Thursday 28 August 2014

Guide Dogs Cycle Eyes Campaign: Barking Up The Wrong Tree?

One of the things which gives me a buzz as an engineer is seeing a highway scheme I have had a hand in being used. What is even better is seeing people who could not have used that piece of highway before, now being able to use it.

As many people will know, a large infrastructure scheme is something which people like to associate themselves with whether it is as clever designers, the project sponsor or the politician cutting the ribbon. Me? I remain a fan of the small scheme - the ones which can make a real difference to people's day to day travelling.

I am a veteran of bus stop design. By that, I mean I have traipsed around the streets looking at flags, shelters and bins, scribbled away in AutoCAD, run countless public consultations, written endless committee reports and spent hours in the council chamber attempting to explain and advise councillors that making bus stops accessible is a good thing to do, despite the opposition from people who don't want a bus stop near their premises. 

Access for all should be our objective.
The grief and the hard work is totally forgotten when I see someone getting on my bus who couldn't have done so easily or at all before. If a the highway environment can be changed to meet the needs of the person finding access most difficult, then it will make everyone else's life a doddle.

But, this is not a post about bus stops. The point of mentioning them is two-fold: first, I have a social responsibility as a professional engineer to make the world a better place. I know it sounds a bit hugs and peace, but when I get a letter of thanks from someone who can now use the bus because their local stop is accessible, it is the best possible outcome from an often hard-won process. Second, I am often asked by people objecting to bus stop works just who is asking for the improvements and the answer is usually "nobody". People put up with an awful lot and get on with their lives, but when it comes to travel, there are often tremendous barriers and so making the highway accessible to all is clearly the right thing to do.

Built for wheelchair users, but life is even easier for everyone else.
This holds for walking and cycling, where changing the highway environment so it is accessible to all pays an awful lot more dividends than we might imagine in terms of personal independence, inclusively and indeed dignity (many people don't want to be seen asking for help). The motivation for a pair of dropped kerbs across a junction may come from wanting to help wheelchair and mobility scooter users cross the road, but it means that people pushing buggies have an easier life, people using sticks to walk don't have to step into and out of the road and actually, life is made a tiny bit easier for everyone else.

As well as people like me trying to do the right thing (it is my job you know), there are many organisations and charities with aims which are actually pretty similar in terms of improving people's mobility. They are interested in improving the lives of the people they represent (whether generally or by membership) and so it is always a shame to see campaigns which on the face of it pitch people with common aims against each other.

So, it was with dismay that I learnt about Guide Dogs' "Cycle Eyes" campaign. It essentially asks "cyclists" to watch out for people who can't watch out for them. On the surface, who wouldn't agree that people riding bikes shouldn't be looking out for people who would struggle seeing them when crossing the road, or walking next to a cycle track or so on? Forget about one's chosen mode of transport, isn't it the moral duty for people to be aware of others full stop (yes, many don't!).

They give 5 points to think about;
  • Pay attention – look to see if the guide dog and owner, or person with a cane are waiting to cross. Remember that they can’t always see or hear you.
  • If you see the guide dog and owner or person with a cane waiting to cross, use your bell or call out to let them know you’re there.
  • If the guide dog and owner or cane user are already crossing the road, please stop and wait until they've reached the other side.
  • Do not cycle up behind or around the guide dog and owner, no matter how much space you think you’ve given them. The dog may be startled and get confused.
  • If you need to use the pavement for any reason, please dismount. Bumping off the kerb onto the road can scare and confuse the guide dog.
It is not just "cyclists" who are a danger to people walking on our
streets you know!
OK, it all seems reasonable and perhaps things that many people might not have come across (at least in detail) before. The campaign was started because of "a noted increase in guide dogs and their owners being hit by a bike or having a near miss." Really? This not something I was switched on to and doing he job I do, I like to think I have a rough idea of what is going on in terms of conflicts, collisions and the like. 

It turns out that Guide Dogs have been a bit naughty. The "noted increase" comes from the following data;

There are just over 320 guide dog owners in London. We know not every guide dog owner reports these incidents, and whilst we have had an increase in phone calls from Guide Dog Owners reporting incidents, through social media we invited blind and partially sighted to fill in a Survey Monkey. 33 of those who responded were guide dog owners from London, 42% of those have been involved in a collision with a cyclist 76% have had a near miss (defined as where they have narrowly avoided a collision).

This tweet was doing the rounds at the end of June;

So, it would appear (and I would welcome some detailed clarification if I am wide of the mark) that Guide Dogs has created (either on purpose or by mistake) a survey (now closed) with responses from people with "strong views on cyclists in London". I doubt very much if the strong views presented were mainly positive and certainly the "data" bears me out. I mentioned at the start of this that the people interested in making bus stops accessible are those who don't want the bus stops near their premises - like Guide Dogs' survey - classic self reporting which can skew the real picture.

