Many motorists have crap eyesight…so insurance company gifts hi-vis belts to cyclists

No doubt insurance provider RSA wants to do the right thing but is equipping cyclists with free hi-vis kit the best thing to do, or should the company concentrate on lobbying for motorists to have compulsory eye tests every few years? Or, forget the belts, gift eye tests to motorists instead.

Check out the last para in this email offer sent out to cycle advocacy groups yesterday:

From: Deborah Lewis
Date: 20 November 2012 15:32:44 GMT
Subject: Road Safety Week – High Visibility Cycling Belts

Good afternoon,

The week of 19th November – 25th November marks Road Safety Week in the UK and RSA and More Th>n are promoting the importance of road safety through a number of initiatives.

One of these activities is distributing high visibility cycling belts both across our regional offices, as well as to cycling clubs nationwide.

We would like to send you some free high-visibility belts that can be distributed to your club members that can help with them being seen on the road at night and during times of low visibility.

If you are interested in receiving some belts, please could you provide me with the quantity required, as well as an address to send them too.

RSA is promoting road safety awareness as part of its Fit to Drive campaign that highlights the dangers of driving with poor eyesight and encourages drivers to look after the health of their eyes with regular eye tests.

Kind regards,

On the surface this may seem like a kind and generous offer from RSA: cyclists, be seen. But the onus shouldn’t have to be on cyclists, the key thing is for motorists to have perfect vision. If motorists don’t have perfect vision what the heck are they doing on public highways operating potentially lethal machinery?

This isn’t an issue for cyclists alone. Pedestrians and, of course, other motorists should also be worried there are folks out there who can’t adequately see through their windscreens. If cyclists are given free hi-vis belts shouldn’t pedestrians get the same? And how about big hi-vis wraparound belts for cars?

It’s commendable that RSA has a Fit to Drive campaign – see press release below – but the cash spent on the hi-vis belts may have been better spent on even more lobbying to get vision-impaired drivers off the roads. And it’s a moot point whether hi-vis items have any safety benefits: plenty of cyclists, even those garbed in neon, get hit by motorists. [Hi-vis ankle straps – which bob up and down when pedalling – would have been a better idea than Sam Brown belts].

Another thing that RSA could advocate for would be slower speeds. If motorists – even those with 20/20 vision – were forced to drive below the speed limit (fantasy island stuff, I know) that would be of huge and lasting benefit to society.


A new report commissioned by leading global insurer, RSA, has found that road crashes caused by poor driver vision cost the UK an estimated £33 million a year and result in nearly 2,900 casualties, with official tests to identify and rectify the problem in need of urgent reform.

The report, commissioned for RSA’s Fit to Drive campaign and launched at a Parliamentary event in Westminster during the week, aims to raise awareness of the dangers of driving with poor vision and is calling for a change in UK law requiring:

the current number plate test to be scrapped, as this does not provide an accurate assessment of a drivers’ vision;

all learner drivers to have their vision tested by a qualified professional prior to applying for a provisional driving licence; and,

eye tests to be mandatory every ten years, linked to driving licence renewal; with drivers encouraged to voluntarily have their eyes tested every two years (in line with NHS recommendations).

RSA’s proposed changes to eyesight testing are estimated to generate net savings to the UK economy after the first year of introduction and increase to £14.4 million by year 10.

Adrian Brown, RSA UK & Western Europe CEO, said: “The report’s figures speak for themselves. If we simply make an eye test mandatory when getting your first driving licence and when renewing every 10-years we will save lives and reduce the strain on public finances.

“Wider understanding among politicians, health professionals, the police and insurers about the serious impact of poor eyesight on road safety is crucial and our Westminster roundtable event marks the start of what I hope will be a sustained commitment to working together to improve safety on our roads.”

Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive, Brake, the road safety charity, said: “This report gives an indication of how many violent and devastating casualties on our roads could be prevented through a simple eye examination. Being able to see clearly what’s in front and around you is fundamental to safe, responsible driving.

“That’s why we urge drivers to have an eye test at least every two years, even if you think your sight is fine. We also hope to see common sense winning through and the Government tightening up the rules on driver eyesight. To make our roads safer and ensure everyone is fit to drive we need a scientific eyesight test at the start of your driving career and compulsory re-tests at least every 10 years thereafter.”

At the Westminster event several MPs signed RSA’s Fit to Drive pledge, which outlines their support for the issue as well as urges others in the Government to do the same.

The pledge reads: “I have signed RSA’s Fit to Drive pledge to show my support for this important campaign, and will be urging my colleagues in Parliament to do the same.”

Why do people hate cyclists?

Irrational, unbidden hate. Why?

Bradley Wiggins. Victoria Pendleton. Yellow jerseys. Olympic golds. Britain is meant to have fallen in love with cycling. If so, the honeymoon is over, and the hatred is back.

On 26th September I shall be giving a presentation to architects and town planner types at the be2talks in London – “a celebration of technology, social media and the built environment” – and will spend 12 minutes discussing some of the many positives about urban cycling. However, first I will spend three minutes on the irrational hatred directed at cyclists on social media. You really don’t have to go very far before finding this sort of stuff. Using search terms ‘cyclist’ and ‘road tax’ will bring up lots of unbidden hate.

Sometimes the hatred is spouted by incoherent dunderheads but there’s also plenty spouted by what appear to be, from reading their Twitter timelines, otherwise reasonable people.

Thing is, both the dunderheads, and the otherwise sane and sensible, have cars, and don’t appear to like sharing roadspace with cyclists. These people are driving around on public roads with an amazing amount of hatred bubbling under the surface. How many unthinking near-misses are actually ‘I’ll teach that cyclist a lesson’ near-misses? How many cyclist deaths have been caused by these sort of ‘roads were built for cars’ attitude?

