Saturday, 2 February 2013

My submission to the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group "Get Britain Cycling" Inquiry. Cycling needs consistency: consistent funding, consistent standards, consistent laws. Can the Inquiry help that to happen?

Below is the text of my evidence submitted to the All Party Parliamentary Cyling Group "Get Britain Cycling" Inquiry. I apologise in advance for the length of the article. But I'd welcome people's comments and feedback.
One of the two roads connecting north of the A3 motorway with
the south. The town straddles both sides of this road. Roads like this are the only options for people who want to cycle from
the north to the south of the town. Most people drive.
 Would you like to cycle here with your children?

"Crossing this barrier by foot or bike requires resolve,bravery and a belief that one is capable of making the journey without being squashed. There are few places where it can be achieved."

These are the comments made to a local newspaper in Guildford by someone who cycles there. The 'barrier' in question is the A3 - a motorway-style dual carriageway that runs through the town and splits the northern and southern halves. All of the crossings between north and south are designed to maximise the flow of motor traffic. They look like motorway slip roads and pedestrian and cyclist alternatives are extremely thin on the ground.

There is one crossing that does feel safer to cross on foot or by bike, namely a labyrithine set of concrete stairs and walkways that crosses over the A3. It is a fairly grimy sort of place. Not somewhere you’d want to hang around at night.

People have been asking for years for this bridge to be upgraded so that there is a safe and convenient way to walk or cycle between the north and south of the town. But the town council has never shown much interest and focussed its efforts instead on winning DfT funding to widen a roundabout half a mile down the road so that more cars can drive off the A3 in the hope of reducing traffic congestion towards the university and science parks. 

I grew up in a village just outside Guildford. I know exactly just how hostile the roads are because when I was a teenager, I was too scared to cycle into town from where I lived. I would cycle on quiet lanes but there were no routes into town that felt safe. 

When I was 20, I moved to Germany for one summer and took up a job making components in a car factory in a town there. I lived in a small village about the same distance from the factory as my home village was from Guildford. But the difference was that the village was connected to the town by a bicycle street. Cars could drive on the bicycle street but they couldn't use the whole length of it - there were barriers in the way, so only people on bikes or on foot could use the route to get from A to B. Cars had to stick to the main road. 

That bicycle street gave me the opportunity to cycle safely and conveniently to work. Most of the other factory workers also cycled to work. After living in the car-choked south east of England, this was a major revelation to me. I didn't need to spend my hard-earned cash on the bus. I could save the money and cycle instead. And I needed to save money. I needed money to fund my way through university. 

Had I been working in the UK, I feel I would have had to spend a higher proportion of my income on transport than I did in Germany. I would have probably had to consider buying a clapped-out car, for example (the shifts started at 6am, before the bus got started). Rather than invest in my future, I would have had to spend my money funding insurance and petrol costs instead. 

Ever since that time, I have consistently failed to understand why the UK makes it so difficult to choose to use a bicycle as a normal, everyday form of transport. I would look at streets in a different way to before. I could actually see how all the thinking about safety and about convenient transport would go into making the street safe and convenient for driving but not for cycling. Or, for that matter, for walking. 

At times, the sheer lack of consideration for cycling and walking here can be chilling. There is an official cycle route in north London that links the town centres of Elstree and Edgware. These two hubs are not far apart but very few people would cycle between them. The reason most people wouldn't cycle here is obvious when you look at the quality of the cycle infrastructure that has been built here. To cycle from one to the other, you need to cross the M1. The situation is very similar to Guildford, where I grew up: In order to cover a fairly short distance by bicycle in both these places, you need to find a way of getting across a major road barrier.

In the case of Elstree, you have to cycle along shared usefootpaths and then at one point you are told to cross the slip road thatconnects the M1 and the A41. You are told to do this with only your wits to protect you and you need to be an exceedingly good judge of speed and distance at any time of day or night, or in the rain. It is possible to get across the four lanes of the slip road on a bike and make it unscathed to the other side. But it's not an experience most people would want to do daily as part of their journey to work. Two years ago, a young woman called Zoe Sheldrake was killed on this crossing. 

