Why is it that cycling is regarded as a serious potential risk in ways that motor traffic travelling at greater speeds (and with much greater momentum) is not?
Part of the explanation must lie in the fact that we have lived with motor traffic travelling at great speed around our urban areas for so long that is simply seen as ‘normal’. We don’t even notice it – it’s simply background wallpaper, a fact of life. Cars, lorries, vans and buses travel at 30mph along our roads and streets, and that’s just the way it is.
Meanwhile cycling – a mode of transport for which users rarely attain more than 20mph, and which weighs little more than the human being cycling – is something that has to be controlled; slowed down; enforced.
This isn’t helped by lazy urban design that all too often lumps cycling in with walking, placing it on pedestrian-specific infrastructure that is a recipe for conflict.
But I suspect there’s a little more going on behind the scenes here than simple bad design. As we shall see later in this post, even on high-quality cycling infrastructure that clearly separates cycling from walking, there is an expectation that cycling should be slowed down and controlled in ways that are simply absent on the adjacent road network, where motor traffic continues to thunder past at 30mph (or more).
Of course, the ‘controlling’ mentality has been most powerfully exhibited by the Royal Parks in the last week, who, having already installed a series of cobbled ridges in the western half of Hyde Park, are now proceeding to add another series to the (long-established) cycle path along the Broad Walk, which indirectly connects Hyde Park Corner with Marble Arch on the eastern side of the park. There will be 28 humps on this 1 km section of path.
The justification for doing this is (as always) people apparently cycling too fast. A speed of 32mph has been cited, but notably this is just one person, on one occasion. By contrast 93% of people surveyed by the Royal Parks are cycling below 20mph. A comment from a Royal Parks spokesman provides a little insight into the mentality of the organisation –
“If we have cyclists racing up and down a pathway at speed with pedestrians trying to cross that really doesn’t make for a pleasant visit, especially when we also have cases of pedestrians being shouted at for walking on pathways in the way of cyclists.”
What is deeply inconsistent about this attitude is that the roads running through Hyde Park continue to have 30mph limits, with very little to stop drivers from (entirely legally) travelling at this speed, and with little or no assistance to help pedestrians cross the road at key locations.
The speed limit for drivers in the park is exactly the same as the single cycling outlier that has justified the installation of these cobbles, and the evidence from other Royal Parks suggest that speeding is rife, with 54% of all drivers exceeding 30mph in the Outer Circle in Regents Park. (The Royal Parks interest in tackling ‘speeding’ in this particular park only seems to have materialised with the prospect of it being closed as a through route to motor traffic, with new cobbled ramps to slow cycling).
Equally there is absolutely no priority for pedestrians attempting to cross these roads, nor any apparent concern in the face of motorists ‘racing’ (not that this word would be used by the Royal Parks) at 30mph or above. Naturally, these are ‘roads’ where that kind of speed is completely fine, while cycling on the Broad Walk is a mere ‘path’ where 10mph is the desired speed.
The inconsistency is even more obvious when we consider that the Broad Walk itself isn’t a particularly direct or convenient route for anyone cycling along the eastern edge of the park – it involves a series of convoluted crossings at both ends to leave and rejoin the road network. The most direct route is of course Park Lane itself, a fast and unpleasant road that (incredibly enough) was built on the park in the early 1960s. So Park Lane is effectively a route through the park, a route where motor traffic travels at great speed and in large quantities, a route where people are killed and seriously injured in numbers, and where pedestrians have to wait minutes to cross the road.
When I cycle on the Broad Walk (for instance, to go to Westminster University) it is not out of choice, but because I have been pushed off Park Lane by the dangerous and inhospitable character of the road.
To punish me (and everyone else cycling on this route) is perverse, given it is a route of last resort. The best way to tackle this issue is not to make all our lives worse, but to provide clear, consistent space for cycling, be it in the park itself, or reclaimed from Park Lane – space that sensibly separates people cycling from people walking. (It’s notable that these latest proposals for the Broad Walk actually create new environments where walking and cycling are pushed into the same space, with no clarity for either type of user). The humps will not solve the ‘speeding’ problem (if it did, people on racing bikes would not cycle through the Arenberg Forest at close to 30mph), and they will create new problems.
The underlying issue here seems to be that pedestrian comfort and convenience only seems to be a matter of concern when cycling is involved.
A textbook example of this is the installation of zebra crossings on new cycling infrastructure in London, giving people on foot priority when they need to cross to bus stops. Now I think these are a good idea. They can now be installed without zig-zag markings and ‘Belisha Beacons’, making them a low-cost and low-hassle intervention that makes walking a bit easier and will barely inconvenience cycling at all, given the dynamics of these two modes.
But where is this degree of concern for ease of crossing on the rest of the road network? Central London boroughs are chock-full of junctions where people are sent on circuitous routes to safely cross the road, or where there are signals for motor traffic, but no separate green signal for pedestrians. Even bog-standard unsignalised junctions can be totally inhospitable for all but the most able-bodied pedestrians.
There doesn’t appear to be any particular concern about this neglect of pedestrian safety and comfort, widespread across the capital, yet crossing four metres of tarmac which only carries people cycling necessitates a zebra crossing. That’s fine, of course, and worthy, but it seems a curiously backward approach to leap into action when pedestrians have to deal with cycling, but to leave them totally helpless when they have to cross rivers of motor traffic travelling at 30mph.
I walk a lot in London, and I would love to see a great deal more care and attention paid to pedestrian comfort and convenience. I am not encouraged, however, by a reluctance to install things like zebra crossings anywhere on the road network, except when it involves crossing cycleways. Nor am I encouraged by an enthusiasm to tackle ‘speeding’ by one particular mode, largely travelling at under 20mph, while roads administered by the same authority continue to have 30mph limits, with the majority of drivers exceeding that speed. Is it too much to ask for a rational and consistent approach on these kinds of issues?