Politicians of all hues are united in saying that they want to encourage cycling and this has been the avowed intention of my home borough – Croydon – for many years.
The word encouragement is important. It incorporates both the wish that people will want to cycle, and an added expression of support without being too explicit about the form this will take. How strange then that all this cumulative mass of good intentions has ensued in such little change on the ground. The level of cycling has barely changed over the years, currently flat-lining at 2% of all journeys nationally. (National Travel Survey Statistical Release 2012, DfT)
But even this represents a kind of progress, for before encouragement there was outright discouragement. Government policy was traditionally to discourage cycling because it was deemed too dangerous.
The turning point was the launch of the National Cycling Strategy in 1996 by the visionary and committed Tory minister Steven Norris. Ambitious targets were set for an increase in cycle journeys, envisaging not a doubling but a quadrupling within just a few years. Every borough devised its own cycling strategy and serious money was allocated for the provision of cycle lanes, advanced stop lines and the rest of the now-familiar cycle ‘facilities’.
But for all the initial enthusiasm, ambitions were rapidly scaled back, targets deemed unrealistic were ditched and little more remained than the expression of encouragement. It’s important to note that the provision of ‘facilities’ was never backed up by laws providing special protection for this vulnerable group of road users. Motorists can drive into and over cycle lanes at any time with impunity, thereby negating any impression that they provide special protection to cyclists. No wonder that for most motorists they are seen as little more than cosmetic.
Even recent increases in cycling in London and some other towns may not be all they appear. According to TfL’s London Travel Demand survey 2011, 2.1% of all journeys in London are now made by bike, up from 1.5% just six years ago. The figure rises to 2.9% for inner London but falls to 1.5% for the outer boroughs. This suggests that special factors are at work. Along with much investment in cycle infrastructure in inner London there has been the introduction of the Congestion Charge which has reduced motor traffic in the central area. A further deterrent to car use is the scarcity of affordable parking here. But what is surprising how little effect these favourable conditions have had in view of the initial low base-line. Add to these the high bike ownership of the UK population currently standing at 42% of people aged 5 and over. Yet only 57% of these people ever cycle. At the very least this suggests a suppressed demand for an improved environment for cycling which might be realised with the introduction of the right measures.
A long-standing campaign was recently mounted by The Times newspaper following horrific injuries sustained by one of its journalists in a traffic accident with a lorry. This led to an enquiry by MPs and peers which has now reported and made a strong case for the economic and business benefits of cycling.
It is acknowledged that greater ambition will be needed if there is to be any hope of an increase in cycling and it’s clear that this should focus primarily on actual and perceived danger. For, despite the mantra that with only 20 cyclist deaths per billion kilometres cycled cycling is a safe activity, the perception remains that it is inherently dangerous. The thousands who cycle from London to Brighton each July and who flock to Richmond Park at the weekend are, it seems, far less likely to cycle to work during the week. Statistics based on mass observation can never satisfactorily reveal how safe or dangerous is one’s own situation. Other cyclists like myself I’m sure remain acutely aware of the special risks they run whenever they get on their bikes – risks not faced by any other road-user group other than pedestrians.
What is needed to make a difference? More cycle facilities would achieve little on their own. Without the underpinning legal framework needed to regulate and restrain the behaviour of other road users, not just cars but HGVs which are disproportionally involved in cycle deaths in London, these can achieve little. Some European countries have enacted laws automatically putting the onus of responsibility in crashes involving cyclists onto the motorist, unless proven otherwise. There is currently little appetite in the UK for such a provision, but unless cyclists feel that their vulnerability is specially catered for and protected in law they will continue to feel disadvantaged vis-a-vis other road users.
Other than greater legal protection, some reduction in perceived danger on the road could be brought about by a radical reallocation of road space to cyclists so that they are surrounded by a sufficiently large safety envelope. This could be achieved by reducing the space allocated to traffic lanes allowing more space for cyclists, as well as by radically reducing speed limits where cyclists and motorists travel in close proximity.
Whatever exactly Professor Goodwin proposes, nothing will achieved without the necessary political vision and commitment. Labour should wholeheartedly take ownership of this cause.
Romney Tansley is a member of SERA’s Executive