Cycling Kit

Since I’ve abandoned car ownership, I have given a lot of thought to cycling kit, as it is my main means of transport.

First of all the Bike itself. I ride a Condor Squadra. This is not the bike I would have chosen were I to buy it again as it is an out and out road bike, with no eyelets for luggage or room for mudguards or tyres bigger than 25mm, it’s fine in the summer, but not so great in the winter. Carbon fibre, which is what the seat-stay is made from, isn’t the right material for an everyday bike.

So what advice would I give to someone thinking of selling their car for a bike. First, bicycles are still seen mainly as a leisure activity in the UK and the bikes available reflect this. Road bikes have tight clearences, skinny tyres and close spaced gears. Mountain bikes have strong frames, knobbly tyres and extravagent suspension. You do NOT need suspension on roads, it’s just weight. Both road and mountain are almost useless as an everyday commuting bike. You know why? Because they weren’t designed for it. Road bikes gear ratios are too high for climbing if you’re carrying anything at all, and knobbly mountain bike tyres and suspension make pedalling about 50% harder work than it needs be on most mountain bikes.

Buy a Dutch, Hybrid, Audax or touring bike, with clearances for big tyres for the winter and room for mudguards. Did I mention mud-guards? The Crud Road Racer IIs are excellent and make a road bike acceptable in winter, but a proper set of mud-guards are even better and certainly tougher. Most bikes in the UK are sold without mud-guards for aesthetic reasons. None of the bikes you see mountain-biking or racing on TV have them, so bikes with them look old fashioned. It is quite simple. With mud-guards and a decent coat, only the tops of your thighs get wet, in all but the most torrential downpour. Without mud-guards, you get soaked in seconds in the merest drizzle.

Frames should be steel or (if money is no object) titanium, not aluminium or carbon fibre. Why? Because steel and titanium are tough, and aluminium and carbon fibre are brittle and you’re going to be lugging stuff over pot-holes. You wouldn’t use a Ferrari every day, why would you use your Colnago?

Wheels. Any fewer than 36 holes on the rear is just stupid. Once more, Tour de France bikes have as few spokes as they can get away with for aerodynamic reasons. They have a mechanic who can and does true the wheels daily. These guys also weigh half what most of us weigh. You’re buying a bike to use every day, and it’s going to be lugging stuff over pot-holes. Leave the 28-spoke wheel for the weekend, on your carbon fibre road bike.

Gears. If you don’t have a hill to climb, 3 or 5 speed hub gears will be fine. Otherwise derailleurs are popular everywhere for a reason. Although they require maintenance, the close ratios and index-shifting make much more efficient use of the 1/2 horsepower you have available. Hub gears are however, basically maintenance free. Beware road-bikes. There is a culture amongst freds of Big-Ring masochism. Because Miguel Indurain could climb on a big ring, everyone wants to. This hurts knees. Get gear ratios apropriate to the task and your level of fitness. Were money no object, for my every day bike I would use a Rolhoff Speedhub, but as it is, I have a 9speed Camagnolo cassette and a compact front.

Saddles: Padded saddles are NOT comfortable for any more than a mile. There’s a reason why almost all round-the-world cyclists use the Brooks B17, a saddle which has been in constant production in the same factory in Birmingham since 1866. Because it’s the most comfortable. Trust me on this one. £70 for a saddle, and you will never, ever want another. I use the Brooks team Pro and I love it. If you’re sitting very upright and Comfort is your main consideration, try this, but really, if you’re using the thing every day, buy a Brooks saddle there is no other choice.

You can spend anything from £400 to £4,000 on an every-day bike. At the bottom end, you’ll get a reliable if heavy hybrid, and at the top end, you will have a hand-built steel or Titanium frame, measured for you with top-of-the range components. Remember the cardinal rule of cycling. Cheap, Light, Strong: Choose two. You get more benefit from tyres at the correct pressure and the saddle at the correct height (probably up a couple of inches) than an extra £1000 on the bike’s cost. You’re not racing, so don’t buy a racing bike. You’re not going off road, so you don’t need knobbly tyres. You ARE going on roads which may be wet, so get mudguards. Mudguards make all the difference to winter cycling. They’re even more important than the clothes.

Luggage is the other reason people give for not wishing to commute. Very few people need to carry more than a ruck-sack every day. Certainly two panniers and a ruck-sack will carry a week’s shopping. And if you regularly take big loads, I reckon this will carry more than a small car. Kids? No problem. For day-to-day use, I’ve a courier bag, from Bagaboo in Hungary, which keeps everything dry, even in the most torrential downpour, and can take a week’s shopping for one home from the supermarket. If you want a courier bag, I would highly recommend their Workhorse messenger, and they will even stitch your own design. Others swear by rucksacks. Most people who carry lots of stuff over a long distance, let the bike take the load with panniers, bar-bags and baskets. Trial and error, work with what you’re comfortable with as there is no right answer.

What about clothes? Well the commuting cyclist is well catered for now. One extravagence is a pair of Rapha jeans which are wonderfully comfortable. Another is a merino wool habit. This means I don’t have to dress up as a mobile billboard every day and can more or less cycle to work in normal day clothes. Merino resists odour, wicks sweat and keeps you warm or cool. Magic stuff. I have in the past kept suits in the office, and carried them with me. It’s not a great problem having to change. If you’re clean, you shouldn’t need a shower if you’re commuting less than 5 miles, especially if you take it steady. A pair of overshoes is a must, as is a waterproof, some of which are not eurofluro. Also look at Outlier and Velobici. It’s not cheap, but think of it in terms of full tanks of petrol. Ah, that merino Jersey costs one tank of petrol… see. Easy to justify.

These days there is no reason why you shouldn’t abandon your car entirely for all journeys of less than 5 miles. Try it. You might just start to like it.

Where’s the Growth Going to Come from?

In China the Growth is coming from deploying the enormous pool of cheap labour. If you’re taking a peasant off the land, his productivity barely matters, it will still be an improvement. In the West, we don’t have that vast pool of Labour, though perhaps redesigning our welfare states to make it a little less easy to claim benefits for life and a little less taxing to choose low-paid work might help.

