Monday 18 February 2013

Cycling with the Enemy?

Anyone who reads this blog will know that I was fortunate enough to go to Amsterdam with BBC Scotland to film an item for Reporting Scotland and Newsnight Scotland on cycle infrastructure. For background it is worth watching the item here, and reading what I have previously written on the subject, here and here.

Ok, some of you won't read my previous blogs....can't understand why.... but at the very least watch the video.

There were a few controversies surrounding the debate on Newsnight Scotland, and a lot of that focused on what Alan Douglas said during the debate.

The controversial comments can effectively be summed up as follows:

Cyclists should just cycle on the roads, they don't need any new infrastructure...

Cyclists don't use the paths they are provided....

Spending money on cycle infrastructure would take money away from the NHS and nurses....

As a cyclist I know exactly why that would irk many. There was also the suggestion that Alan had colluded with the main presenter Gordon Brewer before the debate started to do a 'hatchet job' on Chris Oliver.

Best to forget about it and move on.....Not quite...

I'm not one to let an opportunity pass, so I asked Alan via Twitter if he would be willing to meet. After a bit of persuasion, and a promise that I wasn't a nutter...I'm not honest...we arranged to meet.

It was a bit cold and it was a bit damp, but as I stood outside the Burnbrae Pub in Milngavie a cyclist dressed in a red jacket and a black cap made his way gingerly across the road towards me. He was riding a slightly rusty, but fully functional ex rental mountain bike which I suspect was a world away from the luxury cars that Alan Douglas is used to driving as part of his day job. It was however, very clear from the start that Alan was making an effort.

So for the next 40 minutes or so, Alan and I chatted, cycled a little and looked at the infrastructure in the area surrounding the pub, which just so happened to include my infamous rounabout,

Before we had a look at the surrounding 'infrastructure' we chatted for a good 15 minutes.
Alan was very keen to stress that there was no hatchet job on Chris in the Newsnight debate. In fact he pointed out that when he came into the studio before the debate, that Brewer specifically said he wouldn't give any clues about what he was going to talk about, to keep the debate fresh. So he was as much in the blue as anyone about the questions that would be asked. Alan did agree though that Brewer was tougher on Chris than he was him. Alan didn't think that was intentional, perhaps a result of the shortage of time, but it no doubt had an effect on the debate.

I obviously had to probe Alan about his assertions during the debate.

Cyclists should just cycle on the roads, they don't need any new infrastructure...

This topic dominated much of the discussion. We discussed what typical infrastructure was like...i.e. rubbish, and that I often chose not to use it. Which flowed into Alan's other assertion that,

Cyclists don't use the paths they are provided....

I pointed out that generally cyclists would use infrastructure if they felt it would help them, but that generally it doesn't. I was actually surprised when Alan looked at the infrastructure near us and commented on it. He actually listed many of the things that I thought were wrong with it, that it started and stopped, and that it weaved in and out. I got the feeling that Alan certainly understood that a lot of the infrastructure that does exist is poor quality. He certainly didn't spot all of the problems, but he understood that problems existed. His issue with cycle infrastructure was in fact more fundamental than that.

Why do we need it in the first place? Why should we be encouraging more cycling? We are not and never will be a nation like the Netherlands. We don't have the culture.

It was when I pressed Alan on what I thought was the most controversial of his assertions that I think I began to understand more fully where he was coming from,

Spending money on cycle infrastructure would take money away from the NHS and nurses....

This comment partcularly irked me, especially as I work in the health sector and I understand the significant health benefits that cycling would bring. Alan was at first a little coy about this particular comment, he didn't actually retract it. However, he did suggest that it was a 'throw away comment' made under the pressure of the debate. What he was trying to suggest is that for cycling to have funding, that it would have to compete with many other worthwhile ways of spending the money. Mentioning the NHS was just his way of making the point in a way that was quick to comprehend.

Obviously I pointed out that cycling itself was an excellent form of preventative medicine, and Alan certainly conceded this point, though he was a little sceptical of the statistics....but he was quite firm in his concern that cycling would have to compete with everything else for funding. When I suggested that the funding came from transport his suggestion was that the money should be spent on fixing potholes that affect all road users. We certainly agreed that potholes were a big problem for all.

