Wednesday 9 November 2011

Primary and Secondary

Cyclecraft, and cycling enthusiasts, talk of "primary" and "secondary" road positioning when dealing with our roads. They are, it would appear, considered "key" to successful vehicular cycling. To those uninitiated into the lingo of the cyclist, secondary position is where one cycles to the left of the centre of the carriageway but away from gutters, drains and other debris that hugs the side of our roads. It is intended to be safe for the cyclist, and allows easier overtaking by following traffic. Primary is where the cyclist takes the centre of the road and effectively restricts passing by following traffic. Primary is considered by tomes such as Cyclecraft to be key to negotiating safe progress for the cyclist through pinch-points and other road narrowing where overtaking could only be achieved by squeezing the cyclist's space.

So far, so good - although I do have a fairly fundamental objection to being the road-user who is tasked with controlling traffic behind me. The concept of the vulnerable road user being the one that controls the actions of those travelling in several tonnes of metal at speed seems, to me at least, slightly counter-intuitive. I would kind of hope anyone charged with driving large vehicles would be able to control themselves without little old me having to help them out.

But not withstanding this objection, the bigger issue is that, outside a fairly esoteric group of hardened cyclists, the concept of "secondary" and "primary" is completely unknown. Especially to those who are supposed to be "controlled" by this practice - the drivers. To the average driver, I suspect "secondary" looks like "bloody cyclist in my way" and "primary" looks like "bloody arrogant cyclist taking up all the space on my road paid for by my tax".

The fact that drivers have absolutely no idea about why cyclists would be taking primary or secondary, or indeed that cyclists are actually encouraged in such practices to control road-space, seems somewhat of an oversight and might just lead to some difficulties when put into practice on the roads.

So how does it actually work in practice?

I submit to the jury exhibit 'A'.*  Taken a couple of weeks ago in Leyton.

In this video, I am going around the little gyratory they have on the High Road. I take primary as I move around the gyratory - even though there is a cycle lane bizarrely on the right hand side; any cyclists I have seen using it get cut up terribly on the exit of the corner. Why do I take primary? Because I don't want some genius trying to pass me on a corner when traffic from the left sometimes doesn't stop. All well and good. But then after rounding the corner, I move to secondary to allow the cars behind me to pass. Except this time, the car doesn't pass before the zebra crossing on the corner, or wait until the corner is cleared. They pass on the corner and pretty much run me off the road. I really don't think this was intentional, just really poor judgement.

So, what to do here? Take secondary and risk a manoeuvre like the one above, or stick in primary and possibly incur the wrath of impatient drivers behind? In a less hostile road environment this decision wouldn't be required since the type of overtaking as seen in the video would simply not happen, either because the road layout would stop it, or the drivers would engage a modicum of common sense.

The second exhibit is my old favourite, the Tottenham Hale Gyratory (Broad Lane), taken on the same day as the video above.

This is a different type of problem. I am in primary to prevent very close overtakes at high speed. The middle lane is travelling at between 15-30mph, so there will always be one important person determined to get in front. And, sure enough, I glance back to see a driver undertaking the middle lane at high speed until he meets me where he sits on my rear wheel. I have a choice here. Move left and get close passed anyway, or continue in primary and hope he doesn't decide to drive through me, and instead moves into the next lane. Of course he decides to drive through me.

This, I think is the problem with primary and secondary. Drivers don't know why you are doing it and care even less. Primary, in theory, should stop close passes like the Toyota whereas the best that happens in many cases is that you simply slow down the close passing car and force it make some attempt to move into the other lane.

The real problem is that roads are designed with only the car in mind, and drivers know they can get away with this type of behaviour with absolute impunity.

Both videos have been reported to Roadsafe.

(* I think I may have been watching too many courtroom drama series on TV recently)


  1. OMG! Please don't tell me that the foot of road (practically in the gutter) with a painted lane and a bike symbol is seriously supposed to be a bike lane!!

  2. Welcome to Waltham Forest!

    This little gyratory has the stunning cycle lane you see running up to the pedestrian crossing, and two cycle lanes you see at the beginning. The right hand lane ends at the exit of a blind bend with the cyclist stranded on the right. It is simply magical.