Cycle Lanes, Cycle Tracks, or as I prefer to call them 'Cycle Prisons'. Call them what you will, the end result is normally the same for the end user. We get trapped, generally demoted down the road hierarchy, squeezed, slowed down and held up. I know this opinion is likely to put me at odds with a considerable number of my cycling contemporaries, who actively campaign for such facilities, but there are always two sides to every argument. So let's look at the idealistic beliefs and the sad realities that in my opinion pop this particular Utopian balloon.
Reality - The only places where the traffic truly gets snarled up will be the places where the cycle lanes aren't. Just face facts: these days competition for use of the road surface is so intense that no-one is actually going to give valuable real-estate to a minority group to the detriment of everyone else. Therefore, if you don't get any benefit from the cycle lane where you actually need it, what benefit do you get from it where you don't? Er, none, of course.
Reality - Cycle lanes are actually for the benefit of motorists. The whole idea of the cycle lane is to keep the rest of the road free of cyclists, so that motorists will no longer get held up. Don't believe me? Then ask yourself under what circumstances a motorist could get held up by a cyclist in the vicinity of a cycle lane. Ah yes, what about 'advance stop lines' at traffic lights? Those would be the boxes that cyclists are supposed to be able to use at traffic lights to get across the junction in safety before all the motorised traffic gets going, assuming they can reach the box in the first place of course, and that some motorist hasn't deliberately covered it.
Need I say more? The mere fact that the advance stop line is actually in danger of conferring a real advantage to cyclists means that it just becomes yet another battleground. Cyclists do not benefit from rules. The more rules there are, the worse everything gets. Imagine you have a rule that says 'A must give way to B'. All well and good, you would think, unless you are a cyclist. If you are 'A', then you must give way to 'B'. If you are 'B' then you must assume that 'A' will not give way to you, even though they should. You cannot benefit from the rule. Only motorists can benefit from rules, which is why so many motorists want the rules to be enforced. Of course they do. They're the ones that will benefit.
Reality - If no other vehicles or pedestrians crossed or occupied them, and you could safely enter or leave them wherever you needed to, then maybe that would be the case. The reality is that cycle lanes are criss-crossed by cars and pedestrians at random, and generally regarded as a convenient place to park. It's quite obvious that a cycle lane is a less contentious space, so it will be abused in preference to blocking the road. Everybody's got to park somewhere.
But let's get this in perspective. Cycle use is still far safer than car use. Whether or not you choose to wear a helmet, the real way to avoid a head injury is not to travel inside a car, where the risk remains many times greater. But such increasingly rare events are not the real danger of car use. The real problem is the devastating effect it has on your health. Obesity and lack of exercise will take 10 years off your life, and lower the quality of any that remains. That's not a worst-case scenario - that's the average. You will feel slow, flabby, lack-lustre, dull, and before long you will not even realise there is any other way to feel. Trust me, there is.
Reality - Pictures of ridiculous and very humurous 'cycle facilities' litter the web, and whilst these images do highlight a serious point, the fact is that whilst having a tree growing out of the middle of your cycle lane is good at grabbing headlines, it isn't particularly dangerous. The truly dangerous cycle lanes are a lot more subtle, and only the experienced eye of a regular cyclist will spot them. Pity the inexperienced cyclist who will blunder straight into them.
For example, you will often find parking spaces immediately to the left of a cycle lane, such that if any car reverses just a single metre they will cross your path in a fraction of a second. Does that make you feel safer? No. Of course, if you cycle further away from the parked cars, some kind soul will blow their horn at you and hurl abuse for 'not using the cycle lane'. Suddenly you find yourself in a situation where you can't win. The solution is not to create such a useless lane in the first place, but inevitably you will find that the people creating these lanes aren't the ones using them. They're the ones driving past.
However, by far the most dangerous thing a cyclist can ever do when using a cycle lane is to leave it, even in an emergency, which is why I describe them as a 'prison'. If someone parks across your lane, the traffic behind you will not let you out, and you will be forced to wait for a gap. This is natural behaviour, and something motorists do on every dual-carriageway and motorway. It's dog eat dog out there. Nobody lets anybody change lane. Just get rid of the lane, however, and guess what? Something remarkable happens. The traffic behind you will actually let you out, because to them you're just a cyclist passing a parked car. It's amazing!
The plain fact is that once you are in a cycle lane, the traffic behind expects you to stay inside it. The fact that it might be full of glass, pot-holes, diesel, or that you actually want to turn right and visit that shop over the road is neither here nor there. You are now in a separate lane, and you must therefore give way to the motorised traffic behind you since it is in a different lane. No longer are you all 'in the same boat', with the responsibility on the faster vehicle to safely overtake. No, now they have the right to barrel along the road without any consideration for you whatsoever, and if you pull out of your lane and get in their way it is your fault, no matter what the reason. Welcome to Cell Block H.
