Cycling and Walking Revolution and Highway Code Changes

The Prime Minister has announced a “£2 billion cycling and walking revolution” – see Reference 1 below for the Government’s press release. There is also a consultation launched on changes to the Highway Code – see Reference 2.  I will comment on some of the implications for London and give my personal comments on the Highway Code changes as the ABD nationally will be formulating a formal response in due course – your views might assist.

The £2 billion might sound a lot of money but spread over some years it might not be a great deal. It includes the provision of new “protected” cycle routes. If they were segregated from other road traffic that might make much sense to avoid conflict but the danger is that it will just mean more cycle lanes taking away road space with fairly disastrous results for traffic congestion as seen in London.

Boris Johnson’s press release suggests that getting people to cycle and walk will enable them to lose weight and get fitter thereby generally improving their health. The only problem with this is that, as anyone who has tried to lose weight knows, you have to do an awful lot of exercise to lose much weight. In reality the only way to significantly lose weight is to eat fewer calories and drink less alcohol. Exercise can only contribute in a minor way, not that I would discourage you from taking it.

For the elderly taking up cycling can be positively dangerous. My brother-in-law just fell off a bike in Italy and hurt his shoulder which was already damaged, and he is an experienced cyclist. But if you really want to take up cycling the Government is to provide cycle training, vouchers to fix your old bike, or possibly assistance to buy a new electric one (details not yet clear).

The Government is to encourage “Low Traffic Neighbourhoods” that might include road closures like we have seen in Lewisham and other London boroughs, much to the disgust of many residents. The result has been more traffic congestion, not less, and there has been no public consultation before putting in the measures using the epidemic as an excuse. It’s good to see that the Government says that includes “consulting on communities’ right to close side streets” – I look forward to such consultations! I trust they will be made retrospective.

All this enthusiasm for cycling is of course driven by the fine weather, and the fact that sporting facilities such as gyms have been closed. People may continue to avoid the latter, hence all the weekend cyclists. In London commuters have also been avoiding public transport so cycling has been seen to be a viable alternative to avoid the risk of infection. And it’s cheaper than using public transport unless you have a concessionary fare.

But cyclists are still a minority of traffic on London’s roads (about 2% according to the last reported data from 2018). See Reference 3 below for the trends in traffic data. Will the Government really turn the UK into the cycling capital of the world? I doubt it. It might be popular for young males, but will it ever be for the elderly and never for the disabled or sick surely (of which there are an enormous number in London – actually 21% of adults).

The convenience of a vehicle for transporting people (such as family members) and goods over short and long distances, in all weathers and safely just cannot be beaten. Those who can afford a vehicle and have space to park it usually learn to drive and buy a vehicle sooner or later. It opens up many new leisure and work opportunities and gives you access to a much wider geographic area that may simply be impractical to access via public transport in a sensible timeframe.

Highway Code Changes

The proposed changes, to which you can respond in a public consultation, are not all bad in my opinion (see the link below). But there are some issues I note:

– It introduces a “hierarchy of road users”. I always thought all people who use the roads should be treated equally as in essence all people have the same rights and responsibilities in a free society. They should also share the roads irrespective of their chosen transport modes. To give more obligations and responsibilities to any one class of road user is wrong.

– There is a change that does not dissuade cyclists from overtaking vehicles on the left. That is a dangerous manoeuvre on crowded London roads as cyclists may be in a blind spot on some vehicles.

– They are also proposing to introduce specific passing distances for cyclists which will cause unnecessary difficulties on many narrow London roads. More flexible rules should be set rather than fixed limits. They also encourage cyclists to ride in the centre of a lane which will delay/obstruct other traffic and cause needless annoyance, and they encourage cyclists to ride 2-abreast also.

– They also encourage the use of the “Dutch Reach” when opening a car door. This is really only practical in small vehicles and for those people who can turn their head through 180 degrees – many elderly people cannot. It’s actually safer to look in a door mounted wing mirror when a wider view of traffic approaching from behind can be seen (including cyclists).

In summary, many of the changes favour pedestrians and cyclists and might improve their safety, but those for cyclists are often irrational and unnecessary. They will be particularly problematic in London where the behaviour of cyclists is often quite appallingly bad. There is more helpful guidance for cyclists in the new Code, but will they actually read it? They unfortunately have no obligation to do so and many clearly have historically not done so. At least vehicle owners have to pass a test to ensure they know it.

Roger Lawson

Ref. 1: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-kickstarts-2bn-cycling-and-walking-revolution

Ref. 2: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/review-of-the-highway-code-to-improve-road-safety-for-cyclists-pedestrians-and-horse-riders

Ref. 3: https://roadtraffic.dft.gov.uk/regions/6

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