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Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Off with the petrol heads! the tyranny of the motorists must end

If we are really going to turn Britain into a 'cycling nation' then we need to challenge the dominance of motorists. 

All we are getting from politicians is carrots, and no sticks. This isn't a complaint you hear too often, yet when it comes to turning Britain into a 'cycling nation', we are fooling ourselves if we think this can be achieved without concessions from motorists. Alongside investment in infrastructure, we need to introduce a road management system that prioritises cyclists over other road users.

This decision is based on a clear judgement of value. Firstly, cyclists are more vulnerable on the road, meaning that their safety should be put first. More importantly, cycling is generally more beneficial to our society than driving. Replacing the vehicles on our roads with bikes will mean less air pollution, decreased carbon dioxide emissions, reduced traffic congestion, and better public health. Motoring groups have dismissed the idea of giving priority to cyclists as “bonkers”, but these factors suggest that it is the right thing to do.
The clearest sign that Britain’s cycling revolution is failing comes from a simple comparison of data. Although bike use in the UK increased by eight per cent in 2012, the number of cyclists killed on our roads also went up by four per cent. This is not an obvious correlation. Common sense might indicate that more cyclists would make the roads safer and thus reduce the number of deaths. However, the facts say otherwise. Chiara Luisa Giacomini – who was tragically killed by a lorry in London last week – is the last in a long list of needless victims of our failure to make space for cyclists. Although it pains me to say it, I would challenge anyone to ride through central London and claim that our roads are safe.

Underpinning all efforts to promote city cycling must be a drive to separate cyclists from other road users. This does not mean creating hopelessly narrow cycle lanes that suddenly end amid a whirling mass of traffic. Instead we need routes protected by a permanent partition. If there is not sufficient space, then this must be taken away from motorists. A huge shift in focus from car to bike will also dramatically decrease traffic levels.

The Mayor’s 
Vision for Cycling in London has called for 20 mph speed limits, priority for cyclists over other road users, and an end to half-hearted attempts at segregation. We will soon see the benefits of these plans, with a new ‘crossrail for bike’ expected by 2016 and tighter restrictions for HGVs. What does concern me is the apparent scattergun approach of this investment, which allocates huge funds for grandiose plans, such as a floating cycle path in Kingston Upon Thames, when many roads in London do not even have a proper cycle lane. Despite not wishing to dampen the ambition behind these ideas, this seems akin to a starving man spending his last few pounds on a teaspoon of caviar rather than a sack of wheat.

We must also resist any superficial measures to improve the safety of cyclists. The argument in favour of making helmets compulsory – though well meaning – is a red herring. The priority should be separating cyclists from other road users, and making helmet use mandatory may introduce complacency and stultify any efforts to achieve this aim. Similarly, much has been made of 
comments from the Olympic gold medal winner Laura Trott about the damage caused by dangerous cycling. Although she may be right to highlight the need for cyclists to act responsibly, the majority of deaths are caused by careless driving, not cycling. A change in the law which places the burden of evidence on the motorist in the event of an accident, similar to the Dutch model, is vital.

Vans and lorries are a necessary part of the business life of our city centres, but private cars which clog up the roads and pollute the air are a lifestyle choice. Boris Johnson has been guilty of pandering to the motoring lobby in the past, and even 
justified the abolition of the western extension to the congestion charge as a “Christmas present to Londoners”, despite the huge damage to our lungs caused by air pollution in the capital. Forget rolling back the congestion charge – perhaps next Christmas Boris could just hand out a packet of cigarettes to every Londoner.

Despite this criticism, the leadership that the mayor has shown in promoting cycling is unparalleled in the UK. Just over twelve pounds per head is 
spent on cycling in the capital, while nationally the corresponding figure is less than two pounds. Cities such as Bristol buck the trend – and some funding has been promised across the UK – but generally it appears that politicians are firmly stuck in the London bubble.

Yet money is not enough. What we need is a real revolution which rebalances the hierarchy on our roads in favour of cyclists. So let the Lycra-clad armies rise up and demand the support that they need. Words must be turned into action, and Chelsea tractors abandoned for a healthier and happier life on two wheels.

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