This article was published in 2009, in Newsletter 82.
On 15 November, James Woodburn and I went to the Streets Ahead conference at the Gateway Centre in Warrington. Organised by 20’s Plenty for Us and Warrington Cycle Campaign, on behalf of the Cycling Touring Club (CTC) and cyclenation, it featured speakers from the most prominent pedestrian and cycle organisations. They spoke about their campaigning programmes for 2009 and provided information on how aims can be achieved at the national and local level.
There were two striking themes running through the day: one was the need for 20 mph to be the default speed limit on urban and residential roads; the other was for the legalisation of no-fault liability in favour of vulnerable road users – more of that later. The day itself was broken up by bacon butties (first thing) and the Street Market (lunchtime) with its bookstalls and exhibition stands representing the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Friends of the Earth and the British Horse Society, alongside the organisations who’d sent speakers.
The conference was dedicated to Sharon Corless, a Warrington cyclist killed after being hit by a car last September.
Promotion of increased cycling and walking
The opening talk was by Chris Peck, Policy Co-ordinator for CTC: he said that in 2009 CTC would respond to the DfT’s Towards a Sustainable Transport System with its own document about integrating the role of cycling with wider transport and non-transport objectives: the economy, health, safety, quality of life and CO2 emissions. He quoted casualty figures which showed that a doubling of cycling and walking results in only a 40% increase in collisions. So the more people cycle, the safer it gets. But many obstacles remain to creating the sort of road conditions cyclists want to see.
Lucy Abell of Living Streets was next up: she stressed how walking should be the natural choice for short journeys and when it comes to better streets and public spaces for pedestrians the public must be included in decision-making. She showed some grim examples of pedestrian facilities round the country and contrasted them with those that create a sense of freedom and safety (such as the one outside Balham tube station which Living Streets advised on). In 2009, Living Streets will focus on road safety by supporting 20 mph campaigns, look at Shared Space with disability groups and work closely with CTC. Walk to School Week is 18 – 22 May and the first national Walk to Work Week is 27 April – 1 May.
Simon Geller then spoke on the transformation of the Cycle Campaign Network into cyclenation. He wants to see a cycling campaign group in every town of 50,000 inhabitants and for groups to rename themselves in line with cyclenation: eg. cycleKnutsford, cycleNHS. So I guess that means cycleCambridge! The revamp includes new website templates and webspace, and more board members will be out and about speaking to members. In the light of the road signs review this year, he emphasised the need for a new Pedestrian Priority sign, perhaps replacing the ubiquitous Cyclist Dismount sign.
Safer driving, safer streets
In his talk, ‘Stopping Bad Driving’, Roger Geffen (CTC) argued that current traffic laws, enforcement and sentencing are inadequate: they do little to change attitudes to bad driving or encourage safe driving. Sentences for maiming or serious injury, for instance, remain far too short (a maximum of 2 years). He wants dangerous driving to become as socially unacceptable as drink-driving. He pointed out that cyclists are often portrayed as two-wheeled terrorists who would deliberately crash into cars, if strict liability were to become law!
A new CTC website will enable cyclists to report incidents and data to be stored. High profile legal challenges will be used to influence public opinion. Sentencing should reflect the extent of the bad driving (the seriousness of the offence, not the outcome). Driving bans should be imposed, rather than lengthy custodial sentences, except in the case of multiple offences.
CTC wants to tackle under-reporting and systematic police failure to record incidents, unless a death is involved. He called for more resources for traffic policing – increase the risk of getting caught and behaviour will change. Enhanced road policing in France has meant massive road safety improvements since 2002 with 45% of French drivers saying it has changed their behaviour.
Roger proposed changes in the law to:
- eliminate the distinction between ‘dangerous’ and ‘careless’ driving
- overhaul the sentencing framework
- introduce strict liability, i.e., the entitlement to compensation – the UK is only one of four Western European countries that doesn’t have it.
