I was included in a mailshot and asked to pledge support for The Times' campaign two days before it started. I was not told what I would be supporting, and a flurry of emails revealed anomalies about what might be part of their campaign, so I decided to wish them luck, hope for the best, but not to pledge support to something which I could not be sure about.
In itself, seeing a major newspaper come out in support of cyclists is positive. This came about as a result of one of their colleagues being seriously injured, and I'm sure that everyone involved is quite earnest about wanting change. Also, it's really a good thing to see some of the issues that face British cyclists getting an airing in the national press. Over the last week The Times has published a lot of stories about cycling and I've read most of the articles. Unsurprisingly, some are better than others. Overall there are a lot more articles consisting of emotional appeal than actual details of what is wrong and what needs to be done. I think it's time for a response.
Central to the campaign is an 8 point manifesto. Unfortunately, this provides rather a weak basis for everything else:
- Lorries entering a city centre should be required by law to fit sensors, audible turning alarms, extra mirrors and safety bars to stop cyclists being thrown under the wheels.
More noise on the streets ? More complexity ? None of this is needed if conflict is designed out of the streets.
- 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.
This initially sounds good, but why only 500 junctions out of thousands ? Also, this suggests that the rather inadequate "solutions" of installing extra traffic lights or Trixi mirrors on existing junction designs are enough even for the 500 most dangerous junctions.
For British people to cyclists need properly designed streets and junctions, not small measures like advanced stop lines they get a few seconds extra green time on the same roads in order to try to outrun cars. The Times has also got behind the idea of allowing cyclists to turn left on a red light, an idea which they credit to Paris but which has actually been allowed for a long time in many places in the Netherlands. In this country it is not a blanket permission but applies only where infrastructure removes conflict and makes it safe.
- 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.
I can't argue with the need to have accurate measurements, but why do they not already exist ?
- 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.
£100 million is an impressive sounding number, but actually it isn't nearly enough. This is just £1.94, or €2.30, per person per year. By comparison, the Netherlands already spends €30 per person per year. The Times' proposal calls for nowhere near enough money to achieve "world-class cycling infrastructure". England will continue to fall behind with this level of expenditure.
Any grading that results should be a way of making sure that improvements are real, not a way for cities to hype themselves. There is already far too much hype, with competing "cycling cities" exaggerating their claims. While not completely free of hype, it is less in the Netherlands, where even Groningen didn't get to call itself a Cycling City last year. No British city is remotely like Groningen.
- The training of cyclists and drivers must improve and cycle safety should become a core part of the driving test
This has long been something that cyclists in the UK have discussed. However, training of cyclists and drivers has a far smaller effect on safety than infrastructural changes. The Dutch follow sustainable safety guidelines to make roads safer by design even if mistakes are made by road users. No matter how good training is, and mistakes will continue to be made because people are not perfect.
|30 km/h street with separate|
cycle-path in the Netherlands.
- 20mph should become the default speed limit in residential areas where there are no cycle lanes.
A good start, but why stop there ? 20 mph limits are also better where there are cycle-lanes. In the Netherlands you sometimes find a 30 km/h speed limit even with completely separated cycle-paths, and through villages. Again, The Netherlands leads the way, with a third of all Dutch roads already having a 30 km/h or lower speed limit. However, merely reducing the speed limit is not a panacea. It has been shown to no longer be quite so effective as it once was.
When cyclists are not on segregated cycle-paths they benefit greatly from streets which have been made to be unattractive to through traffic. The fewer motor vehicles, and the slower that they travel, the safer it is for pedestrians and cyclists. In the Netherlands roads have been transformed to exclude motor vehicles not only on individual streets but also across whole cities.
- Businesses should be invited to sponsor cycleways and cycling super-highways, mirroring the Barclays-backed bicycle hire scheme in London.
This one is a mystery to me. The Times' is a relatively right leaning paper so perhaps that's the explanation for why this item should appear in their manifesto. Why otherwise should construction of cycle-paths require sponsorship any more than the construction of roads does ? Are cycle-paths less important than roads ?