Reality - Councils only spend money in order to avoid litigation. This is why the issue of fault is so important these days. It is therefore no surprise to discover that the whole system is actually designed to prevent blame falling on anyone other than the cyclist. As a result, the cycle lanes we are left with are the ones that successfully avoid blame, not injury. It's a subtle, but rather deadly difference.
Reality - A cycle lane is more of an open-plan bottle-bank that is designed to give the cyclist priority over absolutely no-one. Honestly, if someone reverses out of their drive without even looking, it is the cyclist's responsibility to avoid them, because there will probably be one of those signs that says 'Cyclists Dismount' every 10 yards. Don't believe me? Then take a look at this photograph. In whose interest are all these signs? A: Non-cyclists.
Let's hammer this point home a little harder. As a cyclist on a cycle lane you are demoted to the lowest form of life in the whole transport hierarchy. If you cross a road (which on average will happen about every few hundred yards) then you do so entirely at your own risk. If you let anybody in any vehicle anywhere hit you, it is your fault. No wonder no-one even sees you - when you use a cycle lane no-one has to even bother trying to avoid you.
The consequences of this are dire, and very real. Only recently Scotland's best cyclist, Jason MacIntyre, was killed as he cycled along a cycle path that crossed a road. He was flattened by a van blithely turning right into a depot. The driver didn't even bother looking. Why, when only a tiny proportion of the traffic using that road turns into the depot, was the van driver afforded the right of way over the cyclist? We all know the reason why. Somehow we, as a society, just cannot afford to give priority to anything other than motorised traffic. The van driver has work to do, places to go, busy, busy, busy.
The fact that this is a complete fallacy makes it even more galling. Our Dutch neighbours are almost identical to us in every respect. They have a high population density, high GDP per capita, an urbanised lifestyle, and their winters are just as cold and wet as ours. Yet despite this they have levels of cycling that defy belief, and make us look like a nation of lazy slobs. Which, truth be told, we are. How come their roads don't clog up with drivers giving way to cyclists? How come their economy doesn't grind to a halt? It's because that for every person that cycles, there is suddenly ten times that amount of empty space on the road. How's that for reducing your footprint?
One last time, let's hammer this point home as hard as we possibly can. If you are a cyclist and you cycle on enough cycle lanes that cross enough side roads, you will die. To paraphrase a popular saying:
You can avoid all of the traffic some of the time, and you can avoid some of the traffic all of the time, but you cannot avoid all of the traffic all of the time.
Until cyclists on cycle lanes are given equal priority with motorised traffic, then any cyclist who uses them often enough is just signing their own death sentence. The roads are safer because a cyclist has equal priority, and this whole issue of priority simply cannot be swept under the carpet. I have a responsibility to my wife and family to stay alive, but I also have an obligation to lead a non-destructive life. Doing this is not simply just a matter of 'taking more care at junctions'. Like American cars of the 1950's, these cycle routes are 'dangerous by design'.
Reality - Think again. I'm not the only one questioning the utility of Cycle Paths. The following excerpt comes from Cycling Plus Issue 228 October 2009 Page 122:
“A 20-year study into the cycling paths of Milton Keynes found that the red path network there proved to be consistently less safe than the town's unrestricted main roads. Meanwhile, a similar survey from Helsinki in Finland and Lund in Sweden found that using a roadside cycle path means you're nearly two and a half times more likely to be injured than cycling on a carriageway with traffic.”
So what lessons should we take from this research?
Therefore until such time as we live in an ideal world I would advise all cyclists to treat cycle paths with extreme caution. Until then I would also advise all drivers to grow up and learn how to share the road. Who gives a stuff what the rules are? Rules don't keep cyclists alive - they just help to allocate the blame. What's the point of being right, but dead?
By now it should hopefully come as absolutely no surprise to discover that a study of cyclist fatalities in London has indicated that those that obey the rules of the road (i.e. women) are more likely to die than those that don't (i.e. men). Is this yet another 'Inconvenient Truth' for those who persist in demanding that cyclists obey the rules? I certainly hope so.
The road is just a strip of tarmac, created to transport us all to our destinations. It doesn't take rules to know how to empathise with other people's needs and show some respect. I show as much respect as I can for other road users, because I expect it in return. I empathise as much as I can because I too use a motorbike and a car (and on occasion tow a 40 foot boat-trailer, but so far nothing bigger!). How hard is it for others to do the same? I just don't see the problem.
