Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Dangerous Legacy

Sixteen people have died on bicycles in the capital in 2011.

Two of the most recent have been young women, at the start of their work career. The scale of the human cost is easy to appreciate. Friends and family facing a lifetime of grief. Parents having to bury their children, and denied grandchildren that will now never be born. At a societal level there are consequences too: years of education will not now bear fruit as a productive career. And all the people who have been touched by these deaths will likely think twice about cycling themselves.

In fact, young women make up a very small proportion of cyclists - TfL's 2008 report says that females under 25 account for just 2% of bike riders. This says a lot about how appealing London's roads are for cycling: you see plenty of young women cycling in European cities.

Young people right now are getting a pretty raw deal from society: education is becoming massively more expensive while employment opportunities are more limited. They are disproportionately bearing the costs of an economic mess they had no hand in creating. And older generations have burned all the cheap oil and ignored the threat of climate change, leaving a toxic and expensive legacy. Thanks, Mum and Dad!

Nowhere is this inequity between young and old more apparent than in London's car-centric road design. It's clear that the roads are set up to favour motoring, but that's choice that many young people are denied. They can't afford to drive, being saddled with debt from student loans and tuition fees, and expected in due course to pay back the national debt accumulated by their profligate forebears. Some young people who cycle are paying with their lives because traffic flow is deemed more important than safety; many more who might prefer to cycle, particularly as we've seen young women,  are denied that choice because conditions are so hostile - a dangerous legacy dating from the time when people believed that motoring would free us all. It's been clear for decades that motor vehicles bring a huge number of problems to large cities - causing physical danger, environmental and aesthetic damage, and dominating huge amounts of space - yet in London, there's been only a glacial retreat from the values of the 'golden age of motoring', in contrast to many other cities. Here, the car still dominates and excludes other more benign forms of transport.

If cycling is a choice being denied, there's always public transport. Buses would get around a lot quicker were it not for congestion, caused by the unrestricted freedom enjoyed a small number of the better-off to drive or use taxis. And London public transport fares are rising (and they're already the highest in Europe), again as a result of the economic crisis that youngsters had no hand in creating.

Youngsters don't have the closed mindset and fixed transport habits of some older people. Getting them onto bikes is not difficult. They might keep the cycling habit into later life, making them healthier, and additionally they'd enjoy the low costs and freedom of cycling: in short, a lifetime of benefits.  But the grey-haired car-dependent establishment don't cycle and don't want to cycle. They see cycling as a risky activity undertaken by marginal elements in society; an activity that can't be made safe, at least not without doing the unthinkable - slowing down motor traffic.