London Cycling Campaign’s current rallying cry - #space4cycling - is very clever, and on a national level, not just for London. No cyclist could possibly disagree with the slogan because the words can mean different things to different people. Those in favour of protected infrastructure can take it to mean ‘provision of dedicated separated bike paths’; those in favour of Hackney-style filtered permeability can take it to mean ‘installation of bollards to cut-out rat-runs’; and so-called ‘vehicular cyclists’ (a largely American term, its inventor, surprisingly, still getting mainstream media airtime) can take it to mean ’sharing the road with motor vehicles is easier when motorists treat cyclists as drivers of vehicles and give them space when overtaking’.
I’m a mix of all the above, and even more. (Vehicular cyclist? Yes, in the sense that, in the here and now, and probably long into the future, I’ll be cycling on roads with motor vehicles on them. This is not a desire, more a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. However, I dislike the term ‘driving a bicycle’ even though, historically, it isn’t motoring-specific: driving means herding cattle).
There’s currently a fascinating debate on Twitter about the different meanings of #space4cycling, with some commentators believing #space4cycling means, by definition, taking space away from motorists to give to cyclists; and others believing no such land grab is necessary.
What’s not been mentioned yet, but can be sometimes spotted in comments on tweets and blogs where wide footways are pictured, is that some cycle campaigners wouldn’t be opposed to space being taken away from pedestrians and given to cyclists.
Some past, existing and future public highway designs give a lot of space to pedestrians, funnelling cyclists and motorists into narrow carriageways that are sometimes frustrating for all road users, but cities should give over lots of space to pedestrians.
Cycling campaigners and pedestrians ought to be on the same side here and that’s why #space4cycling might have been more inclusive, more powerful - and, eventually, more successful - if, instead, it had been billed as #space4people.
It still could be. There’s no reason why #space4people couldn’t run alongside #space4cycling. (BTW, I’m very much NOT proposing more shared footways-cum-cyclepaths).
Going back to the twitter debate above, can #space4cycling (or #space4people) be achieved without taking space from motorised vehicles? Without removing car parking spaces? And, if not, shouldn’t this be made explicit by campaigners?
Naturally, it wouldn’t go down well with the motorised majority and it’s something that you could imagine would make Eric Pickles froth at the mouth, but can ‘reallocation of roadspace’ and other forms of #space4cycling really be done without some winners and some losers?
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On Your Bike was a short-lived family cycling magazine I published in 1998 and 1999. Within seven issues it had grown too big for me and my small team to handle, so I sold it. I sold it to EMAP of Peterborough, the publisher of Country Walking and a load of fishing titles. The person in charge of the purchase was a family cyclist. She ‘got’ what the magazine was all about. However, in a management tussle, she was replaced and the replacement turned the magazine into a mountain bike title. I was a paid consultant for the magazine. I told EMAP they were making a big mistake: the gap in the market was for a magazine for everyday cyclists. Within a year, the mountain bike version of the magazine folded.
What a waste.
Below are some of the magazine covers and some of the magazine articles. Contributors included Richard Ballantine; Glenda Jackson; and a youthful-looking Edmund King, then with the RAC not the AA.
I can see my current obsession with pavement parking was alive and kicking even in 1998. There’s praise for separated bike lanes in the magazine and a ‘Go Dutch’ article from Groningen’s Kirsten Oosterhof. Kirsten was one of the people I was employing at the time and she also worked on Cycle Industry, the trade magazine my business produced on a contract-publishing basis before I founded Bicycle Business (which I later sold to Intent Media and it became Bike Biz).
On Your Bike always had a very low Lycra content and there was a policy to use photographs of people riding with and without cycle helmets.
The magazine clearly struck a chord with many people: a call for families to send in details of their riding resulted in a huge influx of pix.
I was proud of On Your Bike. Still am. Issue seven - the last under my full control - featured a photograph of toddler Josh, my son (my twin girls had yet to be born). Pleasingly, Josh has grown up to be a mad keen cyclist, which was always one of the goals of the magazine: to create and encourage new cyclists.
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Groningen in the Netherlands and my hometown of Newcastle became twin cities just after the Second World War. This twinning was ratified in 1988.
Apart from both cities having lots of students there are not too many similarities between Newcastle and Groningen. In fact, the differences between the two cities are startling, especially where transport is concerned. Where Newcastle is in thrall to the car, Groningen is in thrall to the bicycle. (And to the bus).
57 percent of the journeys within Groningen are made by bicycle, something that didn’t happen by chance. As the Streetfilms video below shows, there were radical transport decisions made in the 1970s by left-leaning city politicians (albeit with 70 years of pro-cycling culture on their side). Car journeys were made longer, more difficult; bicycle journeys were made shorter and easier.
