Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Gary Verity claimed this week: “We want to make Yorkshire the European capital of cycling. This isn’t just a one-off, there are other international races we want to see happening in Yorkshire and we want to see more people cycling at all levels.”
Leaving comparisons with other European capitals of cycling to one side for the moment, and focussing on our home city of Leeds, the most significant barrier to take-up of utility and leisure cycling is perceived danger on the roads. As London cycling champion Andrew Gilligan pointed out recently, if your product isn’t any good, no amount of promotion will get people to want it. And at the moment, cycling in Leeds as a product just isn’t appealing. Yorkshire needs a massive and persistent change to both physical infrastructure and the behaviour of drivers to engender a significant shift to cycling. Does Leeds have the political commitment to make this happen? Recently there have been worrying signals that Leeds City Council isn’t just inept and lacking in resolve when it comes to creating a cycle-friendly city.
The Council’s acting head of transport policy, Andrew Hall, took place in a Bike Week panel debate last week on the theme “Can we get Leeds cycling?” at Leeds University’s business school, organised by the UTravelActive project. Andrew’s repetition of the familiar barriers to building decent infrastructure (the council represents the community and the community want to be able to drive everywhere; there are competing priorities and cycling is the preserve of a minority; Leeds is committed to cycling but needs funding from central government to make changes) was business as usual. But there was a surprise when each panellist was asked to briefly sum up their key points. Andrew decided this was the perfect moment to introduce two new points to the debate: the inability of cycle campaigners to agree on what they want; and the behaviour of a minority of cyclists running red lights and illegally cycling on pavements.
This week also saw the publication of a letter from Coun Andrew Carter (Conservative Group leader) to the Yorkshire Post highlighting “the antics of certain cyclists” and agreeing that “it is time the police clamped down on a few rogue cyclists as well as drivers of motor vehicles”. A consultation on the West Yorkshire Safer Roads action plan earlier this year provided another opportunity for Councillor Ryk Downes to focus on irresponsible cycling.
The dust seemed finally to have settled on the old cycling infrastructure debate this year, with everyone basically agreeing that cyclists need high quality infrastructure of whatever type is appropriate to the situation and prevailing conditions. There are plenty of successful examples of cycling cities and countries for us to learn from, if we choose to. Most of those include calm, pedestrian- and cycle- friendly residential streets with low speeds and volume of vehicles, coupled with good quality segregated paths alongside busy main roads. Narrow, obstructed cycle lanes that disappear at junctions or wiggle confusingly through back-streets with inadequate signage don’t tend to feature much. Presenting local cycling advocates with various equally crap choices, then complaining when they can’t agree, is not the work of a council with real ambitions for a sustainable transport future.
On law-breaking cyclists, there are many reasons why pedestrians, cyclists and drivers choose to break the law or ignore the Highway Code, and if they endanger others by their actions, of course they should be accountable. But there is an argument for attention proportional to the harm caused by the various groups. According to the Department for Transport (DfT), in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, no pedestrians were killed in collisions with cycles, whereas 426 were killed by motor vehicles. Around 40 children will be killed or seriously injured by vehicles in Leeds this year. Complaining about cyclists isn’t going to save lives.
Earlier this year, Paris trialled a scheme allowing cyclists to turn right or go straight ahead through a red light, in a bid to reduce accidents, as the Parisians pointed out “Cyclists can be crushed in blind spots by lorries turning. Bicycles failing to accelerate away as fast as motorised vehicles are also a cause of constant problems” while the UK House of Lords was urged to consider cyclist-only signals. You can read an interesting perspective here on “cyclists” as a group who should all be judged on the behaviour of the few. Of course, most cyclists are law abiding and careful, like most drivers. Enforcement of the law and highway code is a great idea. Why not start with the minority of dangerous drivers whose disregard for speed limits, inattention, and aggressive behaviour is much more likely to cause harm to others?
Dave Horton, who also took part in the debate, has written about Cycling Struggles, including pavement cycling: “busy main roads where pavement cycling is concentrated … feel difficult and dangerous to ride, so many cyclists get pushed onto pavements which are often narrow and crowded with pedestrians, as well as street furniture and other obstacles.” Pavement cycling is a sign of desperate need for decent, safe places to cycle. Dave concludes “rather than continuing to throw cycling and walking together, those people most responsible for ordering and re-ordering our cities should start mainstreaming these sustainable modes whilst marginalising the car.”
Let’s see what some of the other cities vying for the title of European capital of cycling have been up to. Bristol has just held its first car-free Sunday, set to become a regular monthly fixture. The Mayor has been the subject of criticism by taxi drivers, and went ahead anyway. Leeds’ bid to the Cycle Cities Ambition Bid included provision of 50 (yes, fifty) new cycle parking spaces in the city centre, while the forthcoming Victoria Gate development on Leeds’ Eastgate proudly announced 800 new car parking spaces. Utrecht announced plans for the world’s biggest cycle parking facility with twelve and a half thousand cycle spaces. That’s a city with ambitions for cycling.
Councillor Carter and Andrew Hall were both speaking in an official capacity, representing the Council. If the acting head of transport policy thinks that pointing the finger at cycle campaigners and rogue cyclists is an appropriate response to being asked to sum up “how can we get Leeds cycling”, and two Councillors think the anti-cycling bandwagon is a great political vehicle, it’s a worrying signal. For years, cycle campaigners have joked about Councils reducing accident statistics by actively discouraging cycling. But it now seems an underlying element of anti-cycling sentiment could lurk in the hearts of our decision makers.