Friday, 21 September 2007

Targeting bad cycle lanes

The BBC today has a short video report on London's cycle lanes, which focuses on how cyclists often feel at risk when using them. Those of us who work in cycling know that feelings of danger are a huge deterrent to more people cycling. Now, as it happens, we also know that cycling is a lot less dangerous than it looks, and that any danger which does exist is far outweighed by cycling's health benefits: it is always much better for your life expectancy to cycle than not to cycle; but as long as people avoid bicycles because drivers choose to put them at risk, we have a problem that needs to be addressed.

The BBC report, with its London focus, got me thinking about a conversation I had earlier this year with a London-based road planner, whom I will keep anonymous. He explained how, although the various London Councils are all naturally in favour of increasing cycling, they generally try to make this happen through one simple system: lengthening the London Cycle Network, the city's network of cycle lanes and tracks. A longer LCN is the target because the number of kilometres of cycle lane in a city is easily measurable, you see - you can do it with a ruler - whereas aiming to make cycling 'safe', 'fun' or 'useful'... well, such vague hand-waving oogy-boogy concepts seem like voodoo to the leaden souls at the top of local government.

Because 'lengthening the LCN' has become synonymous with 'improving cycling' in the minds of decision-makers, London's road planners are under great pressure to get a cycle lane - any cycle lane - onto every street. It doesn't matter if it is a good cycle lane, or one that flagrantly makes journeys longer and puts people in danger: if the LCN grows, it's a good thing. Exactly the same principle is driving so many other authorities around the country.

Right now I am submitting a funding proposal, with Lazio Regional Authority and other partners around Europe, to the EU. Our aim is to build research on all these other aspects of cycle infrastructure and to ask how can we best assess concepts such as safety, pleasure and usefulness. When we crack this issue, town planning might be able to get away from the cycle-lane-kilometre as the sole measure of success when it comes to catering for cyclists, who do, lest we forget, pay for these roads and 'cycle facilities', more than do motorists.

Finally, here's a short movie I spotted from my old home town of York, showing exactly why this stuff shouldn't be left in the hands of local authorities when their main aim is just to get a cycle lane - any cycle lane - down on the street. The last of the three examples irresistibly suggests the influence of health and safety inspectors - the one group of people who can make the Tomás de Torquemada look free-thinking and undogmatic.

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