Sunday, 29 September 2013

Cycling Utopia... In Scotland?

There is a place, only 40 miles from Glasgow. A place where families cycle together; where the bikes have baskets; where cars give space to cyclists (who ride two or three abreast on roads); where few wear Lycra and helmets aren't the norm.

The place is in fact an island, about 10 miles in circumference and on the Clyde. Technically the Isle of Cumbrae, but better known as the name of its only town: Millport.

Cycling on Cumbrae

People, main from Glasgow, travel to Cumbrae for day trips and longer holidays. It's a picturesque island, and one of the most popular activities is cycling round it. There are three bike hire shops, and they do a very good trade on a hot day! The perimeter road is almost flat and some of the views are fantastic.

I feel a bit strange taking photos of strangers while cycling, so I missed my chance to take one of the dog in basket. You'll have to just take my word on that one! Here are some that I did take.

Sharing the road. Lycra-clad cyclist, cyclist with a childseat, walkers and a van

Lots of parked cars, but very few actually moving

A family 'taking the lane'!

I saw more kids' trailers in a day here than in 10 years in Glasgow

Almost everyone (on a sunny day!) arrives at the Fintry Bay Tearooms on foot or by bike
Another picture of Fintry Bay. Image from

Explaining the phenomenon

Why do so many people cycle on Cumbrae? Why do families feel safe cycling on a road (that has a speed limit of 60mph for the most part, and a recommended maximum of 30mph throughout)? Can we replicate it elsewhere?

A big part of why cycling on Cumbrae is a joy (and it is - at any speed) is that the number of cars is tiny. The island is very small (as I said, its circumference is about 10 miles) and there is only one main town. A bus meets the ferry from the mainland, taking passengers the 4 miles trip from 'Cumbrae Slip' to 'Millport'. Unless you are transporting a lot of goods, or perhaps someone with mobility problems, there is no need for a car on the island. That fact, combined with the ferry charges for cars (usually £19.65 return, plus normal passenger charges for each person in the car - effectively a congestion charge) mean taking a car onto the island just doesn't make sense in most cases.

While I don't believe in the principle of 'safety in numbers' in general (it doesn't seem to be holding true in London, sadly), there is an element of it here. The car drivers know they're in the minority, and almost without exception act accordingly. The fact that the people on bikes are largely families including children doubtless affects their behaviour too. There is no comparison to the stories of 'road wars' and 'Lycra louts' in Surrey. Finally, most people are on holiday (tourism is pretty much Millport's raison d'ĂȘtre) which seems to also put people in a calmer mood!

Suppressed Demand

What Millport does perfectly, is debunk the argument that British people, Scottish people, Glaswegians or whoever don't want to cycle. Like the 'SkyRides', it shows that people will make a big effort to go somewhere to cycle in (subjective and objective) safety. A good overview of suppressed demand here.

I can't (and don't) believe that these same people, most of whom have travelled about 40 miles and taken a ferry to come to Millport wouldn't cycle to the shops, to schools, to their friends' houses day in, day out if they felt as safe

Like it or not, we can't reduce traffic levels in cities and towns across the country to Millport's levels. In that sense, it is a special case. Normal people will take the lane here, but they won't (and don't) elsewhere. The only way to experience this level of subjective safety is Dutch quality segregated cycling infrastructure. If it comes, really comes, I've no doubt it'll be used.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Cycling in Renfrewshire

I'm back in (surprisingly) sunny Erskine, Renfrewshire for this blog post. As an avid follower of many UK based cycling blogs, where there is some (if certainly not enough) political will for change, up here we're still way-behind. I'll try to find Renfrewshire Council's cycling strategy and look at why normal people don't cycle normal journeys here.


To get started, I thought I'd look for Renfrewshire Council's cycling strategy, or some similar documentation. In the 'Transport and Streets' section of their website, there are sections about 'Parking and car parks', 'Road safety', 'Winter Gritting' and 'Public transport' among others, but no mention of cycling (or, indeed, walking). In fact, cycling information is to be found under 'Leisure and culture'/'Parks and recreation'. Is going to work 'leisure' for you?

There are mentions of cycle tourists, BMX, a 9 year old document 'Renfrewshire Outdoor Access Strategy', featuring this classic picture. In the intervening 9 years, that paint has faded to almost nothing.

Shared use, a dismount sign and a helmet. Yep, we've got it all here.
Making progress. Image from Google Street View

(Sources: [1][2])

There's one positive mention of an off-road path to a school for cycling (sounds promising, haven't seen it personally), but the other cycling links include the 'Bike Helmet Initiative Trust'. 

In the section, 'Glasgow International Airport', there's this gem: "The suggested routes are largely on road and can be busy, particularly at peak hours. Cyclists should take care using the routes. Please also note that the routes are not signposted and that you should use the map to navigate your way." (Source)

Car Sickness

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that there is so much car dependancy and it's so unnecessary. The town I'm from, Erskine, is pretty small. A few measurements on Running Map show the maximum distance North to South is 1.5 miles, West to East is 2.2 miles. Yet the town's biggest shopping area (Bridgewater) has got two large car parks (space for far more than 100 cars) and no more than 15 cycle parking spaces.

