Franklin’s Cyclecraft: An Abusive Relationship

I’ve had a crappy summer on the roads. Don’t get me wrong - the weather’s been great, and I’ve had some lovely rides, and I’ve got some amazing memories.

No. It’s the idiots I have to share the road with who are the problem.

I’ve lost count of the number of deliberately intimidatory close passes I’ve suffered, blasts of horns, times I’ve been tailgated, and had incomprehensible (yet plainly vitriol-laced) yells from passing drivers. I’ve had drivers try overtaking me when I’ve been stationary in a queue of traffic (really: just what imaginary piece of unoccupied road were you trying to get into?), another brake-test me, and one drive his car at me and Daughter before getting out to tell me that he’d be waiting round the corner out of CCTV view to give me a good kicking. That’s him, below - charming fellow. Rather than take him up on his offer, I called the police.

It’s been really, really shit.

It got so bad in fact that I even had a colleague who’s a cycle instructor take me out on the road to assess my riding - if I was the common factor in these acts of aggression, then maybe I was the one at fault?

Turns out my riding is fine.

For the last six or so years I’ve clung to John Franklin’s Cyclecraft as a necessary survival manual for riding on the UK’s streets. I may want an environment where I don’t have to mix with motorised vehicles, but until I get it, I needed a set of survival strategies.

Cyclecraft - The Complete Guide to Safe and ENJOYABLE Cycling For Adults And Children. Is it bollocks.

Cyclecraft - "The Complete Guide to Safe and ENJOYABLE Cycling For Adults And Children". Is it bollocks.

The government (via the DfT and Her Majesty’s Stationer) endorses this book, and hold it up as the core of Bikeability, which they keep funding to make sure children are “safe”. The problem is that it’s “safe” in the sense of “less likely to get accidentally killed on the road”, and makes no allowance for the torrent of psychological abuse that this entails.

Yet that seductive message about safety is still there. It’s as if Franklin is telling us that only he can keep us safe… and then going on to make sure we get exposed to the worst forms of emotional and psychological abuse.

Worse still, we become hardened to this, and almost seem to court it - if we’re doing things right, then drivers will get annoyed at us. So the measure of “correct” cycling then becomes the amount of abuse that drivers seem willing to dish out. This is one reason that I don’t use a helmet camera - it’s presence seems to exacerbate this problem from both sides.

If this were a marriage, it would be classed as one based on an abusive, codependant relationship. And that just ain’t healthy.

Cyclecraft has a lot to say on road positioning - riding to the left in the “secondary position” (which Franklin says is around 1m to the left of moving traffic, and >0.5m from the road edge) when it’s clear and safe for drivers to overtake, but then taking the central, “primary position” when it’s not. The logic is that by dominating the lane, drivers cannot overtake when it’s unsafe, and you are also more visible. Examples include:

  • Approaching a junction on the left, when there is a car approaching from behind - you don’t want them to overtake & then swerve in to make a left turn across your front wheel
  • Approaching a point where the road narrows, say for a traffic island. You don’t want a car overtaking and then squashing you
  • When turning right - you don’t want a car squeezing past on your left and knocking you into the path of oncoming vehicles
  • To avoid potholes or other debris, which are frequently found near the kerb
  • To avoid cycling alongside parked cars - drivers or passengers can easily open a door into your path, either knocking you off, or causing you to swerve under the wheels of an overtaking vehicle

These are all sound very sensible. Except as Franklin points out,

“You need to recognise that the training of motorists is often inadequate, with the emphasis more on passing the driving test than on acquiring safe driving skills. Very little is taught about sharing the road with non-motorised users, or about the particular difficulties faced by people such as cyclists.”

- Chapter 6, Sharing The Roads

Put simply, most drivers have no concept of what the f*ck “Primary” and “Secondary” positions are, let alone why you’d use either, or why you’d deliberately put yourself in front of their vehicle instead of at the road’s edge. So it’s little wonder that “riding in a position on the road to prevent you overtaking just here, where any error on either of our parts would probably kill me” is misinterpreted as “riding like an ignorant twat who’s now delaying my journey by four seconds. And another thing - road tax. See?”.

Just spend a few minutes on Youtube to see for yourself - there are scores of clips of drivers hooting at cyclists as they squeeze past, and the cyclist then having a “conversation” with the driver a few hundred yards down the road (drivers - you should know that yours is the slowest way to get around town). The cyclist will try explaining their actions while shaking with their sudden adrenaline flush after their recent near-death experience, and the driver will be the one looking completely baffled.

And then there’s this, from Ian Walker:

Drivers pass closer to the rider, the further out in the road he rides. White circles are for a rider with a helmet, and black squares are for a bare-headed cyclist.

