On getting away from traffic

I am a fully-fledged vehicular cyclist. Taking the lane, avoiding the door zone, tackling 40 mph roads with pinch points and keeping trucks at bay with a Hard Stare. Wriggly little back streets routes shared with pedestrians? Too slow. Not for me.
And yet. It is stressful, always having to fight for my space on the road. Having to be awkward, more awkward than I’d like to be, because I can’t trust drivers to treat my safety as more important than a few seconds of their time. So if the exaggerated stereotype in the first paragraph was ever true, it is becoming less and less so.

Take my journey to get to the swimming pool on Monday evenings. There are a couple of bicycle only cut-throughs that I use simply because that’s the most direct route. However when I get to the Meadows, I have a choice. I can stick to the road, which does have a painted bike lane, and is fine, a normal road with a painted lane, though in the summer in particular people often park (totally legally) in the lane so you have to move out and round them. And there’s a couple of sets of traffic lights, so you usually have to stop. The other option is North Meadow Walk, which was widened a couple of years ago and now has a cycle path on one side and pedestrians on the other. If it was in The Netherlands the whole thing would be twice as wide, of course, but for a British cycle facility it is pretty good. However I think my top speed along there is probably less than on the road because there are always pedestrians and as the faster and more dangerous path user I make sure to take plenty of care. I’m particularly cautious at the junction with Middle Meadow Walk especially since cyclists coming down the hill there can pick up a bit of speed.

So, my choices were usual road, or slower and mostly less stressful path. Sometimes I would go one way and sometimes the other. However, at the far end of the Meadows it used to be that you were back onto the road, and all the options involved having to take the lane because of parked cars, slightly uphill, on a poor road surface, with impatient motorists behind you, and lots of traffic lights. That was, until the Meadows to Innocent cycle route opened. (The “Innocent” is a cycle path on the route of the Innocent Railway. I don’t know why it was called the Innocent Railway.) When I first saw the plans my initial reaction was that this was a wriggly little back streets route that would be slower and less convenient than going along the road. Fine for families and less confident cyclists, but I’m used to the road, I will stay there. That was before I actually rode the route. Now I always go that way. Yes, it is further than going along the road, but the lights are pedestrian/cyclist crossings which change fairly soon after you press the button, while on the road you have to wait your turn with the traffic. But best of all, you are on quiet roads or little cycle lanes, so you don’t have to fight for your safe space. Those little cycle lanes are proper segregated lanes. Again, they are too narrow, but at 7pm there are not too many other cyclists and pedestrians around. I can imagine that if I was going that way at a busier time of day I might find the road more convenient.
The balance between speed and convenience is illustrated nicely by the fact that on the way home from the pool, when it is even quieter, I have so far always gone on the road. I should try the cycle route in the other direction sometime!

My choices when cycling from the station to the office in Livingston have changed, too. Up until recently, I’ve always gone along the roads, even though this means dealing with my 40 mph road with pinch points. I am not actually sure what has changed, there certainly has not been one particular incident that I can point to, I think I have just been worn out of fighting with traffic. So I have been using some of the shared use paths, away from the road, so that I can avoid the worst bit. (I could actually do the whole route on shared use paths, but the access to the office from the tarmac path is a little muddy path that I don’t want to use because I don’t want to get my bike and my shoes muddy. So I do the last bit on the road.) It is really very pleasant, away from the traffic, there are just a few dog walkers and some kids playing football, who asked me to name a footballer beginning with B – it took me a while to think of Gareth Bale – rather than impatient drivers who don’t think I should be on the road and don’t understand about passing space and pinch points. So I am sticking with going that way for now. However, when the ice and possibly snow arrive, I will be back on the road. The local council do grit and clear some of the paths, but I don’t think that the ones I use are among them. So I will be back on the road at that point.

