Saturday, January 29, 2011

Stop the child murder - UK edition

Parents in the UK, and the rest of us, have a terrible choice to make. I hope it is not an understatement to say this - and that the title is appropriate.

The choice is this:

- On the one hand, letting your child out to play, or to ride a bike to school, seems like madness given the state of the roads (and the steady stream of news peddling fear). So most parents keep their kids in, and drive them to school. If i had young kids, there's no way I'd let them cycle on the very roads I ride every day.

- On the other, keeping our kids inactive is storing up an epidemic of health problems for the future. Obesity, diabetes, depression - it's here already, and it's going to get worse.

We need to let our kids get out, be active, and cycle to school. For that, we need to make a major change to our environment.

This has happened before.

In the Netherlands in the 1970s, a few people recognized that car usage was on the way up. Also, the number of people killed or seriously injured (KSI) on the roads was also on the increase.

"Stop de Kindermoord" ("Stop the Child Murder") was the response.

David Hembrow has already detailed this (at ).

It was abhorrent and unacceptable that child deaths would be the cost of driving - their government responded to this, and gave the necessary attention and money to developing safe, effective cycle routes. (Ones you would actually want to use, not the paint-on-pavements "safe-routes-to-school" the UK has opted for). Cycling increased, and deaths on the roads fell in the same period.

So, if the UK is to have its much-mentioned "cycling revolution", perhaps we need to make this less about cyclists, and more about children?

The nutjobs can rant and rave about how cyclists "ride on the pavement and run red lights and don't have lights and don't even pay 'road tax' and murder policemen and...", because they don't cycle and they don't know anyone who does.

But everyone knows children, or can sympathize, and would wish them well. And best of all, they're on our side! They overwhelmingly want to get out more, and to cycle.

We are in a very different position to the Dutch in the 1970s. We have engineered cycling completely out of the equation, off our streets and out of our collective consciousness. The scale of this erasure is so complete that it would be hard, now, to make the case that children are dying on our roads. The problem is so bad, that parents have chosen to protect their kids by keeping them off the streets. We're still killing them, but softly - depriving them of activity and fresh air now, and setting them up for major health issues later.

We can offer helmets, and cycle training, and say we're promoting cycling, but as long as we fail to address what keeps cycling at pitiful levels in the UK (2% of journeys; 68% of adults never cycle), all that training just helps people ride around Centre Parcs - they won't do it out in the world.

This is why i despair of the mainstream cycling lobby in the UK - the CTC, and Sustrans, who seem to have colluded with TfL and the DfT to maintain "vehicular cycling" as the only option. It's certainly the only way i feel safe to cycle in the UK, but it's a last-resort survival tactic i wouldn't wish on my loved ones, or anyone else.

(Vehicular cyclng - Copenhagenize has a tongue-in-cheek discussion at )

Their "hierarchy of provision", with dedicated cycling facilities at the bottom, is no doubt meant with good intentions. We would all prefer calm, safe roads (designed with cycling in mind) to the pisspoor pavement bike lane / shared-use paths that serve no-one and put pedestrians and cyclists at risk. To be honest, this is broadly what they call for.

The outcome, however, seems to be that the middle option, "reallocation of carriageway space" (aka gutter cycle lanes), has been overwhelmingly popular with planners. It costs peanuts, and doesn't interfere with the road layout (since dashed-line "advisory" cycle lanes, the commonest type, allow any vehicle to drive in them). The better options - actually improving the road network for cycling - are just seen as too hard.

The CTC tells us that they "believe that pavements should be safe for pedestrians, and that the carriageway should be made safe for cycling". Neither has happened. Cycling (and walking) are flatlining in this country. Unless we rethink radically, and change our priorities, it's only going to get worse.

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