Thursday, 2 August 2012

The real debate isn't whether people should wear helmets on a bicycle. It's about the need for government to take cycling seriously and decide what cycling should look like in the UK .

A new cycle super highway in London at rush hour. The blue paint is also a left turn lane for motor vehicles that
makes conflict between motorists and cyclists hard to avoid

The last 24 hours has been slightly roller coaster in cycling terms.

I sat last night (I’m out in Asia at the moment) glued to twitter, watching the updates on Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome’s time trial successes. The Financial Times has an excellent piece talking about Wiggins's success and also discussing the massive surge in popularity for everyday cycling as transport. 

And I read this morning how Bradley Wiggins had, in a press conference, uttered these words, according to The Times:

There is so much that is right in these comments and so much that is utterly wrong. Utterly wrong is the inference that you won’t get killed if you wear a helmet. Personally, I wear a helmet some of the time but I don’t wear one to cycle a mile to the shops or even three miles on back roads. Or when it’s stiflingly hot.

Where I do agree with Wiggins’s statement though is the point that ‘things can’t continue the way they are’ and that ‘once there are laws passed for cyclists, then you are protected’.

Things clearly can’t continue the way they are. The number of people cycling is on the increase but they’re expected to tough it out among frankly awful road conditions designed exclusively to maximise the flow of motor vehicles.

“There’s nothing that acknowledges the bicycle…If you want to cycle, then you have to do so on four-wheeled terms”. 

Put Wiggins’s comments about ‘laws for cyclists’ in the context of Bathurst's statement, and I think it’s obvious that we need road laws that cater for people on bicycles. A cycling rule in Denmark, for example, is that cyclists may not filter across multiple lanes of motor traffic at junctions. If they want to turn left (equivalent of our right) have to first turn right and then cross when the lights change. It sounds like a massive inconvenience. But the reality is that this law has meant roads are designed to help cyclists make turns across busy junctions safely. And guess what, millions of people use bicycles to get around – 60% of Copenhagen commuters in fact.

In other words, if you want to acknowledge the bicycle, you may end up constraining some of the freedoms that cyclists enjoy at the moment. But this can have huge benefits, provided you focus on the right issues.

Bella Bathurst makes another, related point:

“Cyclists [in the UK] were faced with a landscape which either took no interest in them or appeared keen on actively eliminating them…the law ignored [cyclists]. The solution for many of them was to develop a style of cycling based on a combination of mountain biking, road racing, BMX skills and gymnastics…The law ignored them, so they ignored the law.”

There is so much that I can identify with in this statement.

We can build decent cycle infrastructure
in the UK. Pictured at Oxford Street. But
this link is only 20 metres long and simply
doesn't join up with anything. The lack of joined-up
approach is a big problem
In the Netherlands and increasingly in places like New York, I feel that I have a moral right, as someone on a bicycle, to get about my business safely and conveniently. And I have responsibilities.

In the UK, I feel marginalised, frequently intimidated on the roads and I often feel that both the law and the rules that define what a 'safe' road layout looks like simply don't make any sense when I'm using a bicycle as my mode of transport. 

Wiggins is right that things have to change. We have a ‘national cycle network’. It is being rolled out by a charity (Sustrans) that does a great job. But it’s a charity, with tiny funding. In London, Transport for London is only just starting to understand cycling. And to get its junction review and other safety proposals moving, it is working heavily with groups like the London Cycling Campaign – another charity, this time supported by dozens of volunteers taking time off work or their evenings spent working with TfL to try and help the organisation understand cycling.

Wiggins’s comments have unleashed a media rush to mandate helmet use. I think the real focus should be about the need to change the overall context of what’s happening in the UK. We can no longer rely on an army of volunteers to design a national cycle infrastructure, just as we can no longer rely on laws and road safety rules that ignore or simply fail to understand what it's like to be a cyclist.

I think we're reaching a tipping point:

The government needs to create a framework for cycling. It needs to decide what a national cycle network looks like. It needs to decide what urban cycle networks should look like. And in exchange it needs to regulate cycling to some extent. Until it takes these issues seriously, then the debate about helmets or the debate about segregated (protected) bike tracks is all just hot air. The risk is that one of these topics gets all the limelight, when the real issue is about giving cycling a proper place in UK transport. 


Note that this afternoon Bradley Wiggins sent a couple of fairly clear tweets to clarify things:

"Just to confirm I haven't called for helmets to be made the law as reports suggest"


"I suggested it may be the way to go to give cyclists more protection legally I involved In an accident"

I do kind of get where he's coming from. But what a pandora's box he's opened. It could be good. It could be bad. We'll find out.