In contrast, just a few years before Groningen curbed car use Newcastle’s corrupt city politicians wanted to make their city hyper friendly to the private motor car, creating what they wanted to the “Brasilia of the North”, a reference to the brutally Modernist and car-dependent capital of Brazil.
Newcastle’s double-decker central motorway is awful enough but there were plans for even more motorways. Can Newcastle ‘Go Dutch’? The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands is staging the ‘Love Cycling Go Dutch’ conference on November 5th. Expect fireworks.
The Streetfilms video is inspiring. Do watch it all the way through.
Cars of the future will be fitted with Shocka-seats™ that give drivers jacksie jolts every time they shout at cyclists “oi, you don’t pay road tax”. Actually, cars won’t need to be so equipped because the most dangerous component on the car - the loose nut behind the steering wheel - could soon be eradicated. Manually driving a car may become a quaint, how-we-used-to-live museum piece, with an animatronic Jeremy Clarkson explaining what a clutch was.
The day is near when we’ll wonder how we ever let humans pilot heavy and fast machines on the public highway next to unprotected humans. (In fact, I wonder that now). When all cars are self-driving, equipped with Light Detecting and Ranging LIDAR and 360-degree cameras, there will be no more ’sorry, mate I didn’t see you’, or SMIDSYs. And the autonomous car will also know when it’s unsafe for the ‘driver’ to exit: dooring of cyclists will be history.
With cars that don’t kill, taxis without cabbies, and HGVs driven by computers not blindspot-afflicted drivers, there will less need for hard infrastructure. Many bicycle advocates believe we’ve started on a Dutch-style 40-year trajectory to getting segregated cycle paths almost everywhere but driverless cars will be here long before the end of that. Why build bike lanes when robocars and driverless trucks will be programmed to know all about space4cycling?
That’s one vision of the future. A more dystopian one involves platoons of speeding robocars making roads even more deeply unpleasant and motor-centric than they often are today. Pedestrians and cyclists may have to be restricted “for their own safety.” After all, if you knew the tipper truck barrelling towards you will automatically brake if you wobbled out in front of it, you’d have little incentive to stay in the gutter and every incentive to play one-sided chicken. Claiming the lane would take on a whole new meaning as cyclists blithely blocked robovehicles. The authorities would be put under immense pressure to stamp out jaywalking - and jaycycling. With cars able to speed through junctions, electronically interacting with each other, and with no need for traffic lights, it would be harder for humans outside of driverless cars to use the roads.
Semi-driverless cars have actually been with us for a while. Adaptive cruise control - which uses radar or lasers to measure the distance to the car in front, slowing or accelerating the car depending on the gap - has been evolving since the late 1990s.
Volvo has had pedestrian detection tech since 2010 and, in March this year, at the Geneva motor show, Volvo executive Doug Speck entered, stage left, on a wooden bicycle to introduce cars that avoid cyclists, too. Volvo’s tech - snappily titled ‘Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection with full auto brake’ and promoted with anti-SMIDSY adverts - kicks in when on-board radar and cameras spot a cyclist about to be squashed. The Volvo takes over from the driver and, even at speeds of up to 80kmh, jams on the brakes. Inspired by Sweden’s wonderful Vision Zero road safety policy, which aims for no road deaths whatsoever, Volvo’s “driver support” package with collision avoidance technology, and adaptive cruise control, puts an extra £2400 on the price of the car and is “very popular”, says Dr Andrew Backhouse, one of Volvo’s Senior Function Developers.
Dr Backhouse is British but based in Sweden and works on Volvo’s pedestrian and cyclist detection software. He told me:
“The system continuously calculates what avoidance manoeuvres are required in order to avoid a collision. If the only braking manoeuvre that will avoid a collision is by slamming on the brakes, then the system goes in and triggers the brakes.”
‘Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection with full auto brake’ is part of Volvo’s journey towards a fully autonomous car. The company is beta testing cars that drive off by themselves to find parking spaces.
On-street parking clogging up the roads? Soon to be a thing of the past. Driverless cars will drop the passenger off at the shops and scuttle away to a hidey-hole, returning to pick up the rider at just the right time.
City planners are licking their lips: they think they’ll be able to get rid of street clutter and, without spending a penny on new infrastructure, squeeze ever more motor vehicles through the existing roads.
“Most people pushing driverless cars are doing so on the basis it will allow a higher volume of traffic on the roads because cars will be able to travel closer together. If this is the case, the only way this works is if you remove pedestrians and cyclists from the equation. As long as someone can still step out in traffic who is not controlled electronically, then you really can’t increase speeds and volume much beyond what they are now.”
