As you might have seen Boris Johnson, our cycling mayor, had a near-miss over the weekend. Along with Kulveer Ranger (his Transport Director), Peter Hendy (TfL Commissioner) and Lord Adonis (Transport Minister) he was on a scouting mission around London for routes for his ‘cycle highways’ policy. Looking at video of the incident, it looks truly horrendous and exactly the sort of accident that could easily have given rise to serious injuries, if not worse. So we should be grateful that nobody was hurt. I can certainly sympathise – as a daily cyclist from North into Central London I can attest that whilst potentially serious incidents aren’t common they are still too frequent for comfort.
From a policy point of view this should highlight something that most of us already know. Cyclists are particularly vulnerable road users and need additional protection. Whilst we as a group have to take more responsibility for our own safety, by not running red lights for example, there will always be a fundamental conflict between heavy traffic comprised of large vehicles and cyclists. The previous Mayor explicitly recognised this in his transport planning which gave priority not only to cyclists but to other groups such as pedestrians. Boris has chosen to eschew this in favour of what he considers a more ‘fair and balanced’ approach that refuses to value any one group over another. Kulveer Ranger was particularly strident in rejecting the previous approach when he appeared in front of the London Assembly last year. Yet it is precisely because the relationship between cycles and motorised traffic is so unequal that a ‘level playing field’ will always favour cars and lorries.
The idea for a series of priority routes for cycles that the Mayor was researching is a pretty good one, but like all policies its the execution that will determine success or failure. Boris has shown himself to be particularly loathed to implement any policy that inconveniences motorised traffic. Witness his decision on motorbikes in bus lanes, implemented despite the strong objections of cyclists and the abolition of the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge zone. He’s also not been averse to having TfL meddle in local traffic schemes where he feels they are not sufficiently favourable to car traffic. Boris is very keen to talk about his cycle hire scheme and its not hard to see why. Its bolsters his cycling credentials without actually having to take any of the more difficult but tricky decisions that may not be popular with other road users but would substantially increase cycling. As others have pointed out a lack of cycles may not be the primary reason why people are not venturing out on the roads. What the scheme’s unlikely to do is change people’s perception of the risk of cycling or indeed the objective risks of doing so. Conversely cycle highways have the potential to make a real impact but not if the difficult decisions around cycle priority are dodged.
London has the opportunity to become a real cycling city. But we’ll come up short unless there’s a recognition from politicians that from time-to-time the requirements of cyclists will directly conflict with those of motorised traffic and fudge is not a valid option. How Boris handles the implementation of his new cycle highways will determine whether they are a step change in how cyclists are treated in London or just more paint on the road.