The cycling blogosphere is getting very excited about The Times' new campaign, "Cities Fit for Cycling". This has been coming for a while. When I started this blog, the press attitude to cycling varied from indifference to outright hostility (see James Martin). However in the past two years or so there's been an observable change. The Guardian started a Bike Blog in 2009, and Ross Lydall's regular articles in the Standard have kept cycling issues on the radar. Even papers that previously scoffed at cyclists for being arrogant, lawless loonies with questionable fashion sense have softened their line somewhat.
The Times has gone a step further, devoting most of yesterday's (2 Feb 2012) front page together with a 2-page spread to an eloquent and well-informed polemic on cycle safety. And in case anyone thought they weren't serious, today they've followed up with another front-page lead story. The campaign is in response to the tragic serious injury to one of its journalists, Mary Bowers, at the end of 2011. Which goes to show that you can only kill and injure so many people before someone starts to notice: sooner or later someone in a position of power and influence is going to be affected.
The excellent David Arditti points out that downplaying the danger issue did cycling a disservice. He has a point. When I started this blog, some cycle campaigners were behaving rather like climate-change "sceptics", desperately searching for scraps of evidence to back their optimism that cycling was either getting safer or wasn't actually that dangerous, in the hope that if disbelief were suspended long enough, you'd get a critical mass of cyclists that would bring a 'safety in numbers' effect. However, there comes a point where optimism becomes denial, and denial becomes delusion. The release of more figures today show that cycling in London has been getting more dangerous since 2007 both in absolute and relative terms (I'll discuss why in another post).
Back in 2010 I suggested that the superhighways and hire bikes would generate media interest, and wrote:
"people will die on the Superhighways. Tourists will die on hire bikes. That will make the news. There'll be an outcry over the carnage, there'll be finger-pointing and safe cycle routes could become the flavour of the month."
Mercifully, my second prediction hasn't come to pass (yet), but my first one tragically has, with two deaths at the Bow roundabout. So in a perverse, round-about way, the Superhighways may yet lead to safer cycle routes.
However, we shouldn't assess our poultry inventory just yet. The forces of darkness will be planning how to frustrate, obfusticate and obstruct the move for better cycle routes. Much work remains to be done. Although the Coalition's red-tape reducing initiative is taking away some barriers to implementing cycle infrastructure, many still remain. I hope you haven't forgotten last week's political storm in Westminster about restricting parking. Imagine what will happen when people can't park in cycle lanes any more. Many businesses still believe that a lot of their trade is dependent on nearby free parking, and the benefits of cycling on local shops are under-appreciated. The minister in charge of road safety, Mike Penning, clearly hasn't got a clue, suggesting that the main safety problem is red-light running by cyclists (according to the Transport Research Laboratory, that doesn't appear in the top 10 collision causes attributed to cyclists).
What cycle campaigners need to do next is figure out how to trim the sails to take advantage of a following wind from the media, bearing in mind that there are choppy waters ahead and we're nowhere near port yet. But enough with the hackneyed sailing metaphors. Many Tories, like Penning, are either totally ignorant or suspicious of cycling (after all, the bicycle is a relatively new invention and you have to allow a couple of centuries to elapse to let the concept sink in). But the government tend to follow where public opinion goes, so if there's a sniff of political advantage, they may yet change horses - especially as they know they'll never win an argument against bereaved widows and children. However, public opinion is fickle, and the motor industry and other vested interests have vast PR resources at their disposal. Therefore it is necessary to get commitment now rather than allow the issue to go off the boil. Perhaps the best result would be to de-politicise the issue along the lines of a Royal Commission with the goal of getting UK cycle safety on a par with the best in mainland Europe, all parties committing to abide by its recommendations.