Monday, 10 September 2012

Have the Daily Mail & Evening Standard published a fake article about cyclist road behaviour to call for compulsory cycle licences? Even if it's true, I think they're missing the point. We should be presumed at fault if we cycle into a pedestrian, yes. And we should be presumed at fault if we drive into a pedestrian or cyclist too. Licences won't change things, changing the environment will.

Daily Mail wants this little person on a
bicycle to have a licence. Would Petronella Wyatt
call her a 'lycra lout'?
Over the weekend, the Daily Mail published an article about cycling by Petronella Wyatt. The Evening Standard quoted that article in its Monday morning issue.

The article in the Mail is deliberately provocative:

"The majority [of cyclists] are safe – but not all. There are rogues: Lycra louts whose intentions are as low as the meanest hit-men. In 2012, I had my handbag stolen by a gang of youths on bikes....I have seen cyclists on the pavement and on the wrong side of the road. Others fail to signal, overtake on the inside and ignore traffic lights." And so it goes on.

The Evening Standard has re-purposed much of the article in today's edition that calls for obligatory licensing for people who ride bikes. It claims that Wyatt's mother was knocked down twice in one month.

The thing is, in my opinion, this article is fake. The reason I say that is simple. In February 2010, the Daily Mail published an article also by Petronella Wyatt that is almost identical to the 2012 article. According to this weekend's Mail on Sunday, Wyatt's mother was run over by a cyclist on 16 August. According to the Mail she was also run down in 2010. According to the Standard, she was hit twice last month alone. It's not clear if her mother has now been knocked down once, twice or possibly three times (Once in 2010, once or possibly twice in 2012).
It is possible (albeit dreadful if true) that her mother was indeed struck twice by a 'lycra lout'. But something makes me feel this is all a bit fishy. You see, if you run the two articles side by side, you'll see the wording is almost verbatim:

In 2012 Wyatt writes: "I could hear a convulsion in his voice. It sounded like stifled laughter. He could not repress a gurgling sound before he managed to compose himself to express sympathy and shock. 'Again? How awful!'"

What's wrong with this picture? This is supposed
to be a cycle highway. Poor street design encourages
poor road user behaviour at junctions like this
In 2010 Wyatt wrote almost the exact same text: "The inevitable convulsion took place in the nerves of my friend's face. She looked as if she was going to laugh. She could not suppress a gurgling sound before she managed to compose her features into the correct position of commiseration and shock, and say: 'How awful!'"

And so it continues - the same text amended ever so slightly.

Let's assume that Wyatt's mother was indeed hit twice by someone on a bicycle. That would be truly awful. Awful enough that a good journalist ought to be able to write about it convincingly and from the heart. But Wyatt hasn't done that. She (or someone else in the organisation) has taken old copy and rehashed it. I'm afraid that leads me to question the veracity of her claims.

I disagree with the tone of Wyatt's article. Her facts are also wrong, especially the points about who's to blame for collisions involving people on bikes.

178 people were injured when walking in London last year by people riding on bikes. Wyatt's mother therefore makes up between 0.55% and 1.7% of those incidents. Let's also remember that 77 people were killed in collisions with motor vehicles when walking in London last year (none of them by people on bicycles and yet plenty of people are killed or seriously injured by motor vehicles on the pavement, not only on the road), up 33% on the previous year. The number of people seriously injured on our roads while cycling has also jumped 36% over the long term trend.

It's worth noting that a significant proportion of the people killed cycling on London's roads this year have been children. I'm not sure if Wyatt proposes licensing 'lycra lout' children or not.

But rather than dwell on those issues, I think we should be reframing this debate. Wyatt calls for compulary cycle licensing. In all honesty, that's hadly going to make a difference. Have driving licences prevented 77 people being killed while walking in London this year? No.

I think the issue is about how our streets function. For everyone. And London in particular has a real issue on its streets.

Chris Boardman on BBC Breakfast calling for a change in the street environment. For all of us.

London pedestrians often feel intimidated by people on bikes. Londoners on bikes feel intimidated by people in cars and in particular by people driving minicabs, vans and lorries. The result is that our streets are places where the fittest or the toughest or, frankly, the biggest take precedence and everyone else has to jump out of the way. That can be seen at pedestrian crossings where there's often not enough time to cross the road or where some people on jump the lights on bikes. But it can also be seen in the street when people drive through red lights (happens much more than the press would like to have you think), on mobile phones, undertaking other drivers at speed. We have created a street environment which stinks. And we're all the worse for it.

And I'll be frank. Some people in London cycle like jerks. They cut other people up, they jump lights, they behave badly to other road users. Equally, some people in London drive like jerks. They undertake, swerve because they're on their phones, cut up pedestrians and cyclists. I despair when I see people cycle like antisocial idiots. But I've become so used to people driving like antisocial idiots that I almost don't notice. Unless I'm on my bike, when they pose a serious threat to me.

As I mentioned in this blog last week, I think that our streets have been actively designed to generate more conflict between different road users, not less. And it's time for that to change. For all of us, whether we're walking, cycling or driving.

Blaming cyclists alone is not the answer. I'm going to leave with the words of Chris Boardman on Radio5 live last week:

“The emphasis shouldn’t be just on the cyclist. We’re creating a symptom without looking at the cause. If someone gets shot on the street, the answer isn’t that everyone should wear body armour. You say – ‘hang on a minute, maybe we need to look at the reasons behind this?’.”

Boardman's interview on BBC Breakfast was even better. You can view it above.

We need more voices like Chris Boardman's to come forward and less knee-jerk reactionary re-hashing from the like of Petronella Wyatt.