This is why China and India can grow at 8-10% a year by deploying already developed techniques and technology to billions of people still currently using the ox-plough, which was cutting edge technology in Europe 700 years ago. In general, as Britain, Europe, North America, Much of the Pacific Rim are on the ‘Technological frontier’ there is no off-the-self technology to deploy to generate growth. We must instead do things ever better in order to generate productivity growth. Starting with spinning and weaving, leading to the Industrial revolution, doing things slightly more efficiently was an incremental process. There have been several technologies to change the world since then: the Steam engine for the first time freed productive energy from animal muscle (and in a few aplications, the water-wheel & windmill). Later the Internal combustion engine gave personal mobility to the masses. Air travel shrunk the world. The internet gave everyone the equivalent of British Library on their desks and later in their pocket.

I think we’re on the cusp of another revolution in productivity. The driverless car. AutoNOMOS labs have trialled their car, ‘Made in Germany’, a VW Passat, on the public streets of Berlin. Google have also driven their driverless vehicle, a Prius round the streets of Nevada and California for hundreds of thousands of miles. This has been involved in just one accident, but it was being driven manually at the time. If you’re looking long term, all those delivery drivers, taxi drivers and chauffeurs will lose their jobs to machines. Their Labour can then go and be used elsewhere, making society as a whole richer. But it’s more than professional drivers. It’s the commuter too. Imagine you can read, make phone calls or sleep while getting somewhere. With the UKs average commute at 45 minutes each way that’s a lot of time freed up from doing a mentally taxing, boring, stressful and downright dangerous manual task. A machine WILL do it better, freeing you for work or leisure whilst travelling.

It is safe to assume that the driverless car will be safer than, say, an Italian or Frenchman driving at 80mph while texting his many mistresses. So there well be fewer road deaths, even in the UK where the standard of driving is reasonably high. There will be fewer accidents, meaning insurance will be cheaper, freeing that money up to be spent elsewhere. Fewer accidents means fewer people employed in the car insurance industry. The flow of traffic on arterial roads will become more laminar as fewer motorists over brake, change lanes and otherwise cause the stop-start traffic symptomatic of congestion. This will reduce stress, and reduce journey-times. The road’s carrying capacity will be improved at a stroke meaning road maintenance & building gets more from existing infrastructure. It is likely that cars on motorways could safely drive bumper-to-bumper, saving enormously on fuel on long journeys further increasing capacity. Self-driving cars could drop you off in the town centre, park, then return when needed, freeing city centre land from car-parks to more productive or aesthetically pleasing uses and hopefully re-invigorating town centres.

But it’s more than just better use of roads. Perhaps driverless cars will mean fewer people will bother owning one, freeing garage space for other uses. Instead perhaps fleets of cars will circulate before being summonsed by a phone call. Freed from the need to own and insure a car, people instead pay for journeys used. Each car is in use for a greater part of the day so capital currently employed sitting on drives and office car-parks for the vast majority of its useful life will be sweated more efficiently. Thus technological improvements lead to economic growth.

But in this case, it’s more than economic growth. Commuting is an hour of a half of concentrated stress and misery for many people. A long commute is up there with divorce and bereavement for making people miserable. A short one is second only to a successful marriage in correlation with self-declared happiness, and way above riches. If cars can park themselves there will be fewer cars in a town centre at any one time, meaning towns can finally be built around people, not machines once more. Can the driverless car make us happier?

It will certainly represent a huge boon to those currently unable to drive. The old, epileptics, the Blind and those just simply incapable of driving (the French, for example). Or Maureen, who will finally be able to enjoy the freedom of door-to-door travel.

And as for the rest of us. Freed from the controls, we could relax, let our minds wander, read and arrive wherever it is we want to go, refreshed. If you’re not driving you can travel without getting angsty that someone has slowed you down for 30 seconds. With no-one DRIVING their Audis or BMWs there will be fewer wankers (Cause or effect? I believe that these cars CAUSE people to become utter dicks while behind the wheel). I cannot see a single negative effect of this overdue technological development. Please don’t tell me you ENJOY day-to-day driving? If you’re a petrol-head, go to a race-track, where driving is as it should be -fun. There are plenty about.

You can think through other examples: an invention, an innovation, an improvement to an existing process, a time-saving device. Think of the knock on benefits in time or other resources saved, which can be used elsewhere. That is how our economy is going to grow. The current financial crisis is noise. The signal is the result of hundreds of years of freedom to come up with and develop ideas. And that has not stopped, nor will it, so long as we retain a capitalist, free-market economy and intellectual freedom which allows, celebrates and rewards those whose ideas make our lives a little better.

British Manufacturing – It is about the Bike.

I’ve just finished reading Rob Penn’s It’s all about the Bike, about one man’s perfect bicycle, based around a hand-built British Frame. In doing so the book reveals the history of the Bicycle, and how the bicycle was the invention which built the modern world. Indeed the car would not have been possible without inventions which sprung from the Bike: Pneumatic tyres on wire spoked wheels, driven by chains. Nor would cars have been able to navigate pre-bicycle roads. Cyclists have long been agitators for smooth roads. Most of the early car makers sprung out of Bicycle makers: Pugeuot, Hillman and so on. Bicycles generated a corps of people skilled with metal & machinery which enabled the early unreliable cars to survive a journey. Even aviation owes its early days to the bicycle: Orville & Wilbur Wright were bicycle mechanics, and based the principles of stable flight on the self-centring mechanism a bike uses to stay upright.

Because I am in the market for a new Bicycle, I have been researching of the custom frame-builders. For the same reason I buy Tailored suits (I can highly recommend GD Golding of St. Albans) I would like a custom bicycle to replace my aging Condor (whose bikes are made in Italy). There are plenty of guys out there who can build bikes & make a living from it. Rob Penn went to Bob Jackson in Leeds, but there are others: Woodrup, also in Leeds, Wilson cycles in Sheffield, Mercian cycles in Derby, Roberts in Croyden, Villiers in Kent. Burls‘ steel frames are UK made, but their Titanium frames are Russian (the same company which used to make Soviet submarines). Only Enigma makes Titanium frames in the UK.

By far the most popular frame tubing for high-end bikes is made by a British company, Reynolds, who make their tubing in Birmingham, and remain along with Brooks, who make saddles, as the few remaining remnants of the once mighty West-Midlands bicycle industry.

