26 October 2012

Bicycles: a very Conservative way of getting from A to B

This summer has seen a transformation in the fortunes of the humble bicycle. Names like Wiggins, Hoy and Trott are now part of Britain’s sporting pantheon, and have inspired us mortals to pump up our bike tyres and take to the roads. But away from the hype around getting our children more involved in school sport, cycling has an important part to play in securing the sporting and social legacy of the Games.

Riding a bike is fun (and good exercise to boot), and by getting people out of cars, buses and trains we can reduce the need for expensive increases in public transport and road capacity: Transport for London’s Boris Bikes are run at a profit, unlike tube and bus tickets, which are heavily subsidised. Indeed, the bike is the ultimate Conservative way of getting from A to B: it offers complete freedom, and the user bears almost all the costs of riding!

Making our roads safer for cyclists also carries a useful electoral dividend, with the rise of transport poverty an increasingly pressing issue. UK roads are twice as dangerous for cyclists when compared to Germany, which in part explains why in Britain the simple act of hopping on a bike to get around is largely the preserve of affluent, young caucasian men. Ensuring our streets are a more appealing prospect for bikes is something that will play well with the sorts of voters we need to connect with – women, people on low incomes, etc.

The Department of Transport’s work with local authorities to promote 20mph limits in residential areas is a step in the right direction, but there is much more we can do. I think there are two inexpensive measures the Government can take that would be a massive step towards encouraging people onto their bikes in a safer road environment.

1) Simplify complex design standards. At the moment there is no overall idea of what constitutes design best practice when creating safer streets for bicycling. The Highways Agency addresses it in several publications, regional authorities have their own guidance, and local councils also have best practice documents – with no requirement for any of these to be followed. This seems incredibly inefficient, and unsurprisingly the internet is awash with photos of poorly implemented bike lanes that are at best a waste of time and paint. Instead, we should create a single document that local authorities must adhere to. Cyclists want better infrastructure, and having a unified, clear sense of what this entails would be an important step – and much more cost-effective.

2) Put the onus on drivers. Three quarters of car/bike accidents in London are attributable to drivers failing to look properly, yet in practise the law remains heavily weighted against vulnerable cyclists. Directing the CPS to increase prosecutions of careless driving seems a little heavy handed. Why not simply insist that drivers have to prove they were not at fault in civil cases, rather than the current situation where cyclists (who are to blame for only 26% of accidents) have to graft away to get redress? This balance of liability is common across the Continent, where it encourages responsible biking – a common gripe of the British motorist.

The cycling safety debate will come increasingly to the fore as fuel and ticket prices rise in the coming years. There is a huge opportunity for us, particularly given that Labour’s recently announced cycling policy fails to address the structural challenges inherent in making our roads more bicycle friendly. Offering cyclists reasonable legal protection and simplifying the spider’s web of design parameters addresses the core safety issues, and would be important steps in the right direction at little cost to the Exchequer. And it would also be a positive message to sell on the doorstep to the sort of people we need to win over in 2015!

First published by Platform 10 on August 23rd, 2012