Archive for Behaviour

(Not) Going the Distance

Cycling in Oxford is a fairly short-distance activity. Most workplaces are within a couple of miles of home. Secondary schools a mile or so, the shops somewhere in-between. These distances are slightly-annoying to walk, but easy to cycle. There’s no need for special cycling gear, and the chance of getting caught out in the rain is fairly low.

Some people will happily cycle further, but it becomes a different activity when you go more than a couple of miles, and rather fewer people are prepared to do it. You get much the same pattern in the Netherlands – for journeys more than a couple of miles, the modal share for cycling drops off, and people drive instead.

So if you want a high modal share for cycling, it’s really important to have origins and destinations fairly close together, in a “compact” city. The optimal situation is to have shops and offices concentrated in the city centre, with inconvenient car-parking.

Is Oxford particularly unusual? We can look at the average bike-commuting distance in the census, to make some comparisons. While commuting only accounts for about a quarter of journeys, it gives some idea about the character of cycling in each area.

These figures are for England and Wales, excluding London, ordered by the number of cycle commuters in each area. Oxford and Cambridge are quite similar, with average distances about 2.4km (about 1.5 miles). The two highest figures are for authorities which cover the outer suburbs of Bristol and Cambridge, respectively. The other high figures are for larger cities (and York). The value for Oxford seems to be near the bottom of the range, but not at all untypical. The overall conclusion is that – outside the major cities – short distances are the norm.

London presents an interesting contrast.

Some of these average distances are very high, and it would be fair to say that cycle commuting has a rather different character in London. But if you look at the outer boroughs, where the numbers of cyclists are lower, there seem to be two different effects. For some boroughs the average distance is very high: these are boroughs where the dominant destination is central London. In contrast, some are very low: these are places where cycling to central London hasn’t become fashionable, and you just have some very local commutes. Slightly more encouraging is somewhere like Kingston, which has a reasonable volume of cyclists and a fairly “normal” average commuting distance.

My impression is that cycling in London has become too dominated by unusually-long commutes. Such commutes aren’t representative of the mass of short journeys that are characteristic of a high-modal-split situation. London needs to refocus on a dispersed pattern of short-distance trips closer to home, if its revolution is to succeed. This will require a much more dispersed pattern of interventions, rather than focusing on a handful of routes. In effect, pretty much every road needs to be cycle-friendly.

Low Cost Cycling Culture

Oxford is a city of 150,000 people. 30% of adults cycle at least once a week, and 20% cycle to work. It has a fairly well-established cycling culture. It has achieved this with mostly low-cost infrastructure.

Across the table above, cyclists are divided into a number of types. Child cyclists are broken down by approximate age-group (assuming they are accompanied). There is a separate category for solo cycling by the 11-13 age group – a critical group in the UK, since this is the age when children go to a larger secondary school, typically further away, making cycling very important.

The adult cyclists are in four groups based on UK Department for Transport research. The first group (scared) don’t want to cycle on main roads; they will cycle on pavements and use crossings, but not on main roads. The second group (careful) will cycle on main roads, but only if they can stay to the side. They don’t generally look behind, don’t like pulling out around parked cars or to turn right, and hate UK-typical fast roundabouts. The third group (skilled) look behind, are much more aware of the traffic around them, and can handle right turns and roundabouts. The fourth group (wild) passes cars on the inside or outside, rides on the pavement, and doesn’t care too much about obeying traffic rules.

The observation in Oxford is that – in an established cycling culture – the biggest group of adults are “careful” – an estimated 75% of the total. They do use main roads, but they don’t tend to look behind them, and avoid pulling out to make right turns in free-flowing traffic. This group is often ignored, and is often much smaller (in less-developed cycling cultures), but they are a critical group to understand. So what type of infrastructure allows this group to cycle?

