Cyclists have been enjoying the limelight, but do they get the right of way too often? Do pedestrians need to take back the streets?
Cycling shot up the agenda in 2012 with Britain’s Olympic success and a national media campaign. But are other road users being forgotten in the rush to make the streets safer for bikes? Campaigner for pedestrians Caroline Russell and cycling blogger Danny Williams talk it through. Joanna Moorhead listens in.
Caroline Russell: We know who doesn’t rule the roads: it’s not pedestrians, and it’s not cyclists. That’s true in London and other cities – and in rural areas it’s worse: it’s terrifying being a pedestrian or riding a bike in the countryside. There’s an attitude that speeding doesn’t matter, and people forget, for example, the bit of the Highway Code that says you’re supposed to give way to pedestrians crossing a side road.
Danny Williams: We’ve got an aggressive road culture in Britain, and it favours people who are behind the wheel. In the US people drive more slowly in a residential area, and in most of Europe, drivers have to give way to pedestrians at crossings, and they all do it. But not here.
CR: Even buses go too fast in London – you often see people being thrown around as they lurch along. If all traffic slowed down, motorists would be able to slow down for pedestrians and cyclists.
DW: The truth is that it’s not much fun for anyone – whether you’re driving, cycling or walking. The main streets in London are such fast and furious places – but they’re also places where people have to live and walk and go shopping.
CR: We have to rethink how we want our cities to be. If we want shops to survive and we want healthier and happier residents, we have to rethink how people can make local journeys on foot and by bike. That means slowing down vehicles – which doesn’t mean increasing journey times, because what matters is how many people get through the lights on green. But if drivers had to drive more slowly, they’d be able to stop more easily when people make mistakes – and a moment of inattention wouldn’t mean death or life-changing injuries, as it does now. I got involved in campaigning for pedestrians when I began pushing a buggy around after my first child was born 20 years ago. I realised how car-centric our cities are. Pedestrians seemed to be left out; people get involved in cycle campaigning because there’s a culture of cycling. But we all walk, and people don’t come together.
DW: Cyclists do have a culture, to an extent. But there’s also a shared experience of feeling pretty minor, pretty ignored, when you’re on the roads. Cyclists feel ignored by the law, which is often irrelevant when it comes to collisions – it fosters the sense of being part of a group and wanting to make changes.
CR: There is a sense now, though, of people understanding that we could have a different sort of city. There’s been huge success with the campaign to cut the speed limit to 20mph in urban areas.
DW: A limit of 20mph makes a huge difference to cyclists. But there seems to be a feeling, especially among older people, and guide dog users, that cyclists are a menace.
CR: It’s all about shared space, and that’s challenging. There’s evidence that shared space can be navigated safely by people who are visually impaired, and Living Streets, the national charity that campaigns for pedestrians, speaks out for walking and cycling. Many older people tell me they’ve had bad experiences with antisocial cyclists as well as antisocial drivers – and there are antisocial pedestrians. The problem is when one starts ascribing bad behaviour to a particular transport mode. What really matters is understanding: it’s about sharing, and everyone needs to take a step back and be more mellow.
DW: But the sharing isn’t on an equal footing when the other person is in a petrol-powered vehicle doing 50mph. Cars intimidate cyclists, cyclists intimidate pedestrians. And what we need to see is more separation of people in their different transport modes, in the countryside as well as in cities. In places such as Denmark and the Netherlands, and even New York now, you have pavements for pedestrians, cycle tracks for cyclists, and cars somewhere else. Dutch drivers aren’t miracle drivers who are amazingly considerate; they are just kept a long way apart from the others.
CR: We could change the way we allocate space in London. During the Olympics we saw a massive shift: behaviour change was encouraged, people were urged to travel at different times, to think about how they travelled, to use bikes or walk, or to use public transport. With the right political will, we could have a big shift so that space is taken away from vehicles and given over to people who are propelling themselves by bicycle power or on foot.
DW: We have such a vibrant health and safety culture in England, but it hardly seems to have touched the roads.
CR: There were 454 pedestrians killed on the roads in the UK last year. If we saw that level of death due to any other transport mode, there would be a public outcry. But there’s an assumption that people in cars take priority. And at the same time, we’re all tearing our hair out about how to deal with obesity.
DW: The cycling community has woken up to the fact that the way roads are designed contributes to the number of people being killed or seriously injured, and the pedestrian lobby has realised that too. Road design impacts both groups in the same way.
CR: People come together in relation to particular places where there’s an issue, a dangerous crossing for example, but the way in which one develops a pedestrian lobby with a strong voice is complicated. A lot of people who are pedestrians are also drivers. I sometimes drive a car and I’m a member of the AA, yet I get very frustrated when I hear the AA talking about drivers. I think, ‘Well, I’m a driver but actually I’m very happy to drive at 20mph and slow down around people, and I’m very aware of giving cyclists space.’ This idea of dividing people out by transport mode doesn’t work. I walk, I cycle, I use buses and sometimes I drive a car.
JM: What could make things better?
CR: Having a default 20mph speed limit in all urban areas, with 30mph as the exception rather than the rule. A limit of 20mph doesn’t solve everything, but it’s one way politicians could quickly change our streets.
DW: I agree that’s vastly important. But I’d like to see some meaningful, Continental-style infrastructure built to enable people to get around, and to help them realise that they don’t need to use a car for every journey.
Caroline Russell is chair of Islington Living Streets and on TfL’s Better Junctions Design Review Group. She tweets as @highburyonfoot. Danny Williams blogs as Cyclists in the City and is on Boris Johnson’s Road Task Force.