The Back End of a Bus

Shall I take a swing at the Nice Way Code’s bus ads?

Yeah, why not…

The ad

Here we go. Here’s the ad. If you’re stuck in some tartan traffic, this is what you’re going to see.

niceway-bus

(Photo lifted from ‘chdot’ on the City Cycling Edinburgh forum.)

If it’s not clear, the text below the symbol on the left reads “Nope.” and the text below the one on the right reads “If you must.”

What they’re trying to say with this is that riding a bicycle up the nearside of a large vehicle can be dangerous. Which is absolutely true.

Unfortunately, that’s not what’s been said at all.

Breaking the visual language

Firstly, you see that symbol on the left? The arrow in a red circle with the diagonal line? Good. I want you to take a look at the section “Road signs giving orders” from The Highway Code.

You’ll notice that the arrow – whilst admittedly grey rather than black – is indistinguishable from the shape used on The Highway Code to denote keeping left, whilst the circle with diagonal bar is one of the styles used to denote prohibition (the diagonal bar is technically redundant).

Note that these are signs giving orders. They are mandatory.

By internationally established visual language convention, this sign says “you must not keep left of this bus”.

This is not the case. Overtaking to the nearside on a normal road is perfectly legal. It is advised against in many scenarios, but it is legal.

So this sign abuses and undermines established visual language. To me, as someone who designs user interfaces, this would be completely unacceptable; and I don’t deal with safety-critical UIs, which – at the end of the day – road signs are. Symbols with specific meaning are exactly equivalent to words or phrases. If you don’t agree, pop over to the British Museum and browse round their Egyptian artefacts.

Even the agency who produced this mess wouldn’t – I hope – be misguided enough to write words saying “you must not pass to the nearside of this bus” and pretend that it’s a legally enforceable directive. So why use a symbol that does precisely that?

Setting expectations

So, having established that the sign is saying you mustn’t pass to the nearside of the bus, we have a problem.

In fact, even if you think I’m being a bit of a pedantic twat about the business of having consistent road signs that don’t need textual clarifications underneath them to explain them (and – boy! – you should see the official explanation that’s had to be wheeled out to explain this one) we still have a problem.

Imagine someone in a car, behind a someone on a bike, who is behind that bus. If the rider passes to the nearside the person in the car will likely think, “Whoa! That guy just did exactly what that sign’s telling him not to! They’re right – cyclists jump red lights and they ignore other rules as well!”

Brilliant. So, not content with using the “Name” TV ad to categorise everyone who happens to be on a bicycle as “a cyclist” and to then tar them all with the “cyclists don’t stop at red lights” brush, they’re now going a step further. Now you’re doing something legal and they’re making it look illegal. (And don’t forget, too, that the advert uses universally-applicable symbols rather than make any suggestion of the differences between large and small vehicles.)

I mean, it’s genius. It’s a strategic move that Rommel would blow his cheeks out at, it’s that good. Label them, say they’re scofflaws, then make them look like scofflaws when they’re not. Back of the net, bosh.

Bloody cyclists!

Lambs to the slaughter

What if the offside happens to be more dangerous?

What if people think the advice (is it advice? it seems more loaded than that) is in their best interests and just go for the offside?

I know, the offside often can be safer. But that’s the thing: sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Making the issue black and white (or perhaps red and green) and independent of the situation is completely mad. It’s like saying that if you find yourself holding the ball on the twenty-two yard line you should always run down the right wing. Well, what if the other team have a line down the right and a big gap on the left? Nope. Run to the right. If you must.

If you must

“If you must”? Really? In a city? Where heavy traffic is often at a standstill? That’s your message? “You don’t have to overtake proper vehicles, you know – not like they have to pass you – and really, we don’t think you should – after all, you’re only on a bicycle – but if you really think you’re somehow entitled to do it – oh, yes, yes, the Highway Code, whatever – and it’s going to achieve anything in your sad little life then alright, do it, just go on, bloody do it then! but do it here, that’s all, and when it all ends in tears don’t come crying to us.”

Oh, seriously: fuck off. (If you must.)

What’s that to the nearside of that bus?

If you look to the left of the bus in the picture, you’ll see… a cycle lane! Yes, the crowning turd in this advert’s water pipe is the fact that people have painted a cycle lane on the road and then come along and put up a sign saying don’t use it. Brilliant!