Strict liability was the main theme of Amy Aeron-Thomas’ speech. She represented the charity, Road Peace, which supports road crash victims and campaigns for road danger reduction and justice for victims. Amy argued that ‘strict liability’ encourages defensive driving and is consistent with the Highway Code and sentencing guidelines. It reverses the burden of proof in collisions with vulnerable road users. The default assumption is that the motorist is liable for compensation. Strict liability would be a matter of civil rather than criminal law so would not affect criminal prosecutions. The following organisations and individuals have all called for strict liability*:
- The Environmental Law Foundation
- Safer Streets Coalition
- Play England
The impact of traffic on communities
Sandwich in hand, I then chose to hear one of the three lunchtime presentations: Joshua Hart (UWE) spoke on his research into the impact of traffic on residents in north Bristol. Joshua took as his lead Donald Appleyard’s 1969 study of San Francisco that revealed an erosion of community on heavily trafficked streets. Bristol has some of the highest car ownership rates in the UK. Joshua interviewed 60 households on 3 streets: one with heavy traffic (21,130 vehicles a day), one with medium traffic (8,420 vehicles) and a cul-de-sac (140 vehicles).
From his research, he found that on heavily trafficked streets, residents adapt by driving more, being on the street less, living at the back of their homes, not opening front windows and accompanying their children everywhere. Residents are also between two and five times more likely to get ill (heart disease, depression) and have less help when they are. Noise and air pollution have a big impact on these statistics.
By contrast, if you live on a quiet road, you are more likely to walk and cycle and have over four times more ‘local friends’ and twice the number of ‘local acquaintances’ than on a busy street. On a quiet road, your perception of ‘home territory’ (where you have a sense of personal responsibility or stewardship) is much wider.
Joshua concluded that the growing deterioration of the environment is taking its toll on community life, especially on the most vulnerable. He quoted from the 2006 Bristol Quality of Life Survey which found that the one vital area in which quality of life was not improving was transport-related: road traffic casualties, traffic noise and pollution, and dissatisfaction with bus services had all worsened.
The afternoon session began with Paul Cullen telling us about Life Begins at 20 in Oxford. A street party in 2006 launched their campaign for 20 mph limits – it was opened by the Mayor of Oxford and attended by cycling councillors and officers. The event emphasised the idea that the street is a community space, not a space for vehicles and parking.
Life Begins at 20 appealed for support from a wide range of groups (bus companies, schools, etc); letters were sent to the Police, the County Safety officer and City Council officers calling for 20 mph limits in residential streets; a petition was presented to the County Council. Following a series of meetings with Council officers, the motion was eventually passed by Oxford City Council. Paul highlighted the important role of the local paper in covering public support for 20 mph limits. And, he said, the police do no more than they used to – now they are just enforcing 20 rather than 30 mph.
Richard Bearman of Norwich Green Party ran through the recent history of campaigning for 20 mph zones in Norwich. Following gains in local elections last year, the Green Party secured voting rights on the Norwich Highways Agency Committee. This paved the way for trial 20 mph limits (signs only – no initial traffic calming) in three residential areas from March 09. Costs were estimated to be £350,000. Richard stressed the importance of repeating the benefits to councillors at frequent intervals, of understanding fully the political process, and being patient!
John Leech, MP for Manchester Withington, Lib Dem Transport Spokesman and Transport Select Committee member then turned up – with no powerpoint (a bit of a relief by this point in the day!). He was responsible for introducing a Bill in Parliament in February 2007 for the default speed limit on urban roads to be reduced from 30 to 20 mph. In his opinion, this would be the ‘single most important measure to improve road safety’. He discussed how drivers are often unaware of the link between speed and severity of injury, and pointed out that the decision to reduce speed limits is usually reactive (where accidents have already taken place). In his experience, Manchester is ‘lukewarm’ on the issue, taking the view that spending money can only be justified on ‘high priority’ roads.
John advocated a ‘bottom-up’ approach, with local people taking ‘ownership’ of speed reduction. He felt that the usual response of local authorities was unhelpful – as a matter of course, they seek political leadership and resources to rise to the challenge. Nor is it a top priority at a time of tight budgets. In conclusion: Government is still complacent on road deaths and casualties. Rod King from 20’s Plenty for Us closed the day with a similar speech to the one he gave at our AGM (see Newsletter 81).
*For more on strict liability, see the New Statesman article by Mark Lynas