Reality - We are never going to end up with a 'parallel network' to cover every journey. There just isn't the space. Any attempt to do so is just going to create more useless facilities, and reinforce the idea that cyclists shouldn't use roads, and can therefore be designed out. There are a small number of sections of the road network around where I live that are already no-go areas for cyclists. It only takes a few black spots such as these and whole journeys become impossible. After all, from where I live, there is only one road that crosses the M4 for miles, and as a 3-lane roundabout it is unsafe for cyclists. If it wasn't for one solitary pedestrian footbridge (which is actually illegal for me to use, but I use it anyway) I would be completely cut off from town. These black spots need to be avoided before they are built. It's completely pointless campaigning afterwards.
Reality - Cycle lanes are often just footpaths, and cyclists and pedestrians mix far worse than do cyclists and traffic. For example, imagine you are unfortunate enough to come across a group of kids walking to school. For some unknown reasion you will generally discover that they conspire to completely fill the whole lane from one side to the other. Nevertheless it somehow remains your responsibility to avoid them at all costs, no matter what side of the white line they are supposed to be on, and to politely attempt to negotiate some means of getting past them (best of luck!). The fact is that they are minors, and no-one can compel them to obey the rules, least of all you. You have to treat them exactly like what they are: children. How many motorists have to share the road with 11 year old drivers?
What if you come across someone walking their dog on a 5m lead? Is it your responsibility to avoid their dog? They would argue that they are entitled to be there and are exercising their right to walk their dog, keeping it on a lead, collecting its poop, being totally responsible. The fact that it makes the cycle lane almost impossible to use as a cycle lane is neither here nor there. It is just your bad luck that the powers-that-be have decided to lump you all together. What other choice is there? Dog-walking lanes?
Sadly it's also becoming increasingly apparent just how powerful the dog-walking lobby is. Their complaints about 'speeding cyclists' are taken far more seriously, it seems, than those from cyclists. So much so that we are starting to see paths rendered virtually unusable by 'cyclist speed humps' (e.g. the Glasson Trail in Lancaster, which has speed humps for 2.5 miles!). This might sound like sour grapes, but every set-back to cycling can be ill-afforded. Every road lost, every roundabout lost, every junction lost and every path lost stays that way, forever. New routes are scant compensation.
Reality - Only use a cycle lane if you have plenty of time on your hands. Not only will your route from A to B probably be longer than the more direct route by road, but you will have to travel at a speed that is commensurate with the risks and the road surface. However, the fact is that a large proportion of us need to get from A to B in a certain amount of time. For cyclists, the only difference is that we have two accelerator pedals, and we have to keep pressing them.
I admit it, I am a fast cyclist. I can average over 20mph on most journeys. This expands my horizons and means I can reach the station in 20 minutes, and the centre of town over six miles away inside 30. The whole viability of the bicycle as a means of transport hinges on figures like this, and viability is crucial when you are deciding which of the various options available you should take. If I am forced to stick to cycle lanes on the way to and from town, it adds over a mile and 15 minutes each way. That may not sound like much, but witness the lengths motorists routinely go to to save time: hair-raising overtaking manouevres, widespread speeding and elaborate rat-runs. Why should all cyclists be relegated just because of some misplaced belief that cycle lanes are somehow better? Better for whom?
It's also worth pointing out the difference in road surfaces. At speeds of 15mph and above you really start to feel the differences between on-road and off-road. That cycle path might look relatively smooth, but closer inspection reveals it to be an unending sequence of small bumps, bumps that knock 5mph off your average speed, make your wrists ache and jar your teeth. This is all the more depressing when you can see that the adjacent road is as smooth as a billiard table. Unfortunately if you try to use the road, kindly motorists will forcibly inform you that they'd rather you didn't.
Finally, don't be depressed if you can't average 20mph on a bike. Fitness and weight loss are inevitable consequences of travelling by bike, not pre-requisites! If you can only average 10mph, that still means that you can cycle 4 miles in under 25 minutes. How many car journeys are under 4 miles? And best of all, you'll be able to park your bike right next to your destination, for free.
Reality - Even the best cycle lane will most likely be a completely different proposition after dark. Not only is it not the direct route into town, it could also be the derelict route, with sections that head off down alleyways, through the backstreets of run-down estates, small parks full of needles, isolated canals and railways, seldom used bridges, underpasses, and industrial estates. I'm not above admitting that some of the cycle-paths I have used have made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. You find yourself thinking "Hmm, if I get cornered down here it will be a week before they find the body..."
In most cases such negative thoughts are unwarranted, but the fact is that many cycle routes do visit some rather inventive places. That is the whole idea. But the attraction of that quiet short cut during the day becomes a totally different proposition after the sun goes down. For cyclists who aren't young, male or hefty, I can imagine it could be very intimidating indeed, and all of a sudden these cycle routes become no-go areas. For these people, there are no cycle routes after dark at all, and therefore no cycling either. Think about it - that could mean the whole Winter from October to March.
