Legal Issues

Has cycling become a part of British life?

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Has cycling become a part of British life?

This article from The Guardian’s cycling blog explores the question of whether or not cycling has become a part of British life, and, if so, just what sort of cycling culture the UK might be said to have. The author describes British institutions like Brompton and Rapha, and holds them up alongside our comical cycle infrastructure (examples herehere, and here), the numerous ghost bikes that line our streets, and the lack of legal protection that British cyclists have compared to our continental cousins.

strict liability map
At present, the UK is out of step with Europe as one of only five EU countries (along with Cyprus, Malta, Romania and Ireland) that does not operate a system of strict liability to protect vulnerable road users.

 

This article was published just over a week after myself and a few members of Edinburgh’s Critical Mass ‘Pedalled on Parliament’ in what has now become an annual tradition. Attracting thousands of participants from up and down the country, the ride is intended to highlight the need for greater investment if Scotland is to meet its cycling and emissions targets by 2020. At the end of the day it was a fun ride, and our sound-system proved to be a great success, but sometimes I think that it would be nice to live in a country where such rides were simply unnecessary.

party on parliament

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Critical Mass Models

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Critical Mass is an important international movement that strengthens the ties between people on bikes. Although individual bike riders can be intimidated by other road-users, the spirit of the mass is that there is strength in numbers. Cycling should be fun and freeing, and Critical Mass cultivates this atmosphere and reminds us that bikes are legitimate forms of transport that deserve space on the roads. That said, the formula for mass rides isn’t a one-size-fits-all model, and so it is worth acknowledging that different strategies work in different places.

Edinburgh Critical Mass

Although there is something of an unofficial ‘formula’ for rides, it seems that in reality Critical Mass models tend to vary around the world.

Instead of meeting on the last Friday of the month, for instance, the Budapest contingent meets only twice a year. However, by concentrating their energies into just two rides, the cyclists of Hungary commit wholeheartedly to making these rides count: although the table below is a bit out of date, the statistics from 2013’s ride indicate that they had more than 80,000 riders at their Spring event – by the time the last cyclist had crossed the ‘start’ line, the rider at the front of the pack was already 13km away!

Staggering statistics Staggering statistics from Budapest (N.B. unrelated protests ruled out the possibility of a ride in Fall ’06)

The Prague ride has also become hugely popular over the last decade, primarily though appealing to families, but also…

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Liveable Cities and Desire Lines: Urban planning perspectives from Denmark’s Bicycle Ambassador

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The focus on re-establishing more liveable cities continues unabated. The primary problem however is that 85 years of traffic engineering revolving around the car has failed miserably. It’s time for modern thinking, and good design can help.

Historically, streets were human spaces, so why don’t we still design them in accordance with the desire lines of their citizens? The following talk, given by Mikael Colville-Andersen, makes the case for using basic design principles instead of engineering as the surest route to developing thriving, human-centred cities.

Colville-Andersen is an urban mobility expert and CEO for Copenhagenize Consulting. He is often called Denmark’s Bicycle Ambassador but has learned the hard way that this title is a dismal pick-up line in bars.

Colville-Andersen and his team advise cities and towns around the world regarding bicycle planning, infrastructure and communication strategies. He applies his marketing expertise to campaigns that focus on selling bicycle culture and bicycle transport to a mainstream audience as opposed to the existing cycling sub-cultures in particular with his famous Cycle Chic brand. Colville-Andersen gives talks around the world about bicycle culture, design, and social media.

Those who are familiar with TED talks will know that they are synonymous with quality and intelligent commentary. My favourite bit of this particular talk begins at 5:27 and considers Copenhagen’s approach to the “desire lines” of its citizens. After watching this segment, just think about how other cities around the world might be quicker to punish (rather than observe) their citizens in cases where they routinely flout the law – which approach do you suppose is better?

FAQs about Critical Mass

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FAQs.

A lot of people hesitate over Critical Mass because they don’t really understand what it is. Although it defies definition, we’ve compiled a list of ‘frequently asked questions‘ to shed some light on the issues and hopefully attract some new riders.

