Does the DfT listen? Fingers crossed!

Government should always be a two-way street – those in charge should always listen to what the public is saying, and act upon the real-world conditions. Otherwise, you end up with some ideal-world utopian fantasy like the Highway Code.

At the end of 2011, the DfT changed the rules around some signs, at the request of local authorities who wanted to make changes to roads that weren’t legally possible. For example, until late 2011 it wasn’t possible for a council to add “Except Cycles” to a “No Entry” sign. As a result, where councils wanted a “one-way for cars, two-way for bikes” street, they had to work around the existing regulations. One solution was to add a “No Motor Vehicles” sign at one end, or to have a small filter lane to the side of “No Entry” signs. The “No Motor Vehicles” sign is often flouted, and the side-lane took up more space than was necessary, so allowing a “No Entry Except Cycles” sign gives councils a cheap and effective way to make a one-way street useable in both directions for people riding bikes.

This is good, and I congratulate the DfT for being flexible and reasonable! I hope they continue to adapt the UK’s streets and roads rulebook to reflect life on the ground in the 21st century. [Update, 5th July 2012: I just read that it took years for the DfT to agree to trial this, in Cambridge. Thank you Cambridge council, for pushing this!]

With this in mind, I was pleased to read that Transport for London (TfL) are talking to the DfT about introducing guidelines for bike infrastructure, because…

Bikes are the solution to most of our traffic problems.

There, I said it. You might not like the sound of it, or you might think it sounds fanciful, but it’s the truth, and it’s backed up by decades of research and statistics. The Netherlands has fewer traffic jams despite having higher car ownership and longer commutes than the UK. (See here and here.)

How is this achieved? Most short journeys are made by bike. And not by the Lycra-and-helmet speed warriors who you think of when you hear the word “cyclist” but by everyone – young and old. Even the over-65s make 1 in 4 journeys by bike, on average.

So, the solution to reducing congestion is to build bike paths and other infrastructure, and to prioritise walking, cycling and public transport over the needs of private cars. And cycle infrastructure shouldn’t be designed like what we currently have in the UK (a bit of paint down the side of the main road here, a ‘Cyclists Dismount’ sign there), but actual separated bike paths, wide and well-maintained.

I should say here that I am not a cyclist, any more than I’m a pedestrian or a motorist. I’ve never worn Lycra to my knowledge, never worn a bike helmet, I don’t even own a bike! (I use the hire bikes in London.) I’m just a person who sometimes rides a bike, sometimes walks, sometimes rides in cars, and sometimes drives a van. Believe me, I’m very impartial and balanced here when I say that the UK needs better bike infrastructure, and less bias towards motor traffic, even if it inconveniences me occasionally.

By starting to use the hire bikes in London, I have gained some perspective on the UK’s road and street system: it’s heavily skewed to discourage bike use and promote car use, which is why cycling rates have flatlined for decades, despite what successive governments have promised. Cycling should be easy and enjoyable, not arduous and stressful. It should be an option for everyone of all ages and abilities, not restricted to fit, fast young men.

How does this relate to the DfT? Well, they make the rules, and right now they’re not very good. 

If a council wanted to put in separate bike traffic lights at eye-level for cyclists, they can’t. It’s not allowed by the DfT. (In fact, to have a road-facing red light anything but the standard large and round isn’t allowed, unlike on the continent, where a red light can be for turning traffic only, or for bikes only, etc.)

If a council wanted to put in a separated bike lane beside a road, they can, but they have to make it up for themselves, as there’s no national rules about infrastructure provision for bikes, beyond the crap we have now.

The reason that traffic lights are the same in Penzance as they are in Dundee, the reason that the road markings are the same in Edinburgh as they are in London, is because the DfT sets out the rules that the Highways Agency and local authorities must follow.

So the reason that provision for bikes is crap throughout the UK is the same: it’s because the DfT’s rules for cycling infrastructure are poor.

So it is very good news that TfL are talking to the DfT about bike infrastructure. TfL don’t have the best track record when it comes to bikes, despite what the BoJo PR machine might have you think. so we don’t know yet what these discussions might yield. But if something positive comes out of these discussions, then we should see the benefits nationwide, not just in London.

Fingers crossed, the DfT might even take a look across the North Sea and find inspiration about how to implement bike-friendly infrastructure.

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