The highly ingrained beliefs that “all cyclists run red lights” and “all cyclists ride on the pavement” are part of the problem (and, yes, motorists habitually break traffic laws and routinely park on the pavements cyclists are supposed to hog) but the hatred goes deeper than that.

In this month’s issue of The Psychologist Bath University’s traffic specialist Dr Ian Walker believes this hatred is a manifestation of more than just hatred against an “out group”:

“A report from the Transport Research Laboratory and University of Strathclyde a few years ago led by Lynn Basford suggested that there’s some classic social psychology at work here – cyclists represent an outgroup such that the usual outgroup effects are seen, particularly overgeneralisation of negative behaviour and attributes – ‘They all ride through red lights all the time’. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that something of this sort is going on.

“However, there has to be more to it than just this. For a long time I wondered if the outgroup status of cyclists was compounded by two other known social psychological factors: norms and majority vs. minority groups. Not only are cyclists an outgroup, they’re also a minority outgroup. Moreover, they are engaging in an activity that is deemed slightly inappropriate in a culture that views driving as normative and desirable and, arguably, views cycling as anti- conventional and possibly even infantile.

“But even adding these factors into the mix does not explain all the anger that cyclists experience. It’s easy to identify other minority outgroups whose behaviour similarly challenges social norms but who do not get verbally and physically attacked like cyclists do: vegetarians, for example. So there’s clearly one or more important variables that we’ve not identified yet. Any social psychologists looking for a challenge are very welcome to wade into this.”

Hatred isn’t confined to social media, of course. Shockjocks and columnists in national newspapers also like to take potshots at cyclists. There’s a huge number of such diatribes and columns, way too many to list here but here’s a fresh one, from today. It’s by Helen Martin in The Scotsman. It’s a “I’m not a racist but…” piece.

Sweetly, she claims: “Whatever ardent cyclists believe, no driver wants to cause them harm or sets out to make their two-wheeled journey more treacherous than it need be.” [She needs to hang out a bit more on Twitter and YouTube…]

But then comes the sugar-coated invective:

“Now whole swathes of our roads are marked for cycles only. And even more funding is going on further development and maintenance. There is no point in any of us shelling out this money if cyclists refuse to use the lanes specifically created and marked for them.

“Watch out for the number of cyclists who reject their own lanes in favour of the rest of the road (car lanes, if you will) and you might be amazed by the day’s total.

“This is extremely dangerous behaviour that poses a threat to themselves and drivers. If we have cycle lanes we expect cyclists to be in them, not dodging traffic in the rest of the road and popping up where we least expect them. Is it really so outrageous to suggest that, where there is a cycle lane, cyclists should be fined for not using it?”

This is the columnist who started her article by saying: “I admire cyclists. I really do.” With friends like this etc. etc.

Ms Martin doesn’t want to share roads with cyclists, they should be on cycle paths provided for them and if they stray, fine ’em! Ms Martin has clearly never been on a UK cycle path, she isn’t aware most of them are poorly designed, don’t link up and are rarely maintained. Some facilities!

All of the hatred on social media and in the press matters because it’s not marginal, it’s mainstream. I’ve had many long discussions with pro-cycling MPs who say it’s incredibly tough to get any truly transformational cycling policies out of the powers-that-be because the hatred runs too deep. We know cycling is benign and of benefit to society but that’s far from being a common view in the corridors of local and national power. And, genuinely, how much of a vote winner would it be, in such a car obsessed country, to openly commit to reining back motor-centric policies in favour of cyclists?

Perhaps Britain will become a more cycling-friendly nation in time, until then I’ll leave you with a quote from Peter Zanzottera, senior consultant at transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave. In 2009 he told the Scottish Parliament’s Transport Committee:

“People love cycling but hate cyclists.”


There’s plenty of roadspace at night

Open Road motorway at night

Mike Penning, the portly roads minister, needs to be bound and gagged and dumped on the M6, at 3am, just north of Carlisle. I’m not advocating the death of a minister of the Crown; Penning would be perfectly safe for quite some time because this massively wide motorway is pretty much empty at 3am. Maybe after surviving unscathed Penning would come to understand there’s plenty of roadspace to go around, it’s how we use it in peak times that’s the problem.

At a transport select committee hearing two weeks ago Penning – and his LibDem partner in crime, Norman Baker – said there could be no national funding for cycle paths because this is a “local issue” but Penning is more than happy to pour money down the drain for “strategically important national roads”. One such road scheme to get the green light is just a few miles from where I live. Tons of extra motorised traffic has been generated thanks to the building of the second Tyne tunnel; the Silverlink junction where the A19 meets Newcastle’s Coast road is at gridlock at peak times of the day.

At night, like the M6 and like much of the UK’s road network, it’s empty.

The width of the road is plenty wide enough for maybe 18 hours out of the day; the bottlenecks occur sporadically, and at wholly expected times. Instead of managing this bottleneck with traffic mitigation measures, national Government will be spending £170m of taxpayers’ cash (that’s our money they’re wasting) on widening this junction for a few people for just a few hours per day. This is lunacy. The expected “congestion easing” won’t happen. As is extremely well known, extra road capacity leads to induced demand and any improvement in “traffic flow”, in peak times, will be soon swallowed up.

Even if an increased number of cars are speeded through this junction for a few weeks (and that’s all that £170m buys you) there will then be a crush somewhere else on the network. More and wider roads will be needed elsewhere on the network. But there’s precious little space for this, and there could never be enough cash to satisfy the unthinking demands from drivers for fast, empty arterial roads during the so-called “rush hour.”

