Sunday, 5 February 2012

Times gets the ball rolling but not quite far enough...

This week I've been closely following the Times newspaper's new 'Cities Fit for Cycling' campaign. The paper was moved to do something about the state of cycling safety on our roads after one of its journalists, Mary Bowers, was seriously injured after being hit by a lorry on her way to work last November and has still not regained consciousness.

Since its lunch last Thursday the campaign has been backed by many local authorities and some big name celebrities including Sirs Chris Hoy and Alan Sugar and all of the London mayoral candidates.

The Times has certainly got people talking and so far the paper is doing a pretty good job at trying to represent the many viewpoints being aired by its readers, cyclists and non-cyclists alike. It's even got the official backing of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group who are now planning to table an early day motion in support of the campaign in the house of commons on Monday morning.

Now, don't get me wrong, I think that the Times really should be commended on getting the discussion of cycling safety off the cycling blogs and out there in the mainstream arena, but I'm really not so sure that such a great amount of emphasis needed to be placed on the danger of cycling. If non-cycling Times readers didn't think that cycling was a dangerous, life-threatening form of transport prior to last Thursday's launch, well they sure do now.

As a cycle educator I spend a lot of my time extolling the many virtues of cycling in all its forms and much of that time is often spent reassuring people that cycling is safe way to travel to school and work, providing that we cycle responsibly and assertively. The Times may have suddenly made my job a whole lot harder.

The campaign focuses around an 8-point manifesto (listed at the end of this post) calling for all cities to be made fit for cyclists. The 8 points listed in the manifesto are all good ideas, but it falls short of campaigning for a change in the law to protect cyclists, by adopting the EU stance on strict liability. Strict liability would be a sure-fire way of protecting cyclists more than any amount of tax money spent on improvements to infrastructure because it gives cyclists status on the roads by emphasising their vulnerability to drivers. Currently in the UK, when an accident occurs it's up to the victim to prove the other party is negligent. However, under strict liability it is up to the perpetrator of the injury to prove that the victim was negligent.

Now we all know that when we're driving we are meant to give cyclists plenty of room and to wait behind them until it is safe and clear for us to overtake, but they're so slow and they get in the way and we're always in so much of a hurry to be somewhere. But if the UK adopted the strict liability law I'd certainly be making sure that I'd slowed down and gave that cyclist plenty of room, wouldn't you?

Any UK cyclist who's cycled in Amsterdam will recognise the jaw-dropping effect of the strict liability law in practice - it's why all those lovely courteous drivers stop for you and give you right of way when you're on a bike. Now many will argue that there's a lot more to it than that, and that strict liability is just one part of a far bigger cycling strategy in the Netherlands, but I'm sure that the psychological effect on drivers of having a law that protects the vulnerable goes a long way to re-enforcing the safety of cyclists in countries that have adopted strict liability legislation.

Alongside the manifesto, yesterday's Times supplement featured 12 ways to cycle safely - many of them good common sense, however from a female viewpoint I would quite strongly disagree with their suggestion of taking an off-road cycle path in preference to a busy road. Many off-road cycle paths are isolated, poorly lit - if lit at all, and have intermittent entry and exit points, so as a solo female cyclist I feel far more comfortable cycling alongside the flow of traffic on a well-lit, well-populated road.

Taking us off the roads just marginalises cyclists even further and could make us more vulnerable in other ways, so let's instead change attitudes by changing the law and making space for everyone on the roads.

The Times 8-point manifesto:

  1. Trucks entering a city centre should be required by law to fit sensors, audible truck-turning alarms, extra mirrors and safety bars to stop cyclists being thrown under the wheels.
  2. The 500 most dangerous road junctions must be identified, redesigned or fitted with priority traffic lights for cyclists and Trixi mirrors that allow lorry drivers to see cyclists on their near-side.
  3. A national audit of cycling to find out how many people cycle in Britain and how cyclists are killed or injured should be held to underpin effective cycle safety.
  4. Two per cent of the Highways Agency budget should be earmarked for next generation cycle routes, providing £100 million a year towards world-class cycling infrastructure. Each year cities should be graded on the quality of cycling provision.
  5. The training of cyclists and drivers must improve and cycle safety should become a core part of the driving test.
  6. 20mph should become the default speed limit in residential areas where there are no cycle lanes.
  7. Businesses should be invited to sponsor cycleways and cycling super-highways, mirroring the Barclays-backed bicycle hire scheme in London.
  8. Every city, even those without an elected mayor, should appoint a cycling commissioner to push home reforms.

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