Letting go of Twitter’s other big number. And learning to listen.

This is repost of something I blogged about while working with NixonMcInnes. Though I wrote this a while ago, my advice still stands…


Here’s a familiar conversation: A client (or prospective client) tells me they want more followers for their Twitter (or Facebook) account. I respond by asking why they want more followers, and whether or not it will help them achieve their goals. And most clients, after a bit of discussion, do grasp the now widely-understood idea: good use of Twitter is not all about striving for follower numbers.

The other number

But how about Twitter’s ‘other’ number? There’s another figure shown on everybody’s Twitter profile that’s equally open to misunderstanding – potentially even more so. It’s the ‘following’ number – the total number of people being followed by a user. Each user has complete control over this number, as it’s often considered the primary way for most people to manage what they see when they view Twitter.

Jerks Don't follow back!
While we’ve accepted that follower numbers are to be taken with a pinch of salt, there appear to be some misapprehensions about its lesser-quoted companion, the ‘following’ number. It has become a kind of shorthand for deciding how engaged a person or brand is with other Twitter users. An account seen to be following many others is assumed to be sociable and engaging, while one following just a few people is often regarded as aloof or non-conversational. I want to challenge this assumption.

Two things got me thinking about this – firstly a good debate I had via Twitter with Brighton/Vancouver-based travel writer Nikki Bayley, unimpressed with Twitter’s suggestion she follow a high-profile journalist who was precisely no-one. Secondly, Mashable published an op-ed piece by Ted Rubin that warns of the dangers of unfollowing one’s followers – a post I feel really misunderstands and oversimplifies the mechanisms of Twitter.

So what’s my problem with checking out an account’s ‘following’ number as a gauge of interaction?

I believe it’s misleading to use ‘following’ numbers as a shorthand measurement for a brand’s level of listening. In fact, it is no such thing. Patting oneself on the back for having a good ‘following’ number is almost as misguided as hankering after an ever-higher number of followers. Repeatedly clicking ‘follow’ may offer us the feeling of listening, with just a single click. But is this an illusion?

Twitter gives us many ways to find relevant conversations. There are a range of searches, lists, groups, hashtags and apps to help us navigate to the people and the comments that need our attention. For most brands, the simple ‘following’ mechanism (great for personal users) is just too clumsy a tool to have much meaning or utility in itself, so more nuanced forms of listening have to take place. To judge an account by a ‘following’ number is to draw conclusions about the ways a person or brand uses Twitter to listen.

There are several brands who follow low numbers of people but who conduct their listening very well. Look at international rail operator @Eurostar‘s customer care account.  They follow just 153 people (though they are followed by over 5,000) but they appear engaged in some real attentive listening, responding to grievances and resolving issues for many people. A glance at their measly ‘following’ number tells us nothing of this.

Correspondingly, find a corporate Twitter account with an evident ‘we-follow-everyone-back!’ policy. Do they listen, engage and respond? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Their following score makes no difference to this. There are various brands (and people) who I know don’t follow me on Twitter, despite the fact that I follow them. Do I mind? No. Why should I? If I know that they’ll listen to me and they’ll get back to me when I need them to, then we have a worthwhile relationship on Twitter.

A ‘following’ number is NOT an indication of effective listening. It’s just a number. It’s an externally visible clue regarding just one of many tools an account might use to find relevant conversation. But it tells you very little about the way someone really listens.

Am I suggesting you unfollow everyone in a huge Twitter-cull? No I’m not. I think that would be a waste of a valuable tool and might give an unfortunate impression. But don’t get hung up on that ‘following’ number – your own or other people’s. Don’t judge a person or a brand by the number they follow – look instead at what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.

The act of following in itself is meaningless unless we expect major brands to manually sift through millions of tweets from thousands of people, searching for relevant conversation. I’d rather companies spend their time and money listening and responding more selectively and intelligently. That’s what really counts – not just a number.

A good reason to follow: Direct messages as a customer service channel

While the follow button is no substitute for listening, it does open up another channel for communication. Twitter’s direct message functionality is dependent on following. Clients of ours in industries such as transport use DMs as a way to take a Twitter conversation ‘offline’, especially when sensitive personal information is being exchanged.