Looking down the table, there are a range of types of infrastructure. For comparison, Dutch-style cycle tracks (with segregation at junctions) work pretty much across the board. But creating such infrastructure is expensive. Danish-style tracks (with integration/close-proximity) at junctions works for most age groups, though perhaps not for the youngest. Again, this is pretty expensive, and hasn’t been used in Oxford.

Instead the main provision on Oxford’s main roads are painted cycle lanes and bus lanes. There are two aspects that seem to have made this work: firstly that traffic speeds have generally been brought below 30mph (50kph), and secondly that bus drivers are trained not to intimidate cyclists. In a few situations where there are significant volumes of traffic turning (left) across the cyclists, the cycle lane has been painted across the junction, to emphasise to the driver that they are cutting into the space for cyclists, and should behave accordingly. One major roundabout at the eastern end of the High Street has been treated using “Swiss” techniques to reduce traffic entry speeds.

Looking at how these techniques work for the different types of cyclists, they seem to be adequate to enable the careful adults to cycle, and older accompanied children. However this leaves significant gaps, and we would not have a workable cycle culture if those gaps remained. So we have also made a separate network of facilities using shared paths, for instance in parks, quiet streets (all 20mph/30kph), and where necessary a shared-use main road pavement (typically fairly narrow, and giving way at each side road). This network, focused on schools, fills the main gaps, and in particular provides for 11-13 solo cycling to secondary school. Coupled with some (technically-illegal, but nobody cares) cycling on pavements by younger children, this covers the full range of cyclists.

Find out more about the the ways cycling changes as children develop, or the different types of adult cyclist.

The Seven Ages of Cycling

Shakespeare wrote of the seven ages of man: the mewling infant, the whining school-boy, the sighing lover, the quarrelsome soldier, the wise justice, the slipper’d pantaloon and ending with an oblivious second childhood.

To me, Shakespeare’s point is that people change over time, that we have different attitudes, and that none of those attitudes is inherently better or worse: they are just different. Our society is inevitably made up of people of different ages and attitudes, and we need to work with that variety.

In a similar vein, I’ve been observing how cyclists change, particularly through their childhood, but also in parallel through parenthood. If you want to build a cycling culture, cycling has to be adaptable to many life changes.

For the first few years, children are mostly passenger cyclists. While there are a variety of specialist bikes and trailers, most people manage with a simple bike seat. You can only use these from about nine months, but that typically coincides with the end of maternity leave. The child’s trips mostly consist of going to nursery, and to the playground, maybe to the shops. Generally these are quite short.

From about three, children get their own wheels, starting off with a scooter or perhaps a balance bike. Later they progress to a conventional bike, mostly with stabilisers. At some point around age five they learn to pedal. These get used for very short trips, mostly leisure trips, for instance to the playground.

When the children start school, they sometimes cycle, although there’s often little speed advantage over walking. For the moment, almost all cycling is on pavements, or paths, very slow, and only for short distances. For longer distances, parents might have a trailer bike (or similar), but for many families, children in this age group only cycle for short trips. For slightly longer trips they’ll walk along the main road, or get the bus, or go in the car.

As children get a bit steadier (age seven or so), they can start cycling on quiet roads, heavily supervised. If there are reasonable quiet routes, cycling can be used – particularly in summer – for longer leisure and shopping trips. Bikes are still unlikely to be used to get to school (unless you live further away). As children get older, and parents get more confident, the children can manage longer trips, on slightly less-quiet routes, with less supervision. The parents will teach the basic rules of the road – keep left and give way at junctions. Children are still likely to be accompanied at all times.

From about nine, parents will sometimes decide to take their children on shorter, busier routes – because they can. To start with, these will be strictly left-on, left-off, with the parent close behind giving instructions. A certain amount of dodging onto the pavement may be required, perhaps to use a crossing.

