Feeling the Pinch

Cross-posted from the Near Miss Project.

As we continue analysing the data, there’ll be a series of blog posts thinking it through. These are personal reflections/work-in-progress – responses are welcome.

There’s a lot of stuff to look at in relation to behaviour, experiences, infrastructure and road conditions. For me, one eye-opener has been the descriptions of cycling on roads outside built-up areas. However, I wanted to start with a probably familiar topic, ‘pinch points’ – and more broadly carriageway narrowing, which might involve pedestrian build-outs, crossings with refuges, road works, parked cars and so on.

Engineered carriageway narrowing is common in many of our cities, towns and villages. It is introduced for good reasons: to slow motor vehicles and attempt to make drivers behave better. In a recent sourcebook for Slow Streets, Urban Design London (UDL) argues (2014:11):

‘Drivers slow down when they feel the space they are travelling in is narrow. This is because they feel less sure of the space available to them. Pedestrians and other activity next to the carriageway are closer, more visible and more likely to encroach onto the carriageway and the driver has to negotiate with on-coming traffic in less space, meaning that vehicles may reduce their speed.’

This is interesting, suggesting that bringing pedestrians closer to motors – as these will be nearer the kerb when on narrow carriageways – is desirable as it can help tame the traffic. While pedestrians are described as being closer to cars, and at times ‘encroaching’ on carriageway space, full integration of cyclists with motor traffic is recommended where low speeds are desired (subject to ‘considering their needs’). On page 13, we read that ‘[s]egregating or separating [cyclists] from vehicles may dilute their influence on driver behaviour’. Pedestrian buildouts are commended, and more broadly, three metre carriageways are recommended, as these mean that overtaking is unsafe and thus drivers should wait behind cycles.

On the other hand, research by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL 2002: 30) cited narrowings such as those created by parked cars or pedestrian build-outs as ‘problem locations’ for cyclists, recommending that:

‘Measures that deliberately require cyclists to obstruct traffic in order to produce a traffic calming effect should be avoided. The strategies adopted by some cyclists to deliberately hold up drivers until the cyclist believes it is safe for them to pass are likely to provoke particular hostility.’

Deepdene Avenue, site of several near miss incidents reported to us.

Deepdene Avenue, site of several near miss incidents reported to us.

The TRL paper is now over ten years old, and it feels like the approach has shifted, given that the use of ‘primary position’ (or ‘taking the lane’) is a cornerstone of Bikeability cycle training. The Near Miss Project provides an opportunity to explore this debate further from the viewpoint of cyclists who’ve experienced near misses. I hadn’t intended to start with writing about this topic, but looking at the qualitative data – descriptions of experiences, feelings, responses to incidents – I was immediately struck by the frequent mention of ‘pinch point’ or more general terms related to road narrowing. An initial count suggests these featured in around one in twelve of our nearly 5,000 incident descriptions. This includes incidents in London, in villages, and everywhere in between.

I can’t draw statistical conclusions about the impact of road narrowing on the likelihood of experiencing such incidents, but where something is mentioned so often it provides some evidence for this being a relatively common type of event. So I’d suggest that further research specifically on driver behaviour at road narrowings would be useful, including looking at parameters such as level/existence of through motor traffic.

People reported that road narrowings caused anxiety, and cited specific experiences of drivers passing too close:

– ‘Crossing is a pinch point and driver overtook me on crossing markings.’
– ‘I was exiting village through a pinch point and therefore had priority, but car entering village drove through constriction at same time. I had to take avoiding action.’
– ‘I was cycling along a narrow road and the car accelerated behind me to try to overtake me. He was pushing behind me so bad that I had to stop and give way to it.’
– ‘There are four or five pedestrian islands that create pinch points where vans, lorries and buses can not squeeze past a cyclist safely. This does not stop them trying. This happens every night. Often large vans will force me into the curb. Two or three times a week a van will have to slow down at the approach and then will beep me or swear.’
– ‘Moderate traffic but a lot of hazards due to shops either side, parking spaces, build-outs, traffic islands, bus-stops, jct every 50m or so. Need to be in primary position frequently along this part of road due to the above hazards. Had been in primary position for approx 50m to avoid open car door, reached top of slight decline, jct build-out also at this point, stayed in primary position as now accelerating towards a traffic island. White van behind decided to overtake and has to cut in in front of me to avoid traffic island. Caught up with driver 3 times to ask why she felt it necessary to overtake at this dangerous point. Answer: because you were in the middle of the road. Invited driver to pull over so I could explain why, asked if she has seen all the hazards, answer: what hazards.’

Crossing in Bishops Way, East London: another incident site.