So British manufacturing may have declined, but it ain’t dead, and what’s left is amongst the best in the world. Most volume bicycle production has moved to China & Taiwan, even Raleigh, and as a result, you can get a lot of bike for £500. However some companies have managed to maintain British volume manufacture, albeit in clearly defined niches, Pashley and Brompton are two, and have done so using design and commitment to quality and have developed a loyal following. I am a proud Bromptoneer, for example. But even in the list of fine companies listed above is perhaps the reason we, as a nation, by and large don’t make things any more.

Have a look at the websites of the companies listed above. They are catalogues, not a shop window. They are utilitarian ways of saying “if you want it, this is how much you pay”. The bespoke frame-builders have waiting lists and see little point, it seems, in SELLING. Compare the British frame-builder‘s shop-window with his Italian or American equivalent, whose websites ooze “lifestyle” and desirability. Mercian, Condor and Enigma at least make an effort, but they’re still lacking in imagination. Roberts cycles may make beautiful bikes, but you’d hardly know it from the website, which does not linger on the details like the welds and lugwork which set them apart as objects of desire. It’s not just frames, it’s true of components too. Hub manufacturer, Royce whose beautifully machined wide-flange hubs come with a track & racing pedigree in excess of that of Chris King (whose hubs, by the way freeze in cold weather unless you use the right grease) could be a global components business, if he could get out of his machine shop comfort-zone and SELL with half the alacrity with which he MAKES. If you didn’t know about Royce hubs through word of mouth, or reading Robert Penn’s book, you’d quickly end up with Campagnolo, Chris King or SRAM. The British craftsman presumably thinks that ‘selling thing’ vulgar, and maybe he’s right. Perhaps the British Frame-builder is happiest brazing tubes together, not creating an image.


Business is, in part, creating the image. It’s about creating desire for your product. If a British Frame Builder could make an image and sell a brand, he could sell 100,000 frames a year with his brand on (even if they’re made in Taiwan) as Gary Fisher did and then he could charge even more for a frame hand-built by the MAN HIMSELF. Ralph Lauren doesn’t tailor all his own suits. He does however still cut SOME for his most important clients. As a result of failing to invest in the most basic of marketing such as SEO, the guys with the real skills are missing out on business which is being taken by hipsters making for hipsters, and worse, people making the cheap mountain bike whose sole purpose is to put people off cycling. Try googling “British Frame Builder” First up is Wilson Cycles halfway down the page, whose informative but dated-looking site inspires beard-growth through talk of headset angles, rather than desire with high resolution picutres of his handiwork. The bicycle is coming back, whatever my co-blogger thinks. It’s a British invention and we’re bloody good at making it, but because there’s little magic dust being sprinkled, the industry nearly died.

This is what went wrong with the British car industry. Who, really, honestly wanted a rover? Vauxhall is not an object of desire. This is more a problem of marketing than engineering. And where the craftsmen operate – really good engineers in TVR, Hillman, Marcos, Lotus they lacked the marketing & business skills to make their businesses really work. It’s not about the product selling itself. It’s not, unfortunately, about what you want to sell. The best businesses create their own desire, and make their customers feel a bit special. Ferarri do this. TVR didn’t. Cielo does, Woodrup – well you wouldn’t know, unless you walked into their Leeds shop.

The mountain-bike revolution was apparently led by a bunch of pot-smoking bums in Marin county California who enjoyed racing old balloon-tyred cruisers down a hill called Repack. Despite this background, Gary Fisher built a successful mass-production business, though eventually sold the bike busiess he started to Trek, who subsequently killed the brand, but Ritchie, the original MTB frame builder’s business still lives on as do Orange, Specialized, Marin are all names from the early days of the MTB revolution, a revolution which changed the bike industry for good. Why are so few British craftsmen able to create a brand? Chris Boardman has made a brand, but on Bikes made in China – it’s more an endorsement than a business. Now, with single-speed bikes fashionable, Oil pricey and exercise difficult to fit into the day, Car design crippled by environmental and safety legislation, the moment for the bike has arrived. It just needs a bit of thought from a few people to make a British hand-built bike as much an object of global desire as a British handmade suit or British hand made luggage. Or shoes. Or Cars.

I want to go to these British frame-builders and shake them for their spelling mistakes on their sites, for their cluttered and ugly web-pages. If they took half the care over their Internet shop-window as they did over their lug-work, the best guys could charge twice as much, and in doing so, there would be more people seeking the work, and so more choice for someone wanting a bike. Hand-build bikes needn’t be a luxury out of reach. Bike shops across the land would not be selling on auto-pilot mass produced stuff from Taiwan, instead they would be selling beautiful objects which could be fixed, not thrown away. More frame-builders would create more demand. Carbon fibre may be great for the racer, but it’s to brittle for everyday life – it’s not the best you can buy. Tailoring your frame to your dimensions & riding style (like my first Condor – how I miss that bike, damned BMW) means comfort and stability. And you get a bike which lasts, and which no-one else has.

It’s not just bikes, but the whole of British industry needs to have the self confidence to sell. ‘Made in Britain’ should be about quality and is, if the naturally diffident British craftsmen & engineers can be persuaded to shout about what they do so well.

Anyway. Seeing as you’ve read this far, and in the unlikely event that you’re interested in my dream bike, here’s what I’m going to go for, as and when I can afford it: Either an Enigma Ti or Mercian in reynolds 953 audax frame. British Racing Green as the main colour & Yellow details. Campagnolo 10 or 11-speed (depending on budget). Bottom bracket by Royce, Chris King or Campagnolo. I will go for a traditional Quill stem, unless someone can suggest a reason to not go for one. I already have a brooks saddle, but I might put that on the Brompton & splash out on a Green Ti Swift. Speedplay frog pedals. Wheels with Royce hubs, DT swiss spokes, Mavic rims with 2-cross front, crow’s foot rear lacing and I’ll build ’em myself. There’s a “donate” button to the right if you want to help me get my dream bike sooner…

Ditch the Car, Bike to work.

I’ve been mulling the issue for a while: Why don’t more people cycle to work? There are a number of excuses given. I thought I’d have a go at dealing with some of them.

1) It’s too far. Fair enough – 10 miles is probably the longest reasonable daily commute by bike (though some do much more), but this is something of a cultural and life-style choice. People endure long commutes at the cost of health, marriage, fitness and time in order to gain an extra bathroom, used rarely.

I’ve avoided a long commute, after enduring one of 2 hours for a few months, I’d never go back. I’ve set a strict upper limit of 20 minutes each way. If I can’t get to work in 20 minutes, I move. It is that simple. I’m happier, though probably poorer for it. Move to your job, or move your job to nearer home. It’s not a decision you’ll ever regret.

