As Easy As Riding A Bike)
Why is it that cycling is regarding as a serious potential risk in ways that motor traffic travelling at greater speeds (and with much greater momentum) is not?
Part of the explanation must lie in the fact that we have lived with motor traffic travelling at great speed around our urban areas for so long that is simply seen as ‘normal’. We don’t even notice it – it’s simply background wallpaper, a fact of life. Cars, lorries, vans and buses travel at 30mph along our roads and streets, and that’s just the way it is.
Meanwhile cycling – a mode of transport for which users rarely attain more than 20mph, and which weighs little more than the human being cycling – is something that has to be controlled; slowed down; enforced.
This isn’t helped by lazy urban design that all too often lumps cycling in with walking, placing it on pedestrian-specific infrastructure that is a recipe for conflict.
Cycling diverted onto a narrow, busy footway. What could possibly go wrong?
But I suspect there’s a little more going on behind the scenes here than simple bad design. As we shall see later in this post, even on high-quality cycling infrastructure that clearly separates cycling from walking, there is an expectation that cycling should be slowed down and controlled in ways that are simply absent on the adjacent road network, where motor traffic continues to thunder past at 30mph (or more).
Of course, the ‘controlling’ mentality has been most powerfully exhibited by the Royal Parks in the last week, who, having already installed a series of cobbled ridges in the western half of Hyde Park, are now proceeding to add another series to the (long-established) cycle path along the Broad Walk, which indirectly connects Hyde Park Corner with Marble Arch on the eastern side of the park. There will be 28 humps on this 1 km section of path.
The justification for doing this is (as always) people apparently cycling too fast. A speed of 32mph has been cited, but notably this is just one person, on one occasion. By contrast 93% of people surveyed by the Royal Parks are cycling below 20mph. A comment from a Royal Parks spokesman provides a little insight into the mentality of the organisation –
“If we have cyclists racing up and down a pathway at speed with pedestrians trying to cross that really doesn’t make for a pleasant visit, especially when we also have cases of pedestrians being shouted at for walking on pathways in the way of cyclists.”
What is deeply inconsistent about this attitude is that the roads running through Hyde Park continue to have 30mph limits, with very little to stop drivers from (entirely legally) travelling at this speed, and with little or no assistance to help pedestrians cross the road at key locations.
The crossing by the Serpentine Gallery on West Carriage Drive, helpfully labelled as a ‘Pedestrian Crossing Point’
The speed limit for drivers in the park is exactly the same as the single cycling outlier that has justified the installation of these cobbles, and the evidence from other Royal Parks suggest that speeding is rife, with 54% of all drivers exceeding 30mph in the Outer Circle in Regents Park. (The Royal Parks interest in tackling ‘speeding’ in this particular park only seems to have materialised with the prospect of it being closed as a through route to motor traffic, with new cobbled ramps to slow cycling).
Equally there is absolutely no priority for pedestrians attempting to cross these roads, nor any apparent concern in the face of motorists ‘racing’ (not that this word would be used by the Royal Parks) at 30mph or above. Naturally, these are ‘roads’ where that kind of speed is completely fine, while cycling on the Broad Walk is a mere ‘path’ where 10mph is the desired speed.
The inconsistency is even more obvious when we consider that the Broad Walk itself isn’t a particularly direct or convenient route for anyone cycling along the eastern edge of the park – it involves a series of convoluted crossings at both ends to leave and rejoin the road network. The most direct route is of course Park Lane itself, a fast and unpleasant road that (incredibly enough) was built on the park in the early 1960s. So Park Lane is effectively a route through the park, a route where motor traffic travels at great speed and in large quantities, a route where people are killed and seriously injured in numbers, and where pedestrians have to wait minutes to cross the road.
When I cycle on the Broad Walk (for instance, to go to Westminster University) it is not out of choice, but because I have been pushed off Park Lane by the dangerous and inhospitable character of the road.