Last week I read an interesting piece on the causes of conflicts between drivers and cyclists by Peter Norton, an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia. The title of the CGN report is click-bait, but let’s have a look at the causes Mr Norton has identified.
Road Design: We have to keep in mind that Mr Norton comes at this from an American perspective. Most European city centres are centuries old and their streets were built with pedestrians and the horse and cart in mind. The car came much later. We can, however, draw a parallel to the US experience at a local and European level because for the past 50 years local developments in the vicinity of the Bangor ring road as well as whole new towns (for example Milton Keynes, the round-about capital of the world) have been built with cars in mind. Even new developments such as Helen’s Wood off the Rathgael Road ignore Active Travel best practice as they fail to incorporate pavements and cycle paths at the design stage.
From a cyclists perspective, we have to deal with the problem that there is a “legacy of a traffic engineering judgement that the bicycle is a vehicle and that it belongs in the street, while at the same time, the street is to be designed to meet the driver's needs, not the cyclist’s. This is why, for example, we expect a cyclist to come to a full stop at every stop sign, even if they have some momentum. This is very costly on a cyclist, and the reason why that cost is totally disregarded is that the stop sign decision was made by people thinking only of drivers.”
Fortunately we now see some countries like the Netherlands and Denmark leading the way in prioritising Active Travel participants over car drivers. Global design and consultancy Arcadis, with its roots in the Netherlands, has been leading active travel solutions for decades. Their UK technical director Keri Stewart and Marloes Scholman, Project Leader in Holland have a clear roadmap of what needs to be done. I have added some comments for local relevance:
Start with a clear vision for liveable places with provision for increasing cycling We have worked with ANDBC on a mapping project to join up the planned Comber-Newtownards-Green Road greenway with the centre of Bangor, avoiding main roads. We have also identified infrastructure problems to Sustrans that need to be addressed in the Eastern Transport Plan 2035.
Communicate with communities from the outset, emphasising the benefits and warm people up to new routes so people know what’s coming Our website outlines our activities and provides residents and visitors to the borough with safe cycling routes.
Secure political buy-in and adopt cycling ambassadors to support and encourage take-up This is a difficult one: certain parties to the right of the political spectrum and their local representatives appear not to care about cycling and Active Travel at all. The remainder pays lip service to cycling but does little to promote it on a local level: nothing has happened since ANDB labelled itself a “cycle-friendly borough in 2021. The proposed PEACEPLUS application for Bangor Cycle Park (which includes a BMX track, a pump track, a Learn to Ride area, an Inclusive Cycling area, Mountain Bike jump trails and a community workshop and café) looks very compelling but party politics seem to stand in the way of getting behind it.
Create safe & reliable main routes to destinations - not detours That is something that our mapping project is trying to address: local knowledge is power when it comes to devising safe cycle routes.
Build the supporting infrastructure – safe parking spaces, rentals and lending stations - and provide adequate funding for ongoing maintenance Without the Department for Infrastructure putting its shoulder behind Active Travel and installing bike routes that are fit for purpose (not car parking spaces bordered by dotted white lines and an occasional “Bike Lane” sign by the side of the road) there will be no public buy-in here.
Take small steps - build positive experiences for daily cycling That is something where our council could help: provide more bike parking. Translink could allow commuters to take their bikes on trains. Car drivers could give cyclists more space (and respect) on the road.
Stimulate specific target groups – eg students and enable schoolchildren to cycle safely from a young age We are working on expanding local Bike Bus schemes, enabling children to cycle to school safely and hope that once parents see other children cycle to school they will allow their own to join in. Our "Gals on 2 Wheels" group helps women feel more comfortable and confident on their bikes.
Celebrate success and each improvement – even minor ones. That’s what we have been doing – see last week’s blog!
Fortunately there is an amazing resource available for the Department of Infrastructure and local councils: they can lean on the Dutch Cycling Embassy to learn from the Dutch experience about what works
and what doesn’t.
Scrolling through that website it was sobering to find out that in December 2023 DCE was in Ireland – but only in the South. The Department of Infrastructure appears not to have a particularly good relationship with the National Transport Authority in the Republic, why else would NTA not have extended an invitation to join its meeting with DCE? We will hook up with the Dublin Cycling Campaign to ensure that in the future we are aware sooner of any such meetings, even if our government departments are out of the loop.
Professor Norton’s “solution” mirrors the 2022 Changes in the Highway Code - which of course have not been adopted in Northern Ireland because the DfI advised the Minister of Transport to hold off. Are we waiting for Godot?
There is one critical factor necessary to improve the relationship between cyclists and drivers which Norton missed but to which he alluded in his final comment about older generations resisting change – education. This starts at a young age: schools must receive funding so they can reintroduce cycling proficiency tests. The same should become part of the New Driver Training Curriculum. That’s another one for the DfI’s to-do list. Also, cyclists should respect the rules of the road if they want drivers to respect them.
When it comes down to it, reducing the antagonism between cyclists and drivers requires a holistic strategy that combines political buy-in and the education of all road users with better cycling infrastructure. Without any one of those components cyclists are stuck with the status quo.
Here is a thought: we have elections coming up this year. Ask your candidates on their views on cycling and Active Travel. If they mumble or sit on the fence, you have just figured out who does not deserve your vote.