Looking at the data, we have 320 guide dog owners in London and 33 (10%) filled in the survey. Of those, 42% have been involved in a collision with a cyclist (14) and 76% have had a near miss (25). What we don't know is what were the circumstances of those incidents were or over which period they occurred (3 years? 30 years?). I would not for a minute wish to devalue the impact that these incidents must have had on the individuals involved, but the survey really does suggest that it was a vehicle (if you excuse the term) to set up guide dog users as being under attack from this dangerous, group of people known as cyclists. I will state it again - I am not a cyclist, just somebody who chooses to travel by bicycle.

Reading further into the article on Guide Dogs' website, we learn that "Cycle Eyes" is supported by Transport for London and quotes TfL's Leon Daniels;

"It is vital on London's busy road network that we all understand and respect the needs and welfare of our fellow road users. We support the Guide Dogs' campaign to remind cyclists and other road users to watch out for and give extra care to visually impaired and other vulnerable pedestrians. This, together with the work being done to make pedestrian crossings more accessible with tactile paving and audible signals, will make London's roads safer for all."

Perhaps this should be the focus of a campaign?
Well, the campaign is aimed at "cyclists" (not other road users) - it would be very interesting to see a survey undertaken by Guide Dogs on how many collisions and near misses occurred involving motorised traffic. It would be very interesting to see a survey from Guide Dogs on whether or not users are happy with the level of provision at crossings as there are a heck of a lot on borough and TfL roads which have no provision at all. No tactile paving, no green men. Squat. What about footway parking making life so difficult for people to walk along a street? What about advert boards left in the middle of footways? What about the often poor state of footways. What about parked cars preventing people from crossing the road at junctions? I think Guide Dogs are barking up the wrong tree!

Perhaps you need to remind Mr Daniels about just how bad the
pedestrian experience can be on "his" road network.
(A12, Barley Lane - from Google)
Guide Dogs' also state;

"We work incredibly hard to get blind or partially sighted people out of their homes and mobile, so to hear that vision impaired people are anxious and in some cases fearful about going out in London because of irresponsible cyclists is very worrying. With the Mayor committing nearly £913 million to a 'cycling revolution' we need to make sure that cyclists are more aware of blind and partially sighted pedestrians."

So, they seem to suggest that with £913 million being spent on "cyclists", they had better shape up - seems like classic blaming of that "cyclist" out group to me. The London Cycling Campaign supports Guide Dogs in this initiative if you read the Guide Dogs' web page, although it seems a little less clear on the LCC's website and indeed, there is clarification being provided in the comments;

"One reason for LCC to support the guide dog users was to point out a real problem (however big) and lay the basis for working together to get better infrastructure. If we propose safe space for cycling on London Streets that seriously inconveniences blind people we will get nowhere. All the blind people I spoke with this morning recognised the need to improve conditions for cyclists.

To me, that is absolutely fair, but Guide Dogs have not echoed the need for good infrastructure, just had a pop at cyclists. LCC also stated;

"Another reason to support them is to make the point that many cyclists are inconsiderate of pedestrians, whether they are sighted or not. If you cycle on urban streets in London you should be expecting pedestrians to walk out without paying attention and moderate your riding style so that it doesn't create a problem for them, or for you."

I bet this is a common issue for Guide Dogs and LCC!
Oh nice. So LCC is now repeating the "cyclists" as an out group mantra. Where is the proof that "many cyclists are inconsiderate of pedestrians" then LCC - can you back this self-blaming with facts? I would suggest that as far as LCC members go (and I am one), this campaign is preaching to the converted. Many members of LCC may not be aware of the detail of why bikes can be an issue for guide dogs and their owners, but they will have an appreciation of the rounder issues. Going to the effort of joining an organisation does rather suggest (at least to me) that one already has an interest in the issues the organisation is interested in.

Guide Dogs have also made a helpful film which does indeed show "cyclists" going through red lights when people (including a person with their dog) are trying to cross on a green man. No, those people should not be doing that, but the behaviour is not because they are on bikes, it is because they are determined to make progress and sod everyone else. No different from people driving badly - it is people. The funny thing is that although the film shows how hard it is to hear bikes passing, there is no comment on the intimidating traffic. There is no comment on how difficult it is for people and their dogs trying to negotiate the multi-stage pedestrian crossings shown in the film.