There are a lot of issues here. These range from planning law: Zoning actually prevents people living and working in the same area; to Public transport, which is poor. These policy decisions have the effect of forcing people to the car, and so car-friendly policies which often preclude other forms of transport, become the norm. This has the effect, over a couple of generations of encouraging people to make a bad choice of a nice house far, far from work. People don’t take into account the economic and emotional cost of their TIME when factoring the utility of house purchases, and having bought a house 30 miles or more from work, agitate for more road-building to mitigate the inevitable congestion of near-mandatory car use. This is an economic error made by people & governments which probably costs “the west” more in happiness than any other.

If you cut your commute to less than half an hour from 2 hours, it’s like getting a 80% pay rise in terms of happiness. If you think your long commute makes sense, or you think it suits you, you’re probably wrong. You also probably think you have no choice. You do.
2) I arrive all sweaty. Not necessarily. It is possible to cycle at a lower cadence using no more energy than walking. This is what most Dutch and Danish commuting cyclists do, and makes sense for short, urban commutes of less than a couple of miles. If you do want to thrash yourself on the way to work over a long journey, many offices have showers and lockers. Or it maybe possible to use a nearby Gym. Once you’re used to rolling out of bed into cycling gear, and showering at the office, it’s easy and makes a lot of sense. You get your exercise in before coffee & breakfast. Breakfast at the desk isn’t all bad.
3) It’s uncomfortable. No it isn’t. Well, you just need to acclimatise your sit-bones, which takes a week. And the kit needs to fit you and the job you want it to do. You need the right saddle. That comfortable-looking wide, gel filled saddle which looked and felt so great in the shop actually prevents blood getting to key muscles causing cramp and soreness on any more than a trip to the shop. Mega-distance cyclists are almost unanimous on Brooks as the way to go as it moulds to your sit-bones after a couple of hundred miles. A thinner, stiffer saddle is actually more comfortable than the big soft one. Look at what people who spend all day in the saddle use. Saddles needs to fit. Spend a bit of money on it.

Make sure the saddle is the right height. That probably means putting it up a couple of inches. Most inexperienced cyclists have the saddle far too low. This causes back and knee pain. Ultimately the cycling position you choose is a compromise: the more efficient pedalling action is upright, like a dutch bike, but as you go faster, the more hunched over you need to be to combat wind resistance which increases with the square of speed. Utility bikes are more upright than tourers, which are more upright than audax bikes, road racer, Time-trial and triathlon bikes, which are uncomfortable and unsuitable for traffic, are the most ‘bum-in-the-air’ geometry widely available. There is a bike for every occasion: from Downhill mountain bikes to Track bikes. From touring bikes to fixies, don’t go into a bike shop and let yourself be sold what’s available to them. Research what it is you want to do, and talk to cyclists who are already doing it.

Above all, don’t ever, ever, ever buy a cheap mountain bike. They are shit, when you can get a perfectly serviceable hybrid bike for £300. Halfords’ £300 ‘full suspension’ ‘mountain’ bikes are probably the cause of more people abandoning cycling as a means of transport than anything else. They’re heavy, have knobbly tyres, which whirr along the road. That sound energy is being taken from the energy propelling you to the destination, yet the bikes are completely unsuitable for off-road work, where they are unsafe as the forks and frame just aren’t strong enough. If you want to start commuting to work, get a bike designed for the job. Remember this: Light, strong, cheap: choose two. Knobbly tyres aren’t safer, and fat tyres may be more comfortable, but at the cost of a lot of extra work.

If you start to enjoy cycling then you can decide whether you want to go knobbly & off road, or skinny, bendy-barred and on-road. Or both, but remember you’re using an engine with about 1/3rd horsepower. Everything is a compromise. Before you start making decisions as to which expensive bike to get (and you will…) make sure you’ve thought of the compromises you are actually making. In general though, a touring bike or Audax bike will be suitable for most people who don’t go off road/track in most circumstances. 4) Weather. There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. Spend money on the right kit, you’ll be comfortable in all weather. There’s a certain hero value in winter commuting on a bicycle. Whenever I saw footage of snow on the news in the UK, there’s always a hardy cyclist getting through it.

5) You can’t carry much stuff. How much stuff do you actually need? And you would be surprised how much you can get on some bikes. Golf-clubs for example have never been a problem for me. I can carry a week’s shopping in a back-pack. If you add panniers and racks a family shop shouldn’t be a problem. If you invest in a cargo-bike, you’ve got more capacity than a small car boot.

So after years of cycling what do I do? For the daily commute I use a Courier Bag which I had custom-made by Bagaboo. The Large workhorse messenger bag is quite beautifully designed and keeps kit dry and can easily carry enough kit for a weekend away. I have a handlebar bag and saddle-bag by Ortlieb. On the Brompton, I have the front luggage, and use the rack to carry a rucksack if necessary.

6) Cycling kit looks ridiculous. Yes, it does, if you think the clothes worn by the mobile advertising hoardings of the Giro D’Italia & Tour de France are all that’s available. However there are plenty of people supplying clothes cut for cycling, which look normal off the bike. They are expensive, but so’s any specialist kit. Outlier and Rapha are two which spring to mind.

Rapha’s urban cycle range.

It’s perfectly possible to throw a pair of trousers over your bib-shorts at your destination. You can even get cycling shoes you’d be able to wear in the pub or a reasonably dress-down office. Dromarti & Quoc Pham‘s leather offerings look pretty good. And a Merino wool cycling shirt looks ok with jeans in the pub. It’s not all Lycra and polyester. I’ve even eschewed the helmet for a stylish cap.

7) I like the freedom of the Car. So do I. No-one is saying you have to get rid of it, as I have mine. But consider this: Insurance: £600+ per year. Tax: £200+, MOT/Service: £600+. Depreciation: can be thousands a year. If you replace the car with the bike for a daily commute, how often do you actually need a car? Once a week? You can hire a car for £33 a day. You’re still in pocket and you don’t have to worry about it when you’re not using it. When you need a small car, hire a cheap small car, when you need a van or estate, hire one of them. You’re more flexible. And faster. Everyone knows hire cars are the fastest vehicles on the road.