Many cycle routes are also unlit, and although modern bicycle lights are quite good, you will have to spend a lot of money to get some that are good enough to light up every pothole, briar and overhanging branch on a cycle route. Why is it that brambles grow horizontally right across cycle paths? It is easier (as far as seeing goes) to ride on an unlit A-road, and that's saying something! Therefore, even for me, an experienced year-round cyclist, after dark you will generally find me choosing to cycle on the road. Fortunately the irate motorist who might wind the window down to hurl abuse during the day tends to think better of it at night, although I have no idea why. Perhaps they're delicate little blossoms and don't like the cold?
In winter there are problems with ice, but it is a two edged sword. Is it better to brave the salt, slush and muck strewn hell of a gritted highway, or the pristine but rather treacherous cycle route? Hmm, no contest! Have you ever been showered with pellets as the gritter has gone right past your elbow? Ow!
Reality - Higher standards involve more money, more space and more political will.
The easiest of these to deal with is space. There is no more space. The roads are full, completely jam-packed, and anyone who thinks that a parallel-universe cycle network can somehow be built alongside existing roads without inconveniencing anybody is deluding themselves and everyone else. This is the typical knee-jerk response of the beleagured motorist who has suddenly realised that building more roads isn't solving the problem. Get cyclists off the roads, and there will be more space. Genius!
Unfortunately you can't sweep us off the road and expect us to somehow cope as some sort of two-wheeled pedestrian, scurrying to our destination along the skirting boards. Every time I see a cyclist on the pavement, I feel sadly let down, because what I see is a cyclist failing to assert their right to use the road, where they belong. A cyclist failing to keep the roads open for future cyclists. Ironically I also see a cyclist who is incurring a far higher level of risk than that which they are attempting to avoid! They would be far better off if they would stop hopping up and down kerbs, buy some lights and just start using the road. If everyone cycles on the pavement, is it any wonder that with one sweep of a bureaucrat's pen, road-going cyclists find themselves completely designed out, and we end up with yet another no-go area?
The subject of money and political will are essentially the same thing. Calculations of the cost of congestion are staggering. The cost of obesity and being unfit are equally appalling. The cost of fuel is quickly getting there as well. The green debate is at the forefront of every politcal manifesto. Everyone knows what is at stake. Unfortunately, none of that changes the fact that turkeys are not going to vote for Christmas. At the end of the day most voters are motorists, and will therefore vote in their own interests. For any politician, going against the will of the majority is sheer political suicide. The government actually has far less real power than many people think.
I know what it is like to use the road as a car driver, a cyclist and a motorcyclist, and believe me, car drivers have nothing to complain about. Almost every problem they experience is of their own making, caused by their own misguided belief that somehow a motorised metal box is an appropriate basis for a mass transportation network. It's completely insane. You cannot drag four empty seats and a tonne and half of metal around with you, and then somehow petulantly contend that it is up to the rest of the world to change itself to cope with you, not the other way round.
I am all in favour of high-quality cycling facilities. I use cycle routes. I'm not against them at all, but I only use them when it is in my interests to do so, not in the interests of 'society as a whole'. It's one thing to act philanthropically for the common public good, but it's another thing entirely to willingly demote yourself to second class citizenship. In general, if there is any doubt, it is better not to have any white paint on the road at all, but how many councils have the courage to do that? In the mean time councils must be compelled to ensure benchmarks are met and that real cyclists have given their plans the stamp of approval. They are not going to do this willingly. They will tick boxes, and 'engage with stakeholders', but at the end of the day nearly all decision-makers drive home (or have their driver do it for them!).
Most of all, I am against cycle route compulsion, whether statutory or consensual. Statutory enforcement had to be fought off only recently. We were that close to being compelled to use any cycle route available. That was bad, but we can fight to have rules changed, and they were. However the worst form of compulsion is the consensual variety. If it is the opinion of a sufficiently high proportion of the motorists on a particular road that you, as a cyclist, shouldn't be sharing the road, then that's it. You're history. They might be misinformed, wilfully ignorant, selfish and small-minded, but they have the numbers and the firepower. Sadly might makes right.
The only way to win that battle is not to create the illusion of choice. If a cyclist has no (obvious) option other than to use the road, then even the most hardened petrolhead will grudgingly give ground, and cyclists will be able to keep the roads open. And as we have seen in London, where the pioneers lead others can follow, which makes all cycling safer, with the end result that cycling levels snowball. The alternative is utter oblivion for the bicycle as a bonafide mode of transport, and utter oblivion for what vestiges remain of our quality of life.