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Monday, 10 October 2011

How John Franklin misled a nation's cycling campaigners

I have been reading the works of John Franklin for quite a few years. My first encounter was as a relatively new cyclist who wanted to know how best to cope with the inherently cycling-hostile UK road network, I discovered the principles of vehicular cycling as promoted in John Franklin's popular work Cyclecraft. As I have previously stated, Cyclecraft is a good survival manual for anyone wanting to cycle on the hostile British road network, containing useful techniques for making the best out of a crap situation. Unfortunately, Cyclecraft isn't promoted as survival manual by its author, instead being suggested as a solution. Even worse, a significant portion of the British cycling establishment agree with this view, one which I feel is divorced from reality.

As was noted by both myself and As Easy As Riding A Bike, cycling according the the principles of Cyclecraft requires a level of fitness and speed which acts as a barrier:

"Cadence and sprint speed

Cadence is the number of times a cycling turns the pedals in one minute. A steady, comfortable pedalling rhythm is essential for efficient cycling, while increasing one’s cadence strengthens the leg muscles and enables more rapid acceleration. Increasing cadence also makes it easier to increase your sprint speed – the maximum speed that you can attain over a short distance, such as through a roundabout.Racing cyclists know well the benefits of having a high cadence, but there can also be important safety advantages for everyone. Generally speaking, you are at your safest in traffic if you can move at a speed comparable to that of the other vehicles. Increasing your cadence and sprint speed will allow you to achieve this more often, particularly at those places where it matters most – junctions with complex manoeuvring. It will also be easier to restart quickly in a low gear at traffic signals and roundabouts, and to get yourself out of trouble if you are on a potential collision course.Increasing cadence and sprint speed are two of the most positive steps a cyclist can take to enhance safety.

A good cadence to aim for is about 80, while a sprint speed of 32 km/h (20 mph) will enable you to tackle most traffic situations with ease. To increase your cadence, select a gear lower than you would normally use for a given road and simply force yourself to pedal faster in order to maintain your usual speed. Gradually, your leg muscles will become accustomed to the higher rate and your cadence and strength will increase."

The physical demands of cycling according to the principles outlines in Cyclecraft aside, it also requires a potential cyclist to possess a level of enthusiasm for cycling which I find unrealistic  beyond a small proportion of the population (broadly the same proportion of people who currently cycle). Whilst some drivers are truly motoring enthusiasts, the overwhelming vast majority merely choose to drive because their environment has made driving feel like the safest, easiest and cheapest option open to them. If driving became less convenient and felt less safe than another mode of transport, most of them would switch without giving it much thought. There'd still be Formula 1, motoring exhibitions and car-owners clubs because the people who are interested in them are enthusiasts, much in the same way that many of the people who currently cycle (despite the problems) are cycle enthusiasts. However, the average person would abandon their car without much thought if it ceased to be perceived as the best way to get around, much as the average person abandoned their bike when motor-centric government policies made the bike cease to be perceived as the best way to get around.

I encountered John Franklin's work again when I started to learn about dedicated infrastructure for cycling, such as the segregated cycle paths which adjacent to roads carrying a large enough, or fast enough volume of motor traffic traffic in The Netherlands. Whenever I observed a discussion of the relative merits of this approach online, I often saw someone would present a link to Cycle path safety: A summary of research, citing it as a definitive proof that segregation of cyclists and motor traffic was always a bad idea. It is difficult to blame the average reader for seeing this list and taking it at face value, after all it is stated on that page that, "This list is intended to be without bias, but little evidence has been found to suggest that cyclists are safer on paths than on roads." As a non-expert, why wouldn't you take this statement at face value? After all, it comes from a 'road safety expert.' However, on closer inspection, it is interesting to note that the research on the list is entirely from before the year 2000, so is irrelevant to much of the modern infrastructure present in The Netherlands and Denmark. Secondly, the research on the list is extensively cherry picked; Franklin does not state his criteria for which research makes the list and which does not. However, it appears that in order to make the list, the findings of the research have to agree with John Franklin’s existing ideology; there should be no segregation of cyclists and motorised traffic. Many relevant articles which contradict this ideology are conspicuous by their absence. Thirdly, John Franklin employs a false dichotomy; presenting vehicular cycling and segregation of cycles and motorised traffic as two discrete things when in fact there are a wide variety of approaches to segregation, many of which are crap (such as the Redways) and some of which are outstanding, such as The Netherlands (and to a lesser extent, Denmark) and a wide variety of vehicular cycling environments, some relatively successful (such as the Britain of the 40’s and 50’s) and some truly dire (such as the Britain of 2011). Whilst these three crippling deficiencies in Cycle path safety: A summary of research could perhaps be forgiven if the list were compiled by a total novice, it find it extremely difficult to believe that John Franklin, a ‘road safety expert,’ could have made all of these three errors accidentally. It seems perhaps more likely that a selection of research articles have been picked and presented in a way which deliberately misrepresents the strong case in favour of separation of cycles and motor traffic where motor traffic speeds and/or volumes are high (as a part of a wider array of measures as in The Netherlands), in order to lend credibility to an ideological opposition to any separation of cycles from motorised traffic which is not backed up by the facts.