Edinburgh doesn't have a shortage of cyclists!
Edinburgh doesn’t have a shortage of cyclists, and Critical Mass offers a superb opportunity for them to come together and celebrate their shared interests. (Photograph borrowed from Edinburgh’s Pedal on Parliament ride – probably the greatest mass bike ride in Scotland)

Why should non-cyclists support measures to boost cycling?

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This article (Kaya Burgess – The Times) describes the multifarious benefits of investment in cycling for all sorts of different groups in the UK. In what follows below, I intend to summaries and illustrate just a few of these benefits.

Motorists, for instance, would benefit from fewer traffic jams and less conflict with cyclists. Even Top Gear presenter and general motor-mouth Jeremy Clarkson has praised cycling as a way of getting around. He last year described Copenhagen’s cycling culture as “fan-bleeding-tastic” and said: “Now I know that sounds like the ninth circle of hell, but that’s because you live in Britain, where cars and bikes share the road space. This cannot and does not work. It’s like putting a dog and a cat in a cage and expecting them to get along. They won’t, and as a result London is currently hosting an undeclared war. I am constantly irritated by cyclists and I’m sure they’re constantly irritated by me.”

People who commute by train and by bus will also benefit if more people took up cycling, as the intense pressure on the public transport system would be eased.

London's Underground: Rammed
London’s Underground: Rammed

As child obesity soars in the UK, parents and children will benefit from better infrastructure as cycling to school becomes an option again. The more people who cycle, the safer the streets become, and thus more people will be encouraged to take up cycling . With more than 2/3 of car journeys in the UK being less than 5 miles, most of the driving that people do is completely unnecessary anyway. The school run needn’t be the stress that it has become.

Cycling to school: is this really so radical?
Cycling to school: is this really so radical?

Ordinary adults will benefit from the regular exercise as well. Official advice recommends taking 150 minutes – or 2½ hours – of physical activity per week, but we do not always have the time – or inclination – to get down the gym or go for a jog after a long day or long week of work. Building cycling into a person’s daily routine is a brilliant way of nomalising the activity and incorporating exercise into their lifestyle.

The Dutch have shown us how cycling can be the most normal thing in the world - it definitely doesn't have to involve extreme exertion or specialist equipment
The Dutch have shown us how cycling can be the most normal thing in the world – it definitely doesn’t have to involve extreme exertion or specialist equipment. These people aren’t even close to breaking a sweat.

Taxpayers will also benefit from investment in cycling. The NHS spends around £5 billion each year on tackling preventable diseases exacerbated by inactivity, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and strokes. Around £16bn is currently being spent on the Crossrail project in London and a further £3bn on upgrades to the A9 road in Scotland. Health experts told the Get Britain Cycling inquiry that investing in cycle provision is by far the most cost-effective form of transport spend, recouping £4 in healthcare savings for every £1 invested.

Investing in cycling is also good for businesses and employers. Not only does a manager get a healthier and more alert workforce, but research in New York has shown that the introduction of cycle lanes led to a  49 per cent increase in retail sales. In terms of parking, bikes take up a lot less space than cars, so it follows that bikes can carry more potential customers than cars can.

yuh, good luck finding yours when they all look the same
Can you imagine how much space you would need if all these bikes were cars? The fact that drivers can no longer find parking on their high-streets has led to the death of many local and independent businesses.

As a final point, the article notes that cyclists would also benefit from improved cycle infrastructure. It might seem like an obvious point, but around 2 per of traffic on Britain’s roads is made up by people on bikes, and as this figure grows the infrastructure will need to grow with it. For instance, of all vehicles crossing bridges over the River Thames in London at rush hour, more than half are bicycles – in spite of this fact the cycle lanes (which are shared and often blocked by buses) are at best only a third of a lane in width. It really is time the Government took cycling seriously.

The UK's cycling infrastructure needs improving if it is to cope with the uptake of cycling that the government is encouraging
The UK’s cycling infrastructure needs radical improvement if it is to cope with the uptake of cycling that the government is encouraging

I really liked this article, but it did miss out some other key groups who would benefit from a more Dutch-style cycling infrastructure, as illustrated in the following video:

Hitler the Road Nazi

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Hitler rants about bicycles and reacts to Premier Ted Baillieu’s recent remarks that the registration of bicycles is not feasible.

