Never mind investment – we can improve cycle safety now

A cyclist “die-in” protest outside the offices of Transport for London to protest. Dominic Lipinski/PA

Much has been said in recent weeks about the death toll of cyclists in London. Yet the only immediate response media coverage seems to have produced is police on street corners handing out tickets to cyclists.

Whatever the merits of greater enforcement, demanding constables hit cyclist ticket targets will certainly raise hackles and give a sense of victim blaming. More importantly, such knee-jerk reactions guarantee that more appropriate provision is once again shunted further down the list of priorities.

It would be better to take swift action to adapt our cities’ infrastructure to changing demands. But while the long-term aspirations may be clear, we need measures that can be implemented more quickly – what would help convert highways into a system managed in a more even-handed way for the benefit of all users?

Making changes quickly runs counter to our expectations about what is feasible, where possibilities are limited by regulations and competing demands. The current, long drawn-out review of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions will hopefully usher in changes that make rolling out road schemes designed with cycle traffic in mind more straightforward. But this programme of change stretches over decades, in contrast to the one or two years in which local highway authorities are required to demonstrate value for money from Local Sustainable Transport Funding. There need to be steps to deliver capacity and safety improvements that can be taken more quickly than this.

In the magazine Local Transport Today, Transport for London’s Brian Deegan and Paul Lavelle, authors of TfL’s Cycling Design Standards, suggest ways to improve the safety of cycle-friendly traffic schemes.

A greatly enlarged cycles-only box at junctions in New York City. Ryan Russo/NYC DOT

Among them are the use of planters as a flexible means to separate the carriageway – how about a large scale programme of “coning off” critical sections of the network for cycle traffic with planters? They also talk about traffic regulation orders to restrict vehicle use along certain streets, reinforced with physical measures such as bollards. How quickly can these traffic orders be used to plan and implement a network of high capacity and safe cycle routes? Such an approach would remain flexible enough to adapt to permanent solutions.

A major safety issue is the “left-hook problem”, where cyclists in the left lane have traffic, including lorries, buses or other vehicles whose drivers have limited visibility, turn across them. Deegan and Lavelle suggest a range of measures, particularly at signalled junctions. Some could be put in place quicker than others – for example using deeper advanced stop lines to enlarge the size of the bicycle-only box at traffic lights and junctions.

For many years cyclists have had to be content with a blunt “give way” where cycle lanes end, even when these lanes are within the carriageway. Why not reverse the priority, demanding motor traffic give way when joining a lane with cycle traffic?

These subtle-yet-obvious approaches have been used in Copenhagen and New York. Perhaps the reason they have not been used in the UK is simply because the country is not yet ready to acknowledge cycling as a worthwhile mode of transport that needs to be given its own space and priority.

Perhaps, if planners are not yet prepared to make motor traffic yield to cyclists even though the reverse has been true, even for schemes apparently designed expressly for cyclists, for years, an alternative is to give neither priority. The award-winning shared space scheme in Poynton, Cheshire, defied expectations and continues to successfully handle large volumes of traffic, including increasing amounts of cycle traffic. At the same time it provides quality urban realm and an “even playing field” where rights are not assumed but gently negotiated by more vigilant, safer, road users. If a busy junction can be redesigned this way, then we should bring in such changes more widely so we can all benefit from the better road user behaviour.