Wednesday 30 March 2016

Cyclist Training - Conditioning to Accept Hostility?

As an undergraduate I recall various experiments we did in a zoology classes, looking at how animals respond to stimuli. One simple one is surprisingly salient to cycling. You get a bit of glass and some snails. You let the snails start wandering around on the glass, and then you bang on the other side. The snails all quickly retreat into their shells, because obviously there's something dangerous happening. You can time how long it takes each snail to re-emerge and go about its slimy business.

After a time, you knock on the glass again, and time their re-emergence again. After a few cycles, the snails are used to the noise and come back out far faster, some brave gastropods even daring to continue on their paths with little more than a flinch.

Animals, whether its a snail or a stupid monkey like me, can be conditioned into ignoring some danger. Consider, for a moment, someone swinging their fist at you - you'll flinch, back off, and probably put your hands up and defend your face. Its really hard not to. Go on, try and walk face first into the side of a door - you'll stop yourself. But a boxer, by fist-fighting frequently learns now not to flinch, how not to turn away defencively, and continue looking for a way to counter-punch while maintaining a level of defence. We can be conditioned to take a certain amount of risk and to suppress our natural instincts, to fight off the reflex loops that take us away from danger. 

People who still maintain that cyclists must be trained to ride assertively in traffic and that cycling facilities run counter to good cycling practice and breed poor cyclists aren't really arguing for 'training'. They're arguing for 'conditioning'. Snails on a window have not in any meaningful sense been trained, they've been conditioned such that the association of risk is slightly ameliorated. But its not a particularly pleasant process for the snails (or the bored students), in fact its really quite frightening for the snails. A gastropod wouldn't choose to repeatedly face something instinctively life threatening until its instinct to duck back into its shell is repressed.

So you're an advocate of cyclist conditioning? You want to tell those too scared to ride that they've got to ride in a way that is counter to their perceived common sense, further into the road and assertively such that they're closer to the source of risk (i.e. cars and lorries) until they no longer flinch back to the gutter every time one passes? That isn't going to work. Very, very few people choose to be conditioned to accept something instinctively terrifying. Telling people to harden up to fear isn't a route to mass cycling - its why almost no one in the UK cycles. People will retreat back in to cars rather than face terror until it is no longer terrifying.

Do you advocate that vehicular cycling is the route to a cycling utopia in places with low cycling uptake? Then you're ignoring the basic biology of all animals with the ability to get up and move. Including humanity - this isn't just human biology, it is innate behaviour across the animal kingdom. In other words, you're wrong. Fundamentally, biologically, and entirely.

The only game in town is good, safe, segregated infrastructure. Just get with the program. 

Monday 14 March 2016

Advice for local council candidates regarding the cycling survey...

I don't know if its something that candidates to become councillors here look forward to or dread, but a bit of a local tradition is that Cambridge Cycling Campaign come up with a list of questions that they forward to all of the candidates, and a little birdie (well, Al, in a tweet) hinted that the questions for the forthcoming council elections are almost ready.

The responses make great fodder for the rest of us, and I've covered them before in blog posts such as those linked to here. But this time round, before the questions go out, I've a few things to suggest to those who might be about to fill out their responses.

1. Actually answer the questions
You would think this is obvious, but there have been plenty of 'no comments' or words to that effect sent back. And many more where the answers are every be as uninformative as that - such as telling us that its a leading question without ever explaining why.

Look, either answer the questions or don't, but stop assuming that the very act of responding to the survey is validation.

2. Don't give stock answers
This is something Labour have been particularly guilty of - its like the answers are variants of a theme, like they're reading from a guidance document. Its not clever, its not interesting, its just a well organised way of not really telling us what you think. By all means give the party line, but most of the questions won't be about what the party line is because they're about very, very local issues - please, answer specifically and honestly.

3. Don't treat the questions as a threat
Seriously, some of the answers in the past have been ridiculously defensive, even evasive. Stop for a moment and ask yourself what this is for - if you treat a set of questions from cyclists as hostile, are we likely to believe you won't treat cyclists as hostile?

4. Give us detail
Don't say you're positive towards cyclists. Don't say you support cycling. Tell us what you'll do and how you'll do it - tell us where and how you'll do stuff to make cycling better. In many wards ALL candidates will say they support cycling - the one who stands out is the one who tells us how.

5. Know your ward
If a question is about a specific location in your ward, go look at it, maybe even go ride it a couple of times. THEN answer. If you answer that you don't know the location and don't use this as a chance to get informed then what are you doing in local politics anyway?

So thanks for reading this - and please, if you're responding to the survey from the Cycling Campaign then follow these 5 bits of advice and you'll not go far wrong. 

Monday 7 March 2016

'Cyclists Beware' Stickers - A Condition of Use?

They come in various sorts, but they're all essentially giving the same message - don't try to pass this vehicle in the blind spot on the left (or occasionally at all), the driver can't see in that space so you're putting yourself at risk in doing so. And it sounds like eminently good advice if its an articulated lorry, but since this sticker appeared its finding its way onto smaller and smaller delivery vehicles which really oughtn't have sucky visibility.

Most would agree with the advice of not slipping down the side of large vehicles in that way, but I'm sure many of us would question the presence of such an advisory note on, say, a transit van. And while these things are getting ever more common it doesn't look like cyclists opinions are being sought over what this means for our safety - which is allegedly what they're for.

