It’s time to slow down on the roads

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about how we need proper cycling infrastructure and segregated cycle lanes if we want to get more people using bicycles. However, while I agree that segregated lanes ARE important, they’re a long way off, and what is needed more urgently is a cultural shift about the way we view our journeys.

In the UK, the relationship between cyclists and drivers is an uneasy one. Not only are cyclists are fed up of bad and unsafe drivers, putting their lives at risk, many are fed up of being at the receiving end of verbal abuse too. Car drivers seem to hate us for… what exactly? Smugness? Lycra? (we don’t all wear lycra) The fact that we don’t pay road tax? Or is it just the fact that they see us as an obstacle to them getting to their destination even faster?

I think that a lot of the antagonism between car drivers and people on bikes is down to the latter. It’s down to an impatience to get to where we’re going as quickly as possible. In modern day Britain, it’s not the journey that matters, it’s the destination.

I spent a year in Madagascar. I think there are a lot of lessons to learn from my life there. Our transport options were limited to the following: For destinations along the coast we could walk (if it was within walking distance), or go by sea in a little wooden sailing boat. For the latter, we had no control over how fast it would take us to get there; it always depends on the wind. A trip to a village 3 miles south could take anything from 20 minutes with a brisk wind, or three hours with none. For inland destinations too far to walk to, you could take a zebu cart – a wooden cart drawn by two snorting, farting and pooing Malagasy cows. Unlike horses, zebus don’t gallop. Zebus are never in a hurry, and so we could never be. What would be a twenty-minute car journey, could take up to four hours on the back of a zebu cart.

Returning home after a year away, I looked at the UK with new eyes. Everything here is so FAST. We’re so keen to get from place to place, from destination to destination, that we’ve developed an impatience that’s almost permanent. Ironically, it’s our desire to get to places as quickly as possible that has led to more people driving, more roads being built, and more traffic jams and congestion to slow us back down again.

It’s not just car drivers that are impatient; I’ve noticed many people on bikes cycling with the same attitude – speeding through red lights and weaving in and out of traffic in a manner that I could only describe as risky and dangerous. I notice that I too started to get impatient in a traffic jam when I couldn’t cycle on the cycle lane because it was blocked off by cars. And then I started to think about it. How much time would I really gain if I had free run of this cycle lane? One minute? Two? Thirty seconds?

What makes life so unsafe for cyclists is the impatience and the need for speed from drivers. The 30mph speed limit is treated as a guide, and the amber light is viewed as a reason to speed up, with at least two or three drivers jumping  red lights EACH TIME at a crossroads I cycle through daily. It’s no wonder that many people are put off cycling when this is the reality on the roads of UK cities.

While segregated cycle lanes are costly, changing our mindset is free and could benefit all of us. If we all slowed down a bit, developed some patience and mindfulness, we would approach our journeys completely differently. We’d be more aware of others on the road, and there’d be less of the unsafe driving that puts everyone at risk – drivers, pedestrians AND cyclists. We might also be less stressed, angry and annoyed, and surely that’s got to be good for our health?

I was once in a bus being driven very erratically and speedily. While waiting at a red traffic light, a woman walked up to the bus driver and said to him, “I’d rather be late in this life, than early in the next”.

It’s something that I think we’d all benefit from remembering. That, and my new cycling mantra: “I’m not in a hurry”. It’s reduced my impatience, and the resulting stress and annoyance by the behaviour of other road users.

It’s no longer just about the destination, it’s about the journey too.

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About Ruth Rosselson

I am a writer, researcher and consultant with over 14 years experience of writing about ethical and environmental issues. I specialise in writing copy for NGOs, charities, social enterprises and the co-operative movement.
This entry was posted in Cycling, Environment and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to It’s time to slow down on the roads

  1. I want to cycle quicker. One day I will get back to the speed of my 16 year old self.
    Sadly, a lot of bike users skip more red lights than car drivers – car drivers doing it I’ve come to expect in Manchester for some reason, but am surprised when those on bikes go straight through a red light.
    Maybe we all just need to the countryside where it doesn’t matter if you don’t get something done today, or even this week, and …. ahh now I’m dreaming of living in the middle of Dartmoor…. Nice!

  2. Ian... says:

    Ruth, 20mph limits whilst a step in the right direction are no panacea.

    We live within a 20mph zone. There is a bit of a rat run straight through the middle of it where the limit is obeyed by few – along which I annoy more drivers when in my car than when aboard a bike – a glance in the rear view mirror when turning off to where we live always reveals a blood vessel bursting SFB throwing daggers our way, whilst accelerating to whatever speed they choose.

    Along the side roads to our house, many drivers are only slowed by the number of parked cars that also block the pavements, making things difficult for pedestrians with pushchairs, or for somebody in a wheelchair.

    Just look at all the bad publicity driving whilst using a mobile phone gets – usually in the form of news stories of somebody being killed – then hang around a junction and count the number of drivers making a phonecall or reading a text.

    Try crossing a busy road with 2 young kids & a few bags of shopping at rush hour.

    The common denominator amongst all of this is the car.

