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6 August 2020

Everything I’ve learned on the roads about the government’s cycling plans

Redesigning Britain’s road network to make it safe will take more than a shiny voucher scheme.

By Jonn Elledge

I’m a fairly irritating person, but the only time I have ever been certain that someone was trying to kill me was when I was on a bike. I used to commute from Caledonian Road in north London into the West End, a route that involved mainly quiet streets or, blissfully, a segregated cycle path.

To reach the latter, though, involved a brief sprint down a quarter-mile of A-road followed by a right turn. On one occasion, the driver of a white van (I know, I know, but I promise it’s true) took offence at my presence in the right-hand lane and, with a look of genuine irritation on his face, hooted and accelerated in a manner that made it quite clear he expected me to get out of it, even though that would have meant placing myself in the path of oncoming traffic.

I don’t honestly remember how I got out of this, because the next thing I knew I was off the bike, hammering on his bonnet and screaming that if he carried on like that he was going to effing kill someone. In my memory, at least, his expression changed rather markedly when he realised that, hair and dress sense aside, I was in fact quite a lot bigger than he was.

The only times I’ve ever had road rage, I’ve been on a bike, too.

I’ve been cycling in London on and off for 15 years now. It’s by far the best way to get around the city: often faster than the alternatives, certainly better for the environment, and probably – the quantity of bus exhaust fumes it involves swallowing notwithstanding – better for you.

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This is something that City Hall has known for some time, but which the boroughs, which actually control most of the streets, have sometimes been rather cooler on.

It took a pandemic and a cycling Prime Minister to get national government on board, setting aside £2.5m for stations to build bike parking and £225m for councils to build bike lanes. (None of which is quite as much as the £1bn it’s spending on dualling the A66 Trans-Pennine road from Workington to Middlesbrough, admittedly, but hey, every little helps.)

Then there’s the £25m scheme which is supposed to offer half a million people a free £50 voucher to get their bikes fixed but which has, so far, instead mostly offered unlucky internet users an opportunity to grow increasingly annoyed at the failure of yet another government IT project.

The first 50,000 vouchers were made available shortly before midnight on Tuesday last week (Tuesday 28 July). But the site immediately fell over and remained that way for the next four hours; by 9am the following morning, they had all been claimed.

By most accounts, if you actually managed to get one, they were actually rather good, just so long as you were happy to spend them at Halfords rather than your cosy independent local bike shop. But who these people are who are willing to sit up all night hitting F5, as if a bike repair voucher is a ticket to Glastonbury, I have no idea.

I’m certainly not one of them, for the very good reason that I don’t have a bike. The “off” bit of my on-and-off cycling career came after the only one I’d owned as an adult, purchased in a fit of enthusiasm sometime in 2005, got nicked, sometime slightly later in 2005.

This was incredibly irritating, albeit not as irritating as the fact that literally my last thought as a bike owner had been: “Ha, wouldn’t it be funny if my bike has been stolen?” Which, it turned out, it wasn’t.

After that, I didn’t cycle again until the bike hire scheme initiated by the Livingstone mayoralty, yet doomed eternally to be known as “Boris Bikes”, arrived in 2010.

The main advantages of such a scheme are that you can choose to cycle somewhere without committing yourself to cycling back again; and, yes, that you don’t need to worry about your bike getting nicked.

Against that, though, its network of docking stations only cover a fairly random patch of central London, defined at least partly by which boroughs were willing to stump up the cash. What’s more, the bikes it offers are so heavy that, if you get one where the brakes are slightly too tight, it’s like riding to work on a fridge.

There’s another factor which has limited my cycling: one which limits where I’ll cycle to, makes me doubt whether a government voucher that helps you fix up the rusty BMX in your mum’s shed is really going to be enough to spark a Dutch-style cycling revolution, and, yes, once resulted in a man in a white van trying to murder me. The British road network is really not designed for cycling.

Some of the cycling infrastructure created over the past few years is good. In the capital (two wheels have not as yet taken me any further), there is a growing cluster of segregated routes like the east-west one from Barking to Hyde Park, or the north-south from Camden to Elephant & Castle. Some of the “quietways” are good, too, using traffic filters, back streets, and parks to enable you to go surprisingly long distances without interacting with cars; while the “Mini-Holland” programme has made suburbs like Walthamstow a dream.

But against that, the design of most cycle routes varies from “ill-thought-through” to “actually comes with a death toll”.

There’s the poor signage to contend with, which means if you miss one turning you suddenly find yourself sharing space with cars and lorries that you have a nasty feeling can’t see you.

There are the barriers to prevent bikes, even on paths literally signed as cycle routes. There are the councils who’ve installed bus stops or lampposts in the middle of bike paths without anyone considering that this might count as a design flaw.

Then there are the laughable short routes, which run for a mere handful of metres before suggesting you rejoin the traffic, in a manner that makes you wonder if somebody, somewhere, might be taking the piss.

There are the paths shared with pedestrians, who nobody has thought to alert to the fact that a bike might be heading towards them, which would be fine if any of us were used to sharing space with other types of road user but quite obviously we aren’t.

There are the routes that suddenly drop in quality without warning, generally a sign that you’ve left a borough that wants more people to cycle and entered another where nobody much gives a shit. (Hilariously, Chris Boardman’s grand plans to turn Greater Manchester into a cycling city are being stymied by the fact that the City of Manchester itself is not nearly as bothered about this as the outer boroughs, with the result that most major routes will stop several miles before they reach the centre.)

Worst and most prevalent of all is “magic paint”: the strangely persistent notion that a white line or a bike symbol on the road will be enough to protect cyclists from passing motor vehicles.

The drivers of all too many such vehicles, alas, are a lot less convinced by such paint than the council planning officers that put it there, and will gleefully speed past or even at you, on the grounds that you’re in their space and you’re dodging road tax and, hey, who gives a shit if they knock you over anyway, you’re only a cyclist, it’s not like you’re an actual human being or anything, is it?

Remaking Britain’s road network to make it safe for cyclists will take ages. Changing our culture of road use will take even longer. So the government of Boris Johnson, with all the concern for public wellbeing that it’s shown in every other realm of existence, talks about its shiny new bike maintenance vouchers instead. This is fine.

The thing is, selfishness and stupidity on the roads is a statistical inevitability: some cyclists will always behave badly, just as some drivers or pedestrians do. The purpose of rules and infrastructure is to ensure that selfishness and stupidity is not also a fatal condition.

If the government really wants a cycling revolution, it needs to do a lot more to ensure that there are safe and well-signposted routes to choose from, which preferably won’t unexpectedly steer you into a lamp post.

And the law needs to make clear to drivers like my friend in the white van that cyclists are legitimate road users, too, and that steering into one isn’t striking a blow for motorists’ rights – it’s literally just trying to kill someone.

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