For good or ill, the injuries suffered last week by our first ever Tour de France winner and his coach, in separate incidents on consecutive days, have put the issue of cycling, and cycling safety, in the media spotlight.
I’ve been quite fascinated by the response, because it has often been deeply revealing about the in-built assumptions many of our journalists have about cycling, and, more broadly, about what our towns, cities and villages should look like.
One of the most damaging assumptions, widespread amongst both journalists and the general public, seems to be that our roads and streets are somehow intrinsically dangerous, and that people who venture out onto them on two wheels should therefore take measures to protect themselves against the hazards that they will meet. A common form of this refrain is, alongside exhorting drivers to ‘look out’, a plea (even a demand) for cyclists to clad themselves in high-visibility clothing to aid drives in their ‘looking out’, and to wear protective items of equipment to protect themselves should drivers fail to ‘look out’ properly.
The astonishingly bad ‘Ride Smart’ campaign that appeared (and then swiftly disappeared) yesterday didn’t even the merit of presenting these kinds of arguments in the context of asking drivers to ‘look out’; it came straight out and blamed cyclists for their own injuries and deaths, while saying nothing about the the behaviour of those drivers who run over those cyclists who have the temerity to be listening to music.
Of course, slightly less offensively, these arguments exhorting cyclists to take ‘extra’ measures to ensure their own safety are usually presented as a form of ‘mutual respect’; that in expecting drivers to ‘look out’ for them, cyclists should do things that the law does not even demand of them. That to be a ‘proper cyclist’, one must be wearing a helmet, one can’t ever be using headphones, and one shouldn’t wear dark clothes.
It’s perfectly legal to cycle without a helmet, or in dark clothes, or while using headphones, but woe betide any cyclist who chooses to head out onto the streets like this, for you are being ‘irresponsible’, and therefore not due the mutual respect of being ‘looked out for’. A typical example is this piece from the Metro Newspaper, entitled Cyclists and drivers need to be mutually respectful to ensure road safety. What is it that cyclists have to do to ‘earn’ mutual respect? Wear helmets and ‘bright clothing’.
Similarly, Barrow Police chose to tweet the following last Friday -
Hoping @bradwiggins is back on his bike soon. A wake up call to all cyclists #BESEENBESAFE #WEARAHELMET & enjoy safer cycling
It’s worth remembering that Bradley Wiggins was wearing a helmet, and should have been seen by any driver who was actually paying attention; and further, that his injuries were caused by the driver of a motor vehicle acting irresponsibly. (Reading this tweet in isolation of news events, you might think that Bradley Wiggins was himself responsible for his own injuries.) Yet at the time this tweet was published, Barrow Police had had nothing to say about driver behaviour, following both the Bradley Wiggins and Shane Sutton incidents. It was only after I and several others had responded to this tweet that they urged drivers to ‘take a second look’. It is telling that their first reaction was to ask cyclists to make themselves more visible, and to don protective equipment.
This disappointing attitude was also exhibited by two BBC journalists on the same day, Rachel Burden and Jacqui Oatley. In what can only be described as a surreal debate on BBC Radio 5 Live on Friday morning, the former decided to ‘challenge’ Chris Boardman on his entirely reasonable position that bicycle helmets should be a matter of choice. You can listen to the discussion here.
Rachel Burden starts by saying that most cyclists near where she lives are ‘responsible’, and ‘wear helmets’; and that ‘it would seem to be a sensible precaution’ to wear one.
I don’t quite get why cyclists generally don’t uniformly say “yeah, do you know what, as a matter of course, of course everyone should wear hi-viz garments, and of course everyone should wear a helmet, and then let’s focus on how we can make the roads better.”
Boardman responds quite sensibly that this should be up to the individuals concerned, and that the danger in pushing this line is that we end up focused on symptoms, rather than causes. Our first response to people being shot at on the street shouldn’t be to clad them with bullet proof vests; it should be to investigate how and why people are being shot, and to stop it.
The host Nicky Campbell then interjects with a point about cyclists listening to music (a particular concern of his, I’ve noticed) – Boardman responds that we don’t ask drivers to keep their radios off, and their windows open, so they can hear what’s going on around them. Why should cyclists be any different? There’s not really a sensible response to this point, and Burden demonstrates it by pretending that in her car she can hear what’s going on around her while music is playing, while listening to music on a bike is ‘very different’ (hint – no it isn’t).
Running through this entire discussion is the assumption that it is the most vulnerable parties who should have to take extra measures to ‘be sensible’ (this isn’t just limited to cyclists; Burden says that pedestrians ‘should not be on smartphones’), while those who pose the risk are free to continue listening to music, or to drive dark cars that are hard to see. The motoring environment is, for the foreseeable future, immutable, and pedestrians and cyclists should have to conform to its logic.
The other BBC journalist, Jacqui Oatley, verged on the offensive. She engaged with Burden on Twitter, professing astonishment with people who ride bikes who are ‘not fussed about helmets’ and who ‘wear black’. She then stated that people who cycle without helmets ‘have a death wish’ and ‘totally agreed’ with the sentiment that ‘anyone who cycles without a helmet is simply mad!’
