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Bikes and cities

Cycling in Norwich, like most cities I imagine, is often unpleasant and dangerous. It is very foolish to encourage more people to cycle until provision is made for them. The present system is ill-conceived, hazardous and ineffective.

I am a driver, a runner and a life-long cyclist so I know what I'm talking about. Cycling is often the ideal way to get about. It is quick and non-polluting, and it gives people much-needed exercise. It is also very dangerous, the evidence for which is in the crash reports in newspapers and on cycling forums. Reliable data is difficult to come by, but there are some references on the links page, together with a searchable map of cycling casualties from 2000 to 2010. If you click here you can download a recent document from ROSPA about cycling 'accidents'. We need to take the risks very seriously before we encourage it further. I now live in the country so mostly use country roads and lanes. These have their own dangers, but it is a pleasure not to have to cycle in Norwich at rush hour times.

Drivers are a danger for several reasons. Most lose attention or concentration at times. At city speeds, crashing into another car is usually just a nuisance. Hitting a cyclist usually causes injury and sometimes death. Many drivers have never ridden a bike so don't know that bikes are unstable, especially in windy or wet conditions, and that they should give them plenty of room. Many drivers are impatient. They will not wait until it is safe to overtake, so they squeeze past. A few are mad people, with a hatred for cyclists. They welcome any chance to frighten or hurt a cyclist legitimately, when he or she makes a mistake. I am not making this up. All cyclists have seen this hatred in a few drivers' eyes. A rider has no idea if the driver of the car, van or lorry coming up behind is one of the psychopaths. Riding a bike is now being included in heavy goods vehicle training. This is long overdue.

Most of the roads and cycle paths in Norwich are problematic. It is an ancient city, and many roads are narrow. This is made worse by wide roads having been made narrow by the City Council for 'traffic calming' or speed improvement reasons. There is no room for a car to overtake a cyclist either when there is a car coming in the other direction on two-way roads, or on narrow one-way car lanes. However many do overtake, or try to.

The cycle paths are mostly lamentable. On wider roads, they are narrow marked strips, invariably used by drivers. Markings are often faded. There is no room on them for cyclists to overtake other cyclists. On narrow or busy roads cyclists are allowed to ride on the pavements but have to hop back onto the road at junctions and roundabouts, exactly where it is most dangerous to do so. Where there are dedicated cycle tracks away from roads, they tend to meander through housing estates and parks and are always a much longer route. City cyclists are mostly going somewhere, not dawdling, so they need a high speed direct route. I almost never use cycle paths.

Intimidation and fear often causes cyclists to ride in the gutter. This is dangerous. I always ride out from the kerb for several reasons. There are hazards like drain covers, accumulated grit, and holes and grooves where lorry damage has been repaired badly. The wheels and tyres on lightweight road bikes are more easily damaged than ATB ones and can become jammed in grooves, like the central 'Canyon Of Death' on smaller Belgian roads. Riding out from the kerb prevents drivers passing where there is no room to do so safely. Of course cyclists will be hooted, sworn or gesticulated at, but it is better than being hurt or dead.

Now imagine Norwich if, say, five times as many people cycle. At present, on a typical short stretch of road, a driver will have to wait behind perhaps one cyclist. Imagine that there are now five, spaced so that it is not safe to pull in between them. Imagine the emotions of drivers forced to hang back, moving at perhaps 15 or 20 kph, for several hundred metres. Even the patient ones are going to get angry, especially if they are on their way to work and know that the next stretch of road will be just as bad.

There are also cyclists who need to learn their trade. I am horrified at the thoughtless and dangerous way that some behave and I am not surprised that they are hurt or killed. It is not always the driver's fault. Cyclists should not use pavements, and should be prosecuted for doing so. A bike ridden at speed is dangerous and almost silent. Walkers, runners, children and the less mobile should not be expected to keep a constant lookout for bikes.

If a motorist, or van or lorry driver, is considerate to me I always acknowledge with a wave of thanks. Horse riders usually do this and it encourages drivers to do it again. When riding on country roads, lorries in particular often have to wait before overtaking me and I do appreciate the courtesy.

What's the answer? Stop encouraging cycling for now. Get groups of cyclists together with a large map of Norwich. These should include commuters, leisure cyclists, parents and children, and sports cyclists. Ask them to suggest which roads should be adapted for cyclists and which road obstructions should be removed. Stop assuming that expert planners know what they are talking about. Remember Blaster Bates' definition that 'ex' is a has-been and a 'spurt' is a drip under pressure. Money stolen from drivers for parking could be used to pay for it.

Here are some ideas from me:

Cycle lanes should be at least two metres wide and have a kerb at each side to stop motorists, motor-cyclists and walkers from intruding. They need not be made to road standards as the wear from a bike is trivial.

Lanes should be continuous and not involve weaving in and out of traffic. Where necessary they should have priority at junctions.

When a road is to be altered, include a cycle path, even if it means losing or narrowing a car lane.

Where roads have been obstructed for safety reasons by chicanes or bumps, see whether removing them will make room for a proper cycle path.

Where roads have been make one-way and narrowed, dig up the narrowing obstruction and turn it into a cycle path.

Create a proper cycle path from each of the eight points of the compass into the city and at least one ring route connecting them.

Don't expect them to be used much to start with. It takes time for people to change their habits, particularly one as profound as leaving the car at home or selling it. It might take five or even ten years.

Offer incentives to employers who provide lockers and showers and secure cycle parking. People who cycle more than a few miles at speed will be sweaty, and possibly wet from rain, and need to shower and change into their work clothes.

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(C) Peter Scott 2011

Last edit 24 December 2015