When writing for the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain’s wiki section, Common Claims & Canards, I noticed a blank section, entitled: Dutch cyclists are not competent to cycle in the UK. Although listed as a common claim, it was something I hadn’t really heard myself and I set out to do some research to find out where this claim originated from or was popularised. One again, John Franklin came up, this time in an open letter to Sustrans; Casualties on cycle paths from 1998., which was written in response to Sustrans (quite rightly) questioning the evidence for Franklin’s continued vocal opposition to cycle paths on the grounds of their alleged poor safety record:

“Sustrans has often cited the fact that Dutch cyclists sometimes leave the ferry at Harwich and find traffic so difficult to deal with that they go back home! Interestingly, this problem is not experienced by cyclists arriving from France, Spain or the USA. Proficiency in using roads on a regular basis is essential to maximise safety, and to maximise one's cycling horizons. I would not like to see Britain on the slope down to Dutch levels of cycling competence.”

To me at least, it seems here that John Franklin is at best making a sweeping generalisation about an entire nation of people, whilst at worst coming off simultaneously as elitist and a bit racist. It seems obvious to me that the vast majority of people in The Netherlands are just like the vast majority of people in the UK, neither feel safe enough to cycle on British roads. It has nothing to do with competence or nationality, the vast majority of British people don’t cycle, put them in The Netherlands and most will; the vast majority of Dutch people do cycle, put them in the UK and most won’t. They don’t not cycle here because they’re incompetent, they don’t cycle here for the same reason that most British people and most tourists from other countries don’t cycle here, it’s shit and it doesn’t feel safe. Reading this, I get the feeling that what irks Franklin is that fact that the average Dutch person can cycle without having to be enthusiastic abut cycling, without having to care about or be interested in cycling, and without having to develop the survival skills outlined for vehicular cycling in Cyclecraft. They made it easy to cycle.

The always excellent Vole O’ Speed spotted another instance of John Franklin’s uneasy relationship with research, the Helsinki paper incident, in which Franklin, whilst chair of Cyclenation selectively publicised results compiled within a political document which disguised as a research paper, the main purpose of which was to politically undermine cycling as a whole. Despite the anti-cycling bias of this document, Franklin chose to selectively use the results compiled within it to misrepresent the safety of segregated cycle tracks at a time when the Camden Cycling Campaign was working towards an expansion of their extremely successful two-way segregated track, a track which remains to this day one of the most successful pieces of cycle infrastructure in the whole of London. I do not wish to re-produce too much of what David wrote on the matter here, but I urge all of you to read it (and learn a bit about Franklin’s disinformation legacy at Cyclenation today).

The final piece of Franklin’s work I encountered was his often-cited ‘research’ into the safety of the Milton Keynes Redway network in Two decades of the Redway cycle paths in Milton Keynes, which I recently decided to look into in greater detail. Suffice to say, the Redways are crap and do not represent what anyone would regard as ‘best practise.’ However, Franklin’s ‘research’ on the Redways tells us literally nothing about their safety in comparison to the general road network, with the whole paper serving merely as a vehicle to further his own ideological agenda. As someone who regularly works with peer-reviewed research, I am genuinely amazed that Two decades was ever published in a real journal.

