20 Feb 2012

Improving safety on its own will not change attitudes towards cycling

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On your bike

Britain’s cyclists continue to rule the world: well, at least that’s true on the track thanks to the likes of Sir Chris Hoy and company.  But off the track it’s a different story and 2012 has begun with more depressing news for those of us who hazard on to the roads on two wheels.

The Times’ Cities Fit for Cycling Campaign  instigated by the horrific injuries sustained by one of its reporters after she was crushed by a lorry, has spearheaded a string of appalling examples showing the risks cyclists take each time they venture out.  But for every video of a bus swerving into the path of a cyclist, or a length of wire hung across a forest track at neck height, there will be dozens of calls, texts and tweets from infuriated motorists enraged about cyclists jumping lights, or listening to iPods, or riding without lights.  Indeed, a recent phone-in on LBC radio seemed to suggest that most of their contributors consider horrific accidents are no more than cyclists deserve.

Little wonder then, that a Sustrans survey today shows that a majority of people are now put off cycling because it is too dangerous.  Research by the cycling and sustainable travel charity found that 56 per cent of people believe cycling in built up areas is dangerous and 70 per cent seek a 20 mph speed limit in urban areas.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole story.  In my experience cycling along rural roads – sometimes even on Sustrans designated routes – is, at times, arguably more dangerous: riding along a quiet, high-hedged, picturesque country lane may seem cycling heaven to the urban rider, but it certainly is not when confronted by a massive 4×4, its driver unaware of its width and unwilling to share any of its god-given road space, or when you are tailed by a filthy agricultural vehicle for miles before it tries overtakes on a blind corner.

And, while more cycle lanes could improve safety in urban areas, they are hardly a feasible proposition across the length and breadth of the country. No, the hard truth is that improving safety for cyclists, will not, on its own, substantially change attitudes towards cycling.

A previous survey into walking and cycling in 2011 found that years of government efforts to promote cycling have had almost no impact on a sceptical population who largely view bikes as either “children’s toys or the preserve of Lycra-clad hobbyists.”

“Many people barely recognise the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transport; it is either a toy for children or a vehicle fit only for the poor and/or strange,” Dave Horton, of Lancaster University, wrote in an interim assessment of the Understanding Walking and Cycling study.

“For them, cycling is a bit embarrassing, they fail to see its purpose, and have no interest in integrating it into their lives, certainly on a regular basis. Depressing reading indeed for anyone hopeful the UK could, one day, have a Dutch-style mass cycling culture.

What is needed is a change in the whole mind set about cycling and indeed walking, so that they are seen as our most natural, obvious and effective means of transport, not just forms of recreation confined to half term at Centre Parks.

The mentality that regards cycling as the preserve of freaks, children and the enemy of the motorist, whose participants deserve any injuries they sustain, is the key factor that must be changed and if it is not, any improvements to safety still will not effect a sizable increase in cycling and walking. Sure, you’re not going to get that mentality to change if safety is not improved, but improvements to safety alone will not lead to mass cycling if we do not change our attitude to those who travel by methods other than by motorised vehicles.

In the UK urban and rural roads are regarded as the territory of the motorist and everyone else – cyclist or pedestrian – is considered an intruder, something that hinders the free flow of motorised traffic. Until that mind set changes, then the needs of cyclists and pedestrians will always take a back seat.

And as we live in Britain, where even sensible initiatives for economic or environmental reasons, like parking restrictions and congestion charges, are regarded as a war on the motorist, don’t hold your breath for a speedy, or a positive outcome.

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