Cycling deaths highlight inadequate response

Two women cyclists have been killed by lorries on London’s streets over the past few days, highlighting the inadequacy of facilities in the city for cyclists. Having cycled in the rush hour a couple of times recently, it is remarkable the extent to which London has become a cycling city, despite the fact that cyclists are barely tolerated let alone catered for . There are cyclists everywhere and they now form a substantial part of  the traffic in central London and yet, for the most part, they are still treated as pariahs.

The huge number of cyclists is their best protection. I have noticed that drivers are more tolerant to cyclists, even though we do tend to jump the odd red light, because the sheer numbers have made it impossible to ignore them. There are, of course, the odd maniac drivers but they are now a minority. Boris Johnson’s idea for allowing cyclists to turn left at junctions against the red light, may be a reasonable suggestion but it does not address the fundamental problem, that the road lay out, highway rules, signage, priorities and general street ambience are all mitigated againsts cyclists. Those few facilities that have been introduced, such as advance stop lines, are welcome, but we are still miles away from putting cyclists at the heart of the traffic system, which is what is needed to really protect them.

Boris Johnson has no real understanding of this. Allowing motorcycles into bus lanes, which were previously a real  refuge for cyclists, sends exactly the wrong message. He seems to have focussed much of his bike policy on creating a cycle hire scheme in central London which is fine but will not, of itself, boosts cycling as much as making the whole road system more cycle-oriented. Even his suggestion about red lights may do more to anger motorists and pedestrians, than actually improve the on road relationship between the two groups.

There is a fascinating article in London Cycling magazine about the small German town of Munster where the traffic system, while coping with the expected number of cars, is geared in a fundamental way towards cycling. There are plenty of tips and ideas which could be copied, but it requires a new mindset, one which does not put in railings next to main roads against which cyclists are frequently crushed to death, as happened to one of this week’s victims.

  • Tim Arnold

    Why does allowing motorcycles into bus lanes send out the wrong message? They are a good halfway house that gives the range of a car combined with the small footprint of a bicycle, i.e practical long distance transport that causes little congestion. Figures show no increase in accidents involving bicycles when sharing bus lanes with motorcycles. Maybe it is better to look at facts instead of nebulous political ‘messages’. Also, it was in Boris’s manifesto, which is why he gained the vote of many motorcyclists; it is called democracy.

  • “Figures show no increase in accidents involving bicycles when sharing bus lanes with motorcycles”

    Not quite; the reports from the orginal trials said no conclusions should be drawn, so your statement is factually incorrect.

    “Also, it was in Boris’s manifesto, which is why he gained the vote of many motorcyclists; it is called democracy.”

    It’s also democracy that people that disagree with the policy are allowed to speak their mind.

  • MickeyMouser

    It is far too early to have any firm evidence on the new policy but this can only have had a negative effect on cyclists.

    However bus lanes were indeed a valuable refuge for cyclists and I deeply regret this new policy. My enjoyment of my daily commute and my perception of safety is much diminished now I have to face the intimidation of these powerful machines accelerating noisily up behind me.

    Moreover they certainly don’t have the environmental footprint of a bicycle, more likely that of a small car, and that is before we consider the noise pollution they create.

  • Tim Arnold

    Actually I am factually correct. I did not restrict myself to figures from your quaint little village of London. The more advanced city of Bristol, for instance, introduced bikes in bus lanes in June 95. An initial 6 month trial showed no problems and it has been a permanant arrangement ever since. That is around 14 years. So come on Londoners, do try to keep up!

  • “So come on Londoners, do try to keep up!”

    London is a slightly different story and trials conducted here stated that more controlled trials should be undertaken.

    Sadly the results became part of the election campaign for both main candiates so the results were politicised and used by both sides to say different things.

    Whether or not the current trial going on in London is actually taking on board the lessons learned from the previous trials is unclear; I get the impression it’s just spin to call it a trial.

  • Christian

    I think the crucial point, too, is that whatever the figures – and I am sure that some accidents will result given the way motorcyclists are speeding past me in the bus lanes – the very fact that they are allowed in these lanes makes the roads feel less safe for cyclists. The most important way to ensure an increase in cycling is not so much to reduce the risk itself – which of course is useful – but, more important, to reduce the perception of risk. And having fast moving motorbikes in bus lanes has the opposite effect.

  • “And having fast moving motorbikes in bus lanes has the opposite effect.”

    If the perception is wrong though it should be countered, although sadly I don’t think we’ll see any meaningful results from this “trial”.

    Like Boris’s cyclist scaring “Bendy buses kill many cyclist each year” statement which was subsequently shown to be complete bunkum by Boris himself.

    I wonder how many cyclists his scaremongering put off?

  • Tim Arnold

    ‘the intimidation of these powerful machines accelerating noisily up behind me’

    ‘the very fact that they are allowed in these lanes makes the roads feel less safe for cyclists’

    You could apply the above to the buses as well, best get them out of the bus lanes too!

    Seriously though, Christians initial article is mostly correct and important, but no argument is helped by putting perception above facts. That way lies pure spin. Study the research and act upon it. 14 years of experience (and Bristol is not the only example) cannot be dismised because you do not like it.

  • “You could apply the above to the buses as well, best get them out of the bus lanes too!”