Having read a great deal of Franklin’s work, I find it extremely difficult to believe that all that is wrong with it is due to a series of mistakes. Whilst Cyclecraft is a great survival manual for dealing with our awful, cycling-hostile road network, it seems obvious that John Franklin believes that cyclists always belong on the road as an ideology. As an ideological view, there is nothing wrong with this. However, presenting this as fact by misrepresenting and cherry-picking research and conducting research which is little more than a collection of meaningless, context-free numbers in order to serve as a vehicle for an ideology which the numbers do not back is a dishonest practise. By compiling all this in one place, it is my hope that this page can be used as a quick answer to anyone who presents Cycle path safety: A summary of research in a discussion about cycle infrastructure, so that we can all get on with having a proper discussion about where cycling in the UK should go from here.

13 comments:

  1. Would you hazard a guess what cycling in UK would look like if John Franklin wrote books about golf/yodelling/knitting instead of getting involved in cycling or if CTC didn't oppose to cycle tracks in the 60s?? It's amazing how one person's views can influence the situation.

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  2. I take that comment about knitting personally. I am - and always will be - a vehicular knitter.

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  3. It's always good to "follow the money".

    Mr. Franklin sells a book that tells you how to cycle in the current road conditions that are prevelent in a large number of cities around the world. The UK and USA are particularly bad examples, but France, Italy etc all have problems.

    If a large number of the world's cities decided to build safe cycle infrastructure his book would sell fewer copies and he would make less money.

    I'm pretty sure his book has not made him a millionaire, but it does carry political power too. He is seen as the "expert" or the representative of cyclists.

    Hence he fights tooth and nail to keep the status quo.

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  4. I liked this post, but I think ciaran-mooney's comment is a bit silly. I think it's very unlikely that Franklin wants roads to be more dangerous to sell more copies of his book any more than the fire service set fire to things to increase performance-related pay.

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  5. Cyclecraft is essentially a government publication, published by The Stationery Office.

    I think the government, both national and local, has amply demonstrated it knows next to nothing about cycling.

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  6. I would challenge the claim from the excerpt you quoted from Cyclecraft that "Generally speaking, you are at your safest in traffic if you can move at a speed comparable to that of the other vehicles." Is there, in fact, any evidence to support this statement?

    I typically ride a well-loaded bakfiets in Winnipeg (Canada), never remotely approaching the prevailing speed of motor traffic, and less often ride a much lighter and faster bike, with a more powerful, forward-leaning body position. The comparison of these two experiences leads me to believe that I am probably much safer when I'm moving slowly, especially in the places where collisions are most common, such as road junctions. When approaching a junction slowly, I have much more time to survey traffic from all directions, and require much less time to make an effective emergency stop. Of course, I have no evidence to support my supposition, but I very much doubt that Franklin has any evidence, either.

    I recall a time when I was planning to read both Franklin's book and John Forester's. I'm glad I never got around to buying either one. Not that I don't think they have no useful advice for those of us who cycle in places with poor infrastructure; I just don't want any of my money supporting their religion.

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  7. Any ideas how my wife can develop a cadence of 80 and sprint speed of 20mph on a 20" shopper so she has the confidence to cycle 1 mile to work?

    @like-a-swallow fire-fighters deliberately starting fires is a fairly common occurrence e.g. See http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28646568/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/cops-firefighters-started-blazes-get-work/#.TpQBHmrbPPo

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  8. @like-a-swallow

    I think that we are unlikely to resolve our different opinions. I certainly do not have written proof that Mr. Franklin indeed does not want safe segregated infrastructure because he will loose money and prestige.

    I'm sure Mr. Franklin is not a psychopath, wishing people harm and death on the roads. After all he wrote a book in order to help people try and stay safe.

    However I have read some of his essays and have to say he does seem to be very worried of any segregated infrastructure.

    All I know is that proper infrastructure will make him redundant. Like any person he will more than likely try to defend his usefulness, even in the face of proof. Countries that follow Mr. Franklin's recommendations have less cyclists, and more accidents (US, UK, Australia). Countries with properly designed and implemented cycling infrastructure have more cyclists and fewer accidents.