8) It’s dangerous. But not as dangerous as being fat. In any case, cycling is only dangerous to the inexperienced. Teenagers especially. Cyclists in general face lower mortality per journey than motorists, and lower mortality per KM than motorcyclists or pedestrians. When you consider how much of the “danger” of cycling is concentrated in a few demographics – teenagers especially, the statistics for adult cyclists who know what they’re doing on properly maintained kit will look even better.

Give it some thought, ditch the car, and buy a bike.

Urban Planning in the “War on the Motorist”.

Motoring has never cost more? Not true says Joe Dunkley.

What is probably true is that motoring is a painful cost for many people. But paradoxically, it’s the fall in the cost of motoring that has caused this problem. During the good times of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, more and more people have built themselves into a car dependency. Car ownership is higher than ever because the cost has been falling for so long. And so, with everybody owning a car, our houses have moved further from our work places, our village shops and services have closed, and the bus service has been withdrawn. This in turn pushes more people to buy and run a car, even if they can not really afford to do so and were quite happy living without one until the shops closed. And when the good times turn bad — when wages are frozen, when office locations are merged, and when redundancies are handed out — you can not simply give up the car. The world changed.

If one accepts this analysis, and I do, the problem is that this car dependency is now built into the very fabric of the environment. For 10 years, town centre housing developments containing 2, 3 and 4 bedroom dwellings have been built with only one parking space each – the law demands this. This basically renders them impossible dwellings for a household with two earners. This then forces those people into the only dwelling they can afford with more than one car parking space – the new-build estate of 3 bed “executive” homes on the edge of town – the ones a mile or more from any shop, pub or amenity. This forces, reinforces and habituates car use, not what the framers of the law desired.

The problem is the planning law is so restrictive, only the very rich can afford what they want. I know of no-one who dreams of an identikit “executive” home in identical bricks, to identical plans on identical streets made by the same people, to those on the outskirts of every other town in the land. But getting planning permission for anything else is nigh on impossible. The market must be opened up to other models of high-density living which facilitate cars as they are used but allow other means of transport. This means making it harder to build lots of identical dwellings and encourage smaller, more innovative builders. Tight regulation of planning, as in everything else, supports the big faceless player against the insurgent with good ideas. Does anyone else think it sad that “turn of the millenium architecture” will be dominated by Barrat estates? Without ideas, car ownership will continue to be built into the environment. I don’t have any bright ideas, but I am sure someone does and Overprescriptive planning ensures their ideas are aborted.

The Labour government tried to price the motorist off the road. The market responded by making cars cheaper, and making petrol a loss leader for the shop. The government tried to make motoring more unpleasant by adding speed-bumps, but this just made buses and cycling equally miserable and encouraged people to buy bigger cars for which speed humps are less of a problem. Again, the diametric opposite of what was intended. The police tried to cut motoring by putting speed cameras everywhere and succeeded in alienating the hard-working middle classes.

The Tories hinted at a change of approach, and promised to end the “war on the motorist”, but will succeed in merely in increasing congestion if they are successful in making motoring more pleasant. It is likely that cycling infrastructure will be seen as unnecessary spending in the age of Austerity so few journeys will be substituted. Despite the end of the “war”, motoring will be continue to be miserable, whilst few alternatives are offered. If we continue to say the car is vital, it surely makes more sense to make car ownership less vital AND provide realistic alternatives.

The problem in the mean-time is not the cost of motoring. Even at the current ‘take-the-piss’ levels of taxation, a car is well within the means of most of the population (yes it is, financial reasons are rarely cited when people decide whether or not to drive. Outside London, failing eyesight amongst the old is a bigger reason for people to eshew driving). The reason that the great car society is struggling is that “we may have congested ourselves to the maximum level we can tolerate“. Demand for road-space, and parking especially at specific times of the day, is the limiting factor in people deriving further utility from the car.

Once you accept this, easing the motorist’s life becomes impossible for a politician to achieve. So what is a libertarian, aware of the vast convenience of private motor vehicles, to do? Well the approach of punishing the motorist by cost and technological surveillance has failed, and makes people miserable, which is not what we want. The trick is to make alternatives a realistic option, then encourage people to use them. Cycle lanes must be built (next to roads, the cost is negligible). Rail infrastructure must be developed, where economic. Bus, train and cycle must integrate much better than they do currently. How many people have attempted to research a trip to, for example, an airport by public transport, only to give up and take the car, because buses don’t integrate with trains without a 2 hour wait in a damp “shelter”. Even with the sheer cost and unpleasantness of airport car parking, most of the time public transport cannot compete.

The message to Government is stop punishing the motorist, he’s doing that to himself, but instead make alternatives realistic: those of us who might WANT to cycle 40 miles to see family on a weekend should be ABLE to do so instead of being unable to find a route which doesn’t involve a suicidal 3-mile stretch of fast, narrow b-roads. Any journey of less than 10 miles can easily be achievable by bicycle, but is rarely attempted because the roads are so unfriendly. Ensure what little infrastructure there is doesn’t peter out into a pathetic half-arsed pot-holed track before eventually disappearing like the “national cycle route” between Cambridge and Newmarket.

Finally making people realise that the car addiction is something that they CAN do something about. People who cycle to work tend to be evangelical about the subject. I feel better and it saves money. Living near shops means that the hell of the supermarket car park is avoided. And because my commute is less than 20 minutes (because of hills, I’ve done the return journey in less than 10) I have an extra hour at work AND an extra hour at home compared to people commuting into London from where I live. “Nudge”, much derided, is not “statism light”. Pointing out that shortening your commute by living nearer work is like earning an extra £30k as far as happiness is concerned, is not “nanny statism”. Happiness economics suggests people prioritise the wrong things: a big house over a short commute for example. To make people aware of the evidence and options is not oppressive. It’s common sense. Above all providing choices in transport infrastructure is not nanny statism. It’s liberating for those of us who have fallen out of love with the car.

So, the experiment in the great mortoring society has gone as far as it can go. Any further increases in the number or use of cars are likely to generate negative returns to human happiness. It is Government’s role therefore to provide infrastructure to other alternatives: a network of cycle tracks and city infrastructure – not to exclude the car, but to probvide an alternative, to both tribes’ benefit. Motorists should remember the most tireless campaigners for smooth roads are cyclists for whom a pot-hole is not only a punctured tyre, but potentially a broken collar bone. The infrastructure can and should be built with all road-users in mind.

