late for school again, too busy thinking about her unfinished homework to think about lorries.
The man dropping off his son at nursery who has a meeting to get to straight after that.
The woman who has just started a new job, with an unfamiliar commute, and needs to arrive on time but not stressed from dealing with traffic.
The grandfather nipping down to the shops on the high street quickly before his family arrives for lunch.

Us, going about our normal lives.

There are not two categories of cyclists, there are hundreds and thousands. And since we can't build one route for each, we'd better build one for everyone instead.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

In which I accidentally invent Vehicular Cycling

When I first started cycling in London, I had a head filled with worries about how dangerous it was, ears to hear motors revving behind me, and eyes to see something large creeping up in my peripheral vision. I was nervous.
So I did the obvious thing: I considerately cycled as close to the side of the road as possible.

Having heard throughout my life drivers complain about cyclists "hogging the road", I was determined to give them as much space to overtake me as possible. And as I driver, I would much rather be able to give anyone not wearing a giant metal exoskeleton a really wide berth (how horrible would it be to injure someone?), which is helped by there being more road for me to move over in.

It's pretty obvious logic: here is the road. I'm a metre wide. If I only leave a tiny gap on my left, the car can pass a metre or two away from me. If I cycled further out in the road, there would be a smaller gap, and the driver would have to pass more closely. Also if I'm next to the pavement I can throw myself to safety in an emergency. It was a brilliant idea.

Except... I noticed that no matter how close I wobbled to the wing mirrors of the parked cars, I would still have cars roaring past inches away from me.
But if I rode a couple of feet away from the side, I usually got a couple of feet of clearance.
And if I rode a metre or more away from the side, I usually got a metre or so's clearance.

Ding - the lightbulb came on. Drivers were looking at the gap between me and the parked cars, and thinking - probably not explicitly - 'That's how big a gap there should be next to a bike. She's happy a foot away from the parked cars, so she will be happy a foot away from moving cars'.

It can't have occurred to them that I was not happy a foot away from parked cars, but I was even less happy a foot away from moving cars, and that was why I was over there, trying to scrunch down small.
Or at least, I have to hope it didn't occur to them, because otherwise London has a much larger number of nasty people than I like to think.

It took me a few months to figure this out. It's not the kind of behaviour anyone picking up a bike for the first time will naturally adopt.
Having now read a lot more about cycling in the last couple of years, I've found out that this behaviour is part of a suite of techniques called "Vehicular Cycling" - you pretend you are driving something as big as a car, position yourself in the road accordingly, and hope that everyone else agrees to join in your pretence.
They usually do, but it requires nerves of steel on your part, because it only takes one driver who doesn't to put you in hospital, and you never know who that one driver will be.

That's not really something I want to spend the rest of my life doing. Bring on the alternative.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

In which I encounter The Notional Cycle Network

From some of my relatives, I had heard about Sustrans' wonderful National Cycle Network, which had been the scene of many lovely touring holidays.

From some of the blogs I read, I had heard about Sustrans' problematic Notional Cycle Network, which was muddy, or circuitous, or illegal to cycle on, or physically impossible to access.

So I decided to see for myself. I had a friend living in Putney, and had been wanting to visit Hampton Court for a while. Enter National Cycle Network Route 4, which runs between those two points.

