6 Apr 2016

April Musings

Hail readers!

I have some good news for you all. First off, we have finally been connected to the Internet; it is through an ADSL2+ cable, which offers around 16Mb/s maximum bandwidth but delivered around 11Mb/s in testing (which is more typical). It doesn’t hold a candle to fibre optic, but it’s faster than my old DSL connection and delivers much more consistent and generally faster speeds than even 4G. (Proof of the old adage that cable is better than wireless, I guess.)

Secondly, the washing machine is delivered; do not underestimate the importance of this.

Thirdly, my quest to find an editor is progressing slowly. It may not surprise you to learn that I have decided to write much of this post on something else entirely—bicycles. Yes; you heard that right.

Cycling in the UK

Recently, I attempted a 4-mile bike journey from my new house to my school. What I found annoyed me greatly, but came as no surprise.

The UK is not a friendly place to cyclists. Despite whatever our politicians may like to say:

“We are moving as fast as we can to get it all done,” Johnson said [in reference to a bike lane opened in London]. “It looks beautiful and … will be a wonderful thing for London, and this is just the beginning of a massive programme.”

He said he hoped his successor would keep the campaign going. “It is very, very important that the momentum does not stall and there is a large number of cycle superhighways still in the pipeline. There is a lot of work still to do but this is an example of the kind of transformation that can take place.

“It is vital if we are going to get people out of their cars, ease congestion and encourage fitness, walking and cycling – the things that we really need to get going.”

Source: the Guardian.

However, even Boris himself admits that there has been ‘a lot of aggro’ from his own senior parliamentary colleagues (who, surprise surprise, like to travel in cars).

Those senior parliamentary colleagues are far from atypical. When I attempted my journey, I found that:

  1. There were no dedicated cycle lanes.
  2. It is illegal to bike on the pavement.
  3. Roads are frequently twisting and narrow.
  4. There are numerous roads linking to motorways; cyclists require detours.
  5. Roundabouts often don’t have pavements, which makes them impassable to pedestrians and dangerous for cyclists.

These combination of factors, while not rendering cycling impossible, do nevertheless render it unviable for the majority of people and somewhat hazardous for those who do cycle. I’m especially worried about children and young teenagers—they shouldn’t be cycling on busy roads.

I will contrast my experience with that of Holland, where I lived for two years and biked to school nearly every day.

The most apparent difference between cycling in the UK and in the Netherlands is that in the latter, nearly all local and rural areas have fietspad i.e. cycling lanes. This is by far the safest and fastest approach to carrying bike, car and pedestrian traffic.

Fietspad

Cycling lanes cost less to build than roads for cars and can be added to many roads with modest expense. Unfortunately, politicians have only seen fit to grace London with any; the rest of the UK has virtually none. It’s true that London gets more of everything—it’s as if the rest of the UK doesn’t exist—but in this case I suspect Boris’ love of bikes plays a factor. It takes a determined bike-lover to get anything done vis-a-vis the cycling situation.

Aside from the apparent contempt of the establishment (and indeed many of the citizenry) for cycling, the laws are also either drafted by halfwits or deliberately designed to make cycling more difficult. (Maybe both.)

For example: why can’t bikes be ridden on the pavement? Ostensibly the argument is that this puts pedestrians in harms’ way, or at least more so than it puts bikers in harms’ way to use the road.

This argument can easily be refuted using simple physics. Energy is what determines the amount of change a body can experience; in our case, kinetic energy is the primary determinant in how likely a collision is to be dangerous.

Kinetic energy according to classical theory (which is very accurate for the speeds involved, which are far below c) is half the product of the mass and the square of the velocity.

Compare the kinetic energy of a moving bike to that of a car. A bike may be moving at around 15 miles per hour—which translates to about 7 metres per second. If a bike and its rider weighs around 100kg (a high estimate) its kinetic energy is 2.5kJ. A typical car, by comparison, might weigh 1500kg with occupants and their luggage; if it is travelling at 40 mph, it will have a kinetic energy of about 243kJ.