Nikki Sinclaire (West Midlands European parliamentarian) has echoed Hitler’s sentiment in calling for compulsory cycle registration and helmet use.

Cycle registration is a contentious issue, but to me it seems absurd for anyone to seriously suggest erecting such significant barriers to cycling at a time when there are too many cars on the roads and the nation’s health is so poor.

Some politicians seem to be under the impression that cyclists are anarchists who disregard the rules and their own safety for no particular reason. Although I don’t condone red-light jumping and pavement cycling (two of the most controversial issues), there are strong arguments and hard data in support of the fact that such behaviours are sometimes justified in light of their being the safest options at certain junctions. This being the case, what is perceived as the ‘bad behaviour’ of cyclists is symptomatic of the poor conditions that British bike riders have to put up; not only do we lack the strict liability laws employed to protect vulnerable road users across Europe, but our cycling infrastructure amounts to little more than inconsistent and unenforced dabs of paint.

If politicians like Nikki Sinclaire want people on bikes to behave better then maybe they should spend more time learning about how successful cycling cultures work and less time proposing preposterous new rules that do nothing to protect cyclists whatsoever.

Cycling is not (intrinsically) dangerous

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2013 saw many articles written under titles referring to the ‘dangers of cycling’. A few random examples can be found here, here, here, and here. This one even talks about the ‘terrors’ faced by cyclists on the road.

Indeed, cycling can be a dangerous activity, but this is not because cycling itself is dangerous…

For instance, it isn’t dangerous to cycle without a helmet

no helmets

It isn’t dangerous to cycle without hi-viz
sit up and beg

It isn’t dangerous to cycle with a passenger…

The bike is king of the road in The Netherlands

Dutch bikes - an altogether more civilised way of getting around town.

Looks like fun, huh?

cycling with a passenger

…no matter what age you are!

these guys aren't having too much trouble

Even a couple of passengers (and a suitcase) is no big deal

cycling with two passengers

Cycling with kids isn’t dangerous either
DSC_7251

Riding your bike in the park on a summer afternoon... Such a simple pleasure that is so unreasonably denied to us in the UK

and it isn’t dangerous to cycle with an umbrella

So long as it's not too windy, I find that cycling in heavy rain is actually more difficult without an umbrella.

cycling with umbrella

It certainly isn’t dangerous to cycle next to your friends
children 5 abreast assen oost subjective safety

Even four-legged friends are safe to ride with.

Sometimes up front…
cycling with dogs

…or alongside
alongside

Whether you’re a little bit older…

Gustaf Håkansso
Gustaf Håkansso

a little older

…or a little younger

Vondelpark provides a totally safe environment for kids to ride their bikes

cycling a little younger

…cycling itself is not a dangerous activity.

What these photographs illustrate is how the physical environment affects the relative danger of riding a bike. Many of the pictures also show how good infrastructure is the key factor in determining whether or not cycling is actually safe.

As we move into 2014, I am hopeful that governing bodies in the UK (and elsewhere, for that matter) pick up on the merits of cycling and do what is needed to protect people who ride bikes. At present (and from my perspective), city dwellers face an unappealing trilemma when deciding upon transportation; they can either:

1. Contribute to the city’s pollution and congestion by paying through the nose for a car (+driving licence/insurance/MOT/VED/petrol/parking etc.).
2. Pay to take crowded/crappy (and notoriously unreliable) public transport.
3. Ride a bike but risk their lives by sharing the road with heavy/powerful/fast moving motor vehicles.

If a person is able to ride a bike (i.e. if their health permits it), then it should be in everybody’s interest to support them. Biker riders take up less space on the roads, and so there is less congestion for everyone else; they are not pumping out pollution into the air that we all have to breath; they are exercising their bodies and so easing pressure on an NHS that is currently strained by an obesity epidemic; they aren’t damaging the roads to nearly the same degree that other vehicles do (thus saving tax-payers money); they don’t run people over (and if they do, injuries are usually minor); and last but not least, motor-vehicle dominated cities are noisy and unpleasant places, and so bikes offer a quiet and civilised remedy to this.

I think that cycling is brilliant, not just for the bike rider but for the world. I intend to keep up the pace this year with my campaigning, and I hope to keep you updated with any developments/innovations that might be of interest.

All the best