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.
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:
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…