Opposite views: Cyclists as equals?

This article was published in 2006, in Newsletter 66.

David Hembrow argues that good facilities are more a matter of money while in the previous article Tony Raven that cycle facilities are the wrong solution.

Photo: on road.

An attractive proposition, but how equal are we? We are equal in law, but many drivers don’t treat us as such. The TRL (Transport Research Laboratory) ‘perceptions’ study gives examples.

Cambridgeshire’s transport budget includes around £1 per head per year on cyclists but around £180 per head per year on ‘roads.’ The ‘roads’ money is spent primarily to improve conditions for drivers, not us. ‘Road improvement’ schemes rarely benefit cyclists.

The CTC rightly protested in the 1930s. There were few motor vehicles and roads were not ‘improved’ for motorists. This has changed. The A14 route was not motorway standard in the 1930s. Our ‘right’ to ride on such roads has not been removed by law, but by civil engineering and growth in motorised traffic.

The comparison with walking is interesting. Walking has also declined, and might have declined to a greater extent if not for pavements. A third of our road fatalities are pedestrians hit by motor vehicles. A tenth of these occur on the pavement when vehicles leave the road. For the pedestrian, these are random incidents. Exposure to them is in proportion to time exposed by being on the street. Figures showing pedestrians at higher risk than cyclists are per km travelled. Lower pedestrian speed means longer exposure for the same distance. Expressed over time, the figures are comparable between cyclists and pedestrians.

‘We already have paths that attract cyclists. Those across the commons are amongst the most cycled routes in the city.’

Non-cyclists who identify motor vehicles as a danger may overestimate, but they are far from wrong. Motor vehicles are the only significant danger to cyclists.

Some shared-use paths are more dangerous than parallel roads but you have to select your data for this. Roads also don’t have equal safety records: the A14 has low use by cyclists, yet accounts for a significant proportion of cyclist deaths (five fatalities between 1995 and 2004). Cyclists should neither be on low quality paths nor the A14. Both should be opposed. Let’s not copy either bad example.

The UK has nearly lost its cycling culture to motor vehicles. Either we turn it around or the remaining 2% of journeys by bike are a dying gasp. The decline is because conditions on our roads have changed to make cycling less pleasant. It has taken decades. Nothing to do with recent paths.

When encouraging people to cycle, unpleasantness, perception of danger and actual danger are all problems. Those helmet and hi-vis wearing cyclists are the vanguard of the future. Let’s encourage rather than criticise those who are riding bikes. Their attire is a reaction to the conditions.

What facilitates cycling? Context is important. Compatibility of cycles with motor vehicles depends on the road. Town centres should not belong to motor vehicles. Nor should residential areas. These are the places where roads should be reshaped to provide for cyclists and pedestrians to look like they belong.

Trunk roads are the opposite. They are legal to ride on, but not safe or pleasant. We can’t expect these to change sufficiently for cycling. Separate provision makes sense.

Bad experiences of shared use in the UK tend to produce very strong arguments against all paths. That separate facilities are dangerous, only suitable for slow cyclists etc.

I once shared these apprehensions, but was surprised in the Netherlands. I am organising a trip in August to demonstrate how well their paths can work. The Dutch network goes everywhere, feels comfortable, is popular and safe. It is successful: 27% of journeys in the Netherlands are made by bikes, more than 12 times the rate here, five to ten times lower fatality rate, no helmets or hi-vis. It has to be experienced to be understood. They still have a widespread cycling culture.

Low quality paths which go nowhere help nobody. We need appropriate facilities for cyclists, whether on or off road. Our road designers need re-education. Urban roads should be pleasant for cycling. Paths should provide decent alternatives to trunk roads. Extra paths should attract cyclists due to their merits.

We already have paths that attract cyclists. Those across the commons are amongst the most cycled routes in the city. That alongside the Cam to Waterbeach becomes jammed in the summer. These successful cycle facilities are re-enforcing the local cycling culture.

David Hembrow

TRL: Driver’s perceptions of cyclists
Bicycle helmets: review of effectiveness which gives relative safety figures for Denmark and the Netherlands.