The private motorcar is damn useful, but only when there’s just a few of them dotting around. When there are millions of the things, they’re not so convenient. And the Department for Transport projects that millions more private cars will join the swell over the next 25 years. Not learning from past mistakes, and somehow hoping failed solutions will work “this time”, is madness. Yet it’s a shared madness, a group hallucination that’s costly, wasteful and, quite quickly, ineffective.

Check out the crazed comments from local politicians and business leaders who believe spending £170m on one road junction – just one road junction – is money well spent:

North Tyneside elected mayor Linda Arkley said she was “absolutely delighted” at the multi-million-pound ‘investment package’.

“I have been on at them for this for long time, it’s good to see Mike got the message,” she told my local newspaper, which champions more roads as a central part of its editorial focus.

Ms Arkley added: “We have so many opportunities for growing this area…we need to know that congestion is not going to be an obstacle to that.”

The North East Chamber of Commerce has also campaigned hard for “upgrade” cash. Chief Executive, James Ramsbotham, said the £170m-for-one-road-junction news was “a real victory for us and our partners who campaigned alongside us.”

He added: “It is great news for the region as it will ease congestion and complement the recent Tyne Tunnel upgrade on this important strategic route for both commuters and businesses. If the Government is serious about rebalancing the economy, future investment should be prioritised for schemes just like this to enable the North East to increase its contribution to UK Plc.

Ramsbotham then said:

“Hopefully, other regional infrastructure priorities such as the essential upgrade of the Western Bypass will receive similar appraisal in the future.”

This should set off alarm bells. The Western Bypass was built just a few years ago to “ease congestion”. It did. For a few days. After that it became stupidly congested during peak hours. “Upgrading” a relatively new road that was meant to ease congestion but that didn’t is sheer unadulterated lunacy.

The Western Bypass is quiet at 3am. We don’t need more roads, we need less motorised vehicles using them. Road pricing would quickly remove unnecessary journeys, but would be an unpopular move. Waving a chequebook and throwing good money after bad is what politicians do best. Here’s Penning in vote-for-me fantasy-land:

“We are committed to tackling congestion, keeping traffic moving and supporting the UK economy, putting in money where it’s most needed and where the public will get a good return on investment.”

This is the same minister who won’t fund cycle paths, and who won’t listen to the growing number of organisations who tell him that concreting Britain is not a long-term answer to congestion. Penning wants a good return on investment? He should talk to his colleagues in the Department for Health. They’re looking at a future where health costs associated with inactivity are set to sky-rocket. Get people out of their cars and moving their fat arses. Scrap the multi-billion pound roads programme and spend it on mitigation measures instead.

“speedo cyclists in country lanes”

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On Sat, Mar 31, 2012 at 2:43 PM, ******* < *******> wrote:

From: ****** < ******>
Subject: speedo cyclists in country lanes

Message Body:
Hi the village lanes around kingston seymour are flat – we are furious at the silent speed these cyclists go – today we were confronted by a know it all lycra cyclist who said its not law to have a bell on the bike – as he shouted obsenities to me and my sheep dog – as we shouted sense to him – am i breaking the law or is he ?


To: ****** < ******>

Subject: re speedo cyclists in country lanes

Message Body:

Hi ******

From the sound of it neither of you are breaking any laws (although swearing can be, in some circumstances, considered a breach of the peace).

New bicycles are required to have bells fitted *at the point of sale* but are not required to have them fitted once outside of the shop.

If you’re having problems with speeding cyclists perhaps you could request your local police station operate a ‘community speedwatch’ service? You and other concerned members of the local community could then measure the speed of all vehicles passing through Kingston Seymour. Bicycles are considered vehicles in law and cyclists have to adhere to the same speed limits as motorists.*

Count the number of motorists and cyclists breaking the speed limit and once you have collated the results approach your local authority to introduce speed reduction measures. You may also wish to broach the subject of “silent speeding”. Cyclists don’t have engines so are silent by default; electric cars are also extremely quiet.

Narrowing the roads through Kingston Seymour could be a good way to make all vehicles – silent or otherwise – go more slowly.


Carlton Reid

* Chris Gerhard points out that only motor vehicles have to adhere to speed limits. However, cyclists could be done for riding dangerously or carelessly. I will add to ‘Cycling and the law’ on BikeHub.

Will UK politicians ever seek to restrain the motorised majority?


I signed up to the cycle safe campaign by The Times. There has been some fine reporting on the real and rightly worrying danger posed by motorised traffic but, as today’s paper exemplifies, there’s a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are some good bits in today’s newspaper, there are some awful bits in today’s newspaper.

Which will people most remember? The bad bits. Cycling, the paper’s reporting would have us believe, is so incredibly dangerous it’s best to stick to riding around a velodrome (Rebecca Romero’s piece); it’s best to ride on cycle lanes (even though, as we all know, the current crop are currently underused because they’re not up to Dutch standards; we need to cough up for a licence fee to pay for segregated tracks (Jon Snow’s piece, but here’s why licensing is not the right answer); and we need to don protective equipment for popping down to the shops (“In Britain, going out to cycle is a little like preparing for battle.There is body armour and helmets to consider, Lycra and face masks to squeeze into,” is from an otherwise positive piece headlined ‘Reasons to take to your bike’).


Political parties are said to have welcomed The Times campaign, and Labour is even calling for a Cycling Summit.

All well and good but if politicians think cycling is so incredibly dangerous will they clamp down on the source of the danger, or will they “protect” vulnerable road users by forcing them to wear helmets, making it compulsory to sport hi-viz jackets and restrict the use of bicycles to cycle paths that, largely, don’t exist and when they do exist are usually as about much use as chocolate tea-pots?

Naturally, the easy option, the option that would be supported by the majority of voters, is the latter.


