Johnson’s cycling proposals are no substitute for new laws

Boris Johnson’s bold thinking could change the future of London cycling | Environment | (also see this in today’s Observer)

I’ve been a cyclist since I was a child, although these days I mostly use public transport and I drive small goods vehicles for a living (when I can get the work). Boris Johnson has recently announced ambitious plans for cycling lanes in London, including a lane of the Westway, so-called quietways on residential roads, and an expansion of 20mph speed limit areas. I am not wholly convinced that any of this will make London a safer place to cycle, and is more likely to be a distraction from the rising cost of public transport.

Picture of a flyover with a build-up of traffic on the right-hand side. There are gantries with green direction signs over the road, a concrete building behind the road, and trees and houses in the distance.The proposal to dedicate a lane of the Westway (an elevated dual carriageway — originally a motorway — through inner west London) to cyclists sounds grand, but in fact, the road has a hard shoulder left over from when it was a motorway before 2000. The problem is that it’s approached by long hills at both ends (especially the west), and being an elevated road, it’s exposed and therefore windy. Cyclists tend to cover shorter distances, and there are no exits between Shepherds’ Bush in the west and Paddington in the east (and if you join at Edgware Road, there is no Paddington exit). I do not suppose Johnson expects to build more exits for cyclists at Ladbroke Grove or anywhere else.

He also claims that traffic on the Westway has fallen “22% in a decade”. I would imagine that it has fallen mostly in the past few years, since the western extension of the Congestion Charge was abolished, as that had pushed more traffic off the Bayswater Road and onto the Westway, and those people have reverted to using Bayswater Road or the A4. Another reason for fewer motor vehicle journeys is the economic downturn: if there is less economic activity, there will be fewer deliveries and fewer commutes. A better east-west route would be along the railway or canal, but this would mean a new track having to be built and money having to be spent. (They could also just lift the ban on cycling along the Westway, where the speed limit has already been reduced to 40mph — cycling is already allowed on other dual carriageways, including the Western Avenue and Kingston By-pass, where the speed limit is 50mph.)

There are, of course, already cycle routes directed along back lanes. There are already barriers which let through cyclists but block cars and trucks. Cycle lanes along back roads often take the cyclist around blind bends which are also used by cars and vans, and this presents a serious danger because motorists often cut corners. Even if lanes are painted that indicate that cyclists have priority, this will not force motorists to stop — they will only stop if there are “Stop” signs and cameras enforcing them, as at traffic lights. If he is serious about this, perhaps a few cameras might be diverted from hills on major roads to enforcing the rules at these junctions. I would add that the “quietways” need to be more convenient than the main roads, and not result in diversions off main roads onto circuitous back-lane routes, particularly if you often have to turn right onto the main road (as in one of the early cycle lanes that I remember in Croydon).

I am also not convinced by the merits of 20mph speed limits, which right now police mostly do not enforce as there are so many of them and infractions are so common — in fact, they are more often broken than kept to. They were probably more effective when imposed around schools; imposed on local thoroughfares (as in parts of Kingston now), they are more of an inconvenience and largely ignored. They do, of course, bring speed limits down, and people who speed in 20mph zones drive at less than 30mph, so if the new limit is understood as “30mph and we mean it”, it could have some positive effect. Besides, the government ran advertising campaigns for years to emphasise that “it’s 30 for a reason” so as to justify speed cameras; to now make 20mph the standard is inconsistent with that message. An over-emphasis on speed means that other forms of bad driving are overlooked which are more dangerous to cyclists, such as corner-cutting. On roads like the Westway, it is possible to be driving dangerously but not speeding, such as with tailgating and sudden lane-changing which are common on dual carriageways.

There has also been a suggestion that “large lorries” will be banned from central London at certain times of day. This conveniently ignores the fact that there are already restrictions on trucks over 18 tonnes in inner London at certain times (only permit holders are allowed), as well as the fact that goods drivers do not use the roads out of spite but because goods need to be delivered. There are already onerous restrictions on goods vehicle drivers, including a requirement for long breaks which are not accommodated by rest stops anywhere near the centre of town. There is already a scheme by which truck drivers are required to take five days of in-class training (known as CPC) before October 2014 (at their own expense!), and cycle awareness should be included in this if it isn’t already. There should be some serious monitoring of the standards of driving with certain types of vehicles, particularly eight-wheel tippers, which often appear to be driven by maniacs and are a menace to all other road users because of their relatively small size and weight (32 tonnes). I have been told this is because the cost of hiring and fuelling the vehicle means that three runs a day are necessary to be cost-effective, so some reform needs to happen in the industries involved.

Johnson has also promised to have more police assigned to special “cycle task forces” watching out for “anti-social cyclists who ride on the pavement or fail to use lights at night”. While I totally agree about the issue of lights, it is widely understood that enforcing laws that were intended for cars on cyclists makes cycling more dangerous; cyclists jump red lights, for example, to make sure they do not have to cross a junction at the same time as motor vehicles who may want to turn across their path (and the advance cycle stopping spaces are often occupied by cars). Cyclists have vastly longer thinking and stopping distances than motor vehicles, are capable of doing much less damage (even to pedestrians) and can be caused vastly more damage by motor vehicles. These laws should be changed so that red lights should be interpreted by cyclists the same as a “give way” or “stop” sign, not a requirement to stop until it changes. This is not in Johnson’s gift, and it rather appears that his intention is to provide more useless cycle lanes off main roads, and please the bellyaching motorists with tougher enforcement of inconsequential rule-breaking by cyclists. The rules should simply be changed, and this would take the bellyaching busybodies’ ammunition away.

I suspect the real reason Johnson sees mileage in increasing cycling provision is to distract from the rising cost of public transport and get a dig in at “unpopular” road users like goods vehicles and red-light-jumping cyclists. Even so, it will not result in that many people choosing to commute over the long distances such as Croydon or Uxbridge to central London, as few people will want to commute 12 miles by bicycle (and back) in the rain. It might be more productive to improve cycle access into (and between) the suburban towns, but the money spent on this wasteful scheme could surely be better used to keep fares down. Even with the exorbitant cost of fuel, the cost of public transport is higher and it rises year on year, even over the few years that fuel prices have oscillated within the 130-140p/litre zone. As long as subsidy remains a dirty word, it will always be more cost-effective to use your car, once you have paid for the vehicle and maintenance, than paying bus or train fares to cover their fuel, maintenance and staff, and as long as sheltered motor transport remains (public or private), it will be more attractive than cycling except in perfect weather.

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