(Update: Twitter have changed the Direct Messaging mechanism, so mutual following is now NOT required)

Other ways to listen on Twitter

Do you use a column-based Twitter management tool like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck?  OK – try a little experiment with me:

  • Get rid of your ‘All friends’ or ‘Home feed’ column – the one that shows you the feed of tweets from people you follow. Don’t worry – you can put it back later.
  • Now look at your other columns. By default you’ll probably have a column of direct messages and an @ mentions column – arguably the most important view of Twitter for any brand who claims to be listening.
  • Now add some more. Add columns that search for your company name and the names of your key products.
  • Use AND, OR and “double quotes” to help gather together various terms in one column and take into account abbreviations or common misspellings. Experiment.
  • Now how about your competitors and partners? Add a column or two to take into account what’s being said about other people in your industry.
  • Journalists and industry pundits? Use Twitter’s list function to place your favourite 20 pundits in one place where they can be browsed, retweeted and engaged in conversation.
  • Add a couple more columns for issues, events, hashtags and topics relevant to your work.

Now sit back and look at the way the information flows onto your screen. Use this set-up for a few hours, or even days. With a bit of experimentation, you can build yourself a useful dashboard. What do you notice? It’s very likely that many of the words you’re looking at have been written by people you’re not following. It’s really not important.

So follow people all you like. That’s fine. But don’t judge a brand or person by the size of their ‘following’ number. And never ever kid yourself you’re listening – really listening – because you’ve followed all your followers back. Real listening takes more than that.


Cartoon by Sifarat used under Creative Commons licence.

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Hear and now: social media listening for operational decision-making

This is a repost of something I originally wrote on the NixonMcInnes site during my time there, explaining the benefits of really getting stuck into social media listening, whether working in the rail industry or elsewhere. Give me a shout if you’d like to know more.


Social media listening is often spoken about. It is generally associated with the areas of customer service, reputation and research. By listening to the customer, we give ourselves the opportunity to satisfy their query, calm their anger or manage their perception. We may gather feedback on a product or service – informing improvements and developments. This we know.

But in listening there are immediate possibilities that reach beyond this. There are occasions when the right kind of listening, at precisely the right time, can make a real difference – not just to perception or satisfaction – but to actual operational functions.

And a particularly vivid example cropped up recently in the rail industry:

An official report into an incident of a broken-down train has made some recommendations around social media. At 65 pages, the report is extensive, but lists at one point the extent of the information that had been shared on Twitter and Facebook (alongside phone calls) by passengers involved in the incident:


  • passengers on [the train] had operated the passenger communication alarms
  • doors had been opened with passengers ‘spilling out onto the track’
  • information was not being received via the public address system
  • water was required on the train but none had been delivered
  • passengers could not communicate with the driver as he was now staying in his
  • passengers were requesting assistance

So important, potentially safety-critical information about the incident was being provided, unofficially, by passengers on a stuck train.

The report then acknowledges the potential offered by social media in times of severe rail disruption, the first part of which is already recognised as good practice:


The use of social media by train operators may assist them in communicating with customers during times of severe service disruption, and contribute to a two-way exchange of information; thus reducing speculation.

So far, so good, right? This is social-in-rail basics: tell people what’s going on, and answer their questions honestly. But it’s what follows that gets really interesting, and moves beyond usual expectations:

Train operators can consider the intelligence in the context of other known information to ensure a proper risk assessment and evaluation of the information takes place and suitable action is taken.


Moving away from the dry language of official rail incident reporting, what’s this saying?

Don’t just monitor social channels for information requests and people in need of reassurance. Really listen to what people are telling you. These people are on the ground, where a situation is happening. They are potentially your sensors, helping to build a picture of the operational situation, so contributing to possible solutions.

Social media listening is not a new idea. But it’s usually done in the interests of marketing, reputation, research or customer service. Here – from a serious government body – is recommendation thatorganisations could use social media listening as real data to inform and assist with operations. It’s recognition that the data shared online, in realtime, by passengers, has more value than as mere reputational currency or customer service fodder.

There are practical considerations here: if your view of social media listening involves monitoring Twitter for @ mentions and keeping watch on a Facebook page, it could be time to get more sophisticated. How much useful information is being offered that might not be formally addressed to an organisation’s Twitter or Facebook presence? Think about search terms, set up some columns on your social media management system, or consider other monitoring tools, like the free-but-basic Google Alerts, or the very sophisticated Brandwatch.