The best commentary I’ve seen on The Times campaign has been that from Andrew Davis, the director of the Environmental Transport Association. He said he welcomes the campaign because it “raises the debate to a wider public” but – and I agree with him here – “it fails to address the bigger question – why do we allow cars and trucks to dominate our townscapes?”

This is the absolute crux of the matter. The cyclesafe campaign is potentially divisive. It’s not just cyclists that need protecting from speeding traffic, it’s pedestrians and all other road users, too, including motorists.

If MPs want to do something for cyclists, brilliant. But if that thing doesn’t involve a massive clamping down on motorised traffic it will come to naught. And if MPs say they’ve seen the light on the Cyclepath to Damascus, that’s fantastic, but I won’t be convinced until I see the colour of their money.

Big bucks needs to be thrown around to protect vulnerable road users. Some tough decisions need to be made on how we want our cities to look in 20 years time. And the race tracks that are our rural roads need to be changed, too. Naturally, it will be far easier for MPs to lobby for things like helmet compulsion for cyclists rather than place draconian restrictions on the “freedoms” enjoyed – and exploited – by Mondeo-man.

And we’ve been here before. In the mid-1990s both Labour and the Conservatives seemed to be fighting over who could be the most cycle-friendly. But bugger all got done. All the promises, all the pledges, they all got broken. Beware politicians who promise they’ll make conditions in this country better for cyclists. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I can’t see anything being put in place any time soon that would make a genuine difference.

Soon The Times will tire of the cyclesafe campaign and move on to something else. In the meantime, many people will have been scared off their bikes. Now, thundering trucks passing within inches also scares people off bikes, but will UK politicians take a long-term view on the transport problems we face and do what really needs to be done and that’s restrict motorised traffic?

If cycle tracks are built (and built to standard) will space be taken from cars and trucks or taken from pedestrians? At the moment, it’s the latter but for any real progress to be made it needs to be the former.

As Andrew Davis asks “Why aren’t the centre of towns designed for people first? Why do we, in this country, aspire to so little?”

He continues: “We have got so used to living in places made dangerous by speeding cars and out-of-control trucks – and we just accept it. It doesn’t have to be this way. Our towns and cities can be made fit for pedestrians, cyclists, children and the infirm rather than trucks and cars.

“We have the money. We need the imagination. We need the will.”

And here’s the rub: when it comes to cyclists and pedestrians – and anybody else not in a car or truck – we don’t have the money, we don’t have the imagination and we certainly don’t have the will.

Some have suggested that the cyclesafe campaign by The Times could be the UK equivalent of ‘Stop the Child Murder’, the 1970s campaign in the Netherlands that helped make a cycle and pedestrian friendly country even more cycle and pedestrian friendly.

Maybe. But the British love affair with their cars (and the trucks that aimlessly circle ring roads, calling in at supermarkets when product shortages are flagged by computers) runs incredibly deep and it would take politicians with balls of steel to go against the wishes of the motorised majority. And by dangerising cycling – and walking – we run the risk of making more people take to cars.

Most of the coverage in today’s edition of The Times will do little to encourage cycling. It will do the exact opposite. The Times wants to protect cyclists by highlighting the dangers, and forcing legislators to “do something”, but that “something” will likely not be a joined-up network of protected cycle lanes on every stretch of busy road in the UK. I wish that it was but I shan’t be holding my breath – I’ve been to far too many ‘cycle strategy’ meetings with politicians.

Nevertheless, like Andrew Davis, I welcome the debate and genuinely hope something positive comes out of it.

Rooting through some back issues of Cycle Industry (the mag I used to own and edit before BikeBiz) the other day I came across a couple of issues from May and July 1996, the last time we had politicians saying they were going to do lots of exciting stuff for cyclists.

As I said in the editorial at the time (‘Cycling needs cash not soundbites’), if no cash was forthcoming to back up the fine words it was all just hot air.

If The Times can get politicians to agree to spending big chunks of cash on cyclists and on pedestrians, and less on infrastructure for cars and trucks, I’ll happily eat all of the cynical words above.

For now, read the words on the mag scans below (click to make bigger), and weep.





Roads Were Not Built for Cars

I’m writing a book about roads history and will be focussing on the period 1880-1905, which saw the Bicycling Boom and then – pop – the start of Motoring Mania.

You can learn more about this free e-book in this pitch:

The book will be free to download online. I chose this publication model in order to get the book seen by as many eyes as possible. You may know that Victorian cyclists did an awful lot to rehabilitate the use of roads – and helped to get them sealed, too – but this isn’t terribly well known outside of cycling. I’d like to change that. Producing a print book would make me more money but it restricts readership.

The book sprang from the ‘history of the Road Fund’ research I did for I then happened upon characters such as William Rees Jeffreys, an official with the CTC who started his 50 year career in getting better roads in Britain as a cyclist and who never forgot his roots.

In a 1949 book he wrote: “Cyclists were the class first to take a national interest in the conditions of the roads.”

Researching deeper and I found Rees Jeffreys wasn’t the only cyclist to have made a lasting impression on highways. In the US, the Good Roads movement was a nationally significant political force and without 30 years of campaigning it’s fair to say motoring wouldn’t have hit the ground running when it came to infrastructure.

If I can rehabilitate some of this history, and turn just a few peoples’ heads, I’ll be happy.

Mass motoring was soooo last century

Mass motoring was soooo last century

You don’t have to be a statistics boffin to see the flaws in this projection. Clearly, the UK’s love affair with motoring is tailing off. It has reached its peak and it now appears to be on the classic downward bell slope.

