Opposite views: Cycling Facilities are the wrong solution

This article was published in 2006, in Newsletter 66.

Tony Raven argues the case, and in the next article, David Hembrow argues good facilities are more a matter of money.

Photo: on road.

What is the one reason most non-cyclists give for not cycling? ‘It’s too dangerous!’ Cycling is actually no more dangerous than walking, so why should this negative view be so widely and strongly held? I believe cycling facilities* are partly to blame.

A lot of effort is put into telling us how dangerous cycling is. We are exhorted to wear special protective equipment (helmets, hi-vis clothing) before we venture out. And when we do venture out we find special cycling facilities installed to protect us and keep us away from all that dangerous traffic. Is it any wonder many people come to the conclusion cycling is too dangerous? It’s like trying to encourage air travel by telling everyone they’ll need parachutes.

So how can we change this misperception? It’s radical, but I propose we start by rejecting cycling facilities as a solution to ‘make it safe for cyclists.’ Facilities only reinforce the perception that cycling must otherwise be dangerous.

But this is not the only reason to reject them. Cycle paths give planners an excuse to ignore cyclists in road design. Bung in a cycle facility, no matter how bad, and you can focus on optimising the roads for motor traffic now the cyclists are out of the way. Whenever I have complained about dangerous on-road provisions, the excuse is always that there’s a cycle path provided for cyclists.

‘Let’s stop being fobbed off with cycling facilities and start insisting that road provision caters properly for cyclists.’

Cycle paths remove cyclists from the road so motorists are less familiar with sharing the roads with cyclists. We’ve all had experiences of motorists who don’t know how to share. Central London has been transformed with the big increase in cycling post Congestion Charging and the Tube bombs. Virtually every road has cyclists on it mixing with the traffic and drivers expect, and make allowances for, them. The number of cyclists has doubled and the number of accidents halved. Remove cyclists into cycle facilities and motorists start to forget about them, the roads become less friendly, so more cyclists avoid the roads reinforcing the problem until very few dare venture onto the roads.

I’m sure most of us have also experienced cycling facilities leading motorists to express the belief that cyclists shouldn’t be on the roads at all. And it’s not just motorists: the drafters of the new Highway Code even believe it now. A cyclist killed recently in Brighton was blamed by the media for not using the cycle path.

Curiously, contrary to the advice in the draft Highway Code, cycling facilities are generally 3-5 times more dangerous than the roads. John Franklin, the author of Cyclecraft, has conducted an extensive review of the research and found virtually none that supports cycle paths as being safer, including in the Netherlands and Denmark. Is there any other area where, given the two options, the Government would build and promote the more dangerous one?

Finally, cycle facilities do not go everywhere. You are going to have to get comfortable with cycling on the road, using roundabouts and merging with traffic for parts of your journey anyway. The more experience people get the easier it becomes and the less they will perceive a need for special facilities to keep them safe.

So let’s stop being fobbed off with cycling facilities and start insisting that road provision caters properly for cyclists as well as motorists. Let’s campaign that our rightful place is on the roads and that we be treated with courtesy and respect as equals, not an impediment to be shunted off into facilities for motorists’ convenience.

In the 1930s the Ministry of Transport proposed cycle tracks should be made compulsory. They were stopped by mass demonstrations organised by the CTC. Frank Urry of the CTC said then, ‘Cycle tracks are a palliative at best, and in my opinion a dangerous one’ Since then cycling facilities have crept quietly in through the back door with tacit support from the cycling community but his words are as pertinent today as they were then.

Tony Raven

Further reading:

Wikipedia article
Bike zone article
Bike Reader article
Galway Cycling Campaign article

* Cycling Facilities here is used to mean facilities constructed specifically for cyclists, consistent with its use in the Campaign Manifesto.