Every time I write about cycling vs. driving, I get more comments than posts on anything else. Most cycling blogs are strongly anti car, and anti driver, and often fail to acknowledge the vast improvements in lifestyle the car has facilitated over the past 100 years. Those improvements have dried up because we’ve hit a fundamental capacity limit: the simple fact that cars have to be put somewhere when not in use. If a car park is too big, it takes too long to walk from the farthest space to the destination, thus limiting the number of people who can realistically drive to the (for example) supermarket or into a central business district. Cyclists and pedestrians see more than most the sheer waste of space those parked cars take from other, more productive uses. The privatisation of public space – of fast roads which are designed for cars and cars alone, herding pedestrians into windy flyovers and unwelcoming underpasses. Above all, a car is designed specifically for the comfort of those within it. The noise and speed makes everyone else resent cars, as they render huge areas of towns no-go areas for everyone else. The noise of revving engines is not relaxing. Motoring enthusiasts will not see the vast COSTS of building a society around one means of transport and regard any admission that road building and capacity increases are not going to have any effect on congestion, as heretical.

The tribes of road users react as any competing users of a scarce resource always do: They compete, savagely.

Changing factors such as school runs, and work start/finish times would increase the capacity. Perhaps tax incentives for companies and schools who start at unconventional times? Tax incentives to encourage home-working? This is the thinking behind GPS-based road pricing (though I have significant and probably insoluble privacy concerns about this). The list of potential sticking plasters on the problem of congested roads and the misery they create, is endless before you reach the “price the poor off the road” approach of the last government, however capacity freed in this way will continue to be used up.

I am not sure that anything will work in the long-run and that car use is always going to be unsustainable, Designing our towns and cities around a more human scale will help encourage walking, cycling and shorter commutes and that people will therefor be happier. Some form of private vehicular solution will always be needed however. Advocates of public transport will need to consider the 3am cross country drive when a parent is taken ill and accept that people’s lives cannot be reduced a simple commute. Services such as street car provide a better solution for those who have managed to remove the car from their daily routine, and I suspect will become more popular.

Most libertarians are skeptical of “nudge” politics, and rightly so. Politicians love to try to control us. But urban planning is an important function of Government, even if it controls the space, facilitating (or destroying) communities, and remains the best hope for encouraging alternatives to the car (note this is different from discouraging car use). The truth is there is no single answer available at the moment. Intelligent urban planning has something to do with it, price has something to do with it. Above all, the alternative to the car must be made easier, especially cycling.

But I suspect the answer will come when the technology changes: when cars drive themselves. The new technology could well lead to new models of car use and ownership: instead of owning the vehicle – depreciation is the biggest cost facing the motorist – users will be able to use a car to take them to work, which will then go off and do something else – each autonomous vehicle could transport 3 people to work so Fewer cars will be needed for the same utility. Land, currently given over to parking, may return to lawns or flowerbeds. Or sheds where men tinker, anything other than a square of tarmac on which expensive engineering depreciates. Some may wish to continue to own their vehicle and pay for the privilege, and they should be continue to be free to do so. What we need is an urban environment ready for change.

I’ll declare my interest. I hate driving. I regard it as a complete waste of time, stressful, misery-making hell of sitting in a box concentrating to an exhausting degree on a boring simple motor task. I can’t wait until commercially available vehicles are summonsed from their parking space by text message, to pick you up from your home to whisk you wherever you wish to go whilst you concentrate on something else: a good book, the daily paper, your morning e-mails or whatever. Anything beats driving. Of course some people LOVE driving, the sound of the engine, the speed, the g-forces of braking and cornering, and having driven a really fast car round a track, I completely understand. But just as the Horse, once replaced as a means of transport, became a recreational hobby (to the enormous benefit of the horses themselves), driving too will be relegated to race-tracks. I doubt even the most hard-core petrol-head really relishes a commute through Slough on a damp and crowded Wednesday evening in February.

A Lesson in unintended consequences.

Despite teething problems, London’s “Boris Bikes” have been a roaring success, with demand outstripping supply, even as the scheme expands. Inevitably some people have been hurt, and the usual nanny-staters have called for helmets to be compulsory. Indeed, whenever a cyclist is killed, whether or not they were wearing a helmet is always given prominence far beyond their effect. There is so much wrong with this, I don’t know where to begin, but the whole issue of cycling helmets is one where the unintended consequences of legislation are bigger than the intended effect. There are no plans, yet, to make cycle helmet use compulsory but as cycling remains the last bastion of unregulated travel, it’s in the post. Imagine – the police not being able to stop someone at will – It can’t continue like this….

1) The EU standard for bicycle helmets is ludicrously lax, and helmets are made to comply with it. More expensive helmets are typically better vented, not safer. It should protect against a low speed fall onto a flat surface, the sort of fall that adults on bicycles on the road almost NEVER have. (Children ARE protected by a helmet as they are likely to have these falls, but I have NEVER seen a child with a correctly fitted helmet). There are just 5 helmets on sale in the UK which meet the older and more stringent B90/5 standard, but even this is not sufficient to survive a typical vehicle collision. According to one study, just 16% of cyclist’s head injuries would have been mitigated by helmet use, mainly amongst children, in another helmets appear to have NO impact on injury rates at all for cyclists over 15 on roads. Off-road mountain biking is the one place helmets appear to have a significant positive effect on head injury.

2) In a collision with a motor vehicle, the forces involved often exceed the testing standards for motorcycle or GP helmets. You often might as well not be wearing one.

3) Wearing a helmet causes drivers to drive closer and faster to the cyclist, because the cyclist appears protected. A cyclist wearing a helmet is therefore more likely to be hit, and more likely to die. Cyclists wearing helmets are also more likely to take risks and ride faster because they feel safer even though helmet wearers are more safety conscious to begin with.

4) In Australia & New Zealand, when cycle helmets were made compulsory, the incidence of head injuries fell, but this was proportional to a fall in the number of cyclists, not the severity of injuries or the rate of injury.

5) The most important thing to make cyclists safer is critical mass. Cyclists are so common in Amsterdam or Portland for example that motorists get used to working with them, and makes accidents less likely. Reducing the number of cyclists is likely to make cycling relatively more dangerous.

So. It transpires that the main effect of making cycle helmets compulsory is to reduce the number of cyclists and, make those cyclists more likely to be killed on any given journey, which is not, I suspect what the framers of the law had in mind. Just because it appears axiomatic that helmets make a cyclist safer, the evidence suggests this is not the case. This is a simple example, where the evidence teased out argues strongly against a law.