However, the RAC Foundation which uses the graph in its new report ‘Keep The Nation Moving’ – has ignored the downward slope and plotted a weird v-shape to make the graph go sky-wards. Why? To lobby for the building of more roads (and for road pricing to pay for some of it).

The graph was based on this similar graph from the Department for Transport:

Dft Motor Vehicle mileage graph

It was the RAC Foundation which added the weird v-shape projection.

On either graph, look at the early 1970s. Traffic demand flattened out, and this was in a major league global oil crisis. The latest figures don’t show a flattening out of demand, they clearly show a reduction in demand, and the drop started before the recession.

If the graph continues on that bell slope (we probably need another two or three years to be absolutely sure) we won’t need more and more roads. Roads are incredibly expensive to build and – long-term – even more expensive to maintain. If it’s likely we won’t need them, why build them?

Why can’t the DfT – and RAC Foundation – see what’s starting to become apparent in this graph? Mass motoring was soooo last century. We’ve reached ‘Peak Car’ and ‘Peak Asphalt’; ‘Peak Oil’ has either been and gone or is just around the corner. We shouldn’t build yet more roads, we should be investing in ways to get even more people out of cars, on top of the ones who have already decided bumper-to-bumper congestion isn’t for them.

Government transport departments are notoriously bad at predicting the future. In the 1820s, the stagecoach ruled, no Government department predicted the rise and rise of the railways. In the early 1900s, no transport minister said the future would belong to the motorcar. Trains were the future and that’s where the majority of spending was placed. Motorists had to fight tooth and nail to get funding for roads (a fight made easier by 30 years of work by cyclists, of course) and, as I document on, motorists paid for some road improvements via road tax and the Road Fund. This ended in 1937 and from then on everybody – most of whom were not motorists – started paying for roads, via national and local taxation (bit of a coup for motorists, hey?)

Today, the DfT and Government ministers – again – can’t see the writing on the wall. They assume the Car will be King for ever. History says this will not be the case: stagecoaches were replaced by trains; trains were replaced by cars. Wise transport planners and politicians would be planning for ‘what next’? Instead, as the graph shows, there are very few wise folks in charge of transport planning.

The policy wonks at the RAC Foundation are not dolts, they do see some of the writing on the wall. In the latest report, ‘Peak Car’ is introduced as a concept but rapidly dismissed:

“Intuitively [Peak Car] is plausible. It is impossible to envisage a time where all an individual’s waking hours are spent behind the wheel of a car. The thirst for more travel will be quenched long before that. This is an area which requires much more study.

But, significantly, ‘peak car’ does not remove the impact of ten million more people – who between them will drive four million more cars – in the UK in little more than two decades’ time. Whichever way you look at it, the result will be: more congestion.”

The RAC Foundation even realises there are transport options which don’t involve privately-owned metal boxes taking up public space, but it’s “other people” who need to get out of their cars, not “us”:

“Of course if a sizeable number of us found an alternative to using our cars, then our worries about the jams and their consequences – including the impact on our collective carbon footprint – would evaporate. We could spend our time, trouble and money addressing other issues. It is crucial that we encourage people to substitute their car use with something else where possible, but the evidence suggests that while such measures can reduce demand for personal motorised travel, they are not enough to stem the tide of congestion.

“Realistically, it is difficult to envisage many trips longer than five miles being transferred away from the car to walking or cycling.”

Subsidy for driving

And the RAC Foundation – like other parts of the roads lobby and like (former) Transport ministers – always stresses that railways are “subsidised” while spending on roads is “investment”, and motorists “pay for the roads”.

“Railways and buses – on average – cost the taxpayer money in subsidy: 15p per passenger mile travelled on the train;67 6p per mile per passenger on the bus. By contrast, drivers of cars and lorries contribute a net 7p per mile to the Exchequer in fuel duty and vehicle excise duty alone (excluding VAT). Even if public transport were an answer, would it be one we could afford?”

Costs of driving

The RAC Foundation also appears to be in favour of taxation opt-outs. All motoring taxes should be spent on motorists:

“There is no sign of government accepting the logic of ring-fencing a higher proportion of road tax revenue, particularly in the present economic circumstances. In part, the continued inability of 34 million drivers to get a fairer deal is a symptom of the lack of both a single, coherent consumer voice for motorists and a regulator to ensure that motorists get the service from the road network that they have paid for. There continues to be no formal recognition that road users are paying a great deal in return for the use of an asset – and, in contrast to the situation with our other utilities, far more than it costs to provide that asset.”

Why do Government’s oppose such ring-fencing? Because if motoring taxation was ring-fenced, all hell would break loose. Interest groups of all creeds and colours would start demanding “their” tax contributions should only go to fund “their” projects. Society does not work that way; cannot work that way.

There are no taxation opt-outs: married couples without kids cannot strike out the amount of tax that pays for schools; pacifists cannot strike out the amount of tax that goes on defence spending. And motorists can’t successfully demand that the money they give to the Government is given straight back to them in the shape of smoother, less congested roads, or more of them.

Smoother, less congested roads would be wonderful for all road users, not just motorists, and such infrastructure – a shared national resource – is paid for by all taxpayers, not just motorists. The public highway is, by definition, for the benefit of the public, not a sub-set of the public.


I’m interested in this stuff because I’m writing a book on the history of roads (and the forgotten contribution cyclists made to the roads of the UK and the USA). In the UK, only 1 percent of roads were specifically built for motorised vehicles. Add motorway-style trunk roads into the mix and you get 13 percent of UK roads which are mainly motorised vehicles only.

The majority of roads were not built for cars.

In the 1880s, cycling bodies in the UK and USA were the first bodies to push for road surface improvements. In the UK, the Roads Improvements Association paid for road trials of surface treatments, including asphalt and organised the first conferences on roads. The RIA was started as part of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. In the US, cyclists were even more influential. US presidents used to attend the AGM of the League of American Wheelmen.