    Buses and cycles travel at about the same speed around London. Buses do not buzz cyclists, I’m rarely overtaken by a bus in a cycle lane, but will often have to go round a stopped one.

    Perversly the most buzzing you get in a bus lane is from other cyclists, but the speed differential is not that great.

    Many motorcyclists travel around at incredible speed in London, some motorbike couriours go as fast as they can go it would seem (as do some cycle couriours but it’s hardly comparable).

    Maybe people are just more laid back in Bristol; I think it would be dangerous to use the results of a trial in Bristol to base decisions on policy in London.

  • This video may interest you as it features cycling AND trains! –> spoke to Phillip Darnton (Cycling England) on a rail journey to the Netherlands, appropriate because one of the new ideas is to help create a ‘cycling demonstration train operating company.’

    He talks about stations becoming ‘hubs’ for cycling. Someone needs to let Birmingham New Street know because 12 Sheffield stands is not enough for the main station in a city of 1 million people. Threats that bikes left anywhere else on station property will be forcibly removed is not helpful either.

  • I blogged about the inadequacy of cycle parking at stations in the UK a while back, prompted by the upgrading of the cycle parking at a local village station to 688 spaces, meaning there is a place for one in 14 of the 10000 population. Of course, the cycle links from the village to the city are also first class, and very popular too.

    It’s a world away from the UK. Cycling really is taken seriously as a form of transport here in NL and the Dutch industry and economy benefit as a result.

  • Anna

    Thanks for this post Christian.

    One thing we do need is more clarity about the rights of cyclists on roads. One motorist recently called me a cunt for being in the right-hand lane as I attempted to turn right.

    I think it would help to have more focus on cycle-awareness in driving tests, and to weight judgement in favour of cyclists in the case of accidents in which cyclists are injured (as in Amsterdam, I believe). A friend of mine was knocked off his bike by a bus – with irreparable damage to the bike and some damage to himself – and the police refused to lay any responsibility on the bus-driver on the grounds that “cyclists sometimes pull out without looking”.

  • Anoop

    We actually need two cycling networks to cater for the needs of different people.

    We need an off-road / quiet road network which is mostly traffic-free and suitable for children, elderly cyclists and others who do not want to cycle in the traffic. This will encourage non-cyclists to start cycling.

    We also need to provide safety features (advanced stop lines, adequate space) on regular roads so that more experienced cyclists can cycle fast and safely.

    Cycle facilities should not be aimed at the needs of ‘cyclists’ alone, but at ‘potential cyclists’, which includes almost everyone (including people who currently use cars or public transport). The aim should be for everyone to choose the bicycle as the transport of choice for short-medium journeys, and the overall level of cycling should equal that of Denmark or the Netherlands.

  • Dan

    Anoop – this is a really good point that is not usually recognised.

    A year or so ago (at about the age of 40) my partner learned to cycle, never having learned as a child. On one of the major roads near us the cycle lane was ‘improved’ by being moved from being on the pavement (with all the obstructions of side roads etc) to being on the main carriage way, painted at the side of the road, next to the vehicles. She will now not use it, being too intimidated as an inexperienced cyclist, by being that close to the motor traffic. When it was on the pavement that was not a problem in her perception.

    This change was a clear improvment for the experienced cyclist, don’t get me wrong – since it permitted faster cycling on a painted section of the main carriage way, but for the inexperienced cyclist this lane offered no perceptible segregation from motor vehicles – so is ‘too scary’.

    In this case all of this was done with no other significant change to the roadscape – the traffic engineers could have left both sets of lanes in existence on the same route (the one on the pavement and the new one on the roadway). I don’t suppose they thought there would be any reason for that so they got rid of the one on the pavement – but that was the one of best use to the learner and potential cyclist. You are so right in your comment.

  • Anoop, you are right that new infrastructure should be built for “people” rather than self selected “cyclists”. Subjective safety is all when it comes to encouraging cycling.

    However, it’s really not necessary to have two networks for cyclists. Since emigrating, I’ve found it’s possible to cycle much faster here in the Netherlands on the cycle paths than ever it was back in the the UK on roads. The infrastructure works both for beginners, children etc. and for fast cyclists. On my 30 km each way commute I have just one set of traffic lights and generally come to a halt just the once. If I was to drive, or use the roads on which I’d drive, my commute would be a few km longer and I’ve have five sets of traffic lights to get through before I even leave the city where I live.

    Using roads with my bike instead of cycle paths would almost always mean a slower and less direct journey. The direct and time saving routes are generally segregated from cars. It is only on those rare occasions when I have to share the road with cars that I have to slow down.

  • As a Bristol resident, I must back up the assertion by Tim Arnold that motorbikes in bus lanes don’t add significantly to the risk that cyclists experience

    1. Taxis and minicabs are also allowed in bus lanes, and they really resent the presence of bicycles and do try squeezing past just before stopping without warning.

    2. Most bus lanes in bristol are, like the bike lanes, blocked by parked cars, and therefore of minimal value. In London, the presence of TfL enforced red-lanes means that some bus lanes actually function, so it may be more of an issue.

    There is a lot of resentment in the city from cylists towards motorbikes using advanced stop lanes, then sprtinting off at (illegal) speeds. Now that bus lanes are open to motorbikes, they assume that all bike facilities are available.