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.