Motorists clamour for the blackstuff but they need to thank cyclists for its adoption.

Speed sells


Mark Cavendish’s victory in yesterday’s world road race championships put him – partially – on the front covers of the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times. And the BBC asked Could cycling become the UK’s second-favourite sport, after football. Were he to follow up his Copenhagen sprint with a similar burst of speed at the London Olympics his place in the pantheon of British mainstream sporting greats will be for ever secure.

In 1893, an American sprinter was lauded for the same talent: A.A. ‘Zimmy’ Zimmerman had an explosive kick that saw off his rivals for most of his short career (1889-1896). He won the first ever ‘official’ road world championships and did so upon a Raleigh bicycle.

Zimmerman was one of the earliest professional sports stars. When he started riding for Raleigh, he wasn’t a pro, as – technically – this wasn’t allowed; he was a “maker’s amateur”, which amounted to the same thing. Raleigh owner Frank Bowden paid Zimmerman in diamonds, complained the National Cyclists’ Union, a racing organisation opposed to the payment of riders. Zimmerman had a huge following in the US and Europe. By 1894 he was openly a professional for Raleigh, was paid a fortune and made even more money from prizes and appearance fees. He also became one of the first athletes to license his name: there were Zimmy cycling shoes, Zimmy toe-clips and Zimmy clothes.

Raleigh sponsored him because speed sells. A famous poster of Zimmerman shows him astride his bike, in front of a sign listing his career wins to date, and watched by two cyclists in the touring garb of the day.


Frank Bowden – like Pope Manufacturing’s Colonel Albert A. Pope in the US – recognised that to sell bicycles to the masses, you have to stress speed.

Raleigh was still stressing speed in 1932, even when selling utility bikes to women.

Raleigh bicycle poster 1932

Speed is still important. But not in the sweat-fest sort of way, all head down and Lycra. One of cycling’s key advertised advantages, from the 1890s to today, is the ability to go door to door, swiftly. Cycle routes which steer away from the fastest A to B routes may direct cyclists away from busy, motorised traffic but it’s not just sport cyclists who want to follow ‘desire lines’, the shortest and more desirable routes.

In the UK, dedicated cycle routes are often circuitous, interrupted by junctions where cyclists do not have priority. They can add precious time to journeys. For cycle paths to be effective, they must be not only made safe for hesitant cyclists, they must be made fast. By fast, read direct.

Copenhagen does this well. Traffic lights propel cyclists on a ‘Green wave’: pedal at 20kmh and you hit green for much of your journey. The green wave is set to work best towards the city centre in the morning rush hour; and away from the city centre at 12 to 6pm.


Those who use their bikes to get to work want to arrive in the least time possible. If bike paths are provided, they need to be very wide, and well designed. In 1996, the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, writing about bike paths, said:

“The fast cycle commuter must not be driven off the highway onto a route that is designed for a 12-year-old or a novice on a leisure trip, because if that happens, the whole attempt to enlarge the use of the bicycle will have failed.”

The ‘fast cycle commuter’ does not just mean a sports cyclist on a carbon road bike. Dutch roadsters can be pedalled fast, and so can Boris Bikes. Any well serviced bike with correctly inflated tyres – even dual-suss Bicycle Shaped Objects – can reach giddy speeds, especially downhill. For some people, bicycles may be ‘aids to walking’ but if bikes travelled no faster than pedestrians, why cycle at all?

Joe Breeze with Breezer #1 (built 1977)

At Interbike, I met up with Joe Breeze, one of the founding fathers of mountain biking. We talked about cycling and speed. He may have built the first designed-for-the-job clunker (it was Gary Fisher who helped popularise the name ‘mountain bike’) but Breeze got into the bike biz to spread his love of utility cycling, cycling from town to town. His father built race cars in California, but rode to work on a bicycle. Breeze Jnr started racing bikes to prove what Bowden, Pope, Zimmerman and others had been promoting: that bicycles are fast.

“In the 1970s, I saw road racing as a stepping stone. Bicycles in America were seen as a children’s sidewalk toy, for riding round your neighbourhood only. I saw cycling, through my father, as a way to get somewhere. And through racing you could show people how quickly you can get from A to B. Maybe there’d be a little squib in the newspaper about it the next day and people would go ‘oh, you can get from A to B in a short amount of time.'”

In ‘The Art and Pastime of Cycling’ of 1893, journalists R.J. Mecredy and A.J. Wilson wrote:

“The faculty for enjoying rapid locomotion is one which is implanted in the human breast from earliest childhood, and the fact of one’s unaided efforts being the active cause of this locomotion enhances the pleasures derived from it.”

In 1878, Gerard Cobb, president of the Bicycle Union and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, wrote that cycling was “primarily of commercial importance” but was also of practical benefit:

“…the ease with which a bicycle can be driven, the distance it enables its riders to cover, its speed…added to its durability and comparative cheapness, render it by far the best form of road-locomotion for all to whom economy, whether of time or money, is object. As such its use is daily extending among professional men of all classes [and] working men are getting more and more to use them for their daily transit to and from work.”

Speed – to and from work – remains important. A survey of Copenhagen bicycle users found that the number one reason people ride is because it’s faster than any other mode of transport. Fifty-five percent of Copenhagen riders said they bike because it’s fast. Only 9 percent of Copenhagen bicycle users ride because it’s deemed good for the environment.

So, when pushing for dedicated bicycle infrastructure we must always bear in mind that today, and in the past, speed has always gone hand in hand with convenience. Make cycling slow and it loses a big part of its appeal.