The effect of raising marginal tax rates is often to reduce the tax collected, especially in the longer term, yet lefties ALWAYS want higher marginal tax rates. The effect of increasing job protection is to increase unemployment, yet lefties still want ever more job protection. The effect of generous benefits is to entrench poverty, yet the lefties are out on the street whining about cuts. In almost every sphere where the government gets involved, the unintended and usually unwanted effects of atate action are larger than the desired effect. The message to Government is simple. STEP AWAY FROM THE LEGISLATION. WE WILL SOLVE PROBLEMS, NOT THE STATE, IF YOU LEAVE US ALONE.

An Insurance Job

Many people, when reading an account by a cyclist of how much of a twat drivers are, don’t realise it really is a tiny minority, a tiny, tiny minority of drivers who seriously ve x the average cyclist, and get all defensive and start whining about red lights. And we cyclists should be more careful about tarring everyone in a car with the same brush. Obviously the vast, vast majority of cyclists and motorists pass each other on the roads each day without another thought from either party.

On my commute, for example the same vehicles pass me every morning, There are a handful drivers who cause me problems on a regular basis, and I know their number plates.

The clue is if you’re getting shouted at, the chances are you’re doing something that is out of the ordianry and dangerous. This morning, a motorist pulled out in front of me even though I had right of way. I had to swerve to avoid him, so I shouted “Oi, Watch where you’re going”. Reasonable responses would have ranged from “Terribly sorry, didn’t see you” to “fuck off, cunt, Get a car” depending on how far down the evolutionary and social scale the driver was. What actually happened was that the driver spun the car round, taking another road to the one he intended to take, and deliberately rammed me. That’s the kind of behaviour which makes cyclists hypersensitive.

So. Everyone who’s defended “the motorist” on this blog. You can clearly read, and some of your thoughts make sense. It’s not YOU I’m getting at, it’s certainly not ALL drivers. It’s the morons who are causing the crashes with your cars too. The thoughless, idiotic, incompetent and aggressive drivers. The road-rage rammer, The tailgaiters, the 100mph speeders in freezing fog, the women applying make-up whilst driving. It’s just the consequences of this sort of behaviour when you’re on a bike are so much more severe, Insurance claim vs probate valuation, which makes the cyclist hypersensitive. If you get shouted at by a cyclist, apologise, the chances are you don’t know what you’ve done; a cyclist – by far the most vulnerable road user – felt scared by something you did. Have the humility to realise that everyone makes a mistake from time to time and you just did.

In this particular case, I got the number plate, and the police are looking for him. He’s in VERY big trouble. He’s going to lose his license and get fined heavily, whereas I’m asking whether I should get a Van Nicholas, Litespeed or a new Condor when I fuck his insurance company for everything I can. I am looking forward to seeing him in court, where I shall laugh at him as he stuggles to explain why he did what he did. Judging by the 14-year old red pugeout 106 he was driving, and his stupid spiky hair, I doubt he’s going to be very eloquent in his defence.

The Strange Death of Cycling England

“Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I have hope for the Human race”. HG Wells, himself a keen cycle tourist, may have been a disgusting socialist, but in this at least, he was right.

The bike is one of the perfect machines – certainly in terms of distance travelled for energy expended, it’s the best there is. A bike runs on fat, and saves you money, not only in terms of fuel not used in the car, but also in time wasted pouring tea and coffee into yourself to wake yourself up, when you can have some fun on the commute in, and feel great when you arrive. This is as true as my 4-mile country road cycle as it was when I dodged traffic in London or Edinburgh. Indeed, in many ways I feel safer in London than I do on country roads. Stationary traffic, you see, won’t kill you.

No matter how pissed up I am the night before, how late I go to bed, and how rubbish I feel in the morning IF I unlock the bike, rather than get in the car, the rest of the day just seems better. So, whenever I have spare money, it goes on bike stuff. I’ve just ordered a custom messenger bag from these guys (British Racing Green, with yellow detailing as per Lotus Racing team’s colours with a broad, reflective chequerboard design. Oh and a Union Jack, and this Blog’s URL), and if anyone wants to buy me a present, any of the gear from here would be very much appreciated. So… I’m an enthusiastic cyclist and evangelical about the joys of getting to work under your own steam. When I read that ‘cycling england‘ was heading for the great Quango feather bed in the sky, I should be furious, right? (Afterall, TravelGall says it’s so...)


What is the fucking point? Car drivers will not be any more polite to you, because there’s a quango spunking everyone’s money putting out glossy leaflets about cutting one’s carbon emissions by cycling. Nor will a piece of green or red tarmac widen the road enough to allow you and the car simultaneousuly through he gap between a traffic island and the pavement. In Fact more often, the cycle lane will make the driver THINK there’s enough room, and kill you by trying to squeeze through without considering the manoevre.

I’m all for the (expensive) well-designed cycle lane, but If cycling england lobbied for the targets for miles of cycle lanes that councils accross the country have painted on the road, then they’re not only useless, they’re responsible for death and injury as cyclists are hit by motorists who think that the lane means they don’t have to slow down. Do you think I like speed-bumps? They cause the motorist to be focussing on something other than not hitting me, AND they are bloody uncomfortable if you hit them fast. And I am ALSO a motorist. Cycling England agitates for speed humps. Cycle parking is so simple and inexpensive that it doesn’t need a quango to tell councils and businesses how to install it.

What about the cycle to work scheme where tax breaks are given to cyclists to buy equipment? Unfortunately, I’m self-employed, so I have to buy my kit out of taxed income, because the Last government would rather me be a slave to a company than be an independent trader. In recent months, London has become a MUCH more cycle friendly city, but I suspect that’s because of the Cycling Mayor, not because of this useless quango.

My cycling manifesto:

  1. All cycling equipment should be tax-deductable, and VAT-free to everyone, not just those with employers.
  2. left-turn on red allowed for cyclists (& probably cars too).
  3. Roads to be properly maintained. Potholes are an annoyance to a motorist, they’re potentially lethal for a cyclist. Cycling on smooth tarmac is a joy.
  4. red lights advisory for cyclists. (If you have an opinion on this, but don’t cycle, please feel free to keep it to yourself)
  5. No cycle lane built without input from cyclists to put an end to dangerous, badly designed lanes, which encourage motorists to not give enough room.
  6. Money which did go to pay for ‘Cycle England’ leaflets & Bureaucracy to be spent on a properly designed network of cycle routes.