Franklin says your “secondary position” should be based on the line that most cars are taking. So you should ride ~1m to their left, but no closer than 50cm to the edge of the road, and this way, you remain visible to drivers approaching from behind. The advice is that if you’re already just 50cm from the road’s edge, and feel drivers are overtaking you too closely, then you need to move out - to be more assertive.

Yet what the above chart says is that for every 4cm further from the kerb you ride, overtaking traffic will on average be 1cm closer to hitting you.

The more assertive a position you take on the road, the more likely you are to feel the need to take an even more assertive position. This is positive feedback which has negative results - riding a bike becomes increasingly terrifying, and drivers get increasingly frustrated or aggressive.

So what’s to be done?

Unfortunately, we go back to my initial point about Cyclecraft. It IS a manual for safe riding, and I will continue to take its advice (with the exception about road positioning - I’ll be riding further to the left, except where absolutely necessary).

But Cyclecraft absolutely is NOT a manual for enjoyable cycling. It’s written on the false premise that the best place for people is amongst heavy, fast moving machinery that’s operated by people who’re distracted and poorly trained. The HSE would never allow this in a factory or building site. Compensating for this requires nerves of steel, eyes in the back of your head, and a willingness to deal with the stresses caused by those impatient drivers who you’ve had to inconvenience by a few seconds for your own safety.

I know that this hasn’t got me out of the abusive relationship, but at least now I recognise this relationship for what it is: deeply unhealthy, and ultimately doomed to failure. John Franklin doesn’t love me, and he never will.

The solution is of course obvious. We urgently need the government to start taking cycling as a means of transport seriously, and to reallocate space so that it can be done without the conflict. It needs the DfT to recognise that the solution to congestion is in getting Britain cycling, not building more motorways, or spunking £50-80bn up the wall on HS2. It needs the Department of Health to recognise that the solution to our obesity epidemic is in getting britain cycling, not in outsourcing and privatisation by sleight-of-hand. It needs for central government to have a coherent, long-term over-arching strategy for getting Britain cycling. It needs the recently announced £10/head for cycling cities to be doubled, and rolled out across the whole country.

About £1.3bn a year, with an Office for Active Transport to knock heads together and get stuff done across government would be a start…

Filed under: Bike Culture

Tags: , , , , , ,

19 Responses to “ Franklin’s Cyclecraft: An Abusive Relationship ”

  1. John Buckley on September 10, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    You are absolutely right, and we must push push push for better and segregated infrastructure for cycling. But that isn’t going to happen overnight. Someone wanting to ride to work tomorrow won’t find the roads suitable for safe cycling.

    So what do we do for those who have fear of traffic, but want to take up cycling NOW.

    Do we show them how to deal with today’s road conditions (including assertive positioning) or do we tell them to wait ten years while campaigners continue to lobby for better safer facilities in the hope taht they are successful?

  2. Mr Happy Cyclist on September 10, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    I think the “helmeted” and “bare-headed” in the caption on the graph may be the wrong way round. Motorists pass closer to helmeted riders.

    Very good article, by the way.

  3. KarlOnSea on September 10, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    @John - That is my conclusion too. Cyclecraft is a necessary evil… for now. We should do everything we can to make it an anachronistic irrelevance.

    @Mr Happy - well spotted & now corrected, thank you!

  4. ThinkPurpose on September 10, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Well said. Last month some car edged out from a left junction straight into my bike lane I served around it straight into the path of cars coming behind me, and yet I was an “arsehole” according to the driver who did it, and made sure he came back around again to shout it out at me again.

  5. Sara_H on September 10, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Spot on. Cycle Craft is what it is. But we musn’t be distracted from the facet that we need good quality segregated infrastructure.

  6. Schrödinger's Cat on September 10, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    If that’s John Franklin’s idea of “enjoyable” then he must have an awful home life. Perhaps he lives with crocodiles, or has poisonous spiders roaming the house?

  7. Jitensha Oni on September 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Great article. It may be time for a rewrite of Cyclecraft by people such as yourself who are more in touch with current road conditions. Certainly it has been a massive failure if it is intended to get more people cycling on the roads, with bikelbility havng been taught in schools for a number of years without a discernible positive effect on cycling numbers. Furthermore, if some people take the position “Build it and they won’t come” using Stevenage and the like as examples to promote a vehicular agenda, can’t the infrastructuralists, based on the evidence of the past decade, take the position “Teach Cyclecraft and they won’t come” as well? Looks like it from here.

