This article looks into the small big and urban cycling.

I was recently listening to the audiobook version of The Small Big by Steve Martin, Dr. Noah Goldstein and Dr. Robert Cialdini. I like all the other books by Dr. Robert Cialdini so I thought I would check this one out.

Their research and examples in the book demonstrate that in the field of persuasion it is often the smallest change that makes the biggest difference to persuasive success. They call this a small big.

This made me think about whether this could be applied to other areas and things that I am interested in, such as creating a safe, inviting environment for people to cycle in in urban areas.

Last May, people in the UK were promised a “golden age” of cycling in the UK. Almost 9 months on, sure, there have been some good new segregated cycle lanes, but these do not constitute an integrated network.

Big ticket items such as segregated cycle lanes are reasonably hard to deliver and come complete with a lot of backlash from other road users.

Even the Park Lane bike lane, one of the better pieces of cycling infrastructure installed to get more people cycling is reportedly only temporary.

I am old enough to remember “Sky Cycle” which was being heavily promoted in 2011/12 as a revolutionary approach to cycling in London.

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This went absolutely nowhere and served only to delay the implementation of real and meaningful solutions to make cycling safer London.

There are however at least 2 small big’s that I believe would improve the cycling experience in urban areas and cost relatively little to implement.  

1.  Car horns

The real question is, when is it legal to use your horn?

There is a really useful article which you can find here, which is produced by the Highway Code which lays out which uses of the car horn are permitted and which are not.

The use of the car horn is one of the more insidious acts carried out by drivers towards cyclists. I consider myself to be an extremely experienced cyclist and even for me it can spoil any ride that I am on. For inexperienced cyclists who are at the beginning of their cycling journey it could be something that puts them off entirely.

According to the Highway Code:

A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger, and not to indicate your annoyance.”

Just so we understand, if you are driving on a residential street with cars parked on both sides and there is a cyclist which you cannot overtake, it is illegal to use your horn to signal to them to pull over. It is only for emergencies.

The same goes for starting off at a set of traffic lights or a roundabout. Cyclists can not pull off as fast as a car can, and so yes, it is illegal to use your car horn signal your displeasure at the slower starting pace.

Car drivers who do not cycle would not know this, but when you are inside the car, the volume of the horn is reduced significantly. Using the horn in an aggressive manner to signal displeasure is not only illegal, for the cyclist in the open air it is very distressing as the noise is very loud and they also have the feeling that they may be about to be run over.

The first small big would be to get back to a situation where the horn is only used for emergencies and not directed towards cyclists. This is the law anyway, so it is not asking for much for this simply to be enforced.

2.  Broken glass

I can’t speak for other cities as I have not travelled around for the past year, but London has a big problem with the amount of broken glass on the roads.

Car tyres are significantly thicker and more durable than bicycle tyres so driving through your average patch of broken glass will normally not result in a puncture.

But for the unlucky cyclist, there is a very significant chance that this will lead to an immediate puncture or a slow puncture, where the tyre deflates over the course of the journey.

Broken glass comes in two parts, broken bottles that are dropped by drunk people, who I am going to give the benefit of the doubt and say that they do this by mistake.

Another very dangerous form of broken glass is the detritus that is left in the road after a car accident, either from the wing mirrors or the casing that cover the front and rear lights on a car. This material is extremely sharp and hazardous to cyclists and I have received numerous punctures from this material.

This second form of sharp material is the easier of the two to solve. If there has been an accident, the guilty party’s insurance company should be liable for cleaning up the mess. Where material is on the road where a wing mirror has been clipped, councils should be vigilant to clean up this sharp material as fast as possible.  

The broken glass that frequently covers the side of the road that is from alcohol bottles is a trickier problem to solve. I found out only today that the local authority that I live in has an App where you can log such incidents so that they can be cleaned up.

But prevention would obviously be preferable to this, so more bins and a public education campaign to reduce the amount of bottles should help to reduce this.

There is nothing more demoralising for a cyclist than the feeling you get from a flat tyre. Especially if you need to get somewhere in a hurry. For new cyclists this is potentially very off-putting and is why my second small big is a multifaceted campaign to reduce the amount of broken glass on the road.

What you need to know

This article looked into the small big and urban cycling.

There is a lot that can be learned from the book The Small Big and it comes highly recommended from me.

My two proposals for small big’s to improve cycling in urban areas were tacking the illegal use of car horns in non-emergencies and a multifaceted campaign to reduce the amount of broken glass that is found by the side of the road.

These are two things that should be happening anyway, but aren’t, so I would struggle to see who could oppose such ideas.

It would be interesting to learn what others make of my suggestions.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. What do you think needs to be done to encourage more cycling in urban areas?

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I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby


  1. Barnaby, re car horns: laws are only any good if there is enforcement or at least some threat or prospect of it. Perhaps culture change like we have seen with smoking or wearing seatbelts is also needed any might be more effective. Re broken glass, perhaps insurance should include a mandatory levy towards clean up funds?


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