Thursday, 20 September 2012

Government completely ignores former Conservative Transport Minister's calls for better cycle infrastructure and responds to a rising death toll on Britain's streets with a shoddy advertisement campaign

Last week former Transport Minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Conservative MP for Kensington and Chelsea who I unfairly maligned a few weeks ago) intelligently stated here in the Hammersmith and Fulham Chronicle that:

"a long-term paucity of proper cycling infrastructure has forced many cyclists onto busy roads, where they are bound to come into conflict with drivers of cars"

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who served as Conservative Transport Minister from 1990 to 1992 also said that "Cycling should be encouraged as a healthier, cheaper way of getting around that can serve out city's wellbeing and provide relief to our public transport infrastructure". Unfortunately the current Transport Minister, Patrick McLoughlin just wants to create more space for motorists.

Moreover, according to The Times 87 cyclists have died on Britain's roads this year, and at least 75 of those deaths have been due to collision with a motor vehicle. This is a staggeringly high figure and is put into grimmer perspective by the fact that Britain has the fifth worst record for reducing cycling fatalities in the EU.

How is the Government responding these dreadful figures? Is it listening to MPs like Sir Malcolm that are calling for "proper cycling infrastructure" which will prevent cycling deaths on busy roads or killer junctions like Bow Roundabout?

No. The Government is only responding with an advertising campaign that encourages motorists and cyclists to treat each other with more respect. Respect is great, but as Sir Malcolm says, if you've got cyclists mixing with traffic going at speeds usually substantially higher than 30mph then you are going to get fatalities no matter how much mutual respect is going on

Our Government is being wantonly useless. In fact, virtually all positive improvements in cycling infrastructure are coming from the bottom-up. TfL does appear to now be finally taking concrete steps to improve Bow Roundabout, but this is because of bottom-up pressure from Londoners who regularly cycle on Bow Roundabout rather than top-down pressure from a Government that wants to reduce cycling fatalities.

In a civilised country that cares about the safety of its citizens there should be pressure from the top-down on institutions like TfL and our local councils to put in place secure measures that will making cycling safer. But what is the reality in Britain? The Department for Transport (DfT) is currently hindering TfL's efforts to make Bow Roundabout safer because advance traffic-lights for cyclists are actually currently illegal under DfT guidelines. This state of affairs is a complete joke.

TfL has legally installed special 'horse-height' crossing buttons and horse-only crossing lights (seen as red image in background) at the eastern crossing of Hyde Park Corner. But installing a red cycle crossing light is currently illegal (which is why there isn't one here), as is installing cycle-only traffic lights at 'cycle-height'. Tens of thousands of cyclists use this crossing point every day; they are being ignored. I've never seen a single horse here; they are being catered for. Our current National transport policy is a disgrace. Moreover, a lack of 'horse-awareness' is also why the Government-run DVLA have blocked calls by driving instructors to make cycle awareness part of UK Driving Test. Again, this is completely farcical.

The Government needs to get its act together and start taking cycling, and the comments of MPs like Sir Malcolm seriously. Ad campaigns are no bad thing in of themselves. But anyone that has ever cycled on any road in Britain knows that what is a hundred times more important is safe cycle infrastructure which ensures that cyclists do not have to integrate with fast moving traffic that might, and indeed does repeatedly, kill them.

I suspect the reason for the Government's intransigence is due to a fear of alienating motorist voters. This is because nearly every element of proper cycle infrastructure you can think of deprives space or speed to the motorist in some way; advance stop boxes - ineffectual as they are - mean that motorists have to stop further away from the traffic lights; protected cycle lanes reduce that amount of lane space available to motorists; phased traffic lights mean motorists have to wait slightly longer at the lights; contra-flow cycle lanes usually necessitate the removal of on-street parking or the narrowing of a residential street.

The sad truth is that due to successive decades of pro-motorist policies in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, London's streets are already incredibly motor-friendly. Motorists and taxis have now got used to this state of affairs and are, like the American South, resistant to change. This photo is of Eaton Square, a five-lane (yes, that's right, FIVE LANE) residential road linking the twin centers of industry and commerce that are Sloane Square and Buckingham Palace. I can understand that high levels of motor capacity are necessary for some routes like the M25, but this kind of highway design in the heart of Central London, connecting two areas that are barely a mile apart, is just a complete and utter piss-take.
The lorry pictured here is, I believe, working for TfL and has special cyclist sensors. (Has the Government forced the freight industry to make this the industry standard, at least for vehicles travelling in London? No. Of course they haven't.) The rest of the traffic is just speeding taxis and young professionals in sports cars, probably driving to the gym where they'll get on a stationary bike for a workout. I don't think it is unreasonable to ask that one lane of this road is used to create a two-way protected cycle lane.
I would also like to see every member of our current cabinet cycle from Sloane Square to Parliament along this road and then say that all we need to make our streets safer is an advertising campaign. To be frank, I doubt they'd all make it to Parliament alive.

However, unless the Government wants to see more and more cyclists dying on Britain's streets due to collisions with fast moving motor vehicles it needs to make the brave decision to start a National Strategy to improve cycling infrastructure across the country and help - rather than hinder - organisations like TfL in their efforts to make roads safer for cyclists; even if this means making things slightly more cramped or slower for motorists in some areas, particularly inner city roads where high levels of motor capacity are simply not necessary.

To do anything less is grossly irresponsible, and it is a real discredit to Patrick McLoughlin and the Conservative majority of the Coalition Government, that as Transport Minister Mr McLoughlin has not made any efforts yet to properly rectify the issue of spiralling numbers of cyclists being killed by - to quote Conservative former Transport Minister Malcolm Rifkind again - "a long-term paucity of proper cycling infrastructure".


Cyclists in the City has also written intelligently on Rifkind's recent piece in an article available here.