By this time we were both getting a bit cold....we never made it into the we went for a short cycle along towards my infamous roundabout. Alan leading and myself following close behind. It was at this point that I explained his road position wasn't the best. He was cycling in the door zone. I explained what that was and why it was such an issue. I suspect that this was something that he hadn't considered before.

Then came the roundabout. I discussed the incident, I discussed how close I was to being wiped out that day, and I discussed why I thought the roundabout was contributory. 

The roundabout is designed for two things, flow and speed. Speed of approach at this roundabout (including mine) would have contributed to the incident.

My speed of approach was not wrong, and neither was the speed of the HGV excessive... the roundabout is actually designed (possibly by accident) to allow a vehicle to move quickly through the roundabout if it is quiet. The major fault in this incident was that the HGV driver just didn't see me. He could have stopped if he had looked properly. However, had we both had to slow on approach, due to the roundabouts design, it would have increased my likelihood of being spotted and it would have given us both more time to react.

Road design is the key.

Alan definitely agreed with this, and pointed out that this roundabout had evolved this way rather than been designed this way. He agreed that the roundabout could be better designed for cars and cyclists, and yes, perhaps there could be some specific infrastructure for cyclists that could help.

I then showed Alan what I thought could be done with the roads in the area and how the cycling infrastructure could not only be improved to improve the safety of cyclists, but also improve the look and feel of the area and most likely, the flow of vehicle traffic.

This is what we have
Cycle lanes that are  too narrow, are poorly maintained, start and stop without notice, and that actually take cyclists right through the door zone, the most dangerous place for us to be.

This is what we could have

It's actually quite hard to see the cycle lane here. That's the point. The picture is taken from the road and the cycle lane is far away from it, on the other side of the parked cars safely separated from the traffic.

I didn't have the pictures to hand when Alan and I were chatting but I did my best to describe the above possible redesign for the road. As I described it, Alan nodded and agreed that such a change would be for the better, but wouldn't be cheap.

In fact towards the end of our discussions, Alan made one comment that stuck in my mind,

I can't fault any of your logic...

I don't think Alan actually disputed any of the facts that I placed before him, and he didn't deny the health benefits of cycling, or that there would be less pollution, or that there were significant economic benefits to designing our roads for cycling. I think where Alan and I parted ways was in our ideology.

As a cyclist who wants to see non-cyclists cycling, I think that we should be using our admittedly scarce public money to invest in cycling. Alan thinks we should be focusing on repairing the roads as they stand as that would make it safer for everyone. I got the feeling that he was not too bothered either way if more people cycled or not. My contention is that cycling has to be a real option for travel, especially for shorter journeys, and that repairing the roads and building cycle infrastructure could go hand in hand .

Many, many roads are in a very poor state of repair, and have suffered from many years of neglect and poor quality patch repairs. Thus, they are in need of serious amounts of work to bring them back up to standard. So, yes, lets focus on major road repair, but lets kill two birds with one stone. Whilst repairing the road, that's the perfect time to start reshaping the roads.

Effectively the poor quality of our infrastructure represents an opportunity for change. Look at it as a very bumpy blank canvas. On each road you repair, put in quality infrastructure for cycling. Not only will there be more cycling and the many benefits that brings, but there will be fewer cars on the road. the upshot of which will be less wear and tear on the new roads (damage increases to the power of 4 of axle weight).

As you've probably worked out, Alan and I talked considerably more than we cycled. We probably managed only 200 metres of cycling in total. That didn't matter. What matters is we talked, I think we actually enjoyed each others company, we certainly didn't agree, but we both got to see the world from a different perspective.

We shook hands and we both cycled off our separate ways back to our different worlds. Despite the cold weather, I really enjoyed meeting Alan. I haven't changed my convictions in any way, but I think I understand a little bit more about those who oppose money being spent on cycle infrastructure. There are those that are concerned that money spent on cycling will be money wasted on infrastructure that won't be used, and will mean that general road repairs will loose out. Perhaps we cycle campaigners need to address the general state of the roads more in our campaigning.

Did Alan learn anything from me? I hope so, but I obviously can't speak for anyone else. All I do know is that Alan sent me the following in an e-mail after he got home,

If it's a good day tomorrow I might just go out on the bike again...