“Cycling could be great for commute times. Many commuters might be happy to get a ride to the outskirts of the [central business district], but as they enter the congested zone, have their car drop them off next to a bike for a quick ride to work.”
While an advocate for robocars, he reckons street clutter will be with us for a while yet: “It’s a fair bit of time before [robocars] dominate the road and much longer until there are no human drivers out on the roads. So we still need the signs and the kerbs for a while. [But] as more and more cars become less of a danger, the road becomes more safe.”
While a recent AA/Populus survey found 65 percent of respondents “enjoyed driving too much to ever want a driverless car”, that means 35 percent are already willing to hand control of their driving to microprocessors. “The marketplace will not merely accept self-driving vehicles,” asserts the KPMG/Centre for Automotive Research report, “it will be the engine pulling the industry forward.”
Autonomous cars are coming whether we think we want them or not. As Volvo executive Toscan Bennett explains, “Who wouldn’t want a car which drops you at your doorstep and then goes off and parks itself?”
This driver benefit could be a benefit, too, for those in favour of liveable streets. Many of our roads are clogged with this private property storage on the public highway and if driverless cars scuttled away and hid until needed (VW Beetle, indeed) there would be a lot more space for cyclists and pedestrians.
However, there would also be greater road-space for ramming in more and more fast moving cars. Where congestion is concerned, history shows us that technological fixes promise much but never deliver. London’s tube trains were meant to remove above-ground traffic. In fact, the underground increased surface congestion. Replacing the Victorian horse with cars was meant to double the capacity of London’s roads. It didn’t.
Similarly, the sweating-the-assets promise of driverless cars won’t cure congestion. Instead, it’s highly likely more journeys will be made, quickly negating any benefit.
And more and more journeys will mean the clogged roads of today will be remembered as comparatively empty. There will be pressures to speed up the traffic using more and more tech, and perhaps pressure to restrict the freedom of cyclists and pedestrians. (Robocars will be fitted with car-cams and will capture video evidence of law-breaking cyclists, who will be called out on YouTube, using their registration numbers…)
Or - spinning the futurology dice again - there could be more space for cyclists because the accurately-driven robocars and semi-robocars of the future will be able to stick to very narrow virtual lanes, freeing up space for active travel modes.
CTC’s Roger Geffen said:
“It is hard to tell what driverless car technology would do for cycling.
“It might lead to vast improvements in cyclists’ safety, eliminating the risks from those who drive aggressively, irresponsibly or just without paying attention.
“Then again, if pedestrians and cyclists can run or swerve out in front of cars knowing they will stop, some people will doubtless take advantage of this. That would infuriate drivers, leading to calls for jay-walking and on-road cycling to be banned altogether.
“Cycling’s very survival would then be wholly dependent on getting comprehensive, high-quality segregated cycle networks built.
“Either way, we need to start thinking through the implications of driverless cars.”
And we’d better start thinking about this soon. Driverless cars will be tested on the public roads of Britain by the end of this year, says the Government.
The Department for Transport’s new £28bn plan for Britain’s roads confirms that driverless car technology is on the Government’s LIDAR: “Vehicles that can autonomously manage actions that are currently reserved for the driver…could, in the future, be able to carry out all of the driver tasks. Semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles…have the potential to make our roads work better for everyone.”
Everyone? That’s not yet a given. For sure it would be good to eliminate human error, by far the main cause of crashes, and driverless cars would definitely be good for blind/young/old/distractable/angry/disabled/drunk riders but even though we may own less cars in the future - just rent a robocar via the cloud - we run the very real risk of making our incredibly car-dependent society even more car-dependent.
One fix could be road-pricing. This is unpalatable right now but connected cars will allow for easier and easier micro-tolling. Naturally, this favours the rich, who will be the first to use robocars. No doubt the UK Government will also subsidise these rich motorists, in the same way the Government today offers £5000 bribes to multi-car families so they can add electric cars to their fleets. Robocars, called for and sent away with smartphone apps, promise stress-free mobility for elites and you can imagine a future where insurance restrictions, and legislation, allows access to some roads in robocars only.
It may take 30 to 40 years before the roads of Britain are fully populated with driverless cars. In the meantime, legislators could lean on the EU’s New Car Assessment Programme to make sure every new car is equipped with Volvo-style cyclist and pedestrian auto brake technology. (We may be waiting a while. Dr Backhouse said: “Euro NCAP is planning to introduce ratings for collision avoidance systems. 2014 will see the first ratings. There is a lot of talk about testing the system on pedestrians. Nothing is planned for cyclists though.)”
If cars no longer kill us we will be able to use the roads again, without fear. Bike paths? Where we’re going we won’t need bike paths, as Dr Emmett Brown might have said.
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