The driver who hit ZoĆ«, Clive Sanford, was found not guilty of causing death by careless driving. I can only speculate as to what actually happened here that day but common sense tells me that Clive Sanford was probably not expecting a young woman on a bicycle to pull out across a motorway slip road in front of him. There are no warning signs to tell him cyclists might be crossing here, for example. More importantly, though, I think we have to ask ourselves why we even design cycle networks of such poor quality that these networks lead people directly into scenarios where they don't stand a hope of survival if they make the slightest error in judging the speed of four lanes of motorway traffic bearing down on them. 

The situation in Elstree is by no means a rarity. The options for people who want to cycle from the north to the south of Guildford are just as bad as those at this junction. Guildford's heart is ripped apart by fast-moving, multi-vehicle lane roads that are designed to move people in motor vehicles and where there is little or no consideration of the safety or convenience for those same people if they're on a bicycle. 

The official cycle network route from Guildford to
Godalming. Would you cycle here to go to the shops
in your jeans? At night? On your own? On anything
other than a mountain bike?
Over the years, some councils have made small steps to make cycling seem more attractive. There is the start, for example, of a half-decent cycle link between Guildford and another local town, Godalming. There is a lovely off-road cycle path, shared with pedestrians, that runs from Guildford town centre and through one of its parks southwards. When you leave the park, however, things take a turn for the worse. The cycle path enters woodland. There is no street lighting in the woods. The smooth tarmac surface gives way to mud. And half a mile further along, there is a set of 10 stairs. What the councils have done is created a link that exists for people to cycle between these two towns that exists only on paper. In reality, no-one is going to cycle to the shops if it means heading back in the dark, putting on specialist clothing to protect your clothes from the mud and, hauling a bicycle laden with purchases up some stairs. 

These situations are repeated all over the country. Over several years, London built a network of routes radiating out from the centre called the London Cycle Network. Some of the routes are extremely good and very useful. But for the most part, they are very fiddly. They are often poorly signposted; you find that the routes give up just when you need them most, for example at busy junctions like Parliament Square where the official London Cycle Network involves navigating your way through five lanes of motor traffic. Many of the routes take you down dark alleyways and through industrial estates. The parallels with Guildford are many and obvious.

When Boris Johnson became Mayor of London, he promised to sweep in with a vision for Londoners to get on their bikes. In his first term, he launched the Cycle Super Highway concept. At last, here was someone who understood why more people weren't using their bikes to make short journeys (Bear in mind, the majority of trips in outer London are made by car and half of those trips are less than 2 miles long. These are trips that large numbers of people could and should be doing by bicycle rather than in the car).

The Mayor promised "priority" for cycling and that he would keep bicycle traffic "separate" from heavy and fast moving motor traffic. As the launch of the Cycle Super Highways approached, the Mayor's commitments were watered down. Instead of prioritising cycling, the routes would be "clearly marked" and "continuous". Here was the same thinking as we'd already seen in places like Guildford - routes that were 'clearly-marked' and that were 'continuous' when you looked on the map. But whereas Guildford put its bike route through mud, stairs and woodland, the Mayor was putting his bike routes through busy and fast-moving A-roads, with little or nothing by way of protection for people on bikes. 

And, yet, to give the Mayor credit, cycling has increased on these routes. The numbers of people who cycle to the centre of London along Cycle Super Highway 7 from Tooting has mushroomed. Look around you, though, at who those cyclists are. For the most part, the people who cycle on this route are fit, young and overwhelmingly male. 

London Cycle Super Highway in action. The 'bike lane' is the blue
paint underneath the HGV, the vans and the bus. 
When you think about cycling in cities like Copenhagen or even, increasingly, New York City, you don't think of cycling as a form of transport that is preserved only for those fit enough, young enough or masculine enough to get on two wheels and pedal. You think and see all sorts of people on bikes. Mothers with their children in boxes on the front, older people pedalling gently from place to place. For the most part, they are wearing normal, everyday clothes. And what you have is a whole cross-section of the population getting about their day-to-day business. On bicycles. 