    Taking roadspace away from the car to make safer environments for cyclists & pedestrians (and policing them so that they don’t become car parking space) is a positive step. As a knock on benefit, drivers tend to speed less where there is less space to do so, and may then respect 20mph side roads a little more due to being calmer when entering them…

    …well, it would be nice to think so anyway ;>D

    • Hi Ian,
      I totally agree that the 20mph speed limits in themselves aren’t enough to make things easier for pedestrians or cyclists. For things to really change, we need to think differently about how we get to places and how quickly we need to do it. As you’ve found in your area, changing speed limits won’t make any difference if car drivers still drive with the same attitudes as before, and still ignore limits anyway. What I’d really like to see is a complete cultural shift, a change in the way that we think, which would have a knock-on effect on our behaviour. For me it’s about mindfulness and patience as much as being told to slow down.

      While the common denominator may be the car – who is driving it and how they drive is really at fault, not the car itself. It’s as hard to change attitudes as it is to get people to abide by the speed limits, but I don’t think that you can have one without the other.

      Mindfulness isn’t a sacrifice however, it’s something that can benefit everyone, and society as a whole. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say – perhaps that didn’t quite come across as I’d like it.

  3. LC says:

    Really interesting post! From my experience of life back home (Italy) a lot resides on mutual respect. Where my mum lives, Vicenza, there aren’t ‘proper’ cycle lanes or slow/restricted speed limits as 20mp/hr but because so many people cycle as well as drive there is an unspoken mutual respect, especially because there’s also the clear perception that an elderly lady on a bike could be your grandma, or a young teen on her way to school could you be your daughter or sister etc. I think this is completely lacking here, unfortunately.

    On a side note though, Road Tax doesn’t exist and it’s a myth that people like Jeremy Clark keep banging on about to drive the “us v them” hate campaign even more. See more here: http://ipayroadtax.com/ . Hope you don’t me highlighting this but I really think it’s important we all work towards dispelling this myth 😉 L x

  4. tanoshinde says:

    Excellent post — I think you strike at the heart of the matter. We have similar problems here in the heart of the US.

    Sometimes I think just sitting in a car contributes to the problem — not that I think cars are bad; simply, we humans don’t like to be in tight quarters, for the most part; especially not cages. Cars are, in essence, big metal cages, no matter how we dress them up, and I think we become subtly anxious, leading to an increase in adrenaline, leading to an increase in aggressive behavior. At least, if I am any kind of baseline for the human species (who knows, I may not be!), I would guess this must be true!

    We have stretches of town here in Louisville, KY that I imagine are very much like Vincenza as LC describes it above, where drivers are used to seeing bikes and drive more slowly. Everyone does seem calmer and happier there. Likewise, we have areas where the ‘surface streets’ are eight lanes wide and everyone drives recklessly and people throw things at cyclists. Drivers in those areas seem much more stressed out.

    I think the statement ‘mindfulness is not a sacrifice’ is something we could all do well to remember in our hectic modern lives. I think all we might live very differently, if we lived more mindfully.

  5. GillMPhoto says:

    Thoughtful post Ruth, I love the lady on the bus quote: “I’d rather be late in this life, than early in the next”. Great story and wise words.

    I agree, the mindset in this country is a major problem and much (though not all) of this is down to car drivers being in a state of anger at the roads in general whilst driving. Due to a variety of things like petrol prices, parking costs, busy roads, potholes, poor driving standards, etc. I have noticed if I am cycling in a quieter area or at a less busy time of day, then the general road courtesy towards me and my bike is greatly improved.

    A combination of segregation where possible (if space allows or new build), use of green arteries in cities (way-marked use of old train lines, canal towpaths, bridleways made safe and good surface for cycling) and integrated on the road would be perfect if possible. I think for new cyclists or those worried at the thought of cycling on the road they could gain confidence by using the segregated or off-road routes first.

    Everything comes back to attitude; the pro-cycle and pro-walk voices need to be much higher up the power structure and heard positively in the media and seen to regularly influence policy decisions. I wish I had a magic wand to make that happen.

    The bike is becoming hip and occasionally celebrated with the success of the TeamGB cyclists and as a nation we are recognising sedentary lifestyles are not beneficial. So I hope we are moving into a more positive direction. But it is such slow going to undo the years of cycling being undermined.

    • Marchie says:

      I largely agree with what Ruth has to say with regard to to the lack of patience, understanding and respect between road users in the UK today. The prevailing attitude on the roads is “get out of my f**king way!” – as if everybody believes their journey is far more important than that of everybody else. There is a great deal of emphasis placed upon the speed of one’s journey. I was at a presentation about the proposals for the Greater Manchester Local Transport Plan 3 a couple of months back; when it was stated that the intention was to encourage people to travel on foot for journies under one mile, or on a bike for journies under three miles, the general reception was one of utter derision:- “I haven’t got time for that!”, one attendee was heard to scoff. Yet presumably this chap did have the time to sit in his car or on a bus which will get him to his destination no quicker than a steadily-ridden bicycle during the peak travel times…

      So yes, it would be great if we could change the general attitude to travel in this country; how should it be achieved? CAN it be achieved?

