Cyclists flee to the buses

Observations on the congestion charge

Being chased over Vauxhall Bridge at 8.30am, Terminator 2-style, by a red-faced scaffolding truck driver was the last straw. Enough was enough. Arrogant motorists had intimidated me and questioned the sexual probity of my mother once too often. "Only a couple of weeks," I consoled myself, "till the congestion charge kicks in. Then we'll see who has the last laugh."

Anyone who has cycled through London will recognise these feelings of resentment towards motorists. I'd been commuting on two wheels between Stockwell and Oxford Circus for barely three months, but I'd already collected a rogue's gallery of crazed and offensive drivers.

But so far, I've been lucky. The 463 cyclists killed or seriously injured on London's roads in 2001 are testament to the vulnerable position bike users find themselves in. So it is no surprise that the mayor Ken Livingstone's congestion charge, a £5 levy on road use in central London, has been greeted with howls of delight by green campaigners and cycling pressure groups. The logic is easy to grasp: charging motorists for driving in central London will keep the roads clear, making life a lot safer for the bike user. Simple.

Unfortunately, in reality, the benefits are less cut and dried. I set out for work as usual on the Monday morning, the first day of the congestion charge. The roads seemed empty, down about a quarter on the previous Monday's traffic, and consequently the cars and lorries still on the road moved faster. Which is the problem. According to the Department for Transport, traffic speeds in inner London fell to below 10mph between 1998 and 2000, the first time in a century. The last time traffic moved that slowly in London, horse manure was the prime cause of congestion and Victoria was on the throne.

In an attempt to sugar the congestion charge pill and placate the business sector, Livingstone pledged that the scheme would help raise the average vehicle speed within inner London and cut journey times by 25 per cent. What few people have considered is that this would increase the risk to cyclists (and pedestrians). The Department for Transport's own figures show that the likelihood of a motorist being involved in an accident increases by 5 per cent for each 1mph increase in speed. The same figures also show that if a cyclist is hit at 35mph rather than 30mph, the risk of death or serious injury increases by more than a third. The AA estimates that vehicle speeds inside the congestion zone doubled on the launch day; with that, the chance of fatality or serious injury also increased significantly.

Roger Vincent, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, admits that "Few people have looked into whether or not congestion could actually be a form of cycle safety. But . . . you never know, more cyclists might mean that drivers are more aware of people on bikes."

By the time Oxford Circus comes into view, my mind is made up. It is far safer snaking through gridlocked traffic than cycling next to lorries and cars going full pelt. Ken's congestion charge means that, frankly, next week I'll get the bus.

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