A very real illustration of the difference that can be made by ‘realtime’ listening comes in the form of this tweet, from Robin Morel, an incident response manager who co-ordinates responses and resources when something goes wrong on the rails:

“15 minutes”. That’s fifteen minutes’ gap between the time it takes to pick up news of an incident through social media, and the time that information reaches critical staff through conventional channels. And, in Robin’s world, fifteen minutes can be a long time:

Think of the customer as an ally, find the best way to listen to them, and there are times they can really help you to help them.


Photo (unconnected with the incident described) thanks to Tom Page.
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Quick thinking in customer service – the community behaviour matrix 

This is re-post of an old post I contributed to the NixonMcInnes blog during my time there. It describes a tool I developed to help community managers to manage diverse kinds of social conversation.

Though it’s evolved a little, I still use a version of this model in my social media training courses. Give me a shout if you want to know more.


The use of social platforms as a way of providing customer service isn’t always easy. An effective customer service team uses community management skills to juggle a stream of online interaction – ensuring they make best use of time and resources to prioritise the right conversations in a busy online environment. Which issues are most important? Where should we spend our time? Who needs our help the most?

So, to make this task a little less overwhelming, I’ve developed a customer behaviour matrix to help make sense of it all.

To see a larger version of these slides, download them or view them via Slideshare.

Here’s the customer behaviour matrix itself:

What do you think? Is there anything you’d change or do differently? Do you use other mechanisms to manage online customer service?

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Four things I’ll be watching on Twitter as Virgin takes to the east coast

Doncaster Station

As I write this, we’re just a few hours away from a significant moment in the UK’s rail industry: Day One of the new Virgin Trains East Coast operation – returning the King’s Cross to Edinburgh (and beyond) route to the private sector after several years of largely successful state control. Though a 90/10 split between Stagecoach and Virgin, the public face of the new company will be that of Virgin – a commercial move that’s a clear testament to the value of the big red brand.

In the original wave of rail privatisation, Virgin was a two-TOC player, before losing the Cross Country franchise in 2007. But now, for the first time in the social media era, one of the most recognisable presences in British commerce will again find itself at the reins of an expanded rail empire – an empire with two franchises, two headquarters, two staff teams and two sets of passengers.

Within the UK’s rail industry, Twitter is the most dominant social platform – combining a customer service function with marketing, disruption information and brand expression.

Virgin Trains is arguably held up as the poster child of how to do social media on rails. Its current main Twitter presence has a good tone of voice, a proactive approach to customer service and good response times.

But how will things work with two rail companies operating using Twitter under the one iconic brand?

It starts with a well-handled transition…

The transition from bid winner to train operator has already been dealt with well on Twitter, through the active engagement of the @askVirginEC Twitter account. But the mobilisation period is nearly over. What happens next?

As a social media consultant that works with the rail sector, here are four things I’ll be watching for:

1. Managing public perception

A popular refrain against rail communicators is that “the public just don’t understand how it all works.” This will be put to the test as the travelling public are asked to understand the situation of one powerful brand having two train companies, two routes, but one voice, look and place in the mind of the British consumer.

Will Virgin seek to make clear the difference, or will they deal diplomatically with the blur, and see things from the point of view of the customer, rather than the industry? How will the two operations be differentiated in the public eye? Will we see a rebranding of the West Coast franchise‘s social spaces, to acknowledge the arrival of a sibling?

2. Handling between accounts

A frequent issue within transport social media is the direction of public enquiries to the wrong train or bus company, as customers look to the wrong oplace for help. Good social media practice will see a courteous handover or introduction to the correct account. With two Virgin TOCs to talk to, how skilfully will I be treated when I ask the West Coast Twitter account about my trip to Edinburgh, or I complain to the East Coast account about delays through Birmingham?

Will the two companies join up their social media listening operation, so I am immediately responded to, regardless of whether I confuse my east or west? Will I be told I’ve made a mistake, or simply receive the information I seek via Twitter?

