Sunday, 26 January 2014

How the mighty fall

In amongst the very many blogs loosely and directly related to bicycles, urban transport and city design, there is one called the Desegregated Cyclist. Its author, Ian Cooper, is one of the last of the diehard vehicular cyclists. For a long time I thought his site was a spoof (and I mean no disrespect) but I think, on balance, he is serious. Only very recently he posted a comment after an article in Forbes Magazine online (if you scroll a little further down, you'll also see my 5 cents worth).

As a vehicular cyclist, Mr Cooper believes that cyclists fare best when the obey the rules of the road and act as if they are equal participants. It's sometimes called "Bicycle Driving". Among other techniques, one commonly used and recommended is the famous "take the lane". By placing yourself in front of the motorist (or truck driver) behind you, they are forced to wait for you to complete their manouvre. And that makes you safer.

It is a brilliant plan but there is one tiny flaw. Most motorists don't realise why some cyclists do that.

That has been Mr Cooper's experience for some time. A lot of his blog posts describe run-ins he and his daughter have had with motorists who do not understand the rules of vehicular cycling or who have placed him in danger by being overly cautious and allowing him, for example, to move through and away from a junction first - even though he did not have right of way. Very often, his descriptions of these run-ins have the title "Cletus Asks Cyclists" - the inference being that Mr Cooper is forever having to educate imbeciles.

Mr Cooper seems to have taken on the very heavy burden of educating the world one motorist at a time. By the sounds of it, some motorists require more than one lesson so it is going to be a long job.

The thing is, Mr Cooper seems to have had enough. He tells us he had a few more run-ins leading up to Christmas. He stopped each time to address the issue. The response was the same - "no one listened". The consequence is that Mr Cooper is giving himself a break.

I really do feel for Mr Cooper. I flatly disagree with his views on dedicated infrastructure and routes for bicycles but I have a lot of symphathy for how he is feeling now.

At the same time, I am not surprised.

So much conflict is built into our roads. Whether you have right of way or not, each junction is a potential source of nerves while you wonder whether the driver about to cut you up from the left has seen you. Bike lane or not, there is also a small niggle of doubt in your mind whether the person (each of them) coming up behind you has actually seen you. Thinking ahead to deal with getting around the parked car up ahead is a source of stress and involves twisting to look behind you and quick decisions about whether or not to slow down - once you do that, you generally might as well stop because your loss of momentum means you won't be able to get through that small gap in the traffic.

The people Mr Cooper is dealing with are not bad people and they're not stupid. They simply do not understand. They are, not unreasonably, reacting to their environment - one that tells them they have priority. And they are no doubt wondering who these weird people are getting in their way, slowing them down and putting themselves in danger (having said that, some would definitely just be turds).

That stress is tiring. It puts people off. As does the fact that even a short simple journey is presumed to require preparation, special equipment, provisions for on the way and a whole bunch of facilities for once you get there. You know how when you go on any short journey, you jump in your car, drive straight there, find a (free) car park and just jump out? No other form of transport matches that convenience here. They could - very easily - but they are presently far from it.

Most of all it is because of what Mr Cooper has experienced. It is what happens when our cities are built in such a way that using any form of transport other than a car (regardless of journey) becomes, as Her Majesty the Queen would say, a right royal pain in the arse.

Mr Cooper is giving himself a bit of a rest until Spring Break. I wish him well. I hope he gets his energy and determination back but with the current state of things, he is facing a losing battle and I fear he may end up like the vast bulk of the population who make the most rational choice based on the clear signals given to them by their built environment.

That of course is the part that needs changing. If (and it is a very big if) we are serious about changing our transport choices and lowering the noise, pollution, danger and cost we all share, we require a fairly radical change.

Mr Cooper has done his best. Encouraging people to ride around in heavy, howling traffic and to take the lane is nice in theory. It is even a fairly rational way to try and keep yourself safe if that is the environment you choose to ride in.

But as Mr Cooper has slowly found (although I am not sure he would admit it), I think it now requires a different approach.

Artwork by Bikeyface,

If Mr Cooper is interested, I can put him on to a ton of propaganda. Here's a great one to start with which was published just a few days ago. Make sure you watch the 4 minute video Ian and all the very best :)

And if you have time, please read this absolute classic from the Waltham Forest archives.

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