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.