lundi 22 juin 2015

Taking the high road

from the they-don't-have-hills-do-they? department

Everyone who is sincere about encouraging greater use of the bicycle and less use of the private motor vehicle in the urban environment is naturally interested in the experience in the two countries where this tendency is most advanced: the Netherlands and Denmark. But the trend to copy those countries' cycle infrastructure with seemingly minimal consideration about whether this is appropriate for its new locality is highly questionable.

Here in Nantes such separatist infrastructure is proliferating, with, in some cases, bans for cyclists who use the (superior) road alongside, so I do question it. A good example of this regrettable tendency is the two-way cycle track that has been laid parallel to the D75 which runs from the village of Indre, at sea-level on the Loire, to Orvault, ten kilometres north. Orvault bourg is fifty metres above sea-level. To get there, you climb out of the Loire valley, and up onto the lip of the Massif Armorican. This is considered a mountain range by the geologists, though it's a low one.

It's not quite true to say they don't have any hills at all in Holland or Denmark, but basically they don't. In the Netherlands, according to Wikipedia, half of the country is within one metre of elevation above sea level, and another quarter below. Now ask any cyclist: "Do hills make a difference?" Duh!

I rode the D75 last Saturday, and on its rather abrupt climbs and descents reflected just how inappropriate a narrow cycle lane is for such circumstances. Of course the D75 itself is beautifully engineered and smooth, as is normal in France, but the separated cycle lane is narrow, and there is no separate provision for pedestrians who are, admittedly, few. One is obliged to stop (stop line + stop sign) at even the most minor crossings (a hotel entrance, a farm road etc). Entries and exits to it from the major roundabouts are awkwardly angled. I don't have a speedo on the bike, but I'd guess I'd usually go about 45 km/h on the descents. Such a speed is safe enough on a road designed for motor traffic, but the reduced sight lines on the cycle path, and the loss of priority at side roads would make such speeds folly on the cycle path.

On city streets, I guess, I am mostly resigned to playing my part in the charade of motor traffic reduction. If you narrow the carriageway, motorists will drive more slowly, which is safer for everybody, and the so-called "cycle infrastructure" which serves as cover for this reduction in available space for driving is, I suppose, potentially progressive. I've scored a pair of 2-inch wide Schwalbe Kojak tyres for bouncing around the assorted kerbs, tiles, cobbles, and lumps and bumps that Nantes' mayor seems to think we cyclists will enjoy, and I'll certainly be hopping off the cycle path and onto the carriageway as I see fit.

I plan to continue to use the carriageway if I desire brisk progress though, and out in the countryside I'm damned if I'll be chased off France's excellent departmental road network: being able to ride on it is why I moved here.

Happily my fellow lycra-clad compatriots agree: there were quite a few of us roadies still using the road, and quite a few Sunday riders on their mountain bikes on the path (with assorted joggers and dogwalkers). That, it seems to me, is as it should be, though I shall continue to investigate how to reverse the cycling bans on the D75, D39 and D107. A clear statement by the mayor that "of course the paths are for the new cyclists," and "naturally we have no desire to impinge upon the traditional rights of existing cyclists," would be useful (and they can take those "No cycling" signs down while they're at it).

In an attempt to better understand the kind of cyclist who thinks separatist infrastructure would be a good idea, I'm following a few exemplars of the type on Twitter, and trying to understand their point of view. One wears a helmetcam as he commutes on busy A-roads around Glasgow (@magnatom); another is a cycling mother who wants to ride on the road with her four year old in Hackney (@bikesandbabies); and a third a Tyneside cycle campaigner who has a German cultural perspective (@katsdekker).

All three share a touching faith in "better cycling infrastructure." I don't disagree with this for major roads (where there are angled slip roads), but if you were to ask me to increase cycling levels as a policy objective, I'd suggest fewer cars, more courteously driven, and better training for cyclists, not some fantasy parallel reality imagined into being by the most anxious cyclists out there. Cycle training is easy for policymakers to pay for. What is not readily legislated for, but what is really required, is greater respect and courtesy from drivers towards cyclists. Strict liability laws would help. So when Kats Dekker suggested on her blog that:
We should be listening to the people who we want to see cycling in the (near) future i.e. the 97%, and make them the subject of our city cycling research – through their eyes can we see the “real” world. Due to circumstances beyond their control, the current cyclist had to turn a blind eye. The current cyclist is desensitised – not by making a conscious decision.
In other words, ignore the 3% of people who actually do cycle when formulating cycle policy, I did feel impelled to respond:
It is true that a perception of danger is the main reason that non-cyclists cite for not cycling. But people say many things. Yer Conservative voter was famously reticent with the pollsters in the run-up to the recent general election for example. But the underlying problem is that it is not normal to cycle. Most people consider themselves to be normal, and would like to drive a car they've seen advertised on the telly.

As for the minority who do cycle turning "a blind eye" to danger: I doubt that this is true, or they wouldn't be cyclists for very long. Existing cyclists have learned to take their place in the traffic. Yes, road conditions can be demanding, and we can all imagine better. Training helps. "See that cycle lane on the left? Ignore it as you approach the junction!" There: just cut your actual risk of dying on your bike by more than 50%.

Note: if a business is trying to grow, it first tries harder to satisfy its existing customers...

Ms. Dekker has not to date posted the comment, so it is published here on the usual premise that it is rejected comments that are the most interesting and valuable. I note the one (anodyne) comment which was posted under that article seems to have disappeared. This lack of desire to discuss her ideas (which resembles Hembrow's) would be sufficient explanation for her being so mistaken in her views.

Update 0543h, 4 July 2015. The segregationist view is often unquestioningly promulgated in the mainstream press. In an article on the Guardian discussing recent attacks on cyclists, this line gave me pause:
"even as cities such as London and Bristol are, finally, building segregated bike lanes, proven to be the best way to prevent such deaths, the tone of the debate around cycling has arguably become more polarised and poisonous than ever.
 I composed a comment responding to this, but as it appears on the second of ten pages comprising 4880 comments, I suspect its readership there may be minimal. Anyway, here it is again:

"building segregated bike lanes [is] proven to be the best way to prevent such deaths"
Reference required? It is rather a controversial matter. It is true that the countries where extensive segregation of cyclists has long been practised (Denmark, Netherlands) have markedly better safety records than their neighbours. They are no paradise though: there are still 200 cyclist deaths a year in the Netherlands, for example.
But their segregated networks have been obtained at a certain price: the exclusion of cyclists from many parts of the road network (and its superior surfaces and direct travel lines), and slow and complicated junctions.
A Canadian study has showed higher accident rates for cyclists who habitually use footpaths rather than the carriageway. (Most collisions happen at junctions. Footpath (and cycle lane) users generally find themselves at a positional disadvantage with respect to the traffic flow just when they most need to be correctly positioned.)
A pre-eminent Dutch road safety expert has just published a paper (1.7MB pdf) admitting that, in part, his country's superior cycling safety record is because their cyclists ride more slowly. They have to, on often tight cycle paths. Waits at complicated junctions can be long too.
Building cycle paths does reduce the space available for other modes. Such paths are the cowardly choice of the policymaker too timid to confront head-on the reality that the private motor vehicle is a dysfunctional form of urban transport, but nevertheless would, understandably, appreciate less noise, pollution, danger and fewer parking spaces in their town centre.
It has little to do with increased road safety for cyclists though: in fact, life for the cyclist may well be more difficult after they have been implemented, though if this also means fewer motor vehicles in town, this may be nicer for everyone.

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