Cycle deaths becoming political issue

The issue of cycling deaths has soared up the political agenda in recent months, especially in London where every fatality is covered extensively on regional TV news, the Evening Standard and local papers. No longer are these deaths simply accepted as an inevitable consequence of the imbalance between motor vehicles weighing several tons and the unprotected bodies of unlucky cyclists.

Instead, cycling accidents are now understood to be a direct consequence of years of failing to take them into account in highway schemes and therefore the calls for a change in local authorities policies towards cycling are becoming something of a clamour. This trend is inevitably most noticeable in London precisely because cycling has over the past decade or so become mainstream, rather than being perceived as an activity undertaken solely by the foolhardy or the lycra-clad obsessives. However, some other local areas are experiencing a surge in cycling and virtually everywhere there is pent up demand that could be released if it was perceived as safer.

The death in October of Min Joo Lee, a fashion student in King’s Cross, gained particular prominence because it appears that there had been clear warnings about the dangers of the traffic in the area in a report commissioned by Transport for London three years ago. Local campaigners are trying to bring a corporate manslaughter charge but while in practice there are numerous obstacles to such a move, it has stimulated considerable publicity.

Now the issue of cycle safety and has been heightened by two deaths in quick succession at the same junction in Bow, East London, on one of the Superhighways created by Transport for London, the 14th and 15th in the capital this year. A 58 year old man was killed in October and then on November 11 there was a second fatality, a 34 year old woman. The issue of cycling provision is highlighted by the fact that these deaths occurred at a junction which previously cyclists had avoided because of its dangers but were now encouraged by the Superhighway scheme to use.  Cycling groups responded with a 300 strong ‘tour du danger’ visiting sites of recent cycling facilities and Transport for London is now under pressure to examine the basis of the Superhighway scheme which involves painting a traffic lane blue but not actually giving cyclists any extra protection, either legal or physical.

The issue boils down to a conflict of interest between highway authorities keen not to ‘reduce the traffic flow’, which remains the basis of the superhighway scheme,  and the safety of cyclists on perilous parts of the road network, especially junctions and main roads.

One problem is the difficulty of assessing the risk. Conventional wisdom has been to install facilities for cyclists such as lanes and advanced stop lines, and put up a lot of signs emphasising that a particular route is designed to accommodate their needs – rather negated sometimes by the prominence of ‘cycling dismount’ signs. Then maps are produced to encourage cyclists to use these routes.

However, as the Superhighway accidents suggests, this approach is flawed as it does not appear to make the roads safer for cyclists. Indeed, many facilities designed for cyclists do not, in reality, reduce the risk and, in fact, are sometimes so bad that they may even increase the danger.  Mark Strong and Ken Spence who are partners in a small Brighton based consultancy Transport Initiatives, specialising in cycling issues, have devised a better way of assessing the risk to cycling on particular roads. Rather than simply looking at the infrastructure, they consider what cycling skills are needed to tackle a particular road and mark this against the standards of the Bikeability scheme, the new training programme for cyclists. Level one is to ride a bike competently off road, Level two is for relatively quiet roads and Level three is for all roads – except that for particularly tough sections they have added a Level 3.5 deemed unsuitable even for highly experienced cyclists.

The field work can only be done by cycling along the roads and even then a road may vary between standards depending on time of the day. They then produce maps showing in different colours the levels required on every road and add, too, pedestrian crossings that can be used to get across dangerous roads which can also vary between levels depending on their location and facilities, such as a central island. Mark Strong sums up this new mapping method as ‘going out and measuring the roads by the skill you need to use them safely’. Already several London boroughs and towns and councils as far apart as Rickmansworth, Grimsby and Leicester amongst  others  have used the method both to discover the current situation, and to work out ways of creating genuine safe routes, rather than simply ones that exist on paper only

Getting this information is a vital step towards making towns cycle friendly. Past practice of plonking down green paint will no longer be enough for authorities to show they have done their bit as the more sophisticated mapping developed by Transport Initiatives exposes the fault lines in that approach. With cycling safety rising up the political agenda and cyclists likely to resort to legal challenges of cycling provision, this more sophisticated approach to the risks to cyclists may become an essential part of the work of highways authorities.

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