Build-out in Bishops Way, East London: another incident site.

This last comment highlights the extent to which cyclists describe themselves as having to be – to use a term often found in our dataset – ‘vigilant’ due to a combination of hazards. Something that a driver might not notice can become a real worry for a cyclist; similarly weather conditions can make a difficult manoeuvre even harder. This is not always appreciated by other road users:

– ‘I had positioned myself on the road to turn right, and was needing both hands to brake and control the bike in the wind and the rain – my trousers were soaked through at this point – a motorist came fast up behind and close and shouted abusively “use your arm to signal mate”.’

The UDL sourcebook suggests that because narrowed or narrower carriageways mean cyclists must/should position themselves to stop drivers from overtaking, this can help calm and slow traffic. Many people in our database show awareness of ‘primary position’ (not always using the phrase), but often with a concern that this puts them at risk of driver harassment, or referring to such experiences. This includes tailgating, driving towards or at a cyclist, engine revving, horn use, and verbal abuse. Sometimes cyclists ended up swerving onto the pavement or making emergency stops to avoid being hit.

– ‘I heard a car accelerate to try and beat me to the roadworks, having failed to do so the driver then tailgated me through the coned area.’
– ‘I usually take the middle of the road to avoid being overtaken, especially as I am cycling a Bakfiets with two small children in it. However two cars forced their way past me giving me no more than a foot clearance. Almost immediately a car approached from the opposite direction so both cars stopped right in front of me causing me to dismount.’
– ‘I was followed very closely over a narrow part of the bridge, where there is no room or sightlines to overtake. The car was impatient and revving its engine as it seemed to want to overtake where there was no room.’
– ‘I was hooted by the car behind who clearly wanted me to get out of the way so they could overtake. However, as the road is narrow and lined with parked cars I had nowhere to go.’
– ‘I was cycling in primary at the pinch point; as I entered the narrow section a car passed me. It was less than 12 inches from my handle bar ends. The driver passed me and pulled over to the left forcing me to brake. He didn’t stop.’
– ‘Driver was approaching at well above the speed limit for this section of road. I decided not to take primary position due to concern that the driver would simply continue and endanger my life.’
– ‘Narrow road, double parked, you have to take the lane as there is no space to pass safely, and an impatient driver made no secret of his frustration and drove just inches from my rear wheel for the length of the road.’
– ‘Cars from rear pushing me to get out of way or go faster, cars from front pressuring me to slow down or give way – being harassed from front and back. Road effectively narrows to one lane with two way traffic.’
– ‘This is a narrow, single-lane stretch of a major trunk road. The left-hand side is given over to parking bays (with attendant dooring risk). There are no cycle lanes. In accordance with cycling good practice, I take the lane (ride centrally) on this part of the road because there isn’t enough room for a driver to overtake safely. In this incident the driver of a blue car quite simply ignored the risk of an overtake in a narrow space, accelerated behind me and squeezed past with maybe 6 inches of clearance.’
– ‘A car from behind tried to overtake forcing me into the cones and roadworks. Car backed off, then tried again. I then moved out even further so the car couldn’t come alongside. Once past the roadworks the driver gave me verbal abuse.’
– ‘At the traffic lights the driver got out and got aggressive, “Did you swear at me, you c**t”. Not wanting to escalate the situation, I remained calm but told him he was driving dangerously while he kept on shouting. Eventually got into the van and drove off.’

Reading the quotes one gets the sense that the ‘primary position’ message has got through to many of the cyclists in our study, but the problems identified in 2002 around driver perceptions and attitudes still seem to exist:

– ‘I had to move right over into the centre of the lane so that the car could see there was not space to overtake – people often take that to mean I am blocking them on purpose to be annoying but it is just because otherwise they will think there is space to overtake but there is not.’
– ‘I can move into the primary road position approaching the pinch point, but this often results in abuse and intimidation from drivers.’

This can lead to fear and intimidation even for many people who describe themselves as experienced and confident:

– ‘Scared every day, need to take assertive road position but that reduces the close passes rather than removes them.’
– ‘I fear this area every day. I hate having to hold primary to stop cars overtaking but this is better than risking them squeezing past and/or a dooring.’
– ‘[I could have] adopted a more positive road position although at the time was feeling a bit intimidated by the bus and it is not worth arguing with several tonnes of steel.’

A couple of comments pointed to a broader problem with primary-for-blocking:

‘A common issue: failing to anticipate a cyclist’s need for additional space when they are in secondary position. Unfortunately the most effective way round it would be to adopt primary at all times, but this is of course (for several reasons) generally highly impracticable.’
– ‘Maybe [I could have avoided the incident] if I’d taken up a better road position, but this is me riding the primary position in order to stop other drivers trying to squeeze through rather than car drivers giving me enough space when they overtake.’