So where are we, after all this rambling? I guess partly saying that this cyclist who cycles regularly in traffic doesn’t necessarily enjoy it and would be happy to get away from it, and that even not very good dedicated infrastructure can be better than nothing. Rubbish infrastructure, however, is worse than nothing…


On breaking the law

I had a bit of a go at a driver the other day. She was on her (hand-held, obviously) mobile phone and I was trying to get her to stop. The last time I did this, the man stopped rather quickly, but he was driving a van with company details all over it… the woman was in a normal car with no particular identification (apart from the number plate, of course…). Anyway the woman seemed to think that if she ignored me I would give up. Unfortunately for her, we were both waiting at a red light. I can confirm that banging on the roof of a car makes a really satisfactory bang… To be honest, in retrospect, I probably came across as a bit of a nutter, and I suspect that it is just as well I’m female – I would not like it if some angry man started banging on the roof of my car… Another time, in a traffic queue like that, I might try getting my phone out and taking a photo to go for the “post it all over the Internet” option. The thing is, I don’t suppose I have changed that woman’s mind about using her phone while she’s driving, and so I didn’t achieve anything. I do think that we need to object to phone use, and point it out when we see it, if it is ever going to become socially unacceptable. I just don’t think I went about it the right way that time. One thing I am glad I did, though, is say (well shout, really) “Stop breaking the law.” Perhaps that will make her think.

It got me thinking, too. I have an illegal manoeuvre that I make very regularly. I cycle the wrong way up a one way street. It is only about 10 metres long – that might make it worse, because I can and do quite easily push the bike up it instead. So the cycling up is just laziness. I have seen the odd driver go up there – it is not a regular occurrence, though. The reason it is one way in the first place (apart from being quite narrow) is that the exit at the top is really awkward with poor visibility onto a busy road. Not such an issue on a much more maneuverable bike, of course, but it is still a bit tricky, and so when it is busy I usually walk round the corner and into an ASL from which I can make a right turn in the usual legal manner. But, at 7am you can usually make the exit without getting off your bike.

I suppose the questions I am trying and failing to answer are; is minor lawbreaking like my one way street or the drivers I have seen go through red lights on pedestrian crossings once the pedestrians have crossed really worth making a fuss about? And, is it ok for me to criticise someone doing something properly dangerous like my phone woman, when I am not perfect myself? I think the answer to the second one is yes (well I would, wouldn’t I?) but the first one? I am not so sure. You could argue that 80kg of me plus bicycle is less dangerous than a tonne of car, or that I am only really risking myself, but I still think that there is a principle in there somewhere.

Mind you, I am still too lazy to walk 10 metres up a one way street…

On getting cycle space

There’s an advertising campaign going on around here. It is just a Scottish thing. I’ve seen some adverts on the back of buses, but the film I’ve only seen online. It isn’t bad, I think. It is better than the Nice Way Code, anyway, even if we would rather the money was spent on building cycle lanes (what length of cycle lane do you get for the cost of one advertising campaign?), or even on campaigning for proper, segregated cycle lanes. “If I can touch your car, you are driving too close to me”, is not a bad rule of thumb. Of course there are subtleties – one is “unless I have chosen to put myself in that position” (there being a difference between filtering through stationary traffic, when I am in control of what is happening, and being close passed by a vehicle doing 60mph, when I am not). I know that campaigns for minimum passing distances talk about 3 feet or even more, which is more than arm’s length, but arm’s length is at least a start.

So I thought I would have a play with the whole arm’s length idea. When I’ve been moving out to pass a parked vehicle, instead of stopping signalling once I am out, I’ve kept my arm out if I don’t want someone to pass me there. If I am going through pinch points, or there’s oncoming traffic such that I don’t want to be overtaken, I’ll stick my arm out. This makes me look bigger, I think, and is probably a bit confusing as it will look as though I want to turn right. I don’t mind confusing motorists, though, at least they are looking at me… I don’t know how much difference it has made – I did got hooted at by the driver of some massive coach, but if they thought that there was space to overtake me then they were wrong and my signal worked!