      I am replying to Gill also, because I too have noticed that driver attitudes tend to change with location; I cycled (or, given the weather – waded!) from Chester to Manchester today. Most of this journey is on country lanes, where I have to say the default attitude from drivers towards me was one of patience and respect – they waited for safe points to pass, and when they did so, I was given plenty of room (and they received a wave of thanks from me). However, as soon as I got to Hale (just outside Altrincham), the rest of my journey into Manchester up the A56 was hellish! Close, fast passes were suddenly the order of the day. Pointless overtakes in the run up to red lights were par for the course. If anything, I have noticed that the worse the weather conditions are, the less patient drivers seem to be. Why? They’re in a climate-controlled box that is sealed from the elements and visibility is poor – why does this make people drive FASTER and CLOSER?

      Direct, segregated, well-surfaced, traffic and obstacle-free cycle paths are an answer, but I’m not sure they are THE answer. We have places in the UK that have such facilities – Milton Keynes being a prime example, with its purpose-built “red routes”. Ironically, in a way this comes back to Ruth’s original point – most people won’t use these facilities because the alternatives (i.e. the car, because of the plentiful provision of 60mph dual carriageways in Milton Keynes) are significantly quicker. Also, the “red routes” have their own “subjective safety” barrier to cycling – the danger in this case is no longer be the car, but some anonymous (and in all likelihood, mythical) baddie who waits behind a bush ready to pounce on you as you pass.

      For the UK, I think the attitude change needs to happen first. How do we achieve it? I think a good place to start would be to stop “grouping” road users so much. I’m a road user. I’m a nice bloke who rides a bike to go most places, but I sometimes walk places too. My dad is a road user. He’s a nice bloke who drives pretty much anywhere he needs to go. He, I, we are all humans. Yet on the roads, we are not. We are “cyclists”; “motorists”; “pedestrians”. A “cyclist” is something that a “motorist” is not, and this grouping makes it easy for the groups to hate each other. If we can get away from the rivalry, I think we could start to see progress. As to how we do this, I’m all ears! 🙂

      • LC says:

        I see your point, but good segregated cycling infrastructure should not be like the Milton Keynes ‘red routes’. Segregated lanes need to be on direct routes from A to B, within road systems, much to the model of Netherlands, Germany and Denmark (but also cities like Portland and San Francisco are a good example).

        A good point was raised yesterday at the GMCC (cyclemanchester.org.uk) meeting in which few people raised the issue that first think we need enforcement that stops other road users blocking cycling infrastructure… I don’t like the green cycle lanes that are painted on our roads, but I guess if there would enforcement of being kept free and not parked on willy-nilly than that would be a good start.

        I also think that good old word-of-mouth of how easy and fast it is to do short journeys (i.e. 5 miles) by bike is and being positive about cycling to others does also work. I know that my friends and family are slowly but surely changing their perception of cycling and cyclists on the road because I go on about it so much, and some are even giving transport cycling a go! ‘We’ (I mean the broader cycling community) are also used to be disillusioned with how slowly things are progressing that ‘we’ risk falling into the moaning trap too much.

        x

  6. You have this the wrong way round, when you say “segregated cycle lanes are costly, changing our mindset is free”. It is not free. Nothing is free. It is tremendously difficult to change people’s mindset when such a tiny minority of people are cyclists and such a “them and us” culture exists on the roads. It is actually much easier, quicker and cheaper to build effective infrastructure than it is to change minds by moral persuasion. Minds don’t change in a physical and social environment where nothing changes. It is the environment which determines attitudes. I liken it to the change that occurred to the attitudes to drunk-driving, which used to be socially accepted. It became unacceptable, not though moral pressure, but because the government came down hard on it with the full force of the law.

    David
    Vole O”Speed

  7. Kim says:

    First off, one in the UK pays “road tax” it was abolished in 1937, roads are paid for out of general taxation. Some motorist (OK most of them) pay Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) which is a tax on pollution, there are an increasing number of low emission motor vehicles which at zero rated for VED. As the bicycle is a zero emission vehicle, if it were to be included in the VED scheme then it would zero rated. The point of this is that no motorist tries to tell drivers of zero rated car that they don’t belong on the roads.

    To get to my main point, yes we need to get driver to slow down where it is appropriate, but more importantly we need to get drivers to understand that they have responsibilities to others on the road and do not have a right to be there. There is a right to use the roads as a pedestrian, riding a bicycle or a horse, but you may only drive a motor vehicle under licence and with that licence comes responsibilities. The problem is that the driving licence is increasingly seen as giving a right to the road. So we need to find a way of ending this culture of the Sacred Driving Licence, for the good of all. There other things which would also help, such as a law of strict liability which would re-enforce the understanding of the responsibilities of individual road uses, but the greatest need is to get people to understand that they do have responsibilities to others.

  8. A friend of mine is getting a bike. She’s been doing some reading about what can be done to make cycling safer and what she told me was: “The problem with speed limits is that it only takes one driver who doesn’t obey it to kill me”. I think it sums up the issue perfectly. I think speed limits and education are as effective in protecting cyclists as the 5th commandment in protecting people from murderers…

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