...but not on the roads. Far too dangerous.

OK, maybe only progress of sorts. What is certain is that progress will only come through conversation and dialogue, so rather than keeping quiet, we need to keep the conversation going, and the most important people to talk to are the ones who disagree with us.



  1. That's a fair summary of what we discussed and as a result I do understand a little better what the issues are from the cyclists' viedwpoint....but the main thrust of what I said on Newsnight remains. Improved infrastructure for everyone who uses the roads would be great in an ideal world...but we don't live in an ideal world and such things have to be paid for from increasingly limited public funds. I don't have time to respond in depth but there were just a couple of points I wanted to make in response to the flood of tweets I received:
    I think calling me a moron, ignorant and grey-haired add little to the debate and such comments are unworthy of such a serious issue.
    I am certainly not a 'buddy' of Gordon Brewer. In fact the first time I met him was less than a minute before the interview began.
    There was no rehearsal of the debate beforehand and I had no idea what he was going to ask either of us.
    I had understood the item was going to be much longer but was cut back drastically.
    I would welcome a much longer debate at some point on what I agree is a serious issue.
    Cyclists should make themselves more involved in the planning of road schemes, rather than leaving it to council officials who go through the motions and can then tick boxes.
    Cyclists themselves can do more to improve their image rather than alienate other road users by some of their on-road tactics (jumping red lights, holding up traffic by riding two or three abreast at 10 or 15mph and adopting a "holier than thou" approach.)Slow moving tractors or HGVs are criticised if they don't pull in to allow traffic to pass but apparently thatg doesn't apply to cyclists.
    We are all road users and we all have a part to play in making the roads safer for everyone.

    1. Alan,

      You've set-up a false dichotomy.

      Taking money intended for nurses is NOT what cycle campaigners want. Rather, they want a larger share of the transport budget to be spent on cycling. That's money that's *already* allocated to transport, that's money that is NOT going to nurses either way.

      As for cyclist behaviour, cyclists are not angels, but nor are motorists. Cycling through Glasgow city centre, there is barely a red light that doesn't see a car or bus speed through it, whose drivers deliberately ignored the intent of the yellow light and decided to gun it, the light going red *before* they cross the line. Where exactly do you want to go with this finger pointing?

      On an entirely objective level however, cyclists do not kill thousands of people every year. Cyclist behaviour, even when it breaks rules, literally is of less consequence!

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Your penulimate paragraph, Alan, leads me to believe that in fact you've learned nothing from your time with David.

    Once again, like many cycle-hating motorists, you resort to victim blaming and worn-out hackneyed beliefs to get a point across.

    Also, I never got an answer to a question I posted on Twitter.

    Do you think the A9 should be upgraded, and if so, why should more money be spent on improving infrastructure when so many driving on that road aren't prepared to follow the rules of the road?

    1. Actually, I don't think Alan's remark about involvement is so very wide of the mark. Until fairly recently, the level of involvement of bicycle users in road design has been negligible.

      Sure, the local branch of CTC, or the Crapborough Cycle Campaign, has engaged with councillors and their officers for years, but with precious little observable benefit. They don't rattle the bars of their cages hard enough, and worse, they quite often argue for stuff which actually works against the people they purport to represent - I recall one notorious example in a London borough where measures proposed by TfL were certainly inadequate but better than nothing, and the local CC played right into their hands, objected and the result was that none of the measures (which included reduced radii on turns and bends as well as some on-road mandatory cycle lanes) was implemented.

      As a group we have various problems in engaging with officialdom. One is that we, quite frankly, do not speak with a united voice. You only have to go onto a cyclechat forum to see that. Another is that too many people just grumble and don't actually do anything about it.

      The reason councillors are often hostile to cycling interests (apart from prejudice, which is certainly there is some cases) is that they don't get earache from cycling constituents. They do get earache from all sorts of people who are hostile to cycling measures - retailers' complaints that a cycle track will deter car-borne shoppers, elderly or disabled people's complaints that cyclists are dangerous or reckless, etc. What they perceive is that cyclists are a problem, rather than seeing cyclists as consituents who are poorly served.

