This is a very long post (rant), it might be worth making yourself a drink before you settle in to read this.
This is the latest output on the issue from the Department for Transport, which I discovered thanks to both @Spinneyhead and Crap Waltham Forest. The report is interesting in the fact that it acknowledges the failure of the policy of road sharing in the UK. Whilst I am happy enough cycling on the roads as they are (not that I don’t feel a lot needs to be done to improve things), the vast majority of people (~98% based on cycling’s 2% average modal share in the UK) are not. To get the average person onto a bike we need to either massively restrict the use of private automobiles or provide Dutch-style segregated infrastructure. What we actually have is excessively busy roads populated by many lawless motorists, excessively high speed limits in urban areas, confusing, useless or dangerous existing cycling infrastructure and a focus on “education” for potential victims in the form of, “Stay out of the way of the big dangerous things which might kill you.”
I skimmed the full report to pull out some interesting quotes. The adult groups interviewed for the report were generally non-cycling motorists and cyclists who also drive. They chose to omit non-driving cyclists, which is the group I would fall into. Read into this what you will.
A stereotype of cyclists in general does appear to exist among ORUs [Other Road Users]. This stereotype is characterised by:
• serious failures of attitude, including a generalised disregard for the law and a more specific lack of concern for the needs of other drivers; and
• serious failures of competence and knowledge of the rules of the road.
Interestingly, I would probably describe a significant number of motorists in these terms. There appeared to be a view amongst the motorists that cyclists were an anomaly on the road, and as a lot of people have little sympathy for people they see as different for themselves (see racism, sexism, homophobia and many more), this is perhaps the root of the aggression and lack of care which will be so familiar to so many cyclists.
This stereotype of cyclists is also linked to the fact that cyclists do not need to undertake training, are unlicensed and uninsured, and do not pay road taxes (at least not by virtue of the fact that they cycle).
I am quite impressed that this made it into the report. One of the easiest ways the government could make the lives of people on bikes easier is to finally put the myth of road tax to rest (I think the Winston Churchill quote could help with that).
There is evidence of a deeper failure in the culture of road sharing on English roads, which may have important implications for different road-users’ interpretations of, and responses to, each other’s behaviour and, hence, for road safety:
• Whatever the law may say on the matter, the norms of road sharing, on roads with lane widths and speeds designed around cars, mean that cyclists are treated as anomalies.
• There is a lack of consensus, even among cyclists, about whether and how cycling should be accommodated on the roads.
• Some ORUs question whether cyclists belong on the roads at all.
This is another major problem with the policy of road sharing, the widely held belief amongst motorists that roads are for cars, and bikes should get out of the way.
From the perspective of ORUs, the principle benefit of cycling lanes is that they get cyclists out of their way. When cycle lanes are provided, then there is an expectation that cyclists should not be on the road.
This belief, the government does little to help dispel, with cycling infrastructure largely focussed on getting bikes “out of the way” of motorised traffic, rather than infrastructure designed to make cycling safer or more convenient.
There is concern among some ORUs about cycle facilities which make life harder for ORUs, for example by ‘taking away’ some of their space, or allowing cyclists already passed to get back in front again.
Interesting lack of quotes around the phrase, “Their space.” Its almost as if the roads really are for the exclusive use of the private motorcar.
From the cyclist’s perspective, inadequate cycle facilities can diminish the legitimacy of bicycles on the road even further without actually providing a viable alternative.
Cycling facilities can also make the road-sharing problem worse if they create additional confusion about where cyclists and drivers are meant to go. The key issues are:
• Infrastructure that is too complex and needs to be decoded by the user;
• A failure to communicate to people how to use innovative infrastructure; and
• A lack of consistency from one place to the next.
Also noted are the failures of infrastructure, including having to dismount and having to give way at every side road.
There was widespread agreement that cyclists should do more to make themselves visible on the road – though this may not be reflected in actual behaviour.
High-visibility clothing was seen as important by many cyclists, though very few actually wore it. Promoting better visibility would be easier than promoting helmets. Moreover, it could be incorporated into a wider programme to promote better road sharing, since making yourself visible was widely conceived, by cyclists and ORUs, as something that cyclists can do for ORUs.
This is quite worrying reading, the cyclist group appear largely convinced that it is their responsibility to ensure they are so excessively conspicuous that even the dullest, most inattentive operator of a fast-moving tonne+ of metal will notice them even as they hurtle down the urban streets at 50 mph, texting and changing the radio station. There was a disturbing lack of awareness of victim blaming culture and the safety treadmill effect, whereby the most cautious riders make another defensive move (such as helmets, high visibility clothing, reflective strips etc) which becomes mainstream. Once this has happened, its effect is lessened as it eventually allows motorists to become more numb to their surroundings, forcing some new ridiculous, “Safety,” intervention (I predict sirens next).
For example, the CTC initially lobbied against compulsory lights for cyclists, citing that it would be a license for motorists to become less attentive when driving at night. Their preferred solution at the time was for motorists to drive more slowly and with increased caution at night. It may sound ridiculous now, but in the end we all got lights, and those without them are viewed as idiots. Even I use lights at night, party to see by, partly to be seen. Sadly it did end up giving motorists a license to not pay as much attention as they should, so we have got to the stage where it is not unusual to see a pedestrian walking on the pavement after dark, wearing a high-visibility vest, or even flashing LEDs to avoid being hit by a motorist. If someone is killed by a motorist on a zebra crossing in the evening and they were wearing dark clothing, they are regarded as at least partially to blame. The non-motorist has made so many concessions to the motorist over the years that pedestrians are now allowed to be blamed for being hit whilst using a zebra crossing. Sadly, almost no-one is even aware of the subtle erosion of the duty of care a motorist should have when operating a vehicle.
The DfT report acknowledges the failure of the policy of road sharing, but there is not the political will needed to improve the situation markedly. A few options I would suggest to politicians which would not also be political suicide are:
- Dispel the myth of “Road Tax,” and the concept of motorists owning the road.
- Dispel the myth of the motorist being in some way hard-done by.
- Make cycling a compulsory part of the process of learning to drive.
The last idea I think would be politically doable, although in principle I am against age discriminatory legislation, sometimes you have to be pragmatic; increase the driving age to ~25. The reason I suggest this is because 18-25 year olds are perhaps the least likely of all age groups to vote, meaning it would be politically doable. The shit-munchers would definitely be onboard, because all young people are awful people, and all young people are awful drivers. It could be passed into law because it wouldn’t affect anyone who is already old enough to vote, and people don’t usually care about things which don’t affect them. More practically, younger people are less likely to have dependents, are usually healthier and usually more generally adaptable. The increase in the numbers of non-driving working-age people would hopefully fuel an increase in public transport, walking and cycling investment. In the long term, a generation of adults who spent the first 7 years of their adult lives not being able to use a car would hopefully remain more open to the idea of continuing to use whatever means of transport they used before turning 25. As I said, discriminatory legislation is wrong, but being cynical and pragmatic, it could also work.