Cyclesafe should have been about making cities safe for all, not a divisive campaign for cyclists alone.

The Times is wrong to focus on cyclists alone

On the one hand it’s fabulous that a mainstream British newspaper is championing cycle safety. I’m clearly in favour of safer streets to cycle on. But the newspaper’s cyclesafe campaign risks pitting cyclists against pedestrians when it could have championed safer streets for all, not just safer streets for cyclists.

I welcome the debate that The Times has kicked off (I signed up for the campaign right at the start and have no intention of removing my name) but as I blogged about, I worry that the messages left after the campaign has finished will be negative ones: the result might not be improved junctions and Dutch-style separated cycle paths but mandatory use of substandard bike paths, a licensing fee for cyclists, helmet compulsion and other "safety measures" that are easy and cheap for politicians to implement but actually do little to improve cycle safety.

It could have been oh so different. The Times could have championed safer streets for all, not just cyclists.

With traffic tamed, cyclists would be safer. By focussing on cyclists alone, The Times has created a backlash. The coverage of cyclesafe on BBC Breakfast this morning was very much about cyclists running red lights, wearing hi-vis and helmets, and being forced to use cycle paths and never to be allowed on roads. "This would be safer for all," claimed one viewer.

In 2009, Peter Zanzottera of UK transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave told the Scottish Parliament: "People love cycling but hate cyclists."

In the UK, and in many other countries, cyclists have a bad reputation. Cycling may be good for the economy, good for waistlines, good for unsnarling traffic, and good for the planet, but when a UK politician hears cyclists calling for dedicated infrastructure, nine times out of ten that politician pictures a cyclist running a red light, or buzzing pedestrians. 

In the enlightened parts of mainland Europe, the view of cyclists and cycling is very different. Oh, to live in Groningen, Houten or Freiburg, cities where cycling is absolutely the norm. 

Taming cars ought to be at the very top of every town planners to-do list. But it’s not.

Le Corbusier’s famously flawed 1930s totalitarian view of the Radiant City – with skyscrapers and elevated highways taking precedence over historic buildings and non-motorised road users – is today rejected by town planning academics but, nevertheless, the car is still king. Such hegemony is not even a political issue, the Left is as much in love with the car as the Right.

In those countries where encouragement of cycling is not yet at Houten levels, civilising cities from the saddle cannot be done as a full-frontal assault. Those who want bicycles to claim their fair share of road-space, or to dominate, need to be more savvy than that. 

Increasing bike modal share will involve cyclists partnering with other groups. Other groups that also want cars tamed. 

One of the reasons for the success of the automobile has always been the united front – at least in public – put on by what was once self-styled as Motordom and which we now know as the ‘motor lobby’. By singing from the same hymn sheet, the disparate parts of the motor lobby was able to steam-roller the not-at-all organised opposition.

By joining forces we’re stronger.

Tacking cycling aims to wider societal aims was one of the ways that cycling’s modal share was increased in the Netherlands. Post WWII cycle usage didn’t drop as far or as fast in the Netherlands as it dropped in countries such as the UK, but nevertheless, the writing was on the wall: cycle use was on the way out.

In the 1970s, the Stop der Kindermoort campaign helped create an atmosphere in which Dutch politicians and town planners could do more for cyclists, arresting the decline. Stop der Kindermoort means ‘stop the child murder’. This was a safety campaign by a loose coalition of cycling groups but Stop der Kindermoort didn’t major on cycling. Its focus was on protecting children from harm, and that harm came mainly from motorcars. Tame the cars and children’s lives would be saved. Tame the cars and cycling is more pleasurable. Win/win.

Likewise, the success of Sustrans in the UK, an organisation created by cyclists and largely still run by cyclists, can be attributed to its broad appeal. When it lobbies local Government or negotiates with landowners or goes cap in hand to grant making bodies for funds to extend the National Cycle Network, it doesn’t lead with its cycling credentials, it talks about routes for people, people on bikes, people in wheelchairs and people on foot. 

Cycling groups who want to get more cycling in their locales need to buddy up with pedestrian groups, with wheelchair user groups, with child safety campaigners, with NIMBY organisations fighting urban sprawl. With cars tamed, human powered transport can flourish. And the taming is better done collectively rather than tribally.

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