You can’t control traffic with arm signals alone, though, as I was reminded to my cost the other evening. I was heading up South Charlotte Street to get to the George Street cycle lane. South Charlotte Street is wide, slightly uphill, and has a shocking surface. There wasn’t anything behind me as the lights changed, so I set off, and suddenly a whole pile of traffic came flying up behind me. I was just too far to the right of the right-hand lane, and got a bunch of close passes at what felt like over 30mph. (Bring on 20mph speed limits…) And the Powers That Be wonder why there aren’t that many cyclists in the George Street lanes, when you need nerves of steel to get to them?

On reengineering the Lanark Road

In my last post (about bus lanes), I talked about the Lanark Road, and described the fast and scary descent. Scary not because it is steep, but because of the attitudes and behaviour of a minority of impatient drivers. As I said, the road is four lanes wide at that point, so in theory there is plenty of space for cycle lanes. So I thought I would have a go at rearranging it.

The uphill side is easy. Pavement, then cycle lane, then car parking, then one lane for motor vehicles. It is a reasonable hill, so no one will be cycling up very fast, and the lane will of course be wide enough for a faster cyclist to overtake a slower one.

It is the descent side that I wonder about. The obvious thing would be pedestrian space, then cycle space, then parked cars, then the lane for motor vehicles, just like the uphill side. You definitely need car parking on the downhill side, as there are flats with little or no off road parking. The problem is the fact that it is downhill, and bikes go fast downhill. Well, slow down, I hear you say. But it is not that simple. Really slowing down on a long fast descent like this means being hard on the brakes all the way down. That is hard on your hands and wrists, and wears out brake pads and wheel rims. I guess that under current conditions my Wonderful Boyfriend doesn’t touch his brakes at all during that section, unless he has to. I tap mine, to scrub the very top speed off, and I’m still hitting 25 mph. I’m really not convinced that having bikes doing that sort of speed right next to pedestrians is at all safe. On the other hand, I suppose I am thinking of the very narrow lanes we are used to in this country. Maybe a good wide lane, with really obvious dividers, so that it is clear that there is a hazard there, would be the way to go. I do think you would need plenty of space so that it was easy for pedestrians to take the crossing in two stages; look for bikes, cross the bike lane, stop, look for cars, cross the road.

I’m not totally convinced, though, that my response that cyclists can’t slow down is the right one. I don’t think we’d take it from the drivers of motor vehicles. At this point the usual question would be “What do the Dutch do?” Now one of the things that is pointed out about the Dutch when it comes to cycling is that they don’t have hills. The person who is saying this is usually trying to imply that people in the UK won’t cycle uphill. But the (alleged) lack of hills in the Netherlands also means that they don’t have downhills and therefore don’t have the “problem” of people being easily able to roll at 15 – 20 mph without effort (if it is a problem, of course). I do think that Dutch cyclists go more slowly. Any photo you see, they are all pootling along on those lovely, solid, heavy Dutch bikes. But pop them all at the top of the Lanark Road and I’m sure they’d speed up.

There’s another thing. The speed limit on my hypothetically rearranged road will obviously come down from 40 to 30. At 30, the faster cyclists (the ones we currently have) won’t be going much slower than the motor traffic. So they’ll probably use that lane anyway. I probably would. And then you are back to the problem of the minority who think that doing less than the speed limit is terrible. But at least if there is only one lane in each direction it should feel a bit slower and opportunities to pass will be less. What about taking the limit down to 20? Well at 20 the fast cyclists are going faster than the cars – and speed limits don’t legally apply to bikes anyway. So I’m sure you’d get people on bikes trying to overtake people like me doing exactly 20 in a car. They’re the same kind of people who get really cross with me for driving at less than 30 in a 30 just now. Which all goes to say that human nature is a problem that can’t easily be solved. To go back to the Dutch for a moment, I understand that their philosophy of road design is to use the infrastructure to make things as safe as possible for everyone; but it is beyond my (non-existent) skill as a road designer to apply that to the Lanark Road.

