Challenging the Notion of ‘Bicycle Comfort’?

Background Reading


The blogger who creates ‘The Alternative Department for Transport‘ does a great job of ranting about the various deficiencies he sees in the current British traffic infrastructure scene. What makes this particular discussion interesting is that it is attacking the idea of ‘Bicycle Comfort‘.

He writes:

But the real kicker is this: rather than use this data to identify which roads and junctions most urgently need updating with modern, cycling-friendly infrastructure, the intention is to develop a smartphone app which will then act as a mini John Franklin (or worse – John Forester) telling you to take the lane and watch out for car doors, as if it’s going to make the slightest fucking difference to anything.

I mean, come on, seriously? Does anyone really think that this will “encourage reluctant cyclists”? 25 years of Cyclecraft haven’t worked, turning it into a nagging back-seat passenger is unlikely to have any effect either.

This is a classic example of the ‘mixed message syndrome‘ that is so very prevalent amongst Urban Cyclists. Part of the problem the writer is uncovering is that there is indeed a set of assumptions about cycling and cyclists that need to be challenged. What exactly those are is to my mind open for debate.

‘Bicycle Comfort’ Is A ‘Cave-In’ Position

When I first saw the article concerning ‘Bicycle Comfort‘ I was shocked:

The implication in this concept is that bicycle infrastructure is not always demonstrably ‘safer‘ at least in scientific terms. That is to say if you implement bicycle infrastructure you should being to see measurable decreases in the mortality rates of all three (3) segments of the transportation landscape:

  • There should be fewer car accidents and a drop in both serious injury and mortality for drivers and their passengers.
  • Fewer pedestrians should be dying because with the segment of the streets into special lanes for bicycles the interactions of bicycles and cars should be less intense and frequent and thus bicyclists should be safer and all of this should contribute to streets that are easier to cross and thus safer for pedestrians.

But as the Governors Report has pointed out only some of these assumptions are true to date:

Car drivers have been on a steady decline in terms of mortality rates. But oddly enough with each new miles of bicycle infrastructure we are seeing increases in the mortality rates of bicyclists and pedestrians.

And what is most horrible are the high profile instances in which bicyclists have been shown to be the predators killing pedestrians!

So in a nutshell the data is not there to support the idea that ‘Bicycle Safety‘ is anything more than an assumption based on somebody else’s country’s experience with their particular forms of bicycle infrastructure. So if you want to keep government supporting the idea of lanes for bicyclists you need to redirect the emphasis on their importance away from strictly measurable results to the notion that their purpose is to ‘encourage reluctant cyclists‘.

And that brings up the question of whether it makes sense to have ‘bicycle commuting‘ as the main focus of the Urban Cycling Movement. Might it be better to simply have rental bicycles available in each metropolitan area to serve as an inexpensive means of getting around for tourists?

Strictly speaking in places like Chicago every bicyclist who rides along on a privately owned bicycle is defeating even the goals of Divvy. We need everyone on a bicycle to be riding a Divvy as often as possible for essentially two very important reasons:

  • Having lots of riders means that the financial health of the BikeShare system is ensured.
  • But in addition Divvy bikes are the only ones (outside of folders that manage to find their way indoors) that have a sustainable footprint idea. That is to say they do not require on street parking.
The Bicycle Apple parking facility at the railway station of Alphen aan den Rijn.

The Bicycle Apple parking facility at the railway station of Alphen aan den Rijn.

This is a huge notion if you consider the extraordinary lengths the Dutch have gone to in providing bicycle parking for their riders.

The Bicycle Apple might look cool but it has the same issues of poor land management that many feel is true of car parking. So what you end up doing is trading one bad use of land for another.

That of course is a moot point for those who have a predisposition for engaging in the ‘War On Cars‘.

The Notion Of ‘Safe Bicycle Infrastructure‘ Is Dubious

Even those in Bicycle Heaven have issues with the safety of their infrastructure. ‘Desire Lines‘ as a concept I suspect is bogus. Colville-Andersen is merely trying to find a way of rationalizing ‘bad behavior‘ by bicyclists by conjecturing that if the infrastructure were more finely tuned to the needs and desires of cyclists their ‘bad behavior‘ could be eliminated entirely.

I liken this notion to what colleges often do when installing paved walkways across campus. You wait until the grass on the campus is worn enough to show where students and faculty ‘want to walk‘ and then you tear up the sod and lay down pavement in those worn places.

It seems logical until of course a new off campus eatery opens and suddenly its popularity has folks desiring a new direction in which to travel. That of course is a bit like allowing ATV owners to dictate where in town or along highways roads and offramp should be built.

They simply drive where they want to and then new pavement is poured and at least until something changes to require the need for a new ribbon of roadway, everyone is happy.

Bicycles Like Cars Are Vehicles of Convenience

Mass Transit suffers in the main because it is too slow to respond to the needs of its ridership. When light rail for commuters is built there has to be a great deal of planning done to predict where growth will occur. Most often the predictions are for the growth in housing.

But in today’s world there is also the need for predicting where jobs will be situated. The working poor are often left out of the economic growth of a region because being too poor to afford a motor vehicle they have to rely on buses and trains to get them where they want to go.

But if there are not stations positioned in the areas where the work is both they and the employers suffer. Bicycling is often given as an answer to this sort of disconnect. But ‘commuting by bicycle‘ is not easy.

Workers that often have to arrive in the late afternoon are finished in the wee hours of the morning. Depending on their age and gender they can be quite vulnerable if caught alone on a desolate route. And it is not just physical assaults that make this sort of travel untenable, it also means that in bitterly cold and nasty weather doing something as trivial as changing an inner tube could be deadly.

Infrastructure Alone Is Not Enough

Like the infatuation with high-rise housing for poor which arose in the 1950s, our current ideas of what bicycle infrastructure should look like is proving a problem. We are fumbling with ideas while trying to provide a safe environment for everyone.

Red Light Cameras are coming under heavy scrutiny. As a key ingredient in making streets safer they are showing signs of failing. In fact they are increasing the kinds of rear-end collisions that never happened as often in some of the places where they have been installed.

These cameras are considered useful for two reasons:

  • The prevent gridlock in intersections because they motorists from failing to keep the intersection clear.
  • But along with their speed limit counterparts it was assumed that you could bring about the desired change in traffic behaviors that Road Diets as supposed to give for a fraction of the cost.

One by one the supposed ‘truths‘ of the ‘War On Cars‘ Crowd are proving less certain. That is going to mean that we will have wasted millions (or perhaps billions) of dollars chasing a desired outcome that never quite materialized.

Is ‘Bicycle Comfort‘ a meaningful goal? That depends on whether ‘Bicycle Commuting‘ is a meaningful measure of the successful transformation of our urban transportation landscape. Right now I think the jury is out on both counts.