But Cycling England agitated for none of these things, and spent a great deal of wasted time trying to get cyclists to obey the red light (again, motorists, keep your ignorant “thoughts” on this issue to yourselves, I’m really not intersted, I’ve heard them all before) and making helmets compulsory, despite most evidence linking them to a HIGHER rate of injury amongst cyclists, again becaue they give motoritst a reason to think it’s safe to drive aggressively against a cyclists. So. From this cyclist (and motorist) good riddance to Cycle England. Maybe councils will actually listen to cyclists rather than bureaucrats if they want encourage the one single thing one can do most easily to make one’s life better.

You see the cycle is the last bastion of freedom. You can outrun the police. Something I highly recommend you do as a cyclist is provoke the police to a chase in central London – the best sport you’ll ever have – you can’t be caught by number-plate recognition technology, you don’t need fuel, and if you get caught, are they REALLY going to prosecute you for going the wrong way up a one-way street, and accusing a motorcycle cop of being in it because his boyfriend likes the leather? But it’s not just the sport of running from the police. You are genuinely free on a bike, in a way you are not on any other form of transport. Sunk cost of the equipment, which with a bit of skill and elbow-grease you could have a bike capable of beating anyone’s… if you’re fit, for £50, cycling’s free. No-one’s going to breathalyse you on the way home from the pub if you’ve have one or two too many. Speed-humps, one-way systems and traffic lights are advisory. The reason this is OK is that unless you’re a total twat (like fixie affecionados who think it reasonable to cycle in town without brakes, and the people who ride on the pavement, for example) you’re only risking your OWN life. It’s democratic – The bike is truly the libertarian’s mode of transport. And the final benefit is that girls are more likely to want to go to bed with men who have firm thighs…

Get on your bike. You don’t need a Quango to tell you to do so.

Road Pricing rears its ugly head. Again.

Following my courting of the opprobium of fashionable libertarian opinion by suggesting that there IS a place for black boxes in cars (though not, and I dealt with this in the post, the enforcement of speeding offenses) I will now be less controversial.

The RAC has suggested that some form of road pricing is “inevitable“, but that this should come with a cut in fuel duty and road tax. Fair enough, and I think this Government could pull such a reasonable compromise off. However I WOULD have privacy concerns if records had to be kept about where and when I had been, and that is my principle concern about road pricing. True, most of the public care not a jot about their privacy in such matters, but I do. But there are practical concerns too: The administration of this would require technological deployment on a vast scale nationwide, and a huge bureaucracy to administer it. There would be inevitable errors as someone is billed hundreds for a journey on the other end of the country they couldn’t have taken. There will be a massive increase in car cloning.

The only advantage is that road pricing reflects the usage of the road at different times. And as a believer in markets, I have some sympathy with this. But given people’s commute is already miserable, and councils’ track record for parking offenses, do we really want to give another opportunity for profiteering? The problem is not the principle, it’s the complexity of administration, and there are likely to be arbitary injustices as a result of simplification. It will also inevitably contain exemptions for favoured groups. Teachers HAVE to face the school run. Nurses work odd shifts which may coincide with rush hour. Does anyone think the police will pay?

We already have a tax, paid by everyone except farmers that reflects the distance driven, the speed you drive and the engine you use (and yes, eco-weenies, the carbon-dioxide you produce). This tax is called fuel duty. It may not reflect rush hour, but that is more than made up for by the simplicity of administration: from the point of view of Government: it collects itself. It’s fair. It’s unambigous. We don’t need separate road taxes. Cut everything, except fuel duty.

Intelligent Vehicles

Both Longrider and The Englishman’s Castle are worried about the deployment of data recorders in cars, and the development of “intelligent cars” which will take over to prevent you doing something stupid like drive up a one-way street.

Black boxes will record data in the event of a crash or near airbag deployment event, covering the few seconds before the incident. This will be used to ascertain who broke first and the speed each party was doing by the police and insurance companies. The Englishman says “You are being watched as you drive”. As part of the continuous montioring of the motorist, I have some sympathy with this view. However I’ve little problem with evidence from the cars being taken to see who’s lying in their insurance claim: “I was only doing 30mph…” well your car’s data recorder says you rounded that bend at 60. Do you want to reconsider your account before you get done for insurance fraud? Because liars cost us all in extortionate insurance premiums.

Obviously I oppose continuous monitoring which would see data from the cars leading to speeding tickets, but in the event of an accident, clearly it’s in everyone’s interest to be accurate about what happened. If an option to have a recorder would lead to a lower premium, would you take it? The roads are already a benthamite panopticon, so who cares?

Intelligent cars is another issue. Longrider doesn’t like the concept:

I don’t care how intelligent these cars are made, ultimately, it is the driver who is best placed to make decisions about prevailing conditions and the appropriate action to take in the event of an incident – including a mistake on their own part. A car that suddenly takes over is potentially highly dangerous.

He offers no evidence for this assertion. Cruise control is becomming more sophisticated, to the extent that new Mercedes are almost able to drive themselves on motorways. The DARPA Grand Challenge has been won, which means that autonomous cars are approaching the market. Within a few years, you may be able to get into a car, type a post-code into the dashboard shut your eyes and have a snooze until you get to your destination. Longrider again mistrusts the insurance companies, but if they accept the technology, they will do so for a reason: that one day cars will drive themselves better, safer than we can.

I hate driving. Actually that’s not true. I’ve driven on empty roads in summer, and I’ve driven on tracks. That’s fun, when you have a car set up for the purpose. However the daily grind to work or schlepping accross the country to see family or friends is miserable. I long to be liberated from the chore of driving. I long to be allowed to have a drink and get into a car which drives itself home. And that WILL require some form of black box, because you will need to know what happened when the technology fails and there are crashes. Insurance companies will bet that machines are better at driving than we are, but they still need to apportion blame, for that is the nature of insurance.

There is a difference between a black box used to answer questions in the event of an incident and a monitoring system which can be used against you when there hasn’t been an accident. The former does not impinge on your liberty to do as you wish (without costing anyone, and that includes the insurance company, anything) and the latter which WOULD be a gross intrusion into privacy. The former is also vital to the development of autonomous vehicles, which would be a great step forward.