On bus lanes

There’s been some discussion in Edinburgh about bus lanes. The council are consulting on the idea of making them all part time. Apparently the fact that some are part time (by which we mean morning and evening rush hour) and some are all-day (something like 7 – 6:30 except Sundays) confuses people. So they think it would be better to make them all the same. You could, of course, remove the confusion but making all the bus lanes all day bus lanes, but that would involve removing road space from the drivers of private cars, and that would be terrible – sarcasm aside, I suspect it would be (or, more importantly, the politicians think it would be) politically difficult to increase the bus lanes times…

Anyway there was a bit of a debate on the cycling forum about how important or not bus lanes are to cyclists and should “we” (as cyclists) be getting involved in campaigning about infrastructure that really isn’t going to encourage any new cyclists onto the road (after all you still have to share them with buses and taxis, and while Lothian Buses are usually well and patiently driven, the standard of taxi driving is a lot more variable…) One of the things that came out was that those of us who use all day bus lanes really like them, while someone else whose only (regular) experience is of part-time lane wasn’t really bothered, because to them the bus lanes are places where cars and vans park and parked vehicles are a hazard to a cyclist.

I’m very much of the opinion that bus lanes are very useful to existing cyclists. And why would you do something that is going to make life worse for cyclists who already use the road, when you are (allegedly) trying to encourage more people to cycle, not put them off? (Or is what they really want to say; “We’d like more people to cycle, but, well, somewhere else. Not here…”)

I went out on the bike the other Saturday, and came home down the Calder Road. This is a 40mph dual carriageway, with all day bus lanes. “You came down the Calder Road?” said Wonderful Boyfriend, in a disbelieving tone of voice. And then, “Oh. It is Saturday, that is OK. I don’t like in on Sunday when the bus lanes are not working.” W.B. is a stereotypical vehicular cyclist; male, confident, fast, happy to mix it with traffic, thinks everyone else should just man up and take the lane. And here’s him saying that he avoids a road when the bus lanes are not in operation.

The bus lanes I use most regularly, however, are on the Lanark and Slateford Roads, on my “long commute”. This stretch of the Lanark Road is a reasonable hill, so in descent you go quite fast. It also has a 40mph speed limit and has 2 lanes each way (but is not a dual carriageway). The houses on the top section mostly have off-road parking so that bit is ok as there’s plenty of space for people to get past. Then the road flattens out, climbs a little (but not so much as you lose much speed) and then goes down again. This is the bit I find scary, because the houses here don’t have off-road parking so there’s only one usable lane and there are a couple of traffic islands forming pinch points. This is the place where Andrew McNicoll was knocked off his bicycle and killed by the driver of a lorry who overtook him, cut in, and knocked him off with the lorry trailer. So I particularly don’t like it for that reason. I’ve had a couple of occasions where a driver has followed me far too close – and that makes me nervous so I slow down, but I don’t move over until it is safe, which I don’t suppose helps the temper of the impatient person behind me. If there were no bus lanes on the Calder Road, I think it would be like that all the time. A place where theoretically you can cycle but in practice you’d need nerves of steel.

After the dodgy section there’s another little climb but by this point we’re past the parked cars so I can pull left and drivers can get past. Then (finally, you might think) we get to the bus lane, and if I’m really lucky there will be a big queue of traffic in the other lane and I can whiz smugly past all the people who were getting annoyed at having to do 25 in a 40.

After the lights there’s a bit more bus lane which I ride really centrally to make it clear that I am there, as eventually the lane runs out and drivers do have to move left as there’s usually queuing traffic in a right turn lane. Then there’s the Chesser Road junction and then the Slateford Road which does have a bus lane. There’s car parking on the left, but I can ride nice and wide, away from the parked cars, and the drivers can roll past in the other lane. There is, of course, the odd bus, but usually at that time of day I only need to pass it once. I nearly always seem to hoof it along there, it is still slightly downhill and by that time I’ve got my fast head on… If the bus lane were not there, drivers would mostly stick to the left and they’d all have to pull out to pass. I think I would get a lot of close passes.