At eleven, it’s crunch time. There’s cycle training on offer at the school, and the secondary school is a mile in the wrong direction. If there’s a viable quiet route to secondary school, now is the time for the child to learn enough road skills so they can get there under their own steam. Making this possible is a key objective. Take-up of cycling by Year Sevens can be better than 50% if the conditions are amenable. It will never get close to that level if they start later – and in particular, subsequent take-up by girls will be virtually zero.

If a secondary school child has a bike in reasonable condition, and uses it to go to school, they will start using it for other independent trips. They will start off using the quiet routes, but progressively take busier short-cuts, with parental approval and negotiation (and sometimes without). The wise parent gradually lets off the reins, with useful tips and crossed fingers. This is an education process for the parents, as much as the child.

Some time about age thirteen, if conditions permit, and parents allow, the child will effectively have the freedom of the city.

What is it that makes that possible? Firstly quiet routes that let you get about the city. This allows cycling to be a viable mode for families and for the first stages of independent cycling, and allows the bike to be used for transport, rather than just for play. These quiet routes don’t have to be direct, and don’t all have to be perfect, but the better they are, the more they will be used. The less-perfect routes will prevent some family cycling until the child is older. For short distances pavements are adequate to start with, but for practical distances, proper quiet routes are required.

Secondly, there have to be direct routes that adults and teenagers can use to get about quickly – preferably quicker than any other mode. Direct quiet routes are best of all, of course, but they are rarely possible. The direct routes mustn’t be too hairy – otherwise they won’t be used by all the adults in the family, and the teenager probably won’t be allowed to use them. They need to be tame enough that any adult with basic cycling skills can use them without worrying about it too much (or too often).

Whether teenagers continue cycling is another matter. There may be differences of opinion over whether a helmet should be worn. Girls in particular value travel modes where they can chat with their friends. If one among a group stops cycling, the others will probably stop as well. If the cycling culture is very well-established, and there are wide tracks or quiet roads (and no steep hills), they probably will keep cycling. But more often, they’ll switch to walking or getting the bus. When they’re older, if they’re living somewhere where cycling is viable, they’re likely to return to cycling … probably just in time to have children. And so the cycle continues.

Cramming in Bicycle Parking

It can be tricky finding somewhere to park your bike in city centres. So it’s just as well a lot of people come in by bus. This is staff parking at a butchers in the Covered Market.

Cycling to Secondary School

Waiting for friends, before cycling to school
Up to age 11, most children walk to school. Some take their bikes, either because they live a little further away, or just for fun. There’s no problem with small children cycling on the pavement (up to age 10). Quiet routes pass close to each school, so older children can start using the road, under adult supervision.

Secondary school means getting up a bit earlier, and meeting your friends so you can cycle together on the quiet route. This was one of three separate groups meeting up in the park. Secondary schools are generally in the suburbs, and served by quiet routes that are mostly separate from the main road routes that adults use to get to the city centre.

Walking along main roads

Crossing side roads without looking

If side roads have tight corners, and speeds are low, you can walk along the main road without breaking your stride crossing side roads. You hardly bother looking backwards, and a glance tells you there’s no immediate danger. Often people don’t even look.

Cycling in Ordinary Clothes

Overdressed Cyclist

Most cyclists in Oxford just wear ordinary clothes. But some make a bit more effort.

Bikes as pushchairs

Bikes as pushchairs
You walk the bike to school, with the youngest cadging a ride. You stop for a chat. Then you take the youngest to nursery, and head for your desk.

School gate to desk in next to no time.

Shopping or commuting

Family on bikes in town
There are more journeys to the shops than to work. Quiet routes into town let you take the children, even when they’re starting to ride their own bike.

Tolerating indiscretions

Police car in bike box

Advanced Stop Lines are essential, because they give cyclists a slight head start when they’re at their most wobbly, and reduce the risk of a vehicle cutting into a cyclist when turning left. They have minimal effect on congestion (probably a small improvement, because they get more people cycling).

But hey, nobody’s perfect. A lot of small offences really don’t matter in the general scheme of things, so long as people take it easy, and don’t threaten others.