Cyclists are from Mars

(and Earth, and Venus, and Mercury)

In an important 2010 report which deserves a wider audience, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) identified four different types of adult cyclist, based on how they cycle, and in particular how they feel about sharing the road with other traffic.

The four behaviours that DfT identified were Assertiveness, Guardedness, Avoidance and Opportunism. You can simplify that slightly to Skilled, Careful, Scared and Wild. But even those descriptions are quite hard to remember, so I’m going to translate it into something more memorable: Cyclists are from Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury.

Martian cyclists (assertiveness) are those that have done the training. They look behind regularly, they pull out early to pass parked cars and to turn right. They know how to tackle roundabouts.

Earthian cyclists (guardedness) are comfortable enough about other traffic that they’ll cycle on busy roads, as long as they can keep to the left, out of the way. They’re only happy turning right if the traffic is going really slowly. They hate roundabouts.

Venusian cyclists (avoidance) don’t venture onto main roads at all. They only cycle if there’s a quiet route, preferably off-road. They will cycle on the pavement of main roads, and use crossings, but are likely to switch to an alternative mode, if they can’t find a reasonable route.

Mercurian cyclists (opportunism) are typically young men in a hurry. They don’t really care about the rules of the road, and just go fast by whatever route is available – inside, outside, on the pavement, whatever.

As always with attempts at segmentation, these four types actually lie on a continuum, and some people will adopt different behaviours in different circumstances. But thinking in terms of these four types helps to ensure we cover the range of cyclists. The research was qualitative – it was based on small group discussions in a range of different towns. No attempt was made to quantify the numbers of current or potential cyclists that are in each group. In many UK towns, with hostile road environments, the Mercurian and Martian cyclists are likely to predominate.

However, one thing this does highlight is the problem with talking about cycling: different types of cyclist might as well be on different planets, for all the understanding they’ll get from other types of cyclist.

To give a practical example, where I live, there are two roads you can take into town: Hythe Bridge Street and Park End Street. One of the standing debates in my household is: which is the better way to cycle into town.

To get to Hythe Bridge Street you go straight-ahead at the big junction outside the station, and then join the heavy traffic along Hythe Bridge Street as it narrows. There are no cycle lanes and a couple of pinchpoints. At the end of Hythe Bridge Street, the traffic is forced left round a tight bend, there’s a Pelican crossing, and there’s a gap for cyclists to go straight, and into town.

To get to Park End Street, you have to pull out into the traffic approaching the big junction to fork right into the bus area. You then have to get past the bus stops and through another set of lights. There’s not much traffic on Park End Street, and there are cycle lanes, but there’s often loading, and some buses go a bit fast.

My partner prefers Hythe Bridge Street (and I think she’s mad). I prefer Park End Street (and she thinks I’m mad). The reason is that I cycle like a Martian – pulling out and watching a few buses seems the easiest. Whereas my partner cycles like an Earthian – keeping straight ahead and turning right in slow-moving traffic is easiest.

Almost all cycle campaigners (and cycling officers) are Martians. Most of them can understand that other cyclists are different. But they generally fail to understand how they are different, and how prevalent the different types might be.

Our experience in Oxford is that Earthians predominate. Oxford has about 20% of commuters cycling to work (28% in some wards), and 30% of adults using a bike at least once a week. Most of them cycle on main roads, but there’s very little take-up of adult cycle training. The reason that cycling has become normal for Oxford’s middle classes is that the roads have been adapted to make “Earthian” cycling a reasonable thing to do. We no longer have any gyratories, and our only major roundabout has been tamed (mostly). You can go straight-ahead at almost all main junctions without difficulty, and rarely get forced into making an uncomfortable right turn.

Oxford’s approach to infrastructure has always been quite pragmatic. A lot of painted cycle lanes and bus lanes were marked out in the eighties, and they worked well-enough (for Earthians). Separately, a number of quiet routes were developed, focused on schools. These also worked well – for children, and for some adults (a mixture of Venusians, and others who found them to be useful short-cuts). So these routes have been extended and linked up to make a quiet network, mostly by providing crossings of main roads. It has developed into a dual network.

The initial idea of the dual network was that the two parts were equally important. We thought that new cyclists would be Venusians. But it has become clear over the years that – for adults – the main road network is considerably more important. This is partly due to the circuitousness of the quiet network, but it is also because Earthians appear to outnumber Venusians, by some margin.

It may be that there are a large group of potential Venusian cyclists that aren’t being catered for. But for whatever reason, they aren’t speaking up. Perhaps they can see for themselves that the space isn’t really there. Perhaps they’re settling for the circuitous quiet routes. Perhaps they’ve converted themselves into Earthians. Or perhaps they walk, or catch the bus, or drive.

Instead, the local pressure is to fill in the gaps in the main road network – to deal with the remaining parking on the main roads, if possible, and provide more cycle lanes. There is also support for 20mph limits on side roads, and a range of techniques for slowing traffic on main roads.

For other cities wanting to improve conditions for cyclists, and struggling to find the space and funds to do so, it would be sensible to think carefully about the type of cyclist you are trying to provide for. By understanding and catering for the specific needs of Earthian cyclists, you are likely to be able to make cycling viable for a substantial portion of the adult population. Trying to provide comprehensively for Venusians in congested main road corridors is much more difficult.

So what are the key things that make the roads tolerable to Earthians? The main thing is that the default route at all junctions needs to be straight-ahead. After all, for most journeys, you mostly go straight. This is actually quite simple, and just-about permitted by the regulations: paint the cycle lane across the junction. If it is clear where the straight-ahead cyclists are going to go, then motorists are perfectly capable of finding a way round them. That can be made to work at most urban traffic lights (the Germans have a range of designs). Roundabouts and gyratories are harder, but the principle is the same: always give priority to bikes going straight-ahead over left-turning traffic. Dutch-style roundabouts meet this criterion. Gyratories generally don’t, but it may be possible to adapt them so that they do (or even better, get rid of them).

Earthians are less particular about what happens between junctions. The various degrees of segregation don’t matter very much to them, as long as they have a clear path, and traffic is keeping to 30mph (or preferably a bit slower). The main improvement is to regulate parking, and paint continuous cycle lanes. Gaps in the cycle lanes for zig-zags and bus stops aren’t ideal, but they’re not critical.

If cities want to make real progress towards getting a good proportion of people onto bikes, they should focus on providing for Earthian (ie careful adult) cyclists – there are plenty enough of them – and focus on the key things that make Earthian cycling tolerable: cycle lanes and straight-ahead priority at junctions.