    So IMO John Buckley’s question “what do we do for those who have fear of traffic, but want to take up cycling NOW” has the answer: nothing can be done “NOW”. Forces other than infrastructure and training have created the increase in London cycling in the past decade, but note that that has taken a decade and in many ways it was not designed. Cyclecraft certainly has little to do with it. And even the simplest piece in the jigsaw puzzle of components required to make a cycling nation would take time to implement even if LAs and central government showed any concerted desire, or, perhaps more importantly, an ability to deliver consistently. Any process has to be longer term and more gradual than “NOW”, but in that regard one can only echo the last sentence of the blog article.

  8. Chris R on September 10, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Good post, agree with vast majority.

    I am slightly dubious about that graph though. As a car driver, I always move to a separate lane to overtake (ie the other side of the road on a normal road). That means I give less space to those further from the kerb because the maximum space available is lower. BUT, it’s safe for everybody and exactly the driving I’d want as a cyclist.

    I guess my point is that the mean of such data could be misleading, and it might make more sense to consider the whole distribution, especially the likelihood of being passed too close in each riding position (which, ultimately, is what we care about). My instinct may be wrong, but it could tell a slightly different story.

  9. David Brennan on September 10, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    I don’t disagree with you. One thing you’ve missed though about Road position is that by taking a stronger position you have space to your left to escape into. I’ve used that on a few occasions. You also have more debris etc to deal with. Mind you I often don’t ride as assertively as Cyclecraft would suggest. Especially on country roads. It is a guide but only that.

    Totally agree that we should be ding everything necessary to mske the book obsolete.

  10. Andrea on September 10, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    How true, I agree with everything you say. I also think that some driver training would go a long way by the way, in other countries drivers are properly trained (not by their mum or dad), and are for instance instructed to leave as much space when overtaking a bike as you would for a car. I feel much safer cycling in Germany than here for instance, even when there is no separate cycle path, I’ve never experienced cars there come as close as they do here.

  11. Bez on September 11, 2013 at 9:26 am

    I love the idea that secondary is defined as “around 1m to the left of moving traffic”.

    So, it suddenly and randomly fluctuates between the gutter and somewhere in the hedge then?

  12. Erik Sandblom on September 11, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Well said, but don’t hate on HS2. Train stations counter urban sprawl and fast trains lure people out of cars and airports (which contribute to sprawl). And sprawl is bad for cycling.

  13. Julia on September 11, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    So sad. I thought that this sh’ happens only in post soviet countries, like Lithuania. When buses and trucks pretend that cyclist are invisible, or some ugly guy beeps. Thank you’ve made my day.

  14. John Buckley on September 13, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    CycleCraft should be rewritten (yes ideally it should be made obsolete) but many of the principles have a lot in their favour, particularly over road positioning for TODAY’s cycling.

    One bi-product is that when the concept of riding further out to discourage close overtaking is explained correctly to drivers, the response is often “That should be within driving instruction”.
    Instead of seeing an ‘obstruction’, the reasonable driver sees a cyclist riding with safety at the core of their riding.

    One driver said to me, after seeing the light:
    “Ah, now I understand why they stay in the centre of the lane. I always thought they were just being inconsiderate pr*cks”. I’ll now drive differently”.
    It shouldn’t be necessary but if it helps new riders wanting to ride TODAY, in my books its a win.

  15. [...] seriously, and to reallocate space so that it can be done without the conflict.” — Karl McCracken [...]

  16. The myth of incompetence | As Easy As Riding A Bike on September 16, 2013 at 8:43 am

    [...] Of course, those Dutch riders were in an all likelihood perfectly capable of cycling on British roads – they just didn’t want to. They were competent, but unwilling, a distinction Franklin is apparently blind to. It was the unattractiveness of the cycling conditions that pushed the Dutch tourists back on to the ferry, not any lack of ability (indeed, the unattractiveness of the John Franklin model of cycling has recently been dissected). [...]

  17. dr2chase on September 24, 2013 at 1:59 am
  18. pj mcnally on September 24, 2013 at 8:55 am

    great article. entirely agree.

    Just noticed that the cycling on the cover of “cycle craft” appears to be headless. That is, the photo has been cropped to exclude the head.

    Why is this? Are they too embarrassed to be associated with the book, and wish to remain anonymous? Or, more likely, is it a way to sidestep the eternal helmet question?

  19. Andy in Germany on December 23, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    I’ve found that riding more assertively does help a lot of the time, although that may simply be that we have strict liability on our side in Germany and I’d get more space anyway.

    I’d agree that it doesn’t make cycling more enjoyable though and I do get (thankfully only occasional) abuse from drivers for being “In the way”) the most entertaining of these being when I was riding at about 10km/h on a road where the speed limit (on a sign and a three metre high number on the ashphalt) clearly showed 7 km/h. When I heard the car behind revving his engine I put stopped and looked, and the elderly driver was so suprised he stalled on the steep hill, leaving me to continue unmolested…