It’s scandalous that so many road designs fail to protect the safety of cyclists
Hugh Morgan, Merton Cycling Campaign
Highway authorities may claim that they consider the safety of all
road users; but do they consider the safety of all road users equally?
By cycling any given mile in London a rider becomes aware that a
cyclist’s personal safety is regularly compromised by unsympathetic
road design. As a motorist over the same mile there is hardly even the
need to consider damage to paintwork.
In the processes that bring about the physical features of the
carriageway, are cyclists considered more expendable than other
carriageway users? Or does the design process in fact just lack the
rigour needed to pick up the detail required for safer cycling on the
carriageway? The two recent tragic cyclist fatalities at Bow
Roundabout point to a desperate need for answers (LTT 02 Dec 11).
In late 2007 a scheme presented itself that was so overtly bad for
cyclists that it did not need casualties to expose it. It became an
opportunity for any obvious weaknesses and loopholes in the system to
be carefully examined. The scheme by the London Borough of Merton
involved a series of chicanes spread over a mile of the B286 ‘Martin
Way’, a road busy with buses and HGVs. The scheme included cycle
by-passes (see illustration) but these were not designed specifically
for cyclists on a cycle network and were described as ‘Accident
Remedial Measures’. They have since been summarily removed. A detailed
analysis of what went wrong in producing this scheme can be seen in
Merton Cycling Campaign’s recently completed report titled Unsafe.
In bringing this scheme about there was an almost calculated attempt
to disregard the criteria and avoid the rigour necessary to design for
safe cycling on the carriageway. This culminated in a series of lethal
cyclist traps. TfL, in its capacity as road safety auditor, produced a
report condemnatory of the chicanes but with a loophole that allowed
the highway authority to argue for keeping the arrangement. Road
safety audits for this type of situation are advisory and are carried
out at the discretion of the highway authority. Commissioned at the
whim of a highway authority, do road safety auditors feel cautious
about biting the hand that feeds them?
The primary need for road safety audits, we are told, is because
highway designers develop a ‘pride of ownership’ in a scheme that
makes them lack objectivity when judging safety. Certainly in the
field of building design a designer’s blind commitment to a vision can
lead them to undervalue safety priorities, which is why buildings have
strict maximum distances defined for means of escape from fire. The
first to be affected by any lack of rigour in safety assessment are
the most vulnerable. On the carriageway these are the cyclists.
This is not a call for a Cycling Discrimination Act because, unlike
the situation of access for the disabled in buildings (prior to the
Disability Discrimination Act), cyclists have always had equal rights
to be on the carriageway and this should mean that their personal
safety is valued equally. But in London and potentially throughout the
UK this appears not to be the case.
The situation is not improved by the fact that, when designing for
safety, cyclist issues are seen as peripheral. Guidance notes created
specifically with safety in mind are systematically ignored, and in
the UK, and London specifically, cycling is unique for not having a
road safety auditor’s checklist for issues on the carriageway.
But even when road safety auditors come up with recommendations for
changes to a scheme a highway authority can freely ignore them. In
Ireland, where road deaths have been halved in the last five years, a
feedback system means the highway authority has at least to clarify
and discuss such rebuttals with the road safety auditors.
Unsafe recommends a series of detailed revisions to road design safety
processes both in London and the UK. However, organisations that
represent cyclists can make a considerable difference immediately by
keeping a close watching brief on a highway authority’s safety
management of carriageway alteration proposals. Lifting the lid on the
process could result in safety assessment processes being tightened up
considerably and fiascos such as that on the B286 Martin Way averted.
Will analysis of the Bow Roundabout tragedies expose signs of the same
On motorways, cycling is seen as non-compatible in safety terms and is
taken out of the safety equation. At the other end of the speed
spectrum cyclists ride through pedestrian areas and are expected to
give way to pedestrians. The occasional partitioning of streets into
bus lanes and cycle lanes offers a brief respite for cyclists and so
do the diffusing and defusing nature of Manual for Streets proposals,
but these do not relieve the main issue that on the carriageway there
is unfair discrimination against cyclists when it comes to designing
for safety. This is not only unfair but irrational when more people
are getting to work across some London bridges on bicycles than in
Cyclists’ inclusion in carriageway design should start from the basis
of expecting equal rights to personal safety for all road users. If
this has an effect on other users then that must be accepted."
This post was edited by Charles Barraball at 6:17pm 20 November 2012.