Riding specifically to stop vehicles overtaking (as opposed to riding a safe distance from a parked car, hazard or kerb, other benefits of ‘primary’ also highlighted in Bikeability cycle training) is a response to poor driver behaviour, a pre-emptive move atttempting to avoid an unsafe overtake. The two comments above pointed out that drivers should already be aware if an overtake would be unsafe or uncomfortable, without a cyclist having to move out and physically block them. Unfortunately, some of those ‘unaware’ or careless drivers may then respond to having their way blocked with the dangerous or harassing behaviours described above. For the cyclist, it is a no-win situation. Some explicitly referred to what they perceived as a choice between a high risk of an unsafe pass, if near the kerb, and a lower risk of (even more frightening) deliberate aggression, if in primary position.

Where does this leave design guidance? I think we need to think carefully about carriageway narrowing and buildouts, given driver behaviour at pinch points and the impacts it may have on cycling. As the UDL sourcebook says, a three metre wide space is clearly not wide enough for a 1.8m wide car to safely and comfortably overtake a cyclist. However, the experiences described here suggest narrow carriageways are not preventing close overtakes. Even with such little space, a minority of drivers want to try to overtake; if a cyclist is near the gutter they may experience a close pass, and if a cyclist is in primary position they may experience abuse and harassment, perhaps even being driven at.

Gateway narrowing image, Slower Streets Sourcebook

Gateway narrowing image, Slower Streets Sourcebook

It is interesting that despite the recommendation to integrate, the UDL sourcebook uses a ‘gateway narrowing’ image (2014:12) where cycle bypasses exist on what looks to be both sides (although I don’t think they are wide enough for inclusive cycling – tight even for a standard bicycle). In this image, oncoming motors in a tight space would act as ‘traffic calming’ for other motorists (even more so if the priority sign were not there) with cycles well out of their way. I would suggest this kind of approach is more appropriate than ‘integrating’ cycles through pinch points in many contexts, with the potential exception of ‘home zones’.

One final thought relates to pedestrian-cycle conflict. I’ve not looked at it systematically yet, but it looks to me like there is unrecognised conflict between cycles and pedestrians where cycles remain on-carriageway, and we don’t do enough to study and address this. One particularly problematic type of situation cited involves a narrow carriageway with pedestrians spilling over into the carriageway just where a squeezed cyclist is being pushed out of the way by an impatient overtaking motorist.

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5 Responses to Feeling the Pinch

  1. Adam Piggott says:

    A detailed, thoughtful and thorough article addressing many facets of a very real problem. So many of my frequent experiences and the “no-win” choices I am forced to take are exactly described here.

  2. Tim says:

    Many drivers seem to have a pathological fear of being “stuck behind” a cyclist, and a corresponding urge to overtake on principle, regardless of the safety of doing so, regardless of the relative speeds, road positions, available space and other factors.

    Basically this: “…vans, lorries and buses can not squeeze past a cyclist safely. This does not stop them trying.”

    Similar behaviour can be seen regarding learner drivers, where drivers will try to overtake in ridiculous circumstances, manoeuvres they would never consider if the vehicle in front didn’t have L-plates (and all other things were equal – often the L-plated car is not actually being driven by a learner!).

    And since the decision to overtake is not based on any rational basis – just that I am on a bike – taking primary can actually make me more exposed and put me in more danger, so what can I do! I have had it with pleas to “share the road nicely”. It’s segregated cycleways or you will often find me on the pavement if I’m uncomfortable on the road.

  3. John Sanderson says:

    Here’s a terrifying conversation I just had with a work colleague. Bear in mind I work, as does the colleague, in the Road Safety and Traffic Engineering dept of a local authority. He described how he found himself behind 2 cyclists riding 2-abreast. His wife in the car in front overtook (across a solid white line, so there’s your 1st traffic offence) leaving a wide gap. He, in the following car, took great delight in telling me how he’s pulled past as close as he could (the old famous “warning pass”) to “teach them a lesson” as he felt they should be in line (this road is still too narrow for a safe pass, without crossing the solid white line, even if they were). When I asked him what he would have done had he hit the person, maybe they’d had to swerve past a pothole as he was alongside, he replied “nothing, was their fault for being in my way”! I said what if you’d killed them, he said “well they’ll not do it again”. This is someone who supposedly knows the rules, understands the primary position and the solid white line markings, and is employed to improve road safety.