3. Dealing with objection

Even the big red blanket of the Virgin brand cannot protect a train company from complaint, dissatisfaction and objection. There are many people who disagree with the Government’s reprivatisation of the important East Coast franchise. And a vociferous movement of regular East Coast passengers are taking issue with Virgin’s move away from the East Coast system of rewards points. A key measure of social media customer service will be the way these complaints and objections are dealt with. Engage in debate, decline to comment or manage diplomatically? We shall see.

4. Championing the future

Within the period of this franchise, the IEP programme will bring new express trains to the east coast route. Though planned long ago, and commissioned not by Virgin/Stagecoach but by the Department for Transport, it will be fun to see how Virgin introduces these new trains. Virgin would be crazy not to seize the opportunity to champion the new trains, provoke public excitement and – let’s be frank – take some credit for their introduction. But how will Virgin do this? I’m expecting big things from some creative marketers.


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Vancouver – #whyYVR

Virgin Atlantic are beginning flights from Heathrow to Vancouver, and they’re asking who wants the final seat on the first flight.

I do. And here’s why…

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Review: Exposure Joystick light

£148.50 – www.wiggle.co.uk

Serious off-road-capable lights no longer have to involve bulky external batteries and huge expense. Needing something compact to augment my ageing handlebar-mounted halogens, I decided to try out a Joystick  – one of Exposure’s smaller lights.

The Joystick uses the same LED technology as beefier Exposure models, but in a small helmet-mountable package. Compared to other options, it’s not cheapest light of its size, but friends’ recommendations convinced me that this was an investment worth making.

The package

The Joystick comes in a padded case with a serious feel. Unzipping the chunky neoprene wallet reveals an abundance of padding, with the small light unit nestling in its own shaped space. A compact mains charger sits alongside, with a bracket for helmet or handlebar mounting. I chose a helmet mount, but some current versions of the Joystick are supplied with both bracket types. There’s also a lanyard, to prevent loss if you choose to use the Joystick as a handheld torch.

The details

With a size, shape and weight not much greater than that of a chunky marker pen, it’s amazing how much light is belted out from such a modestly-sized unit. At a full power of 300 lumens (240 on the version I tested), an internal Li-ion battery fuels the Joystick at full power for 3 hours. Choosing one of the lower power levels offers durations of up to 24 hours (even longer on flashing mode).

Controls are extremely minimal. A single button brings together the functions of power switch, mode selector, power indicator and charging indicator. At first I was confused by the required combination of clicks and holds needed to cycle through the Joystick’s four power levels, but this soon becomes second nature.

There is no instruction manual provided with the Joystick. Exposure have etched the most important info (burn times, mode selection) onto the body of the light itself. What a great idea. Bulky instructional pamphlets rarely get read, especially out on the trail in the middle of the night. Full instructions are available online for anyone who should need them.

The Joystick’s helmet mount is a perfect example of simple design. A plastic disc bolts through a vent to another disc, forming a kind of ‘helmet sandwich’ to which a simple articulated U-shaped bracket is mounted. The light unit snaps easily in and out of the bracket.

Commuting and road riding

I first used the Joystick for commuting during darkness hours. Squeezing through heavy urban traffic, I set a handlebar-mounted light to constant and put the Joystick on flashing mode to ensure visibility over the stationary cars of Guildford town centre. On dark country roads, I switch from flashing mode to full power. The light is impressive, but a fairly narrow beam made me wish for a little more peripheral vision when out of town.

Off-road singletrack

The first time I took the Joystick it off-road, I really didn’t expect it to be enough on its own. I was curious to find how fast twisty singletrack would be illuminated by a light that’s usually used as an adjunct to bigger bar-mounted lights.

I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively the Joystick lit up the trails of the Surrey Hills. For technical riding, at relatively low speeds, the Joystick was just right for keeping me on course in the singletrack. The only time I felt under-equipped was on faster sections. When rolling at higher speeds, a rider looks ahead, further along the trail, so it takes a heftier light to maintain visibility at a greater distance. But on the tricky technical stuff, I never once felt under-illuminated.

I fell in love with the Joystick straight away. This is an impressive UK-built light that performs well at a reasonable (but not cheap) price. Lower-priced unbranded eBay-sourced alternatives seem like a bargain, but there’s a certain feel of quality and reliability from the Exposure Joystick. The fairly narrow beam and the reasonable-but-not-massive output may mean that this light is not the only one you’ll need, but it’s a highly useful bit of kit.

