Monday, 21 January 2013

UK Parliamentary cycling inquiry starts this week and could have enormous consequences for the future of cycling in the UK. It is hugely important.

German 'bicycle street'. Drivers 'must not endanger or impede cyclists'
Early today, the official Highway Code twitter account sent a tweet reminding UK road users of Highway Code rule 77: Cyclists. "At roundabouts be aware that drivers may not easily see you. You may feel safer walking your cycle round on the pavement/verge."

Read Rule 77 again and read it carefully. 

What we have here, in my view, is an official and cowardly opt-out by the Department for Transport. Rather than build infrastructure that makes it safe to cycle around the roundabout, the Highway Code (in my opinion) officially sanctions cop-out road design. If it's too scary for you, get off and walk.

But even getting off and walking isn't good enough:

This, believe it or not, is a Transport for London official cycle route 
crossing four lanes of motorway slip road

Two years ago, a woman called Zoë Anne Sheldrake was killed, aged 31. Zoë was on her bike using an official Transport for London cycle route between Elstree and Edgware. These two places are not far apart. But the cycle infrastructure that runs between them is, quite frankly, immorally dangerous. Voleospeed blog revisited the bike route last month. As he points out, Zoë would have followed the bike track and then had to cross a slip road that links the M1 and the A41. To get across the slip road, as he points out, "Cyclists are required to cross the 70mph slip road here, with no more than a "look left" and their own judgement to protect them." That means you have to literally race for your life across four lanes of motor traffic moving at 70-80mph, around a corner. We can only speculate how, exactly, Zoe was killed but as VoleOSpeed points out "what is really disgusting is the design of this cycle path; there is not even a sign telling motorists that cyclists and pedestrians are supposed to be crossing the slip road here". 

These are just two examples of the everyday abdication of responsibility by the highway authorities that faces people who want to cycle in the UK. You're damned by disgustingly dangerous cycle infrastructure or you're damned by a Highway Code that legitimises dangerous road designs and absolves highway authorities of responsibility to cater for safe cycling. 

A "Bicycle Street" in action, courtesy Hamburgfiets blog
Now, I know this is comparing apples ever so slightly with pears but let's look at the recently amended German version of the Highway Code. The Germans have updated the way they define "Bicycle Streets". Pictured left is a Bicycle Street in action. Looks like a fairly normal street, doesn't it? But there's a new rule on these streets: "You must not endanger or impede bicycle traffic". 

Just imagine adding a clause to the UK Highway Code that tells non-cyclists they must not "impede" cycle traffic. Astonishing in the UK, yet normal in many other countries and not only in Germany. 

These examples highlight just some of the issues that I hope will be exposed by the first ever parliamentary inquiry into how to get Britons on their bikes. The inquiry starts on Wednesday and yesterday's Guardian contains and excellent article that explains in some detail how the inquiry will work. 

The inquiry is about whether the UK can create a cycling environment which is sufficiently fit for purpose that cycling can become a normal mode of transport. It will (I hope) engage with issues around road infrastructure and with the rules of the road.

As Ian Austin MP - co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group stresses in an interview to The Guardian, "We want a detailed report with some very clear recommendations, which we can then ask all the political parties to sign up to. If we can get the party leaders to commit to cycling in advance of the election we can make some real progress."

And the question is, will we get real progress? 

I'm quietly hopeful we might. 

The reason I'm optimistic is an astonishing new set of guidelines from the Department for Transport, the same ministerial Department that gave us the Highway Code and created the lethal combination that is UK road policy: A set of road rules that shirk real responsibility when it comes to cycling (and pedestrian) traffic with a complete lack of design standards for safe cycle infrastructure. 

Last week the Department for Transport issued a new report on speed limits. The RAC Foundation wrote a withering blogpost in response to the new guidance which seems to me to completely miss the point of the new speed limit guidance. The absolute clincher point in the new guidance (to my mind) is this new clause: "Roads should be designed so that mistakes made by road users do not result in death or serious injury. Effective speed management is part of creating a safe road environment which is fit for purpose."

This is absolutely spot-on. It's hard to believe this has come from the Department for Transport. If you follow the new guidance, you simply can't design cycle routes that cross motorway slip roads and expect cyclists to just chance it across four lanes. Nor can you any longer accept Highway Code guidance that legitimises dangerous road design by telling cyclists to get off their bikes and walk. 

I think we owe full credit to the members of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group for championing these issues. And to The Times for supporting the inquiry. It will be an interesting few months as these issues are discussed and the report comes together. 

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You can hear Cambridge MP Julian Huppert and I discuss the inquiry on Radio 4's You and Yours programme. Listen out for the obligatory 'but cyclists jump red lights' question. Hmmm.