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Duality of London Cycle-Way Design

There has been concern in the Traditional Cycle Lobby about some pronouncements by the current London Mayoral Administration that Cycle Superhighways are for confident cyclists, and Quietways are for less confident cyclists.

Policy vs Zeitgeist vs Meme

When discussing how harmful / constructive a concept or approach to cycle design is, I find it useful to try and analyse what level the concept is operating on.  This is my understanding:

An adopted concept of planning implementation can take place on several levels. If the concept doesn’t extend beyond the politics of the current Administration, it’s a policy. If the concept is widely accepted by contemporary planning professionals – those who create and implement cycle scheme designs – it’s a zeitgeist.  And if the concept has permeated most of the most vocal cycle-advocate lobbyists and evangelists – the influencers – it’s a meme. Memes create political pressure to make or resist change, and zeitgeists are likely to be implemented in the absence of specific and highly-committed resistance in policy.

All of the above are ideas until they are implemented.

The Policy Idea

The weakest effect is an idea in policy, which hasn’t been implemented significantly, nor accepted as a zeitgest or meme. This is the status of the duality of cycle-way design complained of by some cyclist advocates, which appears to be associated with the current Khan-Norman phase of cycle infrastructure in London.  It is the idea that Quietways are for unconfident cyclists, and Cycle Superhighways are for confident cyclists.

Logically it is hard to see how this could be implemented, since unconfident cyclists would always prefer segregation, whereas the trend in many boroughs has been to remove segregation in many areas away from main roads, and use modal filters as the primary tool.  Surely “confident” cyclists would also prefer many of the several-hundred-metre safe continuous stretches of Cycle Superhighway already available.

TfL and local authority thinking in preferring modal filters to segregation on quiet routes reflects the thinking of the same people who are complaining about the duality of design for “confident” vs “unconfident”. It is just that the design of many Quietways is poor in that many cyclists – even experienced ones – find them stressful and dangerous to navigate in long stretches.

How you remedy this danger is still the subject of heated debate in the cycling community: modal filters, grid-based vs route-based, segregated routes, safety through road surface and chicane design, and wholesale reduction of car storage, are all alternatives under discussion. However, the idea that poor quality Quietways are a result of designing for “unconfident” cyclists makes no sense.

The Real Duality Threat: Commuters 1st, Others 2nd

There are “unconfident” commuter cyclists, and “confident” cyclists who never commute to a 9-5 and only use their bicycle for purposes other than work. So there is an alternative duality – the commuter cyclist vs the “ordinary” cyclist – which does not align to the “unconfident” or “confident” duality.  As discussed above, these make no sense either as ideas, or the suggestion that they have even been implemented.

The many video examples of copious amounts of cyclists on Cycle Superhighways, used as evidence that Superhighways are successful at people movement, are of rush-hour cyclist commuters. It is widely acknowledged that use outside these hours is sparse, although it does occur, just as you sometimes see recumbent cyclists on A-roads. The issue – which is where design duality comes up – is whether any thought is given to the needs of non-commuters at the point of designing Superhighways, not whether they sometimes use them.

“Commuters 1st”, a Zeitgeist and Meme

The main sign that Cycle Superhighways are designed for commuters alone is the absence of bike racks by government/conference buildings (such as the TfL building on Blackfriars Road) and shops, whether independent or chain stores. The occasional rack can be found, but usually out of line-of-sight from within a visited building, or across the road.  The implications for cyclists afraid of theft and vandalism, and for disabled cyclists uncomfortable with navigating to a central road island just to secure their adapted bicycle, are obvious. This is the implemented zeitgeist – Superhighways have been built designed to cater almost exclusively to commuter cyclists.

A second proof is that the most dominant cyclist campaigners tend to be professional commuters who own cars and shop at drive-in supermarkets (whether using their bicycles or cars is immaterial). Their dismissive attitude on Twitter to the need for cyclist visitor infrastructure aligning cycle Superhighways reveals that they are lobbying for their own lifestyles, and to normalise that as standard behaviour for everyone else in London, provided they can afford it. This shapes the meme.

And may the rest of us pick up their crumbs, since we “are allowed to use them too, as cycle Superhighways are for everyone”. A good analogy would be to question the need for “priority seats” or disabled/parental space on buses. They’re allowed on the buses, what more do they want?

In the meantime ordinary cyclists exist as fugitives, with their non-work destinations unrecognised by the traditional cyclist lobby, and this dismissive attitude feeds through into Quietway design, since these are in practice designed for non-commuters, or in other words not designed thoughtfully at all because the whole impetus of traditional cycle lobbying is about main road rights and sweeping cyclist professionals towards their 9-5 work destinations. The remainder (non-Supercyclehighways) is poorly-funded, but also undermined by the commuter cyclists themselves. Since so many of the heavyweight cyclist-lobbyists own cars, they have watered-down the set of proposed solutions to not include reduced car storage on-street, which would otherwise be a fundamental option to call upon as part of a series of measures to create safe routes away from main roads.

Many such motorist-cyclists will read this and react “but I live in an outer London borough”, or “but my car use is reasonable”, or “I need it for my job”, or “my elderly parents live rurally and need my care assistance, and no-one else is in that situation who does not have a car”. It doesn’t matter whether any of these would validate car ownership. The point is just that they affect judgement, and are the main reason why the design of safe cycle routes away from Cycle Superhighways have been watered down to the point of why bother.

The next big step will be to acknowledge the existence of ordinary cyclists, and that they have Superhighway destinations which are non-work, and for which there is a fundamental – arguably human right – duty to plan for. For now, this is the harmful duality faced by the majority of potential London cyclists: Commuters, then the rest.

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