- Every city, even those without an elected mayor, should appoint a cycling commissioner to push home reforms.
Yes, let's have someone in charge, but will such a commissioner have real authority ? Most cities already have, or had, "cycling officers", but their positions are insecure and some have recently been made made redundant. Unfortunately, even when cycling officers are employed, they are not necessarily listened to.
Much of the manifesto reads rather similarly to TfL's "Cycle Safety Action Plan" of 2010. For instance, London has already been busy with a review of junctions, but that has resulted not in real improvements for cyclists but in rather inadequate proposals for Bow and Blackfriars amongst other places. Merely asking for a review and expecting that it will turn out well is not enough. The Times' call for additional funding is unfortunately particularly feeble, the extent that it works against any real progress being possible.
Politicians from all parties are 'supporting' The Times' campaign. I'm not surprised as to many of them it must seem like a gift. They can get good publicity by saying they'll support the campaign, with no risk of actually really having to do too much. British politicians in any case have a long history of offering support to cycling when asked, making big promises, but not actually going through with it. Even within the first week of this campaign, the Road Safety Minister had already said he was "wary of calls to switch money from a national roads budget to cycling".
It is not clear how long The Times' attention will remain on cycling. Verbal support from politicians may be offered now, only to evaporate once the spotlight moves on. 25000 signatures sounds like a lot, but in a population of over 60 million it's far from a mass movement. Considerably larger protests have been ignored in recent history by many of the same politicians.
Unfortunately, because the manifesto is weak, even if everything that The Times requested was to happen, the government would still have got off rather lightly. This can leave campaigners in a very difficult situation, of having achieved all that "they asked for" but not being happy with the result. Unfortunately, British cycling infrastructure is known across the world for its lack of quality.
Some skepticism required
I know it's exciting to see a newspaper taking notice of cycling, but too much unthinking hype has condensed around The Times' campaign. Yes it's very glossy, and the celebrity and politician support impresses many, but unfortunately the two months that they spent researching were not enough to result in asking the right questions or suggesting the right solutions. In fact, the manifesto could be seen as being quite dangerous due to it setting such a low bar for improvement.
For Britain to ever achieve something which approaches best practice in cycling will take a lot more than this. Don't get too carried away with what is being called for by The Times. Try to keep politicians to any promises that they make, but actually campaigners need to be asking them for an awful lot more than The Times is asking them for. Given the low aspirations of the manifesto it could easily be the case that a little "negotiation" could result in requests for change being diluted to the point where they are irrelevant.
|Cyclists today in Assen on a clean,|
wide, smooth cycle-path next to a
frozen canal at -5 C
The Times isn't alone amongst British newspapers in suddenly deciding to support cycling. Five years ago it was The Guardian supplement of March 2007 which sold quite a few newspapers to cyclists. Jon Snow wrote about being an embattled pedaller amongst other articles which were mainly about sports cycling. Nothing really changed. London's Evening Standard also had a campaign in 2007. Again, nothing changed. The Independent supposedly had backing from the Government for their campaign in April 2011, but even with this "support", nothing changed.
We contacted The Times, The Guardian and several other British newspapers in both 2006 and 2008 to suggest that they might perhaps take an interest in the study tours we organise to demonstrate the differences between Dutch and British infrastructure and how it relates to the different cycling modal shares of the two countries. We cram in a lot more than anyone is likely to pick up on their own in a short period of time. There were no replies.
Like many people new to cycle campaigning, The Times journalists were sucked in by the hype from Copenhagen. However, I was amused to see in their video from the city that Copenhagen now only claims my figure of 10000 cyclists per day over a route where they used to claim 36000 passed each day. Perhaps it's because I pointed out an error in one of their press releases.
The Highways Agency, mentioned in point number 4, is only responsible for England. Funding in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is not addressed by The Times' manifesto.