      You don't actually have to become a full-time campaigner to make an impression, however small. Just writing a short email or completing an on-line survey on a new scheme would be a start. Apparently the Blackfriars Bridge consultation in London got about 500 responses - there are at least 5,000 cyclists cross that bridge every day, so where were the other 4,600 of them (I assume not all 500 rsponses came from cyclists)?

  3. I can avoid jumping red lights easily enough if you can guarantee that the lorry driver on his mobile behind me will do the same, every time, without fail. I think I can even avoid cycling two or three abreast, being a solitary bugger, though of all the myriad problems and delays that beset the motorist this is surely one of the most trivial. But how the hell do I avoid on-road tactics that are holier than thou? Should I tuck my halo under my helmet? Refrain from intoning the Benedicite in heavy traffic? Leave my hi-viz chasuble at home? Do tell.

    Drivers use language in weird ways, often reversing the meaning of common words. My favourite example is "arrogant", which is usually used to mean "didn't get out of the way of more important people like me."

  4. At the end of the day, if value-for-money is really the most pressing concern then Alan and his ilk should be reassured that (even using the government's own figures) investment in cycling rates extremely highly.

    The irony of complaining that cycle investment, currently only a few £m, would take money away from the NHS (which is having to spend over £10,000m annually on sedentary diseases) can hardly be lost on Alan, however skeptical he might like to be about the figures.

    At the end of the day, though, I can at least respect (if not agree with) the viewpoint that we just shouldn't encourage cycling. It is, at least, pretty easy to destroy the argument.

    Unfortunately, what we see instead is the typical race to the bottom with comments like "but apparently that doesn't apply to cyclists" which weirdly makes out that drivers who choose to get on their bikes (which is what about 90% of cyclists are doing) instead of driving any given day suddenly become different people.

  5. Sounds like the 2 of you had a great chat however Alan's last paragraph leads me to believe that it might have been a bit wasted, maybe he should take up a job with the Daily Mail?
    Having watched the report now I can see there are various holes in the logic, not least the weather argument! Doesn't Holland have a more extreme winter then even Scotland so whilst it's not raining I'm damn sure snow would scare off all but the most ardent riders here. Something which isn't true over the pond!

    As for funding you correctly point out that the 2 "pots" of money for transport and health are seperate so need not have an effect on each other and I fully agree with your idea in regards to adding in cycling infrastructure to existing road scheme. I can't recall who wrote it but another blogger did an great piece on a new A-road that was constructed, with a seperate bus way, but NO cycle infrastructure. Installing it at the same time would have possibly added a few £M (if even that) to the cost but instead the planners choose to completely ignore cycling as a viable means to get from point A to point B on using this route, instead presumably expecting those brave riders to mix it up with cars doing in excess of 70mph!

  6. Car drivers (I am also one!) must get past this idea that the roads are theirs and that people on bikes are inconveniencing them. They must also accept greater responsibility for safety, given that they are the ones in the potential killing machine. And to do all this is to do No more than they agreed to when they learned their highway code and got their license.

  7. Alan Douglas is clearly a fascist, believing that as a member of a superior race he should have more rights (such as having a fellow human being next to him when he drives), than lesser mortals.
    He is uncapable of seeing that if roads are for everyone, as he says, then everyone should be able to ride two abreast, be they on a bike or a car.
    Only a supremacist would argue that two people riding side by side are being anti-social; it is the same as saying that a black woman is anti-social if she rides in front of the bus.
    Once Douglas realises the abhorrence of his views, then he will gladly spend money on good cycle infrastructure, as separation will:
    a. reduce the number of bikes in front of him, and
    b. reduce the number of cars in front of him, as more people will be riding.

  8. I think Alan needs to look at the benefit/cost ratio of roads improvement vs cycle infrastructure improvement. Well-designed cycle infrastructure investment generally has a very high BCR (see, for example page 14) - anything between 5:1 and 20:1, if you include proven health benefits. In general, road schemes tend to get built at any BCR above 1.7:1.

    Where there's limited cash available, it makes strong economic sense for now to invest in the projects with highest BCR - which will often be cycling infrastructure.

    When motorists stop their worst habits, such as breaking the speed limit, texting and driving, and jumping red lights, we can think about filling in some of those potholes.

  9. This exchange just proves entrenched political thinking.

    Cycling culture is a good indicator of societal equity.