I have certainly borne this in mind with the latest version of the Bike To Work Book (112 pages of bicycling goodness, available below or for iPads, free). This has lots of advice on why cycling doesn’t have to be a sweaty affair and to beat cars in major cities you don’t have to get hot under the collar: cars often crawl along, whereas bikes sail past the jams. The section on commuter challenges points out you don’t have to stress out to beat cars in town. Speediness does not equate to excessive perspiration (sweating is cited by many people as a reason not to cycle).

But I beefed up the cover lines, adding: “You can get around town QUICKER by bike.”


Click on the page to read in full-screen, and hit left or right arrows to navigate through the book.



Some of the historical background to this posting was taken from the new book Quest for Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing, 1868-1903, by Andrew Ritchie.


Battle for Blackfriars: Money and power corrupts

In media interviews on Friday night – the night of the Blackfriars flashride – Ben Plowden talked about the redesign of the junction on the northern half of Blackfriars Bridge. This is where a bike lane is being squeezed and an extra car lane installed. Cycling groups are dead against this redesign, and so are pedestrian groups. The London branch of Living Streets (formerly known as the Pedestrians’ Association) said TfL’s plans would result in a “motorway-style road layout.”

Ben Plowden’s family and work background suggest he’d be a staunch opponent of Transport for London’s plans for Blackfriars. From May 1997 to July 2002 Plowden was director of the Pedestrians’ Association. He was the organisation’s first full-director and it was he who led the change to switch the name of the org to Living Streets.

Plowden’s grandfather was an important civil servant who rode his bike to work and wrote an anti-car polemic in the 1970s (The Motor Car And Politics 1896–1970, William Plowden) that was radical at the time, and is still radical today.

But Plowden Junior is not opposed to TfL’s plans. In fact, he’s very much in favour of them. But then he would be: he’s the Director of Better Routes and Places at Transport for London. Is he toeing the company line or does he really believe it’s a positive move to remodel a wide bike lane to make more room for cars and lorries?

Let’s examine some of his views. But not from Friday’s TV and radio interviews, from the earlier Ben Plowden, the Ben Plowden who didn’t have a well-paid executive job with Transport for London.

In 2001 he wrote a piece for the New Statesman in his role as director of the Pedestrians’ Association.

We need to put pedestrians first in urban transport planning. Over the past 40 years, our towns and cities have been brutalised. Urban streets have become routes designed for one function only – to carry as much traffic as possible. The result is public spaces designed by engineers and dominated by the noise and danger of cars and lorries.

Creating places for people…will require strong and enlightened local leadership.

Also in 2001 he penned a polemic for the Open Democracy website:

If you want people to go somewhere and spend time and money, you have to give them a safe, attractive and people-centred environment.

Roads need to be re-designed to reflect the fact that they are social and cultural spaces as well as traffic routes.

In 2002, shortly before he moved to TfL, as Director of Integrated Programme Delivery – he wrote:

For thousands of years…streets have also been places for movement. People walking, riding horses and later bicycles, or travelling in coaches and buses. And goods being carried on people’s backs, by horse and cart or lorry.

But the arrival of mass car ownership and the dawn of the Motor Age transformed the character of roads and streets. The movement of cars and lorries has become their primary function. Motorised traffic has literally driven out all the other jobs streets used to do. What the Danish architect Jan Gehl describes as the ‘life between buildings’ has been ruthlessly suppressed.

The new primacy of the traffic function of streets has had a number of effects. Villages, towns and cities have been reconstructed to accommodate cars and lorries. Roads have been widened, junctions re-modelled and space given over to moving and stationary traffic.

The noise, stench and physical danger of traffic make being outside unpleasant or even impossible.

It is not just the environment that has been re-designed for traffic. Planning and highways departments in most local authorities are staffed and structured round the need to keep traffic moving. The education, training and career structures of transport planners and highway engineers are orientated towards designing, building and managing road infrastructure. Few people in national or local government have the skills needed to think creatively about the use of streets as anything other than traffic routes.

The most important requirement is local political leaders with a clear sense that streets are for people, not just for traffic.

Hear, hear!

If only the Ben Plowden of 2011 could tune back in to the Ben Plowden of ten years ago. Reducing a bike lane and adding a car lane is not something the younger Plowden would have countenanced. Clearly, wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age.

Defending Northumbria (and the low-risk activity that is cycling)

[UPDATED – see base] David Hembrow has a very popular blog. He’s the cycling campaigner who worked to improve conditions in Cambridge for 10 years before he moved his family to the Netherlands. He takes potshots at the UK’s dire cycling infrastructure. He’s almost always right: cycling in the UK, especially in cities, can be a fraught experience, especially for ‘nanas and nippers’.

In his latest posting he criticises the cycling conditions prevalent in Wiltshire (specifically Stonehenge) and Northumberland. Now, Stonehenge is a famous disaster area, ringed by busy roads that shame this country, but Northumberland is pristine cycling country and maligning it in the same breath as Stonehenge is wholly unfair.

David quotes a Dutch website which says that “Northumbria has the most beautiful, well marked cycle paths” which “criss-cross through the area and take you to interesting places”. David asks: “I’d like to know where they are.”

Er, pretty much all over this fine county, David.

He agrees that Northumberland is a “lovely area, but when we were on holiday there, all our cycling was on roads…There’s a lot of exaggeration about.”

Exaggeration? If anything, Northumberland is undersold.

Miffed, I left a comment on David’s site:

David, I was with you until your Northumbria comments. We live in Newcastle so we regularly take family cycle trips in Northumberland.

Out in the sticks you’re riding on roads, but you will see maybe just a couple of cars per day. In the College valley, motorists have to pay to get permits to drive through, and there’s a limit of 12 per day.

