Sunday 28 November 2010

Vehicular cycling and the primary position

It would appear that most local government organisations feel that vehicular cycling is the way to go. Clearly this is the prevailing attitude after careful study of successful cycling models elsewhere in the world and consideration about what will make cycling as safe and pleasant as possible. Nothing to do with it being the cheap option that involves the least amount of work. Oh no.

In the face of no enthusiasm for anything approaching cycling infrastructure by any level of government, vehicular cycling is the only solution. Well, if you discount giving up completely and taking the car, of course.

An important part of vehicular cycling is taking "primary position" on the road when necessary. To the uninitiated this involves the cyclist controlling traffic around them by moving into the centre of the lane at points of conflict, for example pedestrian refuges and junctions. If this sounds scary then don't worry - it only sounds scary because it actually is scary. But according to virtually everyone it is the right thing to do. Even the Institute of Advanced Motorists urge cyclists to "claim the lane". It might sound a bit odd that the most vulnerable road-user in this equation, the cyclist, is expected to control the traffic around them. One might hope that someone driving several tonnes of machine should be able to control themselves. But maybe that is asking too much. The article linked above details the IAM urging cyclists to push out into the road when passing junctions and overtaking parked cars so that drivers see them. Apparently drivers only see the main traffic stream and will miss a cyclist, so clearly the thing to do is for the cyclist to modify their behaviour as opposed to the driver looking a bit harder.

Notwithstanding the distinct whiff of passing blame from inattentive and rubbish drivers to cyclists, the great "primary position" vehicular cycling plan falls down on a significant point. It assumes that all drivers are rational, calm people whose attention is on the road and who will act carefully around vulnerable road users.

Clearly it doesn't assume that a proportion of drivers are impatient imbeciles who are juggling driving with phoning their friends and who see cyclists as an imposition on their road. It assumes that if you are a moron who should not be left in charge of anything more dangerous than a plastic spoon then you won't be able to obtain a driving license. 
Clearly these assumptions are wrong.

To illustrate, let me give you some examples of what happens when you take the primary position in the manner that is described by the IAM. All happened today.

Lower Clapton Road : Grey Golf tries to overtake me whilst passing a pedestrian refuge. There would be no space to do this even if I was hugging the kerb. Golf driver lifts off after coming to within inches of my back wheel. Golf driver gives me a stare as he passes after the island. I stare back as I then pass him again 20 seconds later as he joins the tail of a traffic jam that means he doesn't pass me again at all.

Stratford A11 : Silver Van overtakes me to then push into my lane and slow down to try to undertake the traffic. I had moved into primary away from the cycle lane. Luckily I am not in the cycle lane as he them swerves into it to avoid another car trying the same trick. Both end up in the traffic jam just after the one way system.

Leytonstone Road A11 : One of the most stunningly moronic pieces of driving I have seen for a while. I take primary on the "straight ahead lane" as I run up to a traffic queue at the lights with Crownfield Road. A black Fiesta overtakes me on the outside lane to cut in front between me and the queuing traffic and then indicate left to go into the left most lane. To then sit in the queue no further forward than if they had simply waited behind me. Luckily my sixth "shit driver" sense had already been activated as he overtook me and I backed off otherwise I would have been into the side of his car.

So there we have it. Vehicular cycling and taking the primary. Great for cycling on hypothetical roads with drivers who aren't idiots. Not so great in the real world. And as for the elderly, very young, or those less willing to be assertive and fight for space on the roads whilst taking abuse? Well they simply have to succumb to the law of the jungle and accept that cycling just isn't for them.


  1. I really don't think you should overstate the dangers of vehicular cycling - certainly it has to be done properly, preferably with training, to be safe, but cycling accidents are not especially high per cycle km, and the largest proportion (lorries turning left at junctions) of the largest proportion (HGVs) of cycling KSI stats don't involve taking the lane at all, but instead involve cyclists right on the kerb.

    Negligence or inattention by motorists is far more the problem than aggression or rage.

    All the same, I would heartily agree that while I, and a load of largely male mature cyclists are OK with the primary position etc, subjective safety is key to very many more actual or potential cyclists and until something is done to improve that, we aren't going to get anywhere near Dutch or Danish levels.

  2. Paul: well, no - what gets you anywhere near Dutch or Danish modal share is Dutch or Danish style cycling infrastructure.

    Do you honestly believe we'll get near 30 or 40% modal share with training in using the primary position and other vehicular cycling techniques on these dangerous stretches of road?

    Please, just one example from anywhere in the world where this has happened as evidence. Thanks.

  3. Paul, the thing is, taking the primary position when cycling is both necessary and extremely unpleasant.

    This morning, a driver on Lupus Street SW1 repeatedly hooted me and shouted out of his open window me to "get out of the middle of the road", which is just intimidating and quite scary. Much like Grumpy Cyclist's examples, he overtook me dangerously close at the first opportunity, only for me to pass him at the first set of traffic lights and never see him again.

    The question is whether motorists can ever be educated to the degree that they stop making cyclists feel unsafe. Given that it only takes a tiny percentage of drivers being aggressive to put people off cycling, and that many drivers I see have still not quite accepted that other cars on the road have as much right to be there as they do, this seems unlikely. We need segregated cycle lanes now.

  4. This is an example of a planning horizon: the drivers are looking one move ahead, "how to get past the bicycle". A two move planning horizon would make them realise there is little point just before a traffic jam. However, the fact that you then go past them -after holding them up- may actually increase resentment.

  5. Paul,

    I don't think that vehicular cycling is dangerous although how much risk is involved can be debated with the statistics.

    What I do think is that vehicular cycling as we have to practise it in the UK requires assertiveness (to the point sometimes of aggression), and a somewhat thick skin. And a small, but very significant, proportion of drivers will try something stupid simply to try to get past.

    Clearly one could say you should educate the drivers. But years of trying this doesn't seem to have improved matters. One could also say that more people cycling will help matters, and it would. But UK Vehicular cycling is in a catch22. Conditions are such that most people (certainly drivers) won't cycle, yet without larger numbers (esp drivers) cycling, conditions won't change.

    Vehicular cycling happens in every country - but in places like Holland, the roads where vehicular cycling is required are tamed to accommodate and prioritise the cyclist, and those where this is not possible are given cycling facilities.

    I guess my point in the blog is that vehicular cycling as it is in the UK won't increase cycling. And it isn't very pleasant some of the time either. And these aren't the conditions which will foster a cycling revolution.

  6. After I posted this yesterday, on the way home going south at Vauxhall Cross I stopped in the ASL in the primary position at the red light and was hooted by a taxi. He continued to hoot at me as he went around the Cross, and going under the bridge accelerated hard, overtook me and cut me up so much that I had to brake hard not to go into the side of his cab. I was too shocked to get the plate.

    This morning I I just couldn't face it. I got the tube.

  7. Angercanbepower - sorry to hear about this. The actions of these idiots destroys the thought that we can "share the road" successfully.

    The two worst instances of aggressive driving towards me have involved black cabs. Both have been completely unprovoked, unless you call cycling in a bus lane provocation.

    Keep cycling! The good outweighs the bad by far.

  8. I saw today why primary position and vehicular cycling is doomed as a way to get everyone cycling: how do you tell a 6 year old to take primary position? have you ever seen a school child take the lane?

  9. Tim: I have. And I've also seen a driver be just as aggressive to the poor kid as s/he would have been to me. I was following the kid (12 ish) because he was doing exactly the right thing...