The nearest big shopping centre (Braehead, among the biggest shopping centres in Scotland) is as little as 4.7 miles away, the next town, Renfrew, is 4 miles away, Paisley (Scotland's biggest town) is 5.7 miles away and the nearest train station (with fast, direct trains to Glasgow) is 3.5 miles away (featuring 192 car parking spaces and space for about 10 bikes).

All but one of the journeys mentioned are less than 5 miles. The excellent 'As Easy As Riding A Bike' blog focuses on these kind of journey lengths in this post. In the Netherlands, 34% of trips of less than 5 miles are made by bike. In the UK, 2%.

I don't think the people of Erskine are lazy. I really don't. Nor do I imagine they want to be stuck in traffic or suffer from health problems due to inactivity. However, the infrastructure opposes cyclists and cycling between Erskine and nearby towns and villages is subjectively unsafe. Cycling just doesn't seem like an option to most people. That's why people aren't cycling to work, to the shops, to meet friends as they would do in the Netherlands.

Renfrew is a real bottleneck for traffic, with frequent delays for Erskine commuters. There are too many cars. However, one of Erskine's local councillors has a solution - build another road! No mention of cycling (or even public transport or carsharing).

Space For Cycling

Of course, we know that unlike the Dutch, we simply don't have space for cycling! Renfrewshire is no exception. I'm going to focus on the journey from my house to Renfrew. At 4.6 miles, it should be a great candidate to cycle. Google Maps is our friend. I'll follow the route shown below. I'm not choosing this route because it's exceptional, rather because it's very typical. It's a route I do from time to time, to go to my local bank and barbers.
From Linburn, we first hit a road with a 60mph limit and no facilities for cycling. I'd guess most people will give up before getting to this point. I find myself riding defensively and faster than I'd like. It's not fun. A child doing it alone? No way.
Then, this roundabout. Two approaches are 60mph roads, the other two 50mph. All approaches are two lane. As you can imagine, a lot of people travel through it pretty fast. Going straight ahead, we must use the outside lane (there are lane markings stating this). A local councillor recently suggested it needs upgraded, but it's not clear in what way he suggests. Dutch-style priority for cyclists would make a big difference here.
Immediately after, the two lane entry (no good reason for that) narrows into one. So much room for something better.

This is a 50mph limit road in Erskine. Shame there's so little space.
We then go through a 30mph road for a little while - it's OK (though no cycling facilities), pass some more roundabouts with no cycling facilities. Some Dutch roundabouts and a 20mph limit would be great.

We then want to enter Inchinnan, but it's illegal! Let's be clear, I think stopping cars use Inchinnan village as some sort of rat run is an excellent idea. By making car journeys less convenient and reducing traffic through a village, it's exactly the kind of thing I like to see. But allow cyclists! I note that cycling campaign group Go Bike have highlighted this issue in the past. We can break the law or push the bike for a few yards here.
Cycling through Inchinnan itself is OK, some is 20mph (next to a school, supported by speed bumps), the rest 30mph. It'd benefit from 20mph throughout, but is OK to cycle through.

Then, another 50mph road. In theory. I'd bet the average speed is substantially more than that. As you can see, there should be plenty of space for a segregated lane here. It's horrible to cycle on, and I'm always tempted to use the path (which has very little use). The one person Street View has captured on it is one of the only person determined enough to do it on a normal bike with no helmet - yep, me. Can you imagine a family cycling on this? No chance.
On entering Renfrew, now back to 30mph limit, and this is the photo that frustrates me the most. Look at the space. Look at it! There is absolutely no excuse for not having segregated cycling infrastructure here. None. Yet, what we have is a fairly narrow lane with frequent pinch points where drivers frequently cut in front of people to avoid. This is unpleasant to cycle on.

PS - there is an off road cycle path we could take instead of the road in the picture below, but it's indirect, is very isolated and so subjectively unsafe for that reason and is not well-maintained. I don't think it's a realistic alternative.

Space for hatching? Yes. Cycling? No
Looking at this, nobody should be surprised that the modal share of cycling for journeys up to 5 miles is 2%. It's not surprising. How can you blame people for not cycling on those roads? Education campaigns are not the answer. Dedicated, segregated infrastructure in Dutch style is. What are we waiting for?


The status quo just isn't good enough. Leisure cycling is all well and good, but I shouldn't feel unsafe cycling in my local area. Nobody should. Families should be able to cycle together being subjectively and objectively safe. Cycling should be pleasant and enjoyable. For all people, all ages. Infrastructure instructs behaviour. Building more roads will only get us deeper in this car-dependancy nightmare.

Support the Cycling Embassy of GB and the Campaign for Childhood Freedom. Tell your MP, MSP and councillors, as well as anyone who will listen.

I've just started a new Twitter account about cycling - please find me there. @justacwab