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.