Bradley Wiggins is a wonderful man and quite rightly beloved by all. But while his widely misreported views on cycle helmets are making the headlines, much more important issues in cycling safety are getting less attention.
It’s a shame that Wiggins got drawn in on helmets, because it took a moment when bike safety issues were in the public eye and instantly defined the conversation. You can’t blame Wiggins: he didn’t have the full details of the tragic death on Wednesday of Dan Harris. But it would have been a great moment for someone of his profile to highlight the insufficient bike provision at a junction that is well known to be dangerous for cyclists.
Other than making helmets mandatory - which is unlikely to happen for a range of reasons, not least the fact that it would make the London Cycle Hire scheme untenable - what is to be done? One of the immediate klaxon calls from many pro-bike journalists and activists has been for more segregated bike routes. However, whether other road users like it or not, cyclists are traffic and have the same rights to the road as any other vehicle. With "road tax" idiocy rearing its head yet again earlier this year, it appears that many drivers still don’t believe that they should have to share the road.
While segregated bike lanes are very successful in less densely populated areas, fitting a sufficient number of them into a medieval city plan is going to be logistically difficult and take a long time. At the rate we’re going, many more cyclists will die before we get decent bike lanes. And as Ashok Sinha points out, they generally get built along the quieter bits of routes where more space is available and disappear in the busier and more dangerous areas such as the terrible junction on the A12 where Harris was killed. Routes like the one crossing the area in which Harris died are to a bike-friendly city what green-wash is to ecologically sustainable policy – loud commitments made to cycle safety, with accompanying pictures of smiling cyclists and traffic-free lanes, that do nothing to make travelling by bike any safer.
For this particular local situation, a real future-proofing route to take would be to slowly phase out private car use across Central London. Being as we are supposed to be ever on the lookout for ways in which we can remain influential, why not admit that our reliance on petrol doesn’t have a place in the London of the future? And having admitted that, let’s not spend what precious little money we have on dividing the road space between cyclists and other traffic: let’s keep the infrastructure we have and change the habits of the people travelling on it. I’d like to live in a London where it was as normal to refer to the "car lane" as it is now to talk about bus lanes. During the last week, with people staying away for the Olympics, we’ve had 17 per cent less traffic on the roads day-by-day. Has London ground to a halt? Tourist-orientated business and hotels may be bemoaning a bad summer season, but normal working London has continued to work as normal. Hopefully the dip in traffic accounts for many drivers who previously wouldn’t have considered making the switch to public transport or working from home
We’ll never completely ban cars and there are plenty of cases in which driving is necessary for reasons ranging from disability to security; neither am I suggesting taking taxis off the roads. But regarding the wealthy individuals who can afford to insist on driving themselves around central London, it’s a selfish misuse of space and resources. The congestion charge was a good start – as good a start as we could have realistically hoped for. But charging drivers affects those on lower incomes disproportionately, and a system which keeps roads for the rich and prices the rest out is deeply inegalitarian.
A point on which we are lagging well behind continental Europe is in the presumption of innocence on the part of cyclists involved in accidents. Across the EU, unless evidence is available to suggest a cyclist involved in a collision was acting recklessly, the legal onus falls on the driver. If you take it upon yourself to go out in the community in control of a large, high-speed vehicle capable of causing significant danger to human life you should be prepared to take on the full responsibility for introducing it into the public realm. The majority of drivers are already very considerate of other road users. The ones who aren’t should know that they will automatically be held responsible for any accidents they’re involved in with more vulnerable road users, and would hopefully behave accordingly.
One of the quickest, simplest, least controversial and most beneficial moves would be to make cycling proficiency part of the driving license exam. Not only would this ensure that cyclists were aware of best practice for using the roads without specific cycle legislation - the vast majority of cyclists are also drivers – but it would introduce millions more to the benefits of safe cycling. And of course the major benefit would be in ensuring that all drivers know what it is like to take to the road as a cyclist, understand how bikes move, and how it feels to ride a bike in traffic. In the same way that HGV drivers need to hold a normal driving license before they can drive these bigger and potentially more dangerous vehicles, it should be mandatory for anyone driving a car to have a working knowledge of how to ride a bike on the road.
The "right to drive" is not an integral human right, and the right to a safe environment for other members of the community should always come first. Let’s hope Wiggins’s well-deserved moment in the spotlight doesn’t derail the debate on who’s to blame for cyclist deaths.