Here is a summary of the environments which I encountered, then some thoughts.
  • Thames River Path
    • Footpath
    • A bit muddy
    • Full of pedestrians
  • Footpath between sports field and Wetlands Centre
    • Footpath
    • Not wide enough to pass kids on bikes coming the other way without seriously slowing down
    • Also full of pedestrians
  • Queen Elizabeth Walk
    • Am I meant to be on the road here? Or the pavement? Is pavement cycling illegal here? The road is nose-to-tail with cars. Overtaking on the other side of the road it is. My more nervous friend sticks on the pavement. Ah, now I'm at a busy junction and the route goes left on the pavement. Quick, get through the line of cars.
  • Rocks Lane
    • Footpath
    • Cycle path separated from pavement by a line of trees. Pedestrians on both though.
    • Incredibly bumpy because of tree roots
  • Ranelaugh Avenue
    • How do I get there? Cross as a pedestrian?
  • Barnes
    • 'Quiet' back streets
    • Parked cars on both sides of the road, making it 1 lane wide
    • Drivers do not slow down when they see you - several tonnes of metal being aimed straight at me was not a pleasant experience any of the several times it happened. I would not let a child on those roads.
  • Barnes Green
    • Paved footpath
    • Dismount for this bridge? Remount now we've crossed? Or is this a pavement? Oh, here's a sticker on a lamppost. That probably means it's ok to cycle.
  • Vine Road
    • Reasonably quiet road
    • Do I go down Scarth Road or Vine Road? Scarth Road looks quieter. Oh, a 'Cyclists dismount' sign at the end. Walk the bike across to Vine Road.
  • Upper Richmond Road junction
    • Traffic lights
    • Busy, quite a lot of cars
    • Uphill start with drivers waiting
  • Priory Lane
    • Busy
    • Fence directly on my left, no pavement - if someone comes at me, I've nowhere to bail to
    • I don't know if my friend is dead somewhere behind me, but I'm not going to slow down to check, I'm too scared.
    • There seems to be some kind of bidirectional cycle path narrower than a bicycle on the pavement on the other side of the road. I wonder if I'm supposed to be on it. Too late now, can't stop long enough to cross the road. Looking at it afterwards on StreetView, no, there was no way of getting to it without a) knowing it was there already and b) dismounting and walking to it.
  • Roehampton Gate (road)
    • Quiet
  • Roehampton Gate
    • Medium-busy roundabout
    • What are all these cars doing in a park?
    • My friend (who had survived, as it turns out) can't handle roundabouts with traffic, and has to dismount. There is no way to walk to where he needs to be to carry on, though.
  • Sawyer's Hill
    • Congested road
    • Full of racing cyclists
    • Also full of cars
    • We are going too slowly for everyone, cyclists and drivers, in a park with a 20mph speed limit.
    • We bail onto other park roads as soon as possible.
  • Richmond Park
    • Car-free paved roads
    • Difficult signage
    • We miss the signs for the NCN4 repeatedly, and instead have a pleasant cycle on the mostly car-free tarmac roads of Richmond Park. Then give up for the day.

In conclusion

I have no idea who the target user for this mess was supposed to be. You need a mountain bike to deal with the Thames Path and the tree roots, and a racing bike to keep up with the traffic even in Richmond Park. You need to be able to accelerate to 20mph uphill, be willing to be driven at head first, and know when to take the lane and when to dive out of the way. You also needed to be willing to cycle at 5mph on pavements behind pedestrians.

As a utility route, it is utterly useless. It does not provide a safe, direct, pleasant route from any A to any B.
As a leisure route, it is worse. What do I want from a leisurely Saturday afternoon cycle? To travel slowly side-by-side with a friend, chatting away, paying little attention to my surroundings.
We can make all the excuses for the National Cycle Network that we like, but in the end, at no point whilst on the NCN did we manage that. On foot, I can manage it just between my house and the shops - I am not requiring anything outrageous!

NCN Route 4, Section 2 is not suitable for:
  • people on city bikes
  • people on road bikes
  • people who don't know how to deal with traffic
  • people who just don't like traffic
  • people who are not physically fit
  • people who don't like stop-starting
  • people who can't read maps
  • people who like to go fast
  • people who like to go slow
I think that covers 100% of the population of Britain.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

In which I do not do maintainance

Cycling as sport is so ingrained in the UK that the idea you might own a bike solely as a means of transport is inconceivable to many. If you do want to use a bike to - controversial! - get from one place to another, then you must be an Enthusiast.

I myself very much enjoy riding a bike, especially downhill. And I am pretty enthusiastic about enabling everyone to enjoy a cheap, fast, healthy, non-polluting mode of transport. I reckon more cycling would solve a lot of problems.

But that doesn't mean that I care very much about bikes, or maintaining them. I will listen with great interest as someone explains to me how a gearing system works, but I will also read with great interest about the resignalling of the London Underground District and Circle lines. That doesn't mean I want to fix it myself!

Multiple well-meaning employees at local bike businesses told me not to get a Dutch bike because the completely enclosed gearing system is harder to maintain. I wouldn't be able fix it myself when it broke. Like a car - or a pair of leather shoes - I'd have to take it to an expert to patch up for me. Did they not want me to pay them money in exchange for goods and/or services? Had I misunderstood what a business was?

One year on, my chain has never fallen off. I have never got oil on my long skirts, coats or trousers. The gears have never got stuck. I've never had to clean dirt out, or put oil in. At some point soon, I will pay for an annual service. And it will have been worth it, to have a means of transport that requires me only to be Enthusiastic enough to sit on it and pedal.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

In which bikes are like shoes

"You know, most of my errands aren't far away, and lots of my friends live nearby. Maybe I should walk to them instead of catching the bus everywhere. I'll need something better than these slippers, though."

"Have you tried these football boots? Good grip on muddy ground."

"Um... that's not really relevant? There are pavements."

"How about these ice-skates? Sharp blade, they go very fast."

"That's really not... hey, here are some leather shoes. Smart, waterproof - very practical. I'll have these."

"But those aren't any good for sports!"

"... I want to go to the shops. What do sports have to do with anything?"

