Thursday, August 16, 2012

Compare and Contrast: Olympic Cycling and Ordinary Cycling

The Olympics is over, and the UK is the best nation in the world for cycling. Sport cycling at the elite level, that is.

We’ve dominated the Tour de France and the Olympic medals table.

Meanwhile,  for athletes who have to train on public roads, for club cyclists, tourists who want to enjoy a bike ride, for commuters and people just doing the shopping by bike, UK cycling is among the worst in the world. If cycling is growing as an activity it is not because the environment for cycling is improving – it patently is not – but because alternative modes of transport are becoming less attractive, and perhaps also because people are being inspired to get on their bikes by the success of our high-achieving competitive riders.

Why is the UK so successful at Olympic-level cycling? Why have we gone from a nation where we barely registered at the elite level of cycling, to a position where we dominate the world? Good organization, science, targets, the pursuit of marginal gains. Targets are set, progress and performance constantly measured. We consult experts in each relevant field. Evidence is gathered and alternatives to improve performance evaluated. Changes are made and their effects measured. Gains are pursued without compromise in every area, on the basis that small improvements in many areas aggregate up to big improvements in overall performance. If something doesn’t work, it’s changed for something that does work. Problems that are holding back performance are identified and fixed. We invest money wisely. And when we host the Olympics at home, we over-deliver.

Why do we have wooden-spoon performance when it comes to ordinary cycling? Why does cycling modal share remain stubbornly, embarrassingly low despite politicians being united in their stated belief that it’s a good thing and should be encouraged and promoted? Because we’re taking the precise opposite approach to that we’ve taken to achieve elite-level performance. We organize badly: there is no unified vision and responsibilities are split so there is no overall control or accountability. We don’t use science. We don’t pursue gains in any organized manner. We constantly set targets and fail to meet them. We measure lack of progress and fail to act on it. We ignore experts, both safety experts (as at the Bow Roundabout) and cycling infrastructure experts from countries with a record of success. Evidence, such as surveys constantly saying that people don’t cycle due to fear of motor traffic, is ignored and instead of picking alternatives to improve cycling, we pick alternatives that favour motor traffic. We make changes based on political whim rather than science. We make small improvements in very limited areas, and ignore problems in important areas. If something doesn’t work (like narrow, on-road, advisory lanes where car parking is allowed), we pretend it does, or we ignore it, or we just try the same thing again. Problems that are holding back performance are not identified or fixed. And we both under-invest and waste much of the little money we have to spend on cycling - how did the near-useless Cycle Superhighways cost £10M each to deliver, when they are little more than paint? And when we host the Olympics at home - an opportunity to get spectators to use active travel to get to events, and build a legacy of great infrastructure, we deliver close to nothing at all.

Back in 1997, we created a single ‘quango’, UK Sport, to oversee investment in high-performance sport. It has a clear remit and a no-compromise philosophy, to provide the best possible support for athletes. That organization has delivered in spades.

Since 1997, we’ve had a plethora of organizations, from local authorities, central government, the justice system, quangos, charities, Transport for London and so on, involved in everyday cycling, with no clear remit, a lack of any coherent philosophy, and seemingly dedicated to compromising cycling out of existence and providing an almost complete lack of support for ordinary cyclists.

To promote cycling to encourage ordinary people to be more physically active (which is a goal of the 2012 Legacy plan), could we learn from the elite sport of cycling, and try something that works for a change?


  1. "Small improvements in many areas aggregate up to big improvements in overall performance."

    A similar point has been made here.

    "There is no unified vision."

    Indeed, The Guardian blog has said, "The world of organisational cycling is famously fractious, riven with splits, some of them with amazingly ancient roots. Trying to get bicycle organisations to agree on something, on anything, is like herding proverbial cats."

    "We don’t use science."

    An important component of the scientific method is falsification. That is, people set out to prove that something is right by establishing that it is not perhaps wrong. As Sir Karl Popper explains: "Insofar as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and insofar as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality."

    The scientific method also takes an evidence-based approach. Using the seminal work Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities as my guide, I have laid out the seven steps needed to take us Towards a revitalised London Cycling Network. As yet, no one has controverted what I have to say.

    "We don’t pursue gains in any organized manner."

    The first step I identified is the appointment of a Cycling Commissioner.

    1. Regarding your point about falsifiabilty, when Einstein was asked what he thought about a pamphlet entitled A hundred authors against Einstein, he is reported to have said: "Why a hundred? If I was wrong, one would be enough."

      So come on LCC! Come on CTC! If you don't agree with the importance of thinking in terms of a network, or the prudence of introducing this network to a minimum level of functioning, then do some falsification!

  2. And the sheer arrogance of a Road Minister when he recently suggested that the Dutch could learn something about road safety from the UK, as we statistically had fewer total deaths! :(

  3. Of course, the money helps as well. UK elite sport has enjoyed squillions of taxpayer and lottery money over the last 7 years - since we "won" the Olympic bid for London and determined that we had to dominate our own games. Add to that what Sky must have spent on supporting their team of Wiggins, Cavendish, Froome et al. We now hear that British elite sport will enjoy a further £500m over the next 4 years to prepare for the Rio games.

    I reckon that will be at least 10 times what is spent on everyday cycling.

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  5. Just found another quote which I thought relevant, this one from Michael Crichton in a speech he made in Washington DC in 2005: "The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world."