I'm not opposed to this advice - but I think it has to be two-way. If you put one of these signs on your vehicle you're admitting that such a vehicle isn't really very good for safe use in a multi-mode environment. I would argue that for a city such as Cambridge the presence of such a sticker tells us straight away that your vehicle needs to stay the hell out of the city centre, and I would urge our City and County Councils to discuss implementing this as a simple measure to make cycling safer. Urgently. These companies are telling us flat out that their vehicles are not safe in the presence of the majority vehicle type in the centre of Cambridge - what possible excuse can there be for bringing unsafe vehicles into the city centre?

Health and safety is more than how the hazards we pose should affect the behaviour of others around us - its more important, and more responsible, to limit to the hazards we ourselves pose by modifying our own behaviour. Does your vehicle have a massive blind spot, presenting such a hazard to others that you cannot safely be passed on the left (or the right)? Is that space so dangerous that a cyclist needs to be warned? And you coexist in city traffic with cyclists and may often end up slowly passing them, putting them in that (invisible) space for such an extended period of time that other road hazards may distract you from them? That isn't okay.

I propose that such a warning sign is primarily about the hazards posed by that vehicle, not the behaviour of others not in that vehicle. You want such a sign on your lorry? Great, thanks for the advice, but it means you can't overtake cyclists on any road where any congestion may lead to stoppages. I propose that such a sign is useful, but it is absurd to suggest that if putting a cyclist in your blind spot is dangerous that any driver of such a vehicle can reasonably choose to do so. Want a cyclists stay back sticker? Fine - the price is your vehicle isn't allowed to overtake cyclists in any non-national speed limit road. In a 20, 30 or 40mph zone especially you cannot overtake cyclists if your vehicle has this sticker - and if the purpose of such a warning is the safety of the cyclist, there is no arguable case against this proposal.

Sunday 6 March 2016

So you see more cyclists jump red lights?

"So how come I see so many cyclists jumping red lights?" or some variant thereof is the constant background hum to any kind of discussion on cycling in the UK.

"A driver came right out and side swiped me"
"Really? Thats terrible, I saw someone jump a red light on his bike!"
"Oh? Good for you, now fuck off you unsympathetic bastard, I thought you were my friend but you bring me this shit in response to some fucking moton trying to kill me?"

Well, thats what you want to say, but you don't, because we're British and we seem to think its fine to rain hate down on us for being cyclists and because we don't want to make a scene. But why do we keep hearing this?

Lets assume for the moment that all road users are just people, lets cross off the mode of travel under their name for the moment and say people are more or less the same. It would follow that roughly the same proportion of people in each group would be likely to break a rule if they thought they could get away with it without hurting anybody. Shall we say 1 in 10?

So a driver gets to a stop line with a red light, there's a 10% likelyhood he'll go through it if he can get away with it. Or, in other words, there's a 90% chance that the driver will stop. And if caught behind the first car, the second driver in a line can't jump the red light - there is therefore a 10% chance that a driver can jump red - a probability of 0.1. Its also likely to be the case that unless they jump red as soon as the lights change from amber, they won't be able to do so because there's just nowhere a car can go across a busy junction, so unless the car driver who will be willing to jump red is at the front of the queue and within a narrow time window (as likely as not therefore 'amber gambling' or accelerating hard as the lights change to red) its just not feasible to jump a red light in a car. It does't matter how many car drivers are there - the chance of a red light being jumped by a car driver is independent of how many drivers there are.

Lets look at cyclists now - every cyclist has the opportunity to jump a red light at every single junction. We can, if we want, usually filter to the front. So if there's one cyclist, the probability of there being a red light jumping bike rider is 0.1. If there are two the maths starts getting more fun... 

Both jumping the red light would be 0.1 times 0.1 - or 1 in 100. Both not jumping red would be 0.9 times 0.9, or 0.81 (81 times out of 100 you'd see neither jumping red). So in other words you'd see at least one of them jump a red light 19 times out of 100 - and this can very easily be well after the light has changed to red because a cyclist can not only always get to the front but can jump the light at any time.

So lets say on your daily commute you go through 10 sets of lights and at each set there are 10 cars other than the one you're in. The probability of  a driver jumping a red light at one of those lights is easy to calculate - and its as near as dammit 69% chance. But lets also say that because only the first car can jump red, and you can only really say with certainty a car 1 or 2 places in front of you has jumped the light (the vehicle is the same size as the car you're in after all), you'll only see a fifth of them. So 13.8% of your commutes you'll see a red light jumping driver.

Lets now assume that at the same junctions there's the same number of cyclists - that means you've a hundred cyclists with a chance of jumping red - there's a 99.99% chance of seeing a cyclist jumping a red light (in fact by the time you've passed your fourth junction there's a 99% chance there's been a cyclist jumping red).

The simple truth is that we're all just stupid monkeys, and regardless of the mode of travel you'll find people who think they can break the rules and thats all fine. That you see more cyclists than motorists break a particular rule doesn't mean that they're worse offenders - it just reflects what you're in a position to see and the opportunities they have. 

Your belief that cyclists are worse than motorists for jumping red lights doesn't mean that cyclists really do break the rules more - it just means you've not done the maths.