Yesterday I returned from a Scandinavian holiday (taken of course by low carbon travel means – train and boat) and got back on my bike in Birmingham this morning with a feeling of unease.
Having spent a couple of weeks cycling round Europe’s green capital (Copenhagen) it was quite a shock to be confronted by Birmingham’s decidedly unfriendly and intimidating roads again.
Of all the things I wish we had achieved more on during my time here at Birmingham Friends of the Earth, making roads safer for cycling has to be near the top. We have run a big 20’s plenty campaign, asked for reallocation of road space and better facilities, but most of these requests have been flatly refused, with only off-road cycle paths (of any note) introduced and an assumption remaining on the part of most politicians that cycling is a leisure activity, not a way to commute around the city.
Now cycling is big news in this country with Bradley Wiggins and all the other olympic competitors becoming household names and national heroes, so it is a real shame that the big story about cycling on roads to come out of this was the compulsory wearing of helmets. For those going very fast and risking it all going round corners, then yes I agree that a helmet is an essential item of sporting safety equipment, but as you can see in cities with high levels of commuter cycling, there is no compunction and largely no need.
What works to make cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam so safe for cyclists is certainly not anything to do with what cyclists do, it is about the right infrstructure being in place, but also the rights laws and speed limits. Segregation is very well maintained on all major roads, with cyclists having priority at all junctions. Liability for any accident lies firmly with the car driver (or cyclists if they hit a pedestrian) as there is an admission that more vulnerable road users need protection, not blame for being “in the way”. On smaller streets, the speed limits are lower (about the 20mph mark, or even less) and street design is such that it is not possible to drive fast.
In Birmingham I choose to wear a helmet, but in Copenhagen I did not (although my son, a toddler on the back of my bike, did). I’m never going to be an olympic champion on the bike or any other sport, but I certainly feel the health benefits of cycling and more people should be able to do so in Birmingham without worrying about the dangers of traffic.