So yes, Guide Dogs, there are some people who happen to ride bikes badly and without consideration to those more vulnerable than them, but lumping us all into this group called "cyclists" is not the right thing to do and should do know better. LCC, yes, I am irritated that you have aligned "us" with this campaign and indeed have repeated the many "cyclists" are bad mantra.

As an engineer, as someone who walks and rides a bike, I agree that our highway network can be pretty intimidating and downright impossible to use for some (unless driving). The trouble is that campaigns can backfire and to many people, it seems that there are these little interest groups squabbling, when actually, we all (broadly) want the same thing and that is a safe and fully accessible highway network for walking and cycling. If I were a cartoonist, I would draw an ivory tower with a ministerial type figure sitting at the top of it sniggering while little protest groups have an argument at the bottom (yes, this is a cue for someone to draw this please!)

This kind of thing is simply reinforcing the view held by some people that "cyclists" are irresponsible. It gives column inches in the media which are dedicated to having a pop at me because of my transport choice. It makes some people who are driving think it OK to have a go at someone, purely because they happen to be on a bike. If I singled out a person who relies on their guide dog in this way, I would be pilloried. Please rethink this as I think the aims have the best of intentions, it is just you have picked the wrong target.

Update Sunday 31st August 2014
Guide Dogs has now got their film showing as "private" and have provided an apology on their website:

We apologise if we have offended any cyclists during this campaign launch. A small number of cyclists have voiced their concerns over the size of the survey. Our survey was primarily to obtain case studies for our campaign and gather some specific stories from those who have been hit or had a near miss from a cyclist.

We have always clearly stated that we know the vast majority of cyclists are responsible. This campaign reaches out to them to encourage the whole cycling community all road users in London to look out for blind and partially sighted pedestrians.

I wonder if more than 33 "cyclists" (there's that group again) were offended? Sorry, but the damage has been done. Blaming bike riders was a quick action which added (in its own little way) to the bile against a group of people who have chosen one particular mode of transport.


  1. if you want to see some infrastructure that's really rubbish for the blind take a gander at this shared space scheme they pushed on through in Gloucester that removed a proper pedestrian crossing (that had buttons, lights and bleeping noises and proper tactile paving)... I cannot imagine how on earth that passed the safety audit...

  2. This issue has been covered re-the figures used on

  3. @ Paul Cooke "I cannot imagine how on earth that passed the safety audit..."
    You didn't read Mr. Ranty's last blog post did you? Passed the audit?

    In terms of accessibility/inclusivity of schemes, engineers ought to be pushing this if only out of enlightened self-interest. After all (with luck) we're all going to get old. And some of us, maybe the majority, will develop mobility problems.
    On that note I also think we missed a trick with the latest revision of TSRGD. Everyone concentrated on the things like the combined zebra-cycle crossing and other cycle-related stuff, but what about a cheap alternative to a zebra, i.e. one that doesn't need beacons and the associated costs of cabling and ducting, etc.? A ped priority crossing we could put everywhere? Dropped kerbs and tactiles are OK as far as they go, but if you go to a website like I'DGO and look at what, for example, the elderly want out of a crossing, it's confidence that they have control over motor vehicles - lights are preferred, zebras and refuges are OK, uncontrolled crossings just aren't comfortable for them - and therefore won't be comfortable for us in the future.

    1. @ Andy R: here is a snippet from my `member of the public' response to question 13 of the TSRGD consultation:

      Table 69, item 55 preference for black and yellow stripes (same retroreflectivity requirements as black and white stripes) instead of elephant footprints for cycle crossings {consistency with existing markings, promote cycling take up and safety}.

      Table 69, item 55 ought not be used in pedal cycle routes through signal controlled junctions---suggest existing longitudinal markings (e.g. diagram 1010 to table 42, item 10) instead {consistency with existing markings, promote cycling take up and safety}.

      Table 69, item 55 ought not be used in pedal cycle routes crossing signal controlled junctions---suggest existing square markings (e.g. diagram 1055.1 to table 69, item 53) {consistency with existing markings, promote cycling take up and safety}.

      Table 71, item 43 allow retroreflective yellow globe without lighting on low speed roads {minister's statement for presumption of retroreflective and unlit signs, reduce energy consumption and cost of signs}.

      I left commenting on the long-standing onerousness of the `multi-metre zig-zags' requirements of the Hoare-Belisha regulations (presumably intended to discourage highway authorities from installing them where they would be useful to pedestrians and inconvenience smoothly flowed motorists) to CEoGB et al...

  4. These `self-blaming' attacks on its own constituents are not new or a one-off from the LCC (e.g. ). They have been particularly noticeable since it became a `charity' whose inner circle is largely owned and operated by London Councils. Coincidence? Still, moaning about it on this 'blog while continuing to pay the annual levy will really send them a message :-S...