Matt Jones

How short-term thinking about road safety has failed to make liveable towns and cities

We had a teacher at school who used to give lectures on road safety.  They were gruesome first-hand accounts designed to scare us into being attentive around roads. No-one questioned why a P.E. teacher in his Ron Hills always seemed to be the one on the scene with a shovel and a body bag. It also didn’t occur to anyone to ask why the roads were dangerous places to be in the first place, especially ones nearby to the school. A car will hit you if you aren’t paying attention, and that’s that.

At around the same time in the 80s, I remember the broadcast of public information films warning us about the dangers of crossing the road. In fact there was a long run of Government road safety campaigns aimed at children, from Tufty the Squirrel, Jon Pertwee’s incomprehensible ‘SPLINK’, David Prowse’s ‘Green Cross Man’ and the Grandmaster Flash inspired ‘Don’t step out…’ (which I remember most clearly).

The broadcast of these films stopped in the 90s, and it would be nice to think that the reason was that it finally dawned on the people making these films that it was wrong to direct the safety message at the victims of road accidents, therefore removing the burden of safety from the people driving the cars. However, I suspect that the real reason is this: the balance of equality on our streets has tipped so far in favour of people driving cars, that compared to the 70s, far fewer people, especially children, are on foot – there’s no need for road safety campaigns aimed at children if parents are taxiing them around by car.

It’s well documented that when mass motorisation was degrading the quality of public space and killing people in the Netherlands in the 1970s, the Dutch had the foresight and political will to do something about it. Also, they came up with something a bit more effective than a series of televised campaigns telling kids stop, look and listen – instead they completely redesigned their streets to prioritise for families and children.

Meanwhile in the UK, mass motorisation continued to have its negative impact on our towns and cities. People getting around on foot or on a bike are marginalised, told to wait their turn, or forced along indirect routes in order to accommodate the flow of motorised traffic. Is it any wonder then that the percentage of people making healthy, environmentally friendly travel choices (especially on short journeys) is so incredibly low?

Most worryingly, it seems that for many people, what I’ve described above isn’t really seen as a problem. The car is a necessity, and most people consider it completely normal to drive short distances as a single occupant in a vehicle designed to carry four or five. The normalisation of car use leads us into a vicious circle: we do not make healthy travel choices - either through ignorance or we feel it’s not safe to so - resulting in unnecessary car journeys that subsequently cause the lack of subjective safety that’s stopping us from making healthy travel choices in the first place.

So how do we fix this? If, on Twitter, you follow representatives from the cycle industry, cycling organisations and road safety charities, you’ll see presented a somewhat muddled picture. At the same time as calling for improved infrastructure, they argue that cycle training is the key, and we must show “mutual respect” on our roads. For me, this is problematic. From the comfort of our cars, driving along streets adapted for our chosen mode, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to appreciate and understand the needs of the people around us who are not also represented by two tons of metal. Indeed, we too easily fall into the trap of thinking as a driver we have priority over other road users. There are many reasons for this, including driver ignorance, but a big factor is the fault in the way our street design has evolved (and ‘evolved’ is a good word because there certainly isn’t any intelligent design about it). I’m not defending people who drive irresponsibly here, rather, my point is that “mutual respect” doesn’t address the potential for human failing and human error on streets designed for their mode of transport. Also “mutual” implies equivalence, and there’s nothing equivalent between a HGV and a child on a bike; only one of them can be classed as “vehicular”.

What characterised the Dutch cycling revolution in the 70s was that it focused on making streets safe for children to cycle on.  If you get it right for children, you get it right for everyone. Some argue that it will be impossible to fully implement Dutch standards in the UK, because we don’t have the latent demand for cycling that will mean people will want to use it (the new town of Stevenage being flagged as an example of a town with ‘Dutch-style’ cycling infrastructure that failed to spark mass cycling). But for me, this argument shows a lack of vision and long term thinking.

Transportation accounts for 70% of the world’s oil consumption and our energy demands are unsustainable. Levels of obesity and its related diseases are rising due to inactive lifestyles. Our towns and cities are polluted and uncivilised due to so much space being provided to cars. Riding a bike isn’t just a niche activity for leisure or fitness, it’s a transport solution that fixes many of these problems. We need a government that understands this, and one that doesn’t place so much economic importance on the car. We need to invest billions in a complete reallocation of space to prioritise for cycling, walking and public transport, for the sake of our health, and  for the sake of a world without fossil fuels. There’s no doubt that this will take a very long time and a lot of political will. We’re forty years behind the Dutch on this, let’s start catching up now.