    In all countries with high levels of cycling culture there are lower levels of truancy, teenage pregnancy, urban petty crime and assault. There are improved levels of concentration in classrooms, greater intellectual achievement, and less radicalisation. All these aspects are hard to prove, but they are obvious by their coincidence. Such countries also have high taxation levels compared to the UK, but then the benefits to individuals are better, especially for parents.

    UK culture is a selfish one. Materialism, consumerism and celebrity hype have created a soup of greed fuelled by easy credit, with a complete disregard for important values. The finance and political sector sports the lowest public trust ever, and both know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

    It is more important to put a car driver first than school children, because the driver votes and pays taxes through the fuel he uses. This is translated into ‘motor vehicle priority’ when drivers are a greater burden on society and future generations are pushed to the bottom of spending priorities.

    Decades of this car-is-king culture in planning and politics has decimated UK culture. Teenagers kill or maim for a BMW 3 series, and the easiest way to murder someone is to drive over them. Three penalty points on ones licence and a £400 fine is the typical value UK courts put on a life. In no other activity is life valued so low, and the WHO recognise this global problem.

    I’ve met enough MPs to know there are a couple of good ones, but in general, the idea of such public representatives is flawed. If most constituents are educated by what they read in The Sun newspaper, then MPs are merely perpetuating a well-rotted culture.

    Most describe all the faults but offer no solution. I do provide a series of reforms that could radically alter this cultural rot:

    1 – Policing and courts need educating about UK cycling culture, and key judges and officers put on bicycles to witness firsthand the seriousness of the problem.

    2 – The automatic 50 percent weighting on drivers when in a collision with cyclists. Insurers and motor organisations who lobby against this are disgusting maggots feasting on decaying social responsibility. Some major banging of heads together is needed here.

    3 – The spend per capita on cycling infrastructure AND policing of it is key. Not cash big numbers for political headlines, for red and white paint here and there.

    4 – Highway Engineers needs a revision, with a compulsory training module on cycling infrastructure best practice.

    5 – DfT legislation about what infrastructure can be used needs a massive overhaul. Most LA provide crap infrastructure based not on usability, but risk mitigation, nearly always mis-guided, and poor interpretation of antiquated DfT highway infrastructure rules.

    6 – Taxation on junk foods is ring fenced for cycle infrastructure funds.

    7 – A lower rate of VAT or zero rate on all cycling infrastructure, bicycles and clothing. Offset this with an increase in taxation on vehicles in the upper emissions ranges.

    8 – Divert 25% of the obesogenic healthcare funding into non-motorised transport culture. The long term ROI will be far better than the constant escalating costs of patching up a cultural problem.

    9 – Transport ministers have to use the mode they represent.

    10 – Provide school children with a means to provide feedback direct to government. Being fed horsemeat and other poor quality foods, being terrified of cycling to school, and having rubbish studying conditions while failed bankers take home £millions in bonuses is just fuelling serious social anger towards once respected institutions. Is it no wonder voting in the UK is at an all time low?

    Politicians are 100 percent to blame for this. Their policies, their behaviours and standards, their total disconnect with the public, yet inability to lead on what is Right, and not what The Sun Says.

  10. David (Magnatom) a very good write up, thanks.
    Especially this paragraph: "As a cyclist who wants to see non-cyclists cycling, I think that we should be using our admittedly scarce public money to invest in cycling. Alan thinks we should be focusing on repairing the roads as they stand as that would make it safer for everyone. I got the feeling that he was not too bothered either way if more people cycled or not. My contention is that cycling has to be a real option for travel, especially for shorter journeys, and that repairing the roads and building cycle infrastructure could go hand in hand "

    Regarding the two example photos of cycling infrastructure - in our usually used infrastructure, the photo shows a foot pavement to the left of the parked cars - can that be adjusted to accomodate both pedestrians and cyclists? I'm not sure about that here, but, am sure that in many areas improvements can be made.

