Earlier this month the government launched a consultation on introducing a new law of causing death or serious injury while cycling. It follows an 18-month campaign by Matthew Briggs, whose wife Kim died after a collision with a cyclist while she was crossing Old Street, in Shoreditch. The cyclist involved could only be prosecuted under Victorian legislation – that of causing bodily harm by “wanton and furious driving”.
The government’s move has provoked outrage from many cycle campaigners, who point out that Department for Transport figures show that in 2016, the most recent full year for which they are available, 448 pedestrians were killed on Britain’s roads but only three cases involved bicycles.
Those same campaigners regularly campaign for measures, which, they say, would encourage more people to cycle, usually including dedicated tracks segregated from motor traffic. Such demands are made without allowing for the possibility that if more people did cycle common sense suggests there would very likely be a greater need for the law Matthew Briggs is campaigning for. Earlier this month he tweeted:
More people are cycling – this is great for society on so many levels. But there is a concomitant increase in risks to pedestrians as evidenced by the stats (50% increase in pedestrian injury). A civilised society needs laws that keep up & are relevant – a simple thing to want.
Who could possibly disagree? However, it is not just the greater numbers who may be cycling or may begin to that suggest the law should be changed. New infrastructure of the sort that continues to be built in London introduces risks, because navigating it is complicated and confusing for pedestrians.
There are many ways in which the new road layouts are confusing, but for now let’s focus on one. The new infrastructure, built largely under the mayoralty of Boris Johnson but with cross-party support, includes a large number of “bi-directional” cycle tracks. These are two-way for cycling, but run on one side of the main carriageway.
Examples of these have been installed on the Embankment, Westminster Bridge and even diagonally across Parliament Square. Yet even cycling activists acknowledge problems with them. For example, in June 2016, campaigner Mark Treasure wrote on his blog:
Bi-directional cycleways are often not the best design solution, but the decision to go with bi-directional cycleways is not an accident. Undoubtedly people at Transport for London have thought long and hard about the best way to implement cycling infrastructure given current UK constraints, and have plumped for two-way as the most sensible approach.
To be clear, bi-directional cycleways do have serious downsides – they can lead to more conflict at side roads as cycles will be coming from unexpected directions, and pedestrians in particular may find them harder to deal with. Head-on collisions with other people cycling are also more likely. On ‘conventional’ streets – one lane of motor traffic in each direction – uni-directional cycleways are clearly preferable, all other things being equal. (my emphasis).
London government is, however, persisting with bi-directional tracks, apparently in the belief that everyone will become accustomed to this new infrastructure in time. As it seems probable that there will be more collisions between cyclists and pedestrians while we experiment to see whether this belief is well founded, a change to the law governing death and serious injury when cycling would be both timely and necessary.
Bi-directional tracks are only one aspect of the new infrastructure that makes conditions worse for pedestrians. I hope to touch on others in future pieces. You can respond to the government’s consultation on a new law here.
Rita Krishna was a Hackney councillor from 2002 until 2014 and in that role took a special interest in streets and transport, including road safety scrutiny.
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