Actually, I don’t always whiz along there. That’s also the way back from a running group I join sometimes. So sometimes I’m coming along there on the Brompton, really slowly because I’m really tired. Admittedly, that’s later on and the bus lane isn’t operational anyway, but drivers do tend to stay out of it and I can pootle along.

The bus lanes on the Dalry Road near to Haymarket aren’t so useful. There always seems to be something parked in them. On the way up the hill I just get out into the middle of the other lane and pootle up. If you create road conditions where you have to be obstreporous in order to cycle safely, then you get obstreporous cyclists…

So, I think all-day, well observed bus lanes are benifical to existing cyclists, and I hope that the council don’t change them. I wrote to my councillors saying as much, and got some platitudes back. I don’t know when the decision is going to be made.

On a sentence

I haven’t blogged for ages. My excuse is computer problems (i.e. my old one stopped working…) And this blog post is out of date, but I want do it anyway, for completeness.

So, Robert Palmer, who pleaded guilty to causing the deaths of Andrew McMenigall and Toby Wallace, was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. That is two lots of seven and a half years for two counts of Causing Death by Dangerous Driving, to be served concurrently, and one year for another charge of Dangerous Driving, which happened after he’d killed two people. After he’d killed two people. Do you not make any changes, have any thoughts about your driving style or practice, after you’ve been involved in an accident in which two people have died?

From the BBC report: “Prosecutors said Palmer had not had enough rest periods between shifts at work and had falsified rest records. As a result, the cyclists were “mown down” “. My speculation is that the falsification of records was one of the reasons that Palmer was given what is a big sentence compared with what others have received. There’s some interesting discussion under the road.cc report; someone who at least appears to know what they are talking about said some useful things. There was another case that was in the news recently of a man who killed a cyclist while looking at photos on his mobile phone. He pleaded not guilty, was found guilty and was given a 5 year sentence with a 10 year ban. So Palmer, who pleaded guilty, and was given 7.5 years per death plus a 10 year ban, appears to have been sentenced as harshly as the judge is allowed to, if I’m understanding the person on the road.cc thread correctly (and they are correct in what they are saying).

I feel a bit less angry now. Given some sentences that have been handed out, that actually is not too bad, especially as he pleaded guilty and is entitled to a reduction to his sentence for that (I don’t make the rules, and I may or may not agree with them, but that is the rule). Here‘s “The Cycling Silk” on the subject.

There is one other point and that is, what about his employers? They must have known what he was doing if I have understood the press reports correctly – he was doing day shifts in the yard and then driving overnight. But there have been no reports of any punishment for them. The CTC report says:

The company Palmer worked for – Frys Logistics – had its operating licence revoked in December 2013, six months after the fatal collision on the A30. CTC suspects the decision to withdraw the licence was in large part based on the involvement of the company in the incident in which Andrew McMenigall and Toby Wallace were killed. In order to continue after the operating licence had been rescinded, the company’s owners set up a new company with a tenuously different name – Frys Transport. It seems all a company has to do to carry on business as usual when it loses its operating licence is to set itself up again under a different name…”

This isn’t the first time that it has taken a death to throw the spotlight on dubious practices within certain parts of the haulage industry – some of the deaths of cyclists in London did, too. But I don’t suppose it will be the last.

On a guilty plea

A year ago my triathlon clubmate Andrew McMenigall and his colleague Toby Wallace were killed on the first day of a cycle from Lands End to John O’Groats for charity. Yesterday the lorry driver who killed them pleaded guilty to two counts of death by dangerous driving, and a further count of dangerous driving on a later occasion. (BBC report, EEN report.) That later occasion astonishes me – you’ve been involved in an incident which has resulted in the deaths of two people and you don’t make any changes to the way you drive? Or even think about what you are doing?

The driver will get his sentece reduced for pleading guilty, of course. That is the way our justice system works. But I really hope they take his licence away for a good long time. Arguing that he needs his licence to do his job is like saying Rolf Harris should continue to have access to children because he’s always worked as a children’s entertainer. Find a different job, Mr Lorry Driver, one where you’re not going to kill people.