On Boris Johnson's Cycle Super Highways that's not what you see. My own view is that most people look at the Cycle Super Highways and don't see them as a safe or sensible choice for getting around. That's because the facilities on the Super Highways have, to date, been fairly threadbare. Transport for London has moved some white lines and put some blue paint on the road. But we know from study after study and from countless other cities around the world that large numbers of people do not switch from cars to bikes unless they feel it is safe, that they don't need to mix with lots of traffic, in particular with large buses and HGVs and that they don't need to wear specialist clothing and cycle at the same speed as a taxi in order just to get from A to B. 

And yet it's clear that things don't need to be like this. London, a city that is already falling way behind its global counterparts like New York when it comes to bicycle transport, is showing signs of success. Transport for London has published designs for the next two Cycle Super Highways that show a step change in design that could be very promising.

In the London borough of Hackney, 15% of people now cycle to workversus 12% who drive to work. Hackney's councillors have banned the construction of new parking spaces in new build residential developments. They have closed off rat-runs to through motor traffic but kept routes open to people on bikes and on foot. They have planned and built an environment that makes it safer and more convenient to walk or take your bicycle than to drive.

In the nearby borough of Newham, however, fewer than 2% of people get to work by bicycle. Newham has, until this year, done nothing to cultivate an environment that favours cycling instead of driving. Newham is a Labour-controlled council, just like Hackney. It has poor public transport connections (slightly better than Hackney's but still relatively poor) and has plenty of quieter streets that could and should link-up to create a place where people can choose to cycle. But it has pursued policies that encourage more cars instead. 

I worry that the government wants cycling to be delivered at a local level. In many ways, that is the right thing to do. But the disparities between Hackney and Newham make it abundantly clear that different local authorities have very different biases when it comes to cycling. It often seems that the personal opinion of one or two heavy-weight councillors about the use of bicycles will determine the chances of a local authority going the way of more cars and more congestion or the way of giving its residents the chance to walk or cycle instead. 

A bicycle street in Hackney. Used to be a rat run for cars, now a
useful link for people on bikes or foot. Not for people to race
through in cars.
The result, when you look at a map of London, is that cycling is taking off in areas where local authorities create provisions for people to use their bicycles as transport. I mean by that all sorts of people, not just young, fit commuters. There is latent demand in London and many other cities to cycle. Transport for London data shows that 23% of all journeys in London arepotentially cyclable - most of the potential comes from women, ethnicminorities, older and younger people. 

Even when a local authority does decide to get behind bicycle transport, there is a serious dearth of basic common sense around bicycle transport in the standards we use on our roads. The Highway Code is complicit in dampening the demand for cycling. When you confront a scary-lookingroundabout or junction, says the Highway Code, you should get off your bicycleand push. You ought also to wear a helmet and you ought to wear high visibility clothing. If I want to adhere to this last recommendation, I ought to wear clothes that are bright in the early morning sun when I cycle to work (probably some reflective items, say), then switch to different clothes if I cycle to a meeting during the day (probably bright yellow or red as hi-viz reflective wear isn't particularly helpful at noon) and then an entirely different outfit at night when it is dark that maximises reflectivity. It simply isn’t realistic to expect people to live up to these standards.

Rather than design roundabouts that are safe for a child to cycle to, we are telling that child to dismount and push. Rather than encourage (dare I say, enforce) drivers to slow down in residential areas and in our town centres, we are shoving responsibility for safety on the roads down to the person who is at highest risk on the roads. Our laws, our Highway Code, our street design manuals: all of these have been designed in favour of keeping people safe and within the law in a way that encourages them not to cycle but to drive instead. 

It is the whole way we look at roads that needs to change. A sizeable number of people in this country want the choice of being able to use a bicycle to do their business and to do so conveniently and in safety. They want to feel protected by the law, rather than exposed as they do currently. They want to feel that streets are designed in a way that keeps them safe, rather than exposes them to lethal danger, as many road designs do currently. Most of all, they want consistency. A consistent approach to making bicycle transport as well-respected, as well thought-through, as well adapted to their needs as jumping in the car is today and hopping three miles down the road.