Thursday, 2 February 2012

Hundredth post: support The Times Cities Fit for Cycling campaign

This is the one hundredth post to be published on this blog. It has had about 64,000 page views since September 2010, but it only started concentrating on cycling issues in May 2011. In that time, less than a year, the cycle campaigning landscape in the UK has transformed. I'll refer below to a few of my earlier posts which now seem prescient.

Today sees one of the most important events to have occurred for UK cycling in that time. The Times, the UK's "establishment" newspaper, if there can be said to be such a thing, has launched a major campaign on cycle safety. This is called Cities Fit for Cycling, and I urge everyone to support it. (On Twitter, use the hashtag #cyclesafe). It comes directly out of the critical injuring of Times journalist Mary Bowers in a cycle-lorry crash on 4 November. But it has also been boiling up for a long time. It has become hard for anyone living or working in London to ignore the jump in cyclist deaths in London to 16 last year, so many of them under the wheels of lorries.



The Times does a huge splash on this campaign today, and they have made all the relevant pages free to view through the link above – an extraordinary move which shows the personal commitment of the staff involved. Their coverage of the issue is, for a generally Conservative-supporting newspaper, striking critical of the Government, and also of the Mayor of London. Some choice quotes:

As a point of comparison: since 2001, 576 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; 1,275 cyclists died on British streets. The latest data shows there were 1,850 deaths or serious injuries in the first half of 2011, a 12 per cent rise on the year before. Britain leads the world in competitive cycling; it is time that we did the same for the cyclists on our streets.
......
“As a trauma surgeon — and as a cyclist — I can see that asking cyclists to share the Embankment with heavy goods vehicles on a cold, rainy night is going to end in horrible mistakes. London is a city where one tiny mistake as a cyclist can cost you your life because cyclists are given so little room.”
......
A cyclist in Britain is three times more likely to be killed than one in the Netherlands and twice as likely as a cyclist in Denmark or Germany. 
.....
Jenny Jones, the Green Party’s mayoral candidate, said: “The truth is uncomfortable for all of us who want London to be a cycling-friendly city. The mayor has failed to make roads safer for vulnerable road users and he is fast becoming the big barrier to the future expansion of cycling in London.”
.....
As one Whitehall source put it: “One of the reasons we have had quite good results on cycle safety is because people are too scared to get on their bikes.”
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Critics argue that coalition policies including cuts to road safety budgets, an end to casualty reduction targets, reduced funds for speed cameras and hints of a rise in motorway speed limits have created an environment that is hostile to road safety. The Government abolished Cycling England, the body charged with enticing millions of motorists to take up cycling, along with its £60 million annual funding for cycle schemes. Cuts to police and highways maintenance budgets are putting lives at risk, campaigners say. 

I think it is great that The Times has come out saying these things, and I really hope the Government sharply takes notice. These are all points that have been made amongst campaigners, and in the left-wing press, many times, but here we have a real shift of these issue to the centre-ground of British politics. Here is The Times's 8-point manifesto for cities to be made fit for cycling:
  1. Trucks entering a city centre should be required by law to fit sensors, audible truck-turning alarms, extra mirrors and safety bars to stop cyclists being thrown under the wheels.
  2. The 500 most dangerous road junctions must be identified, redesigned or fitted with priority traffic lights for cyclists and Trixi mirrors that allow lorry drivers to see cyclists on their near-side.
  3. A national audit of cycling to find out how many people cycle in Britain and how cyclists are killed or injured should be held to underpin effective cycle safety.
  4. Two per cent of the Highways Agency budget should be earmarked for next generation cycle routes, providing £100 million a year towards world-class cycling infrastructure. Each year cities should be graded on the quality of cycling provision.
  5. The training of cyclists and drivers must improve and cycle safety should become a core part of the driving test.
  6. 20mph should become the default speed limit in residential areas where there are no cycle lanes.
  7. Businesses should be invited to sponsor cycleways and cycling super-highways, mirroring the Barclays-backed bicycle hire scheme in London.
  8. Every city, even those without an elected mayor, should appoint a cycling commissioner to push home reforms.
I'll write some more on these points in a future post, but at the moment, I will just say that I fully support the manifesto, and urge everybody to do so too by signing up on the campaign page, and also writing to their MP about it. I'll even urge you to by the paper itself, as the campaign will be continuing over the next few editions.

.....