To get from Tynemouth out into the depths of the countryside, follow the Sustrans Reivers Route. Much of it is traffic-free in Tyneside because of the many former mineral line cycle paths. Once past hot-spots such as Ponteland the motorised traffic drops off massively and Northumberland becomes wonderful cycling country, on or off road. Tourist literature doesn’t do this part of the world justice, and is definitely not exaggerating.

Now, Stonehenge and environs is different, and truly awful, but don’t put ‘Northumbria’ into the same category.

My kids have been cycling quite happily and safely in Northumberland since the age of 6.

Northumberland would be a great destination for Dutch families and their bikes.

There’s separated infrastructure from the ferry to the mineral lines. Some of it is not up to Dutch standards but so long as the cyclists don’t try to reach Newcastle, they’ll be alright.

I’ve written about family cycling in Northumberland for National Geographic Traveller. Extract here.

I’ve also written about the Netherlands for NGT, and waxed lyrical about family cycling there, but you don’t have to go to the Netherlands to experience the perfect cycling holiday: Northumberland is stunning, and very lightly travelled.

The Reid family has been on many day-trips into Northumberland (cycling from home) and three week-long jaunts (again, cycling from home). Here are pix from some of those trips.

Kielder water


Josh on a boardwalk by the North Sea on the Sustrans Coast and Castles route.


Ellie on the traffic-free path near Druridge Bay on the Coast and Castles route.

Reivers Route, descending the Ryals

The hill descent near Ryal, not a car in sight.

Reivers Route, Bewcastle

On this particular road near Bewcastle I don’t think we saw any more than two cars in about three hours of riding.

Josh cycling as he smiles (or smiling as he cycles)

Josh seems to be enjoying himself. This is near Clennell Street, on the way to Kielder.

Ryal descending

Let’s play “Spot the car”. It’s a long game when you’re in the depths of Northumberland

Descending to Kielder

The cycle path skirting Kielder lake. The biggest danger around here isn’t motorists but midgies.

Ride to Blyth 26

Well-surfaced, well-signposted cycle route on Tyneside, thanks to a network of former mineral lines.


Lesson learnt: Don’t ever point out flaws in the arguments raised by David Hembrow. Even a little. In the comments section of his blog he says: “There’s no opinion here, just statements of fact” and “this is the truth.” After reading the National Geographic Traveller article about cycle touring in Northumbria (“…pictures on your link which show helmeted cyclists on gravelly paths…”) he wrote:

“You are willing to take risks with your children that other people don’t see as acceptable to take with theirs.”

Risks? By cycling in Northumberland? Apparently so:

“Just like everything else, cycling on “lonely roads” also carries a risk. A large proportion of the total crashes that cyclists have are single party crashes. If you were to have such a crash, or if you were to have a medical emergency in a sufficiently remote place it is possible that you would never be found.”

Such a risk seems to be confined to the UK:

“You are willing to take risks with your children that other people don’t see as acceptable to take with theirs. This doesn’t happen in the Netherlands. No-one sees cycling as a risk…”

Perhaps David will again accuse me of non-contextual editing – “you have quoted back to me half of one of my sentences out of context in order to try to continue a pointless argument” – even though he’s happy to lift partial quotes from my comments:

“However, thank you for proving my point both with your words: “Much of it is traffic-free”, “Once past hot-spots”, “so long as the cyclists don’t try to reach Newcastle”…

When I suggested his comments about my parenting skills (“You are willing to take risks with your children…”) weren’t terribly kind or accurate, he was in no mood for compromise:

“There’s no opinion here, just statements of fact. I’m more going to “retract” this than I am to retract that the grass is green.”

I’m happy to retract stuff. David was upset that, in the bio above, I said he so hated the cycling conditions in Cambridge he moved his family to the Netherlands. I’ve changed that to the description he suggested.

To put all of the quotes here into their full context it’s well worth reading the debate in the round on David’s excellent blog, but don’t expect a happy ending. David ends the discussion thus:

“please stop the bullshit. I’m bored of your arguing, bored of your pretense, bored of your paranoia and simply don’t believe that you can really be this stupid.”

Sadly, David is no longer OKaying my comments on his blog even though two commenters – including ‘Freewheeler’ – have been let through to write comments disagreeing with me. Debate is good: we can’t all agree with each other all of the time. For the record, here’s the comment, written yesterday, that David won’t OK:

Here we go again, folks assuming I’m anti-seperation.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

On my blog, a commenter sides with David and then launches into an attack on the “old guard of cycling advocacy”. He then suggests I read Dr Dave Horton’s work. I replied that I know it well because I published a huge article of Dave’s and promoted it widely.

My original point was to suggest David revise his views of Northumberland. I thought it unfair he lumped it in with the awful busy roads around Stonehenge, and implying that tourist boards exaggerate about their localities. Some might, but Visit Northumberland doesn’t. I said if anything, it undersells the place. 25 miles from Newcastle and you can be on roads where you may see 2-3 cars all day long.

Northumberland really is a wonderful place for family cycling, and Dutch cyclists could ride off the ferry and straight into the depths of Northumberland on traffic-free paths nearly as good as found in the Netherlands. David doesn’t seem to know this and was unwilling to do anything other than to selectively list some of my quotes and turn them back on me.

He wanted to prove that Newcastle has poor cycle infrastructure, a point I would be in full agreement on.

But the first point was about Northumberland.

None of this needed to spiral into the kind of abuse I later got.

I have been civil and respectful in these postings. I also revised some text that David took a dislike to on my blog (I am always ready to admit to my mistakes). What did I get from David? I’m “stupid”, “vain” “boring”; and full of “pretense” “paranoia” and “bullshit”.

Was any of that called for? Is any of that *ever* called for?