Here is a picture of me cycling along Lancing seafront. (by @steinsky)
My choice to wear a straw hat instead of a bicycle helmet does not make me ‘mad’, or suggest that I have a ‘death wish’. (We can even set aside the likelihood that a straw hat on my head will do me just about as much good as a polystyrene one in the event that I am hit by a car).
My bike is heavy. It is not inherently dangerous to ride it at the slow speeds I generally progress at while I am on it. Danger is presented to me by motor vehicles, and the suggestion that I am being ‘irresponsible’ by not protecting myself against that danger by donning various items of clothing is almost as offensive as suggesting to the innocent victim of a shooting that they were ‘irresponsible’ because they hadn’t worn a bullet proof vest. I say ‘almost’, because shootings are rare, while cyclists being being killed or seriously injured by motor vehicles is unfortunately very common; it might be possible to argue that you can ‘expect’ to be injured while cycling, but you shouldn’t ‘expect’ to be shot (but this in turn says something about how uninterested we are about road deaths and injuries).
Of course one could respond that cycling along in normal clothes, and without protective equipment, is perfectly fine in areas where motor vehicles are not present, like Lancing seafront, but that cycling on busy roads in towns and cities is a very different matter; that where motor vehicles are present, we should take ‘precautions’.
To an extent, I conform to this logic. I often listen to music while cycling along quieter roads around where I live, but I haven’t ever done so in central London, where I quite reasonably need to ‘keep my wits about me’. I don’t, however, cycle in London wearing hi-viz; I believe my lights and the reflectors on my bike are (or should be) sufficient to make me visible. I am similarly dubious about the ‘extra’ safety a helmet might offer me in the event of being struck by a vehicle.
But in making this kind of argument, we are inevitably conceding that riding a bike is not inherently dangerous (an argument that I have heard the wonderful Chris Boardman making several times over the last few days). If cycling is safe in the absence of motor traffic, but not while motor traffic is present, then it is quite obvious that it is not ‘cycling’ that is unsafe, but ‘cycling in motor traffic’. This makes the focus on ‘safety equipment’, and on cyclists’ behaviour, all the more absurd, because it completely ignores the root cause of the danger.
This brings me, circuitously, to the central point of this post; that now is the time to focus, more than ever, on changing the environment for cycling, and to push back even harder against a ‘safety’ agenda that seeks to adapt the act of riding a bike to the logic of motoring.
To its credit, the Times’ Cities Fit for Cycling Campaign has evolved in the right direction over the course of this year. I had some concerns, when the campaign was launched, about an excessive focus on keeping cyclists safe, rather than thinking about how to make roads and streets pleasant for cycling, and to improve the environment of our towns and cities for all. But its (serendipitous) relaunch last week shows that the campaign is heading in the right direction; the editorial in the paper called for ‘structural and geographical change’, and asserted that
the stated aim of this campaign has never been to change drivers or cyclists. Rather, it has been to change the cities in which they cycle and drive.
This is exactly right. We should be making our towns and cities look like this.
These cities in the Netherlands have made the environment safe. The danger presented to cyclists by motor vehicles has been removed, either by segregation, or by the removal of through traffic, and careful design to keep vehicle speeds and traffic volume low. These are busy places, but you don’t need to wear helmets, or special clothes, or keep your wits about you. It’s completely unnecessary.
In cities in the UK like London, however, the environment is not safe; it is unyielding, and errors on your part, or on the part of a driver around you, may result in serious injury or death.
A sensible long-term safety strategy should not involve cladding the cyclists in these pictures in more day-glo material, or better helmets, or asking that they and the drivers around them continue to ‘look out’. The focus should be on ameliorating the public realm, to remove the danger posed by motor vehicles to both cyclists and pedestrians. Creating safe space to walk and cycle in, and to prioritise walking and cycling as modes of urban transport. Making better cities, in other words.
This is going to be an uphill struggle. I’m sad to say that, at the risk of generalising, most people don’t even comprehend that our streets could be better places. That there is a better way of organising them so that they are not completely oriented around the flow of motor traffic, and that restricting that flow, even marginally, gives us an opportunity to provide people with pleasant alternatives. A case in point was the presenter on BBC Breakfast who interviewed Chris Boardman and the admirable Phil Jones on Friday. The presenter argued that ‘we don’t have a system that, if you like, lends itself to having separate space’; that there ‘isn’t enough width’, and ‘there’s a problem with the logistics of the space available’. This while the following footage was appearing on screen.
Quite obviously, we do have space on these kinds of streets, and plenty of it; it’s just that it is allocated entirely to motor traffic. That the BBC presenter could not even see what was right before his eyes is unfortunately quite common; we are in a situation where four-lane gyratories and junctions are seen as ‘natural’, and that provision for walking and cycling must therefore be fitted in around the margins. Likewise, on narrow streets (those genuinely narrow streets) we can make cycling and walking pleasant, by reducing speeds, and by restricting or even removing motor traffic.
This really isn’t rocket science; as both Phil and Chris pointed out, it has been done in countries only a few hundreds of miles away, and in the last few decades. We should be ‘hoping’, not ‘coping’, as Mark Ames memorably described the aims and intentions of London Cycling’s Love London, Go Dutch campaign in the latest Street Talk. I can’t put it much better than that.