So Edmund King, President of the Automobile Association and keen cyclist, is heading an initiative to give away 5000 helmets along with Hi-Viz tabards in Central London today. The aim of ‘Cycle Safety Day’ is to hand out this safety gear to people using Boris Bikes (in case you’re wondering why they’re just focussing on London), I assume to protect them from AA members and their van drivers.
Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize has also spoken out:
“While it’s great that the AA president is also a cyclist, this is merely another case of placing the responsibility on the vulnerable traffic users instead of tackling the rampant bull in our society – the automobile. It also sends dangerous signals that bicycle helmets are effective in collisions with cars, which they’re not. They’re not even designed for that kind of impact.
“If the AA wants to be taken seriously, it should consider promoting motoring helmets and, for example, fight for strict liability and back initiatives like the Dutch one of making external airbags on cars to protect pedestrians and cyclists a standard accessory.”
Whilst I’m sure that Mr King is acting with the best intentions, and I have nothing against him personally at all, this sends out all the wrong messages for cycling. At best his move makes the simple act of riding a bicycle look far from simple. It tells the public that the only way you can get from A to B safely on a bicycle is when dressed up as a cross between a coal miner and Liberace. At worst it looks like a cynical move by a motoring organisation that wants cyclists to act as mobile reflective road signs to allow for easier motoring. It looks like a move to enforce the burden of responsibility on to the most vulnerable road users. It looks like a move to justify insurance companies (such as the AA) not having to pay out so much if the cycling victim in a road accident isn’t wearing a helmet. Basically, it’s treating cycling like a stubborn stain that won’t go away.
As stated before on this blog, if we have arrived at a situation where grown men and women feel the need not just to armour themselves to ride a bicycle, but to put surveillance measures on that armour, then something is severely wrong with riding a bicycle in this country. What hope is there for our nations children that wish to cycle to school?
What’s really bizarre is that for all this debate and argument on what’s best for British road safety, no-one seems to be even daring to look North or East across the North Sea where real proven, tried and tested solutions may be found. The Netherlands and Denmark have had 2 to 3 decades of developing infrastructure for riding bicycles. They have made mistakes, have learnt from those mistakes and are still learning.
So, back to basics. Here is a film from Mark Wagenbuur regarding a country that acknowledges that far more people young and old, rich or poor will have access to a bicycle than a car and therefore makes that a priority, as any civilized nation should. Please note that helmets and hi-viz are regarded as irrelevant, as is the need for lycra. Also note the children cycling, not just to and from school, but also popping home for lunch completely independently. Please note that this country currently has the best road safety record in the World.
For those of you that instantly think ‘it can’t be done’, the Highways Agency recently revealed a [potential] £1 billion overspend on the M25 widening project. That’s £1 billion on just one road scheme, which is almost double the £560 million of ‘local transport’ funding that’s been cast out to the provinces. The real money is there alright. Also the infrastructure solutions available to us have been tried and tested, and then some. The picture below is from the always wonderful blog of David Hembrow.
It shows a bin placed near a school in Assen so kids don’t even need to slow down to dispose of the rubbish or litter the local area. That’s right, the Dutch have even created the perfect synergy between bicycle rider and rubbish bin. No helmets in that picture either.
We need to make cycling normal again. We have to return it as a mode of transport. In normal clothing.
Mikael Colville-Andersen sometimes refers to ‘Citizen Cyclists’. This is the masses using the bicycle as a simple tool to get from A to B without the need to resemble a carnival float. This is for people who don’t regard themselves as ‘cyclists’ per se but just use the bicycle by default shorter journeys because it is easy. They are not regarded as engaging in a specialist activity or being part of a sub culture. They are just people getting to the pub or the shops but on a bicycle. In the UK we have gone out of our way to make the most difficult mode of transport easy and the easiest mode of transport complicated and it is to this country’s detriment in every way.
I don’t believe the phrase ‘Citizen Cyclist’ would work in the UK however as it has communist, revolutionary connotations that the British might find a little unpalatable (when I started a campaign group in Worthing called ‘Worthing Revolution’, I was asked the change the ‘Revolution’ to ‘Revolutions’ as ‘Revolution’ sounded a bit too….well…..Revolutionary for a seaside town).
Instead, I would therefore like to propose ‘THE PEOPLES TRANSPORT’ as a way of pitching the bicycle to the 97% of people who don’t know that they’re regular bicycle riders yet. Seeing as more people in the UK can walk or use a bicycle than drive a car, then surely improved access for those two modes should be prioritised. Especially as motorists don’t pay for the roads. At the moment, the People have their place but the car comes first as opposed to how it should be – that the car has its place but the people come first. We can’t keep sticking little hats and bright clothing on people in the hope that this will make things better. It’s just not cricket (cricket actually requires armour, take it from someone who knows).
If the Government can commit to the idea of a bicycle being a mode of transport, if the AA can stop putting the burden of responsibility on the vulnerable as opposed to its members, if we can implement a range of infrastructure measures that are decent, fast, direct, that opens up communities and is fit for our children and other more vulnerable members of society then we can hold our heads high once more, without a helmet. To me, being able to buy a bigger car (with AA membership) doesn’t make us a decent, civilized nation. Leaving it in the driveway and exercising the freedom to walk or cycle to the local shops does.
A bit rambling I know but that’s the beauty of Dutch Bike riding. Lots of thinking time. Probably too much really.