    What is it about being in a car that turns normally decent people into total idiots? I asked him if he’d been walking faster than 2 people ahead and wanted to get past, what would he do – he replied “I’d wait”. So, put him in a car, and the other 2 in front on bikes and suddenly they’re in his way and he has the “right” to endanger them. This was a Sunday pootle he was driving to his archery club, so he wasn’t exactly a midwife on call in an urgent hurry.

    I really believe this attitude, the way cars make us behave, is the main reason behind all the aggression on the roads. Travel above 20mph, in a secluded metal box, and people just lose all sense of rational thought. We are a painfully polite society in many ways, people even say sorry when they get in lifts with you sometimes, but put that person in a motor vehicle and they behave totally stupidly. That the vehicle weighs 1000kg and can kill or injure makes this a serious issue.

    I’ve told my superiors that, instead of constantly bidding for money to “improve cycle infrastructure”, the money would be far better if it were channelled into driver behaviour studies. As Sustrans say, we already have a brilliant cycle route infrastructure, called the road network, its the way people behave on it that needs to be addressed. The onus for safety is on the person with the un-safe vehicle, not the vulnerable road user.

  4. TLR says:

    Very interesting article, and good to see that in the form of the Near Miss Project some qualitative research is going into the problems many cyclists face on an almost daily basis.

    John – your story is very worrying. I was aghast to read that someone with a (supposed) vested interest in keeping the roads safe for everyone is deliberately doing the complete opposite. Though this type of attitude is all too common, I sometimes suspect a lot of driver attitude boils down to ignorance; not understanding primary positions of cyclists, not anticipating the space needed for a slower moving, smaller vehicle, when the space is going to run out for the cyclist etc. But that’s the optimist in me. After all, some drivers think it’s their ‘right’ to drive at the speed limit irrespective of the road ahead, and they’ll stop at nothing to assert that.

    As a Bikeability instructor in London I can relate to the incidents through first- and second-hand experience. My own experiences correllate with everything mentioned in the article, and though I ride fairly quickly (average about 16-18mph), take primary positions as second nature and make regular eye contact with drivers behind, this doesn’t stop some trying to pass too close, sit behind and rev, or just try to run me off the road. You try communicating the desired road positions and assertive cycling behaviour to an already nervous (and often female) trainee, and all of your good intentions can be undone with one blast of a horn or a speedy pass.

    A colleague of mine thinks as much. One of her trainees came to her to learn to ride more assertively in traffic. She took her through the basics of road positioning, how to communicate your intentions at junctions, and to assure her that the road directly in front of her was HERS to use safely. At the end of the first session, she was beaming with confidence. Sadly this didn’t last long, and by the time she had rebooked, she spoke of endless driver harrassment, tailgating etc. This forced her natural riding position inwards (as is probably human nature) and one day she was hit by an opening door.

    I see this all too often. People trying to ride assertively and get from A to B safely, but feeling intimidated by people in faster moving vehicles trying to shave precious few seconds off their journeys. And if only they knew the average speed of motor traffic in Central London…7-10mph. Bikes? 12mph without breaking a sweat…So what’s REALLY holding them up after all?

  5. Scared Amoeba says:

    Many who do not cycle would dearly love like to cycle, but have been scared off the roads by fear of traffic. That is what happened to me, when a driver of a back-hoe digger tried to overtake me. I was cycling in secondary, along a narrow single-carriageway, 30mph road, near Feltham, Middlesex. He drove-up behind and decided to overtake on the approach to a shallow bend in the road. He had got part-way into his manoeuvre when was forced to abandon his incompetent manoeuvre, due to the lack of top speed of his vehicle and bad planning, the curve in the road had concealed a car coming in the opposite direction. He had two choices – to abandon his dangerous and ill-considered manoeuvre or continue. He chose to abort his manoeuvre, and since he was now alongside me, the simplest solution was to occupy the same piece of road I was cycling upon – i.e. a decision that seems very likely to have killed me – had I not taken immediate evasive action to avoid the approaching buzzing tyres of death – it was a very close-shave. I easily caught-him up in traffic and confronted him regarding his driving, his response was: “you were going too fast”. It is perfectly clear that he had not the slightest shred of understanding that I was the innocent-party and that he was a dangerous driver, one who should never, under any circumstances be allowed to operate dangerous machinery – i.e. to drive a motor-vehicle.
    I was so severely shaken by this experience that I stopped cycling for around five years. That was a mistake, I should have got back on the bike and continued cycling.
    I’m very glad I’m cycling again, it’s much better than driving.
    I strongly believe that the driving-test should include a test for psychological suitability.

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