£148.50 – www.wiggle.co.uk

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There is nothing left to Like

We all know the word ‘like’ has changed its meaning. Ever since Facebook allowed us to ‘Like’ an update, photo or link from a friend, ‘like’ has come to mean ‘agree’, ‘acknowledge’ or ‘appreciate’.

The Facebook Like Stamp
Where Facebook users used to reply to a friend’s update with a remark or opinion of their own, a simple click of the Like button now does the job of conversation in a split second, allowing us to move on to the next stimulus.

And then Facebook set its Like button free, so the ubiquitous blue thumb has been allowed to flourish on blogs and sites all over the place. Any content on any site, a song, a photo, a video or a blog post can be Liked, as Facebook continues its attempt to position itself as the common ground between all our online identities.

Now it looks as if Liking has gone a step further.

I noticed this morning, while paddling around in Facebook, a clutch of updates from friends that follow a new format. An update shows that a friend has ‘liked’ a sentence, linked, and followed by a symbol such as or  .

These words aren’t the words of my friends. They are others’ words they have ‘Liked’. Clicking on the linked text goes to a site hosting a list of statements – many of them trite, crass and arguably of minimal real value. In five short minutes, I have followed links to three sites – YouLike, LikeEverything and LikeMyThought – all virtually identical. They are just lists of sentences, scored, ranked and, of, course, with each given its own Like button. Anyone can add a line of text, without even logging in, and these words can then be Liked by anyone with a Facebook profile.

With this new development, Liking has become an end in itself – not just a way of responding to others’ content, but as a way of achieving, or borrowing, credibility. Liking is no longer an opinion you have of content. Liking is content. Oh dear.

Facebook’s Like button allows us to be lazy when responding to other people’s opinions. Now this new trend allows to extend this laziness to the creation of our own opinions. Not content to automate our responses to our friends’ opinions, we’ve now been granted the freedom to refrain from even having an opinions of our own. Why bother, when you can simply borrow someone else’s?

I’m giving up Liking for a while. Seriously. I’m as guilty as anyone of this new shorthand. Let’s see if I can genuinely like things without Liking them. You never know – I might just like it.

(Stamp image courtesy of Denis Dervisevic)
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One of those ‘This is what the internet was made for’ moments.

Here’s something that made me smile:

  1. Frank Turner, currently one of my favourite musicians, mentions on Twitter that he’s about to play a free gig in Winterthur, Switzerland later in the day.
  2. My friends Rebecca and Simon live in Winterthur, so I suggest, through Twitter, that they may want to go along.
  3. Rebecca and Simon haven’t heard of Frank Turner, so they sample his tunes via the web.
  4. It’s a pleasant evening in Switzerland so Rebecca and Simon decide to go along.
  5. Rebecca and Simon send me, via Yfrog and then Flickr, photos from the gig.

Frank Turner, Musikfestwochen, Winterthur

5. Frank Turner gets a new fan, Becs and Simon get a good night out and I, half a continent away, get to see what a good time they had.

That (among a few other things) is what the internet was made for.

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Thank Martin for Picr: making it easier to share images from a Flickr set

I’m a big fan of Flickr. It has so many features, such functionality and such a network of communities that, in addition to using it for my own personal photos, I use Flickr for work-related projects.

If I have a Flickr set of photos relating to a specific event, I can show them to colleagues, contacts or journalists. And if a colleague needs a full-sized version of any image, Flickr gives me, via a couple of right-clicks, a URL for the original size of any of my images (This is only available to Flickr Pro account holders). I’m not just referring to the URL for a Flickr page – I mean the link to the image itself, and I can share this image URL with anyone, preventing the need to send large files via email.

So what’s the problem?

The ability to distribute images via the web is a great facility. But I frequently find myself promising a set of originals to a colleague, and then tediously right-clicking, copying and pasting my way through a large set of images, compiling a list of URLs within an email.

One day recently, as I was working through a set of images, retrieving original image URLs, I wondered aloud, via Twitter, if anyone knew a clever way around the problem.

The answer I got was not what I expected:

A guy called Martin Hatfield, through his Twitter account of @hairyhatfield, noticed my Tweet and offered to help. I’ve never met Martin, but he seemed to understand my plea and, as a guy who appears to know how tinker with the web, he set to work with the Flickr API, Yahoo Pipes and whatever other clever tools he uses.