Many of the one hundred posts I have published on this blog have been very long, so that number of posts represents an awful lot of words. One of the longest posts, and the most popular of all, was 1934: The moment it all went wrong for cycling in the UK. There, I said this, comparing the post-war histories of cycling in the UK and the Netherlands:
Belisha's truce [the pre-war road safety measures introduced by Conservative transport minister Leslie Hore-Belisha] meant the safety pressures were not so strong in the UK as they became in the Netherlands. There was never, at any particular moment, the same conjunction of social forces in the UK as there was in the Netherlands in the early 1970s, where the oil price shocks, the Kindermoord campaign, the setting up of the Fietersbond, and the beginnings of the green movement, with the realisation that motor-dominated transport was unsustainable, all came together to push the government to start re-planning the Dutch environment to prioritise cycling.
and later:
The interests of the few, hardy, mostly adult male, remaining cyclists [in the UK] were never seen as coinciding strongly enough with an imperative to make the roads safer for all, particularly children, for there to be the kind of street design revolution that occurred in the Netherlands, and, to a lesser extent, in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.
Maybe The Times mainstreaming of the cycle safety issue is a sign that we now do have an appropriate "conjunction of social forces" in the UK to push through a revolution in the cycling (and walking) environment – a conjunction of greater numbers cycling (particularly women, who always attract more sympathy than men), pushing cycle safety up the political priority list, a recognition that something needs to be done about the obesity epidemic, a recognition that children need to be freed from car-borne dependence on their parents (which people across the political spectrum can agree on), and the need to reduce fossil-fuel dependence and reduce pollution-related deaths – all of which feed into an economic imperative to make the economy more efficient in a time of economic crisis.

The Times campaign talks, rightly, a lot about the unacceptable danger faced by cyclists on our streets. The rhetorical framework in which the danger of cycling is discussed by many existing cyclists seems to have transformed in the short time that I have been writing this blog (though I had been writing in a similar vein in other places long before that) and I claim some credit for this happening. When I wrote my piece Cycling is Dangerous last July, I attracted a huge amount of abuse for, as some in the cycling world often put it, "dangerising" cycling. But I have no apologies over this or similar pieces. I have not "dangerised" cycling, our road environment has none that. I have merely told the truth about the danger – as The Times is now doing.

It never did cycle campaigning any good, I have kept saying, to downplay the danger issue. It just made cyclists seem more like a species apart from ordinary people, who would never dare to ride on our roads as they stand. It just marginalised cyclists more within the psychology of our nation. Within the London Cycling Campaign I used to be reviled for talking in this way. An edict at one stage went out in the LCC for campaigners "not to used the D word", lest we put potential new cyclists off. I never saw it that way. 

Since I wrote Cycling is Dangerous, others have written in similar vein, such as MCR Cycling and As Easy As Riding A Bike, we have had an LCC-supported Tour du Danger of the most dangerous junctions in London, numerous other protests explicitly about danger, and now few in the LCC seem to bat an eyelid at using talk of the danger of cycling, particularly in reference to blackspots such as Bow, Blackfriars and Kings Cross, as a campaigning tool. This is a real change, one for which I claim some credit. There is a widespread recognition of a point I have always maintained, that the "Whitehall source" quoted in The Times puts as:
One of the reasons we have had quite good results on cycle safety is because people are too scared to get on their bikes.
Or to put it more precisely, the nature of the dangerous environment on our roads for cyclists limits cycling to a tiny demographic slice who can mitigate the danger by their own efforts. That doesn't make cycling in the UK genuinely "safe", either relatively or absolutely.

But let's come back to the topic of the press, and, specifically, the Murdoch press. I wrote a post in June on The press and political will, which was prompted by some articles in The Sunday Times, one very pro-cycling, one anti, in the same edition. I wrote:
The writers in a given newspaper do not all have to have the same outlook on a particular subject, but they usually do. This is therefore interesting as it shows The Sunday Times, and probably therefore the whole Murdoch stable of papers, which are very influential, at a turning point in their attitude to cycling.
I pointed to a huge change in attitude to cycling that had occurred in the London Evening Standard as cycling levels had risen in London, and said:
Because it is the habit of the press to simplify issues, it is characteristic of their attitude to a particular issue or group that when it shifts, it tends not to shift slightly, it flips totally, almost overnight.
And I leave you with a final point from that blogpost:
In the internet age the influence of the printed news media is not as great as it was. But the attitudes of the papers are still a good bellwether of wider opinion, and of political will. Here I come to the point of my post. As cycle campaigners, we are constantly wondering, "How can we generate the political will to put into place the measures that we know will achieve a mass cycling culture?" In the UK at the moment, this seems a world away. But, like the attitudes of the papers, political will tends to be all-or-nothing. Like trying to push a vast ship down a slipway into the water, once it goes, it goes.
Support Cities Fit for Cycling.

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