Note, too, that the design of advanced stop lines (ASLs), those patches of coloured tarmac at the lights where bicycles can wait in front of other traffic, is such that when the lights are red they cannot be legally entered except via the feeder lane on the nearside. To do so is – wait for this, it’s a good one – red light jumping! Yes, folks: they’ve got you hook, line and sinker: the people who gave you “Name”, the advert that bollocks you for jumping a red light (or rather, someone else jumping a red light), are now putting up signs which, if the bus is stopped behind an ASL, tell you to avoid the legal entry to the ASL and advise you instead to actually jump a red light.

Boom!

Rommel has walked out. He’s nowhere, baby. You want to know how to corner your target? You go to The Nice Way Code guys. You got Panzers? They got strategy. North Africa watch out!

But you know what? Painted-on cycle lanes are shit. So, on that point, I agree with them.

What’s to do?

Why not explain to cyclists what the dangers are, and then assist them in making safe decisions whilst still exercising their right to be on the road and to cut through a city’s traffic efficiently?

It’s not hard – magnatom has a great post all about why ASLs are shit (ok, he’s more polite than me) and how to deal with them, including a flow chart that pretty much looks like my own decision process for filtering through traffic.

I’m not going to say that getting all that across pithily on a bus poster is a trivial task, of course, (I dunno, how about a bus and a squashed bike in a warning triangle with the legend “Blind spots ahead”?) but distilling it down into “Nope” and “If you must” is like distilling Scotland’s malt grain so much that it goes past whisky and turns into actual piss.

11 thoughts on “The Back End of a Bus”

  1. Hi. You would make a great joiner or carpenter with that talent for hitting nails on the head. There’s a wee typo in para 4 under ‘Breaking the visual language’ the ‘right’ in ‘you must not keep right …’ should be left. But I can let you off with that.

  2. Well written piece. Agree totally. In a city full of buses this message will keep cycling numbers down and make those who ‘persist’ less safe than before. Sad really as Lothian Buses are very cycle aware and will actively investigate complaints. I’ve had several ‘results’ where their on bus CCTV picked up drivers being less than careful. The majority are though and I tend to look at buses here as one of the better vehicles.( eg they indicate correctly.) But now they’re being ‘employed’ to keep cyclists in their place. If I wanted to sit all day in traffic I would have a car. Also note that this bus has circular stickers saying a softer version of the same thing. I expect the posters will have to be removed but the stickers will remain as non commercial.

  3. Effectively this ad says that you should not follow Highway Code Rule 63 if there is a que of stationery traffic along side of it. This was pointed out to Cycling Scotland on several occasions and by more than one person during the consultation, but they ignored the advice that this was the wrong message to send.

  4. Actually the use of the not to the left arrow is potentially confusing to any road user on wheels following the bus as it could be read by both car drivers and cyclists with no indication as to whether this applies to any turn or passing to the left. I wonder if TSRGD has anything to say about use of road signs on moving vehicles? Could be an interesting detail to raise. If it is illegal would the advertiser or the bus operator get told off? Strictly speaking it also needs a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) to display a mandatory sign could be fun for a moving one.

    The Vienna Convention on International Road Signs (1968) is the manual you refer to and clearly those who have been let loose on the brief have never heard of this. The latest effort conveys a mandatory instruction not to cycle along swinging a cat in your right hand….! We’ve also go the no footway cycling message displayed alongside a shared use footway! Ah bless!

    Just to give you a quick catch up, within a week of the official launch 80 folk had signed an open letter to the Scottish Government calling on them to drop this campaign and come back to engage the wider road users community, (note the lack of variety and slightly obscure choices in the endorsing organisations, and the absence of a prominent footer or side bar listing them on what some folk point out to be a very basic blog template. Let’s hope someone has a bit of commonsense and all can climb down from the places they’ve ended up.

    Personally I’d rather like them to take up a campaign theme I’ve been trying to get adopted for around 15 years, using the most direct communication system available to almost every road user – free. The message is very simple – Make the Only Contact you have with another road user today Eye Contact. (Oh and if you can smile with those eyes as well that would be very nice). Given that the media specialists should know that 80+% of their messages go in through the optic nerve you would have thought they might have picked up on that detail.

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