A few days later, Martin contacted me again and unveiled his creation: Picr. A tool to automate the process of compiling image URL lists from Flickr sets.

How Picr works

The way Picr works is simple – you just enter the number relating a Flickr set (the unique number that forms part of the set’s ID), and you are given a list of the URLs relating to each image in the set. These are not the page URLs – they are the URLs of the actual image files. This list can then be copied, pasted and emailed to anyone I’d like to have quick easy access to the image files.

Images sizes and privacy settings

Picr gives you the image file for the largest file that’s publicly available, so if your Flickr permissions are set for everybody to have access to your original files, that’s what Picr will provide. If your Flickr account has been set to limit access to the original sized files, then Picr will provide a list of the URLs for the medium-sized images, as seen on regular Flickr pages.

Help with these permissions can be found on the Flickr FAQ.

If you’re currently logged in to Flickr, here is the page you need to govern access to your original versions.

It’s important to remember that Picr doesn’t bypass any of the privacy settings you have set for your Flickr account. If you’d like to be given a list of original-sized image URLs, your permissions settings must allow public access. If you’re happy to receive URLs for medium-sized images, then your account can have tighter privacy settings. Picr simply retrieves the URL for the largest publicly-available version of each image. If you can’t decide between the utility of accessing a full list of a set’s original URLs and the security of tighter Flickr settings, a simple solution is to alter your Flickr settings only long enough for the time it takes Picr to do its job – a few seconds – before resecuring your Flickr account. This may seem a hassle, but compared to the time Picr may save you, it’s no big deal.

Why this is good

Of course, Picr is a fairly specific tool for a fairly specific job. It will certainly save me time, but I appreciate not everyone uses Flickr in the way I do.

Perhaps more importantly, the appearance of Picr has reminded me a couple of things:

  • There is so much that can be done with the mass of APIs, RSS feeds, Yahoo Pipes and clever developer tools. And when combined with the knowledge of how to use them (provided in this case by Martin), the potential solutions are countless.
  • Secondly, I have been reminded of the willingness of near-strangers to help each other; to share skills, to solve problems. I have never met Martin in the flesh and I only vaguely know him through Twitter. But that didn’t stop him hearing my call for help and coming to my rescue with Picr. If I do ever meet Martin, the beers are most certainly on me.
Posted in computing, internet, photography | 1 Comment

Do some cycle road markings do more harm than good?

All over the UK, local authorities spend money and effort improving conditions for cyclists in a bid to encourage the use of bikes. Wherever we see painted cycle markings on the road surface, we get the feeling that something positive is being done to improve the situation for cyclists. But is this always the case?

Putney cycling 2 Putney cycling 1

What are these? Cycle markings, in the commonly recognised format. This looks great.

But what do they tell me? As a cyclist or driver, what information do these signs convey? I’m not actually certain…

Are they on a recognised or recommended cycle route? Not according to the London cycle route maps produced by London Cycling Campaign and Transport for London, no.

Do they indicate a cycle lane? No. The street in question is a busy suburban street. There would be no space for an actual cycle lane. They are simply cycle markings in the main carriageway of the road.

Do they indicate the correct position on the road? I really hope not. Correct position cannot be mandated – it needs to be decided dynamically by the rider. If taken as an indication of proper road positioning, these markings are dangerous. A rider following the position shown in the first picture would place themselves in prime position for a ‘dooring’, one of the most frequent, and painful, of cycling accidents.

Parked cars should, wherever practical, be passed by a margin that allows a door to be unexpectedly opened by a unobservant driver. If a cyclist knows better than to follow the positioning of these markings, other road users may then question their use of the road. Neither drivers nor cyclists need any more potential for negative feeling or misunderstanding.

Markings to indicate recommended road positions are sometimes called sharrows, especially when used in North American cities. But they are usually seen on wider roads.

Do these markings simply remind drivers that bikes may be present on this road? If so, this is well-meaning, but worrying. If we start marking roads as being used by bikes, where does that leave us on unmarked roads? Cyclists should be expected on all roads.

I’m intrigued to know how these markings are intended to help, and I’m contacting Wandsworth Borough Council to ask why.

Posted in cycling | 4 Comments