I have been provoked into this. A Bristolian cyclist (@sprinstar) tweeted this morning to ask if Bristol should be rated in the Copenhagenizelist of top cycling cities. A simple answer is that Bristol is too small a city to be considered for that list anyway. But the spirit of what @sprinstar wrote is what matters. It was strong provocation.
Adding the mournful typogram :( - he concluded "sometimes I think Bristol is going backwards" and all my Bristol cycling anxiety bubbled up. "Why", I thought "does cycling around Bristol bring out such ambivalent feelings in me?". I have only just got here and hardly know my way round at all. But after only 3 months, for every positive feeling about how good it is for cycling, there's a really negative experience that puts me right back into feelings of sullen frustration and annoyance.
So, all the positives accepted and noted, let me set out the experiences that stop Bristol being the great cycling city that it is in my dreams.
1) Signage is maddeningly inconsistent and unreliable. This is a blog in itself. Several different bodies are involved here and so there is no obvious target to blame. Looking at every kind of sign, from road and path surface marking, through finger signs, street name signs, direction indicators, confirmation way markers, route number markings, to official mandatory, advisory, permissive and advanced warning indicators: all suffer from degrees of neglect, absence, poor visibility, ambiguity, poor placement and redundancy. Basically, a mess. Some is beautifully clear and prominent – encouraging enthusiasm and adventurous exploration.
And then, gaps and vagueness appear at crucial junctions and the adventurer gets lost. Some is mystifying, some has been clearly vandalised, some is just perverse. Some is just not there.
Someone has removed the sign that explains whatever lies to the right of this sign. Only those who already know where they are going are happy. (some more signs can be seen on my flickr site here and here)
2) Official maps are encouraging but not always very helpful. Bristol City Council has a set of cheerful and detailed leaflets showing a range of cycle routes and amenities across and around the city. They look appealing and they are sent out, or can be downloaded, free of charge. In practice they either lack required detail or else pack things so tightly together that using them on the road demands too much intuition and guesswork (maybe I'm just a poor map reader?). With poor signage, ambiguous or difficult-to-read maps are even more frustrating.
3) Physical provision is fragmented. Nothing about cycling in Bristol is free-flowing. The longest uninterrupted sections of cycling are on shared pedestrian/cycle paths – very definitely a second-best option in my book. Shared paths are only trouble-free when no one else is using them. For pedestrians they can make relaxation impossible. For a cyclist they reduce the normal rhythm of a cycle journey to a forced and frequently interrupted meander. Short sections of contra flow cycle lane in one way streets (eg Nelson Street) and fragments of cycle lane alongside loading/parking places (Gloucester Road, I think) are just plain dangerous. Some unexpected bits of cycle lane within multi-lane roads, ahead of roundabouts, near the city centre demand almost suicidal courage to use at all.
4) Cycling culture in Bristol is, broadly speaking, anarchic. I don't see any overt antagonism from motorists or pedestrians, but as a pedestrian (I walk a lot) I am regularly disturbed and sometimes shocked by cyclists in unexpected (non-legal) places. Perhaps the poor signage is to blame. But even where NO CYCLING is clearly painted in large letters across a footpath on the Downs, plenty of cyclists pay no attention. Footpaths have become a de facto set of optional cycle paths for a lot of Bristol cyclists. Many open areas in the centre of Bristol are marked on the maps as "shared" or "pedestrian". Presumably most people have never seen the maps, because they are all treated as "shared" by very many cyclists. One of my early shocks in Bristol was seeing this scary looking video:
A cycling campaigner is demonstrating the "Brunel Mile" in which a footpath across Queen Square is used (see from 0.34) instead of the "proper" cycle route on the south side of the square that is marked on the ground by rather elegant paving slabs.
5) Everything defers to the motor car. Obviously, this is not Bristol City Council Official Policy but it might just as well be. As long as so much of all our lives is taken up by ownership and use of the car, everything else that wants to move is going to have to wait. Parked cars line most of Bristol's smaller roads, and even where parking is not allowed, parked or waiting vehicles create hazards for cyclists at regular intervals. The narrow cycle lanes that have been painted (almost never constructed) alongside roads are normally blocked at intervals along the route by a stationary car or other vehicle. Cracks and potholes are numerous.
What we need to do, I think, is think before demanding the impossible or the contentious, and make more efforts to maintain and mend the things we already have. It's good. It could and should be better. I have a feeling that if cyclists keep on asking for more, the negative aspects of what we already have will put a real drag on progress. The high level of consideration afforded cyclists by other road users (especially the hard-pressed pedestrians) in Bristol will evaporate if we can't be more confident and considerate as cyclists.