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  9. Mr C wrote: "Many relevant articles which contradict this ideology are conspicuous by their absence."

    Can we have a list of these relevant articles?

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  10. @nrdu & Mikael,

    I get the feeling that had he been as influential in a field such as knitting, machine knitting would have been held back by the assertion that it makes bad knitters; with appropriate training, anyone can knit 'vehicularly'

    @ciarian-mooney & like-a-swallow,

    I don't think Franklin wants people on bikes to be unsafe per se, more that he wants them to be safe his way, with infrastructural interventions being seen as a bad thing for making it easy for people who are 'crap' at cycling to still cycle.

    @Merlin,

    For me it depends on the road. If the motor traffic is going fast, and there is a lot of it, I feel like I have to keep up >20 mph to feel 'safe'. If it is more congested, I feel safer at 12-15 mph because I can stop quickly if (when) someone in a car does something monumentally stupid. On the Yuba Mundo however, the sheer size of the bike makes me feel safer in a wider variety of road conditions.

    @Anonymous,

    She just needs to do some training to build up her muscle strength and stamina ;-) Having said that, my old Twenty was surprisingly nippy.

    @snibgo,

    I'll have a go at compiling a list, stay tuned. A good example would be Rune Elvik's Handbook of Road Safety Measures which is from the era of the stuff on Franklin's list. Rather interestingly, it contains a meta analysis of studies into a variety of methods of segregation from many countries and concludes that on average (even including the crap methods of segregating cyclists) there is a safety benefit there.

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  11. ...never remotely approaching the prevailing speed of motor traffic, and less often ride a much lighter and faster bike, with a more powerful, forward-leaning body position. The comparison of these two experiences leads me to believe that I am probably much safer when I'm moving slowly

    Although some of Franklins advice makes sense for those who are fit enough & with the stature of a superhero, I agree with Merlin that his theory of reducing speed differential isn't sound at all - you only have to look at all the helmet-cam videos on Youtube for sound evidence of that!

    A huge majority of motorists drive too close to the vehicle in front, whether that be a car, a vulnerable motorcycle, or an even more vulnerable cyclist pedalling like crazy in team lycra.

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  12. Ian Brett Cooper20 December 2011 10:43

    I've been cycling in the road with traffic since 1970, eighteen years before John Franklin wrote down his principles of road cycling. You don't need to be fit or fast to employ these principles - I have never felt the need to cycle fast on the road. If I have the right of way, cars behind me slow down and overtake when there is room. This is the law.

    I can't believe the number of posts criticizing a method of cycling that was, before the 1980s, regarded as the only way to cycle. Even today, it is the safest way to cycle, as has been proven in study after study (Aultmann-Hall 1998 & 1999, Wachtel 2001, Jensen 2007, Agerholm 2008 - look them up, they are all online). Many of these studies were done by advocates of bicycle infrastructure, yet they admit that there are significant safety problems with such infrastructure.

    So you folks cycle how you want. But don't pretend that avoiding cycling in the road is safe - it isn't.

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  13. @Ian Brett Cooper,

    Enough with the false dichotomy already! Sweeping statements such as 'There are significant safety problems with such infrastructure' only serve to confuse the issue; there is not one type of bicycle infrastructure, there are many, each of which has characteristics which make it either more or less than cycling 'vehicularly.' In the UK, cycle infrastructure is largely less safe than vehicular cycling. In The Netherlands cycle infrastructure is notable more safe than vehicular cycling; there are no significant safety problems with the Dutch cycle infrastructure. Referring to 'bicycle infrastructure' as if there is only a single type of implementation serves only to stifle understanding of the one thing which has a proven track record of getting ordinary people out on their bikes in significant numbers. Lumping all cycle infrastructure together is real apples vs. oranges stuff, the fact that it is still done with such alarming frequency in the UK is truly Franklin's great legacy to UK cycling.

    The techniques outlined in Cyclecraft are indeed an adequate way for a minority of the UK population to survive whilst cycling on the UK's hostile road network. They should not be used as an excuse to oppose changes to that hostile road network which will make it appealing to the rest of the population.

    Cycle however you want, but don't pretend that Cyclecraft will ever get the ordinary folks who currently never cycle to take it up.

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