Protective clothing, helmets, paint, signs, asking people to share the road and other solution-dodging ‘road safety’ interventions do not make cycling safe, attractive and accessible for all. I realise that my statement will make some people uncomfortable, but it is true – despite my vested interest in building stuff.
How can I be so confident in my assertion? Well, I have been lucky enough to experience cycling in some of the more enlightened parts of northern Europe (with an engineer’s eye of course). The sheer number of people cycling, their diversity, the different types of cycles people use; and the fact that freight is moved by cycle must surely demonstrate that something is being done the right way.
The world leader in forgiving roads and streets is the Netherlands. Forgiving, because in the event of a mistake, the risk of death or serious injury is reduced by careful design – and this applies to driver safety too. Denmark and Sweden follow some distance behind, but they are a world away from how we do this in most of the UK.
A forgiving approach means that we have to decide what each street is for and this is something the UK really struggles with. If we have a residential street, we filter it so it’s not used as a cut-through – a few bollards do the job. If we have a shopping street, we might exclude motor traffic or if we cannot, then cycleways are needed. We protect people cycling between their village and the local town with a cycleway which has some decent separation using a verge or even vehicle restraint barriers. In some cases, we have complete separation of motoring and cycling provision with grade separation. If we do this at the network level, then we’ll see the same results as they get across the North Sea.
In the UK we’re always seeing the false equivalence of driving and cycling with the media-constructed (and physics-ignoring) “who’s at fault” excuses for news whenever there is a story about a collision involving a person cycling. Funnily enough, people behave the same way whether it’s Manchester or Malmö; and it doesn’t matter which mode they happen to be using at the time. Forcing cyclists to compete with drivers for space and speed leads to competitive behaviour and it puts most people off. Treating people with respect through design leads to people behaving with respect on the streets. With a forgiving approach, we also mitigate behavioural mistakes. In essence, it makes cycling and driving far less stressful and for the shorter trips and people will even leave their cars at home. It also means that resources for education and enforcement can be deployed on an intelligence-led basis.
In the final analysis, faith in personal protective clothing or disjointed painted lanes doesn’t cut it. Every time we build something decent and which goes to useful places like the shops, school, work and friends, we see all sorts of people using it in droves and that’s the power of infrastructure.
Technical manager with Sweco UK Ltd