Author Topic: Separate but equal

sam

Separate but equal
« on: July 31, 2014 »


Daily Telegraph, 5 August

Separate but equal. That's what I kept thinking after I cycled around the Vauxhall Gyratory, the notoriously intimidating gateway between southwest and central London that's off the beaten path for me, but unavoidable for thousands of commuters. While there is no comparison between the noxious pre-civil rights US legal doctrine and the plight of cyclists marginalised in our car-loving culture, as a handy phrase it is not far off the vision of the future proposed by the mayor last year for a network of cycle routes which he hopes will deliver "transformative" change.

While most of the existing and suggested facilities aren't enhanced by much more than a lick of blue paint, the star attractions, such as the "Crossrail for the bike" meant to run from the western suburbs through to Barking, comes with a promise to be "very substantially segregated." The scheme at Vauxhall, currently under consultation, is also showing long stretches with raised boundaries to keep motorised traffic from us pedal-pushers. Is separate but equal the answer?

Let's ask the Dutch. Proud owners of an exceptionally cyclist-friendly infrastructure, as well as strict liability laws which help keep motorists suitably cautious, our neighbours across the North Sea didn't suddenly wake up one morning in cycling heaven. It took the Kindermoord ("Stop the Child Murder") movement protesting the high number of road deaths of children through to the 70s to move the government to action, the centerpiece of which is bike-friendly public policy and planning. Using a mix of on-road bike lanes, separate cycleways and paths which cyclists are obliged to use where they run alongside roads and which cars are forbidden to block – nice to dream – they have created an environment where everybody feels, and largely is, safe.

Planners do come up with schemes that critics consider to be clunkers, like heated cycle paths which fail any cost benefit analysis, but at least they keep cyclists front and centre in their thinking. Possibly the most wonderful video I've come across recently is of a 'simultaneous green junction', which is basically an advance light for cyclists but which must be seen in action to be appreciated.

The arguments against Dutch-style solutions in the UK range from insurmountable logistical nightmares due to greater congestion, to the expected howls of outrage from British motorists (of which I am one), many of whom are still under the misapprehension that the vehicle excise duty they pay is a "road tax" which goes to upkeep on this poxy tarmac we all have to deal with, not to mention cycle schemes which, as the common complaint goes, "cyclists don't use anyway!"

Also: should we go there? Cui bono – who benefits? Happy as a clam the Dutch cyclist may seem when he's not busy shopping for another bike for the one that was just stolen – bike theft is rampant – but if the Dutch dream is only a pipe dream for the UK, which seems a fair verdict, just how useful will the schemes which survive the torturous journey through planning laws and consultations be?

It's time to declare my vested interest: I'm a dedicated vehicular cyclist. A roadie thru and thru, I believe wholeheartedly in integration. I think that the more bikes on the roads, the safer it is for all of us; the main problem is achieving the critical mass in public opinion and reality to make it so. My fear is that it will be the motorist who benefits most if cyclists are shoehorned into separate but very unequal facilities, no matter how glowing the prospectus. (Though to be fair, Boris Johnson has written that nothing he does "will affect cyclists' freedom to use any road they choose." And I honestly wouldn't shun this lovely looking blue highway along the Thames.

For Vauxhall Gyratory, segregation is the way to go, because almost certainly most cyclists would welcome deliverance from the current purgatory. Separate but truly equal would also probably encourage many more of us to take to our saddles, much as segregation goes against my own personal vision of a cycling heaven.