  11. I'd agree Alan's last paragraph above is deeply disappointing and moves the debate back several steps but hopefully not irevocably. I also don't condone the abusive tweets he received but,Alan please look and see for yourself,their content pales into insignificance compared to the venom and threats to kill cycling and cyclists receive daily on social media sites. Today I have been told to f**k off and called a c**t on twitter simply for simply for suggesting politely that cyclists ride to the centre of a lane to be seen, not to deliberately antagonise other road users. Alan comments such as moron & grey haired may not be pleasant to receive but are borne more of frustration than genuine malice that the idiotic faction of the motoring fraternity have been given another green light to hurl abuse by a media profile. Also, quite agree on your condemnation of RLJ cyclists but in terms of the prevelance and harm caused to others it is far far far down the list behind, speed, inattention, reckless, haste etc which in the Dept of Transport road collision reports (2010) cite as police attributed contributory factors to the majority of collisions. RLJ cyclists doesn't get an entry as it is insignificant in the overall official picture, as opposed to the perception through the windscreen that leads to such moral indignation on the part of drivers in a way that Amber Gambling, speeding, parking offences don't.

  12. Bearing in mind Alan's comments about funding cycling infrastructure as opposed to funding extra nurses for the NHS, what is Alan's take on the additional subsidies announced today for electric cars. Especially considering the small uptake, and the cost which usually means that private owners are normally middle-class, high earners who can afford to have a relatively expensive second or even third vehicle AND have cash thrown at them by the Govt.

    Surely he must agree that cycling infrastructure would be a much better use of that money, providing better value for money.

    I also agree with some of the other commenters that a lot of the goodwill generated by Alan by going out with you,and the comments amde during the trip, is completely negated by his comments in the second to last para. Especially the "pulling over" to let others though - arrogance. Does he move over if someone catches him up and wants to overtake? I have never seen a truck pull over and slow to allow cars past.

    Btw I don't RLJ on a bike or car, although I see lots of car drivers that do. I don't use a mobile but see lots of car drivers that do. I don't ride on the pavement, although I see lots of cars that park on the pavement. I don't have a "holier than thou" viewpoint, but I try my damnest to be careful and considerate no matter what transport mode I use, unlike a lot of car drivers.

  13. Thanks for all the comments. I'm going to stay out of the debate for now...expect further blog posts. However, I was surprised by Alan's reply here. Alan is not alone in his thinking, so we can't just dismiss it. How do we work with people who think like Alan? Is it worth us even trying? Do we need to win over the sceptics or do we press on?

  14. Excellent point about the roads being in a terrible state of repair, will have to be patched anyway, so why not install some cycle specific infrastructure at fraction of the overall cost? Instead they are re-instated exactly the way they were before (needlessly wide; wider the surface area = greater cost). As these will be chewed up in a few years due to ongoing traffic and we are back to square one. Considering the limited budgets authorities have to play with why are they not thinking in the bigger picture and instead perpetuating a short term, unsustainable (although populist) policy. Madness.

  15. Whether he listened & take note & use some of what you said will be proven in time, but at least he came & listened & rode with you. So kudos for getting him to do that. Now all we need is all politicians to do the same & understand what we want is beneficial for all & not just cyclists.

  16. Good piece and I'm glad you both by the sounds of it enlightened each other.

    I commute by bike every week day and do anything from 200 to 600k on weekends so I've never been a fan of Psycho Paths. As for cycle infrastructure on the roads generally it is in the UK poorly designed and "not joined up" and so for me I avoid these features where possible (my worst example is near Bridge of Allan where the on road cycle lane plummets you down a hill at 30mph for it without any warning stops with a kerb perpendicular to the direction of travel)

    So until we get to the levels of Copenhagen (I've cycled there as well) I would rather the Roads Engineer's got on their bikes and got a feel for what it is like as a cyclist and maybe they would design better roads that kept all road users happy.

    1. Some crackin' examples of Cycling Infrastructre in Scotland illustrated here

  17. >>How do we work with people who think like Alan? Is it worth us even
    >>trying? Do we need to win over the sceptics or do we press on?

    Press on - at the end of the day, he is mostly irrelevant - not being in a position of power or an expert on the subject matter. It might be nice to win him over, but even if you do, it wouldn't actually change anything.

    He is an example of a type of car driver. I don't think most people are like that. They like cars for the convenience in their day to day lives. They increasingly dislike the cost of driving, and if a cheap alternative was shown to work, they would use that instead.

    Some people will always want a car, but I'm sure no one is expecting everyone to abandon the car.

    Continue to raise support with the general public and put pressure on the politicians