Replace "football boots" with "mountain bike", "ice skates" with "road racing bike" and "practical shoes" with "granny bike", and you have the surprisingly frequent response to my decision to buy a bicycle. I think the popular "hybrid bike" is the equivalent of trainers - useful in many different scenarios, some people use them for everything, but there's a reason the traditional leather shoes still sell.

It's true that my Dutch granny bike is not very good for forest trails. But previously, I had no bike, so sports-wise, I am in the exact same scenario. Why buy a bike optimised for sports when what you want is to pootle around town? The Dutch bike is easy to get on and off, doesn't have any oily parts, and has lots of places to carry luggage. It is the leather shoes of the bike world.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

A little history

~20 years ago  
My parents teach me to ride a bike

~20-10 years ago    
We ride for leisure as a family, taking occasional trips through the country lanes to the pub in the next village, but mostly loading the bikes into the trailer and using them on holiday in various British forests.
On one occasion as a teenager, I ride to the local town with a friend's family instead of taking the bus. We arrive exhausted and very muddy: getting to and using the canal towpath is twice as far as riding on the busy main road. There is nowhere in town to put our bikes whilst we go in and out of shops.
On a few occasions, before I learn to drive, and if my parents can't ferry me about, I use a bike to get to neighbouring villages. This is probably less than a dozen times in total.

~8 years ago
Looking round a flat in London with some other students, we see the bikes chained to the banister, and the landlady mentions they have a 15 min cycle ride to the university. Since it is a 45 min walk, I decide that this is worth trying.
I have to promise my mother I will never cycle in London without my hi-vis harness and helmet, and she is still not at all happy about this.

~7 years ago
My first cycle ride takes 45 mins. The traffic is horrendous. There are several terrifying junctions, even as they are so busy that the traffic is nearly stationary. The strip of paint marking a narrow cycle lane on one road does nothing to make me feel better about the vehicles whizzing past me.
I gradually find back routes that let me avoid the worst of it, cut my time down to 20 mins, and quite enjoy cycling home after 10pm, when there virtually no cars at all.

I invent the Zen of Cycling: cycling is an activity designed to make you more calm and patient, because if, for a whole year, you stay as angry with people trying to kill you every day as you are when you start out, you will probably give yourself a heart attack. (I keep telling myself this, but sometimes it feels like a choice between yelling at drivers or crying.)

~6 years ago
My bike is stolen. I give up, and walk to uni with my flatmates, who never even tried cycling.

~5 years ago
TfL and Google Maps tell me my new commute is only 45 mins by bike, when it is an hour by crowded Piccadilly Line. I borrow my husband's (seldom used) bike, and set off.
I am glad for flexible working hours when I arrive around noon, stressed and exhausted. The direct route was full of traffic, and trying to follow the wiggling back streets route left me lost multiple times.
I never try again.

~2 years ago
I have a new place of work. TfL and Google Maps tell me it is only 45 mins by bike, and though the train ride isn't bad, I'd like to get more exercise. I borrow my husband's (still seldom used) bike, and set off.
This time it only takes me an hour, because I end up using the main roads most of the way - there's no other way over the Thames. It is stressful and exhausting, because I felt under constant pressure to go faster.
I have never tried again.

~1 year 2 months ago
I am, without question, the person most obsessed with public transport that I know. I have a good working knowledge of train timetables and bus maps, and spend probably too much time on London Reconnections. Through a series of linked articles, I find myself reading The Invisible Visible Man, the stories of a Briton commuting by bike in New York, and it reminds me how much I like riding a bike. I tell my husband I want to try commuting again. He worries I will end up dead.

So I look up the statistics, and find out that very few people are actually killed or seriously injured riding a bike. It's roughly equivalent to the injury rate for pedestrians. It's not the injury rates that are the problem: it's the fact that to cycle on most roads involves playing chicken with fast-moving motor vehicles, and most people don't want to play.
David Hembrow explains that in The Netherlands, people don't have to, and as result, cycling is for everyone, not just the quick and the brave.
I want this. I want this really bad.

~1 year ago
The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is campaigning to bring this about in Great Britain, too. They have their AGM in Brighton, so I decide to go and find out how I can get involved.
I hire a bike from Amsterdammers next to Brighton Station, and discover that bike riding is a lot more relaxing when you have a practical bike instead of a leisure bike. Though only if you stick to traffic-free streets.

1 month later
I went back to Amsterdammers, and got a Dutch bike of my very own.

Last month
Sally Hinchcliff comes up with Build a Better World Bingo. One of the suggestions: write a blog.

These are the campaigns of the Dutch Bike Gazelle. Its five-year mission: to explore my local community, to seek out safe spaces for new life and civilization, to leisurely go where thousands of other people have gone before.

I don't want to boldly go. I just want to be a slightly faster pedestrian.