Tuesday, 25 March 2008

David Cameron and cycling's mixed messages

So I suppose I'd better say something about the supposed scandal of David Cameron's cycling. The thing is, all the hullaballoo surrounding his riding really reminds me of some issues I've been mulling for quite some time regarding the terribly mixed messages given to cyclists in this country. Here are a few of them, in no particular order.

  • Cycling down a one-way street is dangerous - unless it happens not to be. Cameron was slammed for this, but I know of various one-way streets which are officially one-way to all traffic except for bicycles, which can go both ways. I use a street like this in Salisbury all the time. So is cycling down a one-way street safe or dangerous?
  • Cycling on the pavement is dangerous - unless there is a small blue sign with a cyclist and a pedestrian painted on it, in which case suddenly cycling on the pavement becomes safe. So is cycling on the pavement safe or dangerous?
  • Filtering up the left-hand side of stopped traffic is dangerous - unless there is an Advanced Stop Line (which nobody can see), in which case it is safe. So is filtering on the left safe or dangerous?
  • Cycling is a healthy and non-polluting travel mode and it is officially supported and promoted - except of course it isn't really officially supported, at least not in a sense whereby the government provides any realistic legal protection, road priority or infrastructure.

I think the clear message here - and particularly with regard to the first three points above - is that a range of cycling activities are terrible and dangerous and a menace to society... unless they get official sanction in a particular place, at which point they magically become safe. Central and Local Government can't have it both ways. They can't on the one hand chastise cyclists for, say, riding the wrong way down a one-way street whilst on the other hand designating one-way streets as open to cyclists as a way of cheaply increasing the amount of cycle provision they have. It is all a question of mixed messages and it's no wonder nobody is happy.

Of course, some people might point out that what we are seeing is a special kind of flexibility for cyclists - places where it has been deemed safe for two-way cycling are opened up and places where it is deemed dangerous are kept one-way, for example. The thing is, if this is the official approach (and I don't believe it is) then this is still a mixed message as the approach is simply not applied consistently.

The current approach, which constantly sends mixed messages about cycling to all road users, fosters danger and resentment - which in turn fosters further danger. What we all need are consistent policies. Is cycling down a one-way street safe or dangerous? If it's safe, make it universal; if it's dangerous, ban it. This is the approach applied to all other road-use, after all. Because despite some of the terrible and ill-informed stereotyping that has been thrown around in the past few days (in a way that would never be allowed about people's other lifestyle choices, I might add), the vast bulk of cyclists are law-abiding and just want to travel safely and efficiently. They don't want to have to constantly travel around asking themselves 'Now is it safe or dangerous to ride here today? Where's the little magic sign that'll stop me hitting the pedestrians...?'

Saturday, 1 March 2008

A mention in the Economist

I just got an email from our university's Press Office to say my work on how drivers' overtaking behaviour gets more dangerous when a cyclist wears a helmet was mentioned in a recent article on risk in The Economist. It's interesting how that project of mine has been viewed and used by different people. One of the main findings was that a behaviour intended to reduce risk (putting on a bicycle helmet) might paradoxically increase one's overall level of risk because drivers react to its presence by changing their behaviour. I've seen this finding used in many discussions -- some people find it a curious datum, others feel it backs up their own experiences, and some people loath my findings, usually because they are starting with the 'common sense' position that bicycle helmets must be a good thing.

But I've also seen that research used in broader contexts. Indeed I've seen it used in relatively extreme right-wing libertarian writing to justify an argument for having no state intervention in people's day-to-day behaviour. It just goes to show that when you do research and put your findings out into the world, you can never be sure exactly what's going to happen to them.

But for all that, I have to say that it's very satisfying that work of mine is being used by people. It's just a shame that any use of one's research by people who are not themselves professional researchers "doesn't count" under our government's Research Assessment Exercise. Academics writing in endless circles about one another's work is "good research"; a grand theory which excites everybody but then proves to be completely bogus after two years is "good research", as there will be lots of papers supporting it, then a second raft of papers slamming it, giving the high number of citations that research assessment focuses on to a large degree. But studies which excite the public, lead to media discussion or even change public behaviour for the better don't count as having had any impact at all -- our research is only "good" if other academics write about it. But we'll moan about that another day. It's far too sunny a Spring day for caviling now. I'm off to walk the dog instead.