Get Britain Cycling: Ways to improve cycling infrastructure

Third session of the inquiry hears from Sustrans and Highways Agency

In the third session of the Get Britain Cycling inquiry, debates focused on planning and design – how to ensure that Britain’s roads make adequate provision for cyclists.

The answer to the cycling infrastructure question is simple: we need it, and soon. If the very core of the problem of cycle safety isn't addressed at the highest levels, cycling will continue to be a sport for enthusiasts rather than an everyday form of transport and recreation. The balance of power between the car and the bicycle is skewed. Until that balance is redressed, we won't see a significant increase in cycling. 

At the parliamentary inquiry,Tony Russell from Sustrans observed that cycling infrastructure must be built so that a 12-year-old can safely navigate it. Martin Gibbs of British Cycling, summing up the evidence, said a clear message had been given that “cycling needs to be put at the heart of transport policy and needs to be designed into infrastructure from the start, not added on as an afterthought”.   

The Highways Agency came in for considerable criticism for its failure to take cyclists into account when designing roads, and the organisation’s Mark Wilson acknowledged that engineers need more cycle-specific training. 

The inquiry session said nothing new. It’s widely acknowledged that our road networks, both urban and rural, are hopelessly unsuitable for cyclists and need some very radical redesigning and rebuilding. More must be done to encourage cycling as the principal means of travelling distances of a couple of miles.

Unfortunately, though, we are years behind the curve. A few decades back and safe cycling lanes could have been integrated into the road network during the expansion to its present condition. The fact that this was not done may well have contributed to limiting the uptake of cycling in the UK. 

Conversely, the Highways Agency audits claim there is no demand for cycling. We find ourselves in a vicious circle: nobody cycles because the roads are unsafe, so the Highways Agency assume nobody wants to cycle and continue to design roads that are unsafe for riders.

Of all the recommendations put before the inquiry, those on infrastructure will be the most difficult to achieve. Standard road repairs are already stretching local authority budgets, and many roads are rutted with potholes from several winters of snow and ice. It will take a large financial commitment from the government to even start making a difference. 

A good start would be for the Highways Agency to take into account what’s needed. How local authorities will be able to find the cash to do what’s required without a huge injection of dedicated funding remains to be seen.  

It’s occurred to me, when cycling into London on a busy road, that one affordable option in some places might be to convert one wide, largely empty pavement to a cycle path, leaving the other for walkers. It would involve installing more pedestrian and cycle crossings, but might enable us to expand the network of safe cycle routes more quickly.

Alongside this, a reduction of the speed limit campaigned for by many groups would be a quick and effective measure and, as CTC’s Roger Geffen pointed out in the inquiry, also an affordable one. 

There are many arguments in favour of reducing speed limits, particularly in towns. Brake, the road safety charity, have been campaigning for some time for a 20mph speed limit in urban areas, and any personal injury lawyer can tell you that a driver’s stopping distance at 30mph is nearly twice that at 20mph. 

The inquiry continues to progress well, and although little that’s being said is completely new, having it recognised in a formal setting is undoubtedly an important step forward. 

I look forward to next week’s session – the topic is active lifestyles, to see how the country’s success in sport can translate into wider participation among the general population, particularly given the lack of suitable infrastructure.

For Simon Edwards' take on the first session of the inquiry, see Get Britain Cycling: UK leadership and cycling. For his reaction to the second session, see Get Britain Cycling: Justice system is failing cyclists.

Prolegal are a team of bike solicitors who specialise in representing victims of serious cycling injuries.

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