With the economic crisis more cyclists have taken to the road and conflicts have intensified between the three groups of road users. Politicians and user groups are dealing with different historical legacies in the UK, Spain, and Portugal. Could the Dutch tradition of bringing motorists and cyclists together be the way forward?
Cycling in cities has become more popular in recent years, accelerated by the search for cheaper transport since the beginning of the economic crisis in Europe.
This was the case in Britain in the post-war period, for the same reasons, but since the 1970’s car use has increased enormously forcing cyclists into smaller and smaller spaces.
The pressure of numbers has brought out the underlying problems resulting from limited space in cities. Too many cyclists have died in London, crushed by lorries turning left at traffic lights, and it is partly this fear that has encouraged cyclists to use the pavement and to run red lights.
But both of these responses bring them – often literally – into collision with pedestrians.
I was left with a bleeding hand once in Brighton when a cyclist – with no bell – ran into me as she tried to ride across the road among a group of pedestrians, and of course cyclists are usually neither insured nor are bikes registered with number plates.
And it is an everyday occurrence in London for pedestrians to be shouted at by cyclists ignoring traffic lights at crossings. All these things fuel a culture of hostility between cyclists and motorists.
The Prisma contacted cycling and motoring organisations in the UK, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands to find out what issues are most important and what is being done about them.
…the Highway Code has recently been changed to permit cyclists to ride two abreast in bus lanes, and to require motorists to keep at least 1.5 metres away when passing them, something which is almost impossible on narrower roads. The response from the Portuguese Automobile Club was to say that this ‘privilege’ should be paid for by obliging cyclists to take out 3rd party insurance. A suggestion met with ridicule by many cyclists.
Mario Alves of the Portuguese cycling organization MUBi also considers it unrealistic and unworkable, and notes that the danger from accidents involving motorists is much greater, in a country where there are 5,000 accidents annually involving uninsured cars and 50,000 vehicles without a current annual safety certificate.
MUBi also point out that cycling on pavements is illegal in Portugal except where there is a marked cycle track, and that doing so often puts cyclists in more danger than on the roads, due to the large number of obstructions and garage exits on pavements.
MUBi’s attitude to pedestrian complaints is sympathetic, agreeing with a correspondent who described it as ‘terrorism’, putting children especially at risk, and suggest that one improvement might be if the present Fundo Garantia Automovel, which covers accidents involving uninsured vehicles were extended to include uninsured cyclists.
They have also succeeded in getting the Lisbon Town Council to stop putting cycle lanes on pavements and to move existing ones onto the road.
…the current issue concerns the government’s attempt to make cyclists wear helmets, which might seem like a sensible suggestion from the point of view of public health and safety.
However John Rawlins of the cycling organization ConBici refers to the World Health Organization view that the risk due to cyclists not wearing helmets is far outweighed by the health benefits of cycling.
ConBici also suspect that the idea of cyclists being obliged to be insured is driven by a marketing push from insurance companies. ConBici lobbying has almost certainly defeated the compulsory introduction of helmets for all cyclists, but they will be required for children.
Responding to other questions, Rawlins says that deaths caused by lorries are much less of a problem, because they are mostly banned from entering Spanish cities, while the issues of cycle tracks on pavements are similar to Portugal, and ConBici is campaigning to have them moved onto the road.
As in the UK, theft of bikes is a problem which puts many people off from cycling, although it can be seen as a reason for cyclists to insure themselves.
I contacted both of the main motoring organizations, the Cyclists Touring Club and the London Cycling Campaign, none of whom replied. In pleasant contrast was the detailed response I received from Neil Greig at the Institute of Advanced Motoring, whose website dedicates a space to cyclists.
Regarding cycle tracks, the IAM view – in contrast to those of ConBici and MUBi – is that cycle tracks should be moved onto the pavements, as long as they are clearly marked.
They argue that the greatest danger to cyclists comes from motorists, so the two need to be separated, but acknowledge that even in Holland, where cycling is best established, it took decades to develop the infrastructure of cycle tracks and secure bike sheds.
In their policy briefing they point to the need for large vehicles to be fitted with effective mirrors, and for the expansion of innovative schemes where roads give equal priority to drivers and cyclists at a speed limit of 20 mph.
Besides that, the IAM does not believe in obligatory insurance or the compulsory wearing of helmets, but places a lot of emphasis on improved training for cyclists and motorists, something with which both MUBi and ConBici agreed.
IAM believes that training for cyclists should be available from more local authorities and employers, and included in the National Curriculum in schools.
Another suggestion was the introduction of dedicated traffic lights at busy junctions, but current UK law does not allow the necessary lower-level lights.
In the UK press, cycling organizations have welcomed the efforts of the Greater London Authority to improve cycling safety, while criticizing many politicians outside London for their lack of interest beyond speech-making.
…the main cycling organization, the ANWB (Royal Dutch Automobile Club), is probably unique in representing both cyclists and motorists, and illustrates how the history of cycling in different countries continues to determine the problems, or lack of them, that exist today.
Founded in 1883 it has 3.9 million members in a population of only 17 million. By 1890 it was already advocating cycle paths, and began building them, even having its own steamroller for the purpose.
In 1896 it was established to the extent of offering insurance to cyclists and providing first aid and tool boxes at hotels and other locations.
The first Dutch motorways were built in 1934, incorporating parallel cycle paths, and traffic regulation in cities has always required safe provisions for all road users.
Nowadays most new bikes in Holland are sold with certified locks and theft insurance.
In the 1990’s generous government funding supported the provision of new cycle paths, of which there are now 35,000 km in this small country, while other changes included reducing the vehicle speed limit in cities to 30Km per hour, and re-introducing the universal rule of precedence to traffic from the right – which has also just happened in Portugal.
Despite all these positives the increased numbers of cyclists has recently led to more accidents on cycle paths, something the ANWB is addressing with a more stable bike design: the Life Cycle.
Peace on the Roads? While the rights and territories of the three groups are still being hammered out the best advice is: “Be aware – or beware”.