That’s almost 100 times greater than the bike.

Momentum can be dangerous too; in a collision, it can send objects flying, and causes whiplash in car accidents. Classical momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Here the difference is again stark: the bike’s momentum is 700Ns, whereas the car has a momentum of 27,000Ns—nearly 40 times greater.

A cyclist is far more likely to get killed by a car than a pedestrian is from a bike.

Empirical and epidemiological studies confirm this as well. 113 cyclists died in 2014 in the UK due to being hit by cars; 21,000 were injured to varying severity. (ROSPA). I can’t find any data on how many pedestrians were killed by bikes. The number is probably in the region of zero.

But Cyclists Annoy Pedestrians!

A surprisingly common argument made for this ‘sensible’ law is that if cyclists cycle on the pavement, this will annoy pedestrians.

There are quite a few problems with this line of argument. The first is that much of the time, the pavements are devoid of pedestrians—particularly in rural areas.

In the scenario of a densely populated urban area, it’s worth pointing out that cyclists will either get in the way of pedestrians or in the way of dense urban traffic. This is not the fault of the cyclists; pedestrians are given pavements, cars are given roads, and cyclists are given... nothing at all. In this kind of situation, the only fair response is to build fietspad.

Why Do We Want to Bike, Anyway?

There are some very serious reasons for promoting cycling over other means of transport (particularly car travel).

The first reason is that the UK, and numerous other countries throughout the world, suffers from an obesity epidemic. That’s not an exaggeration; the statistics are disturbing:

Data on overweight and obesity among adults (defined as people aged 16 and over) are mainly from the Health Survey for England (HSE). Results for 2014 showed that 61.7% of adults were overweight or obese (65.3% of men and 58.1% of women). The prevalence of obesity is similar among men and women, but men are more likely to be overweight.

A substantial proportion of obese adults have a body mass index (BMI) of well over 30. Women are more likely than men to have extremely high BMI values.

In England, the prevalence of obesity among adults rose from 14.9% to 25.6% between 1993 and 2014. The rate of increase has slowed down since 2001, although the trend is still upwards. The prevalence of overweight has remained broadly stable during this period at 36–39%.

(Emphasis mine) Source: NOO

There are many reasons for this debacle, but it is widely accepted that our increasingly sedentary lifestyles (when compared to ages past) is a significant factor. If people cycled regularly to school, to work, for leisure—as they do in Holland—obesity would take a hit.

Aside from your health, cycling has other advantages. Firstly it emits no noise; this is a huge boon to those living in urban areas that suffer from traffic roar, day or night. Secondly, it has an appreciable impact on traffic congestion—which incurs substantial costs to the UK economy in terms of lost time, lost productivity, and numerous externalities.

Thirdly and finally, cycling emits no pollution: be it in the form of nitrous oxides and free radicals like benzene, or in the form of greenhouse gases like CO2.

It seems inarguable to me that the benefits of cycling easily outweigh the modest capital outlay of building cycling lanes.

Some Caveats

Any proposal for mass cycling must however be cautioned with a few caveats.

The first is that cycling is obviously not suitable for many journeys due to an obvious factor—distance. While fitness and the aid of electric bikes may increase range and average speed up to a point, at the end of the day your maximum realistic range in a bike is going to be about 10 miles (assuming bike lanes, good fitness, and maybe a battery).

Secondly, the weather in Northern Europe is often poor. Nobody wants to go cycling in the rain.

Conclusions

All in all, my thesis on cycling in the UK highlights two major problems:

  1. A lack of investment in proper cycling infrastructure;
  2. Certain laws that make it difficult for cyclists, in particular the lack of access to pavements.

If this country is serious about resolving its obesity epidemic, its climate change commitments, and complaints about noise, it ought to seriously commit to building proper infrastructure.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.

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