Archive for November, 2013

15 Nov 2013

If the carnage on our roads was a disease it would be taken seriously and regarded as a national scandal.

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If outrage about the recent carnage of cyclists on London’s streets, can be sustained and channelled into a long-term campaign for safer roads, then the deaths of five riders in just over a week may not be in vain.

Sickeningly, if predictably, the ensuing debate has, again, centred on cyclists ignoring red lights or not wearing helmets, or not being sufficiently visible to drivers.  Unfortunately these are only symptoms of the real problem that is repeatedly ignored, or deflected, by those with the power to change, not just the architecture of our roads, but also the culture of those who use them.

Loudest and most repugnant of the reactions has, again, been those of  the capital’s ‘Cycling Major’ Boris Johnson.  This is the man who, on taking office in 2008, cancelled the proposed congestion charge in the west of the city, allowed fares to rise and aggressively prioritised the smoothing of traffic flow as his key transport policy.

Here is the key to the battle for survival  that is now the everyday experience for those using London’s roads and streets.  Johnson’s policies have aggressively increased the number of private cars on the roads – added to the surfeit of heavy vehicles involved in delivering materials to the mass of building sites around the city – while high fares and falling incomes have been two of the most important factors in encouraging more people to cycle commute.

With the increase in bikes and vehicles now colliding head on in the streets of London, the inevitable effect is seen in the rise of casualties on the most vulnerable road users.  Appallingly, 69 pedestrians died on London’s roads last year:  a little-known and tragically ignored statistic.  And all Boris can offer are a few blue-painted stretches of road that many cyclists consider actually increase the risks they face.

These problems are exacerbated, but not confined to London.  The death toll of cyclists and pedestrians on rural roads – and in provincial towns where cyclists are often regarded as dangerous eccentrics – is also shockingly high and in many places around the country it is simply impossible to walk or cycle along ring roads and by passes.

We have to redesign our roads and streets for the benefit of all road users and to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable.  But along with hard design – segregated lanes, low speed limits, car-free zones, more public transport – we also, equally, need to change the prevailing culture of those using our roads.

Too many drivers, and some cyclists, regard their form of transport as a form of entitlement – to go where they like, how fast they like – and, in many cases, see their vehicle as a statement of their power and status.  This culture has to change and, as reasoned debate has not worked, then far more drastic penalties for those breaking the law have to be introduced and enforced.  Cases, such as that recently, where a driver who has killed two cyclists received only a short driving ban, are derisory and will do nothing to improve road safety. Responsibilities, of course, come with rewards and European-style transport infrastructure has to be accompanied by harsh penalties for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers who disobey the law.

If the carnage on our roads was a disease it would be taken seriously and regarded as a national scandal.  We need to start by accepting the roads are there for all road users and not as a circuit for those with the strongest nerve. Until we positively discriminate in favour of the most vulnerable and the most sustainable, Boris’s bluster will remain as ineffective as it is repugnant.

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06 Nov 2013

Autumn: even more depressing than usual this year?

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I must admit that autumn is my least favourite season. I always mourn the end of summer; dark mornings and evenings hamper my cycling time and make walking and running over my well-trodden cross country route well nigh impossible, while I equate falling leaves and withering flowers with death and I’ve never been a great fan of fireworks and bonfires.

But while I accept that not everyone, fortunately, shares my depression at the onset of winter and, indeed, for many, the russet kaleidoscope and misty vistas make it their favoured time of the year, for everyone with any kind of concern for our wildlife and environment the last few months have, arguably, witnessed the most worrying and threatening period in living memory.

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Economic austerity is now being used effectively by politicians and others as a convenient excuse to justify scaling back and abandoning necessary environmental measures, such as withdrawing subsidies for solar energy and blaming so-called ‘green taxes’ for high energy bills.

Meanwhile, according to the  UN  the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen to record levels, again,  while all corners of the planet face increasingly unpredictable and destructive weather conditions.  However, politicians across the globe, from George Osborne, to Canada’s Stephen Harper and the avowed Australian climate sceptic Tony Abbott, have become increasingly vocal in their attempts to rubbish the idea of man-made climate change, contending that we currently cannot afford to indulge in the luxury of environment concern.

Well, we don’t need to look too far to find the influence of the fossil fuel sector, desperate to preserve their profits from their carbon-heavy polluting industries and only too happy to sponsor mouthpiece politicians in Westminster and Washington: climate scepticism now joining creationism as the poster boys for the most irrational politics of the 21st century.  Meanwhile, over the last five years, Canada and Australia have swum against the tide of economic austerity on the back of their reserves of dirty oil and gas, abandoning any pretence of environmental concern in favour of making a fast buck or two.

But even more alarming is how much of the population have been taken in by the disingenuous argument that we cannot afford green measures – particularly given that the truth is we simply cannot afford, either environmentally, or economically, not to move to more sustainable forms of energy.  Recent polling shows categorically that concern about the environment and support for green measures have fallen considerably over the last six years; tragically at the very time when it is needed more than ever.

Unfortunately, not only are we enduring the least green government ever – any party who awards the environmental portfolio to the hapless, odious and useless Owen Paterson deserves nothing but contempt – but neither can we look for any real environmental leadership anywhere else within traditional politics, with one or two honourable exceptions, such as Caroline Lucas and Mary Creagh.

But, however depressing the situation, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of sitting back, hopelessly accepting there is nothing we can do.  We are dealing with the future of our planet and nothing – not economic activity, not international terrorism, as a recent poll in the Guardian confirmed – is more important than that.

Instead, we should look to the growing army of activists, from No Dash for Gas to the heroic alliance of decent, ordinary people opposed to the invidious badger cull and those brave enough to blow the whistle on the illegally killing of our indigenous wildlife who, through organisation, resourcefulness and courage, have faced down intimidation and the threat of arrest to bring home to the public just what is happening in and to their countryside.

And it is these brave and committed people who offer a optimistic chink of light, even to this self-confessed pessimist in this dark and dismal autumn. We need to look at the protests taking place throughout the country, read the majority of comments about fracking and the cull, even within media outlets that usually support the establishment and do whatever we can to continue our fight to preserve and protect our environment and those who live in it.

We won’t have the luxury of a second chance.

 

 

 

 

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