The Phoney War on Britain’s Roads

Pedal on Parliament organiser and Scottish cyclist, Dr. David Brennan, took part in the controversial BBC documentary to be aired today, The War on Britain’s Roads. Although many cyclists steered clear of the film, fearing that it would only serve to exacerbate the perception of conflict between cyclists and motorists, Dr. Brennan wanted to highlight the dangers posed not just by poor driving but by the design of Britain’s roads. In one particularly terrifying piece of footage, an HGV passes at speed just inches from his wheel, on a roundabout where he has encountered not just one but two extremely close calls.

20 cm from Death

aerial view of the existing roundabout

Burnbrae Roundabout, Milngavie, from Google maps

This is no coincidence. The roundabout in question – at Milngavie, near Glasgow – has, like many of Britain’s junctions, been designed to maximise throughput of motorised traffic rather than for the safety of vulnerable road users like cyclists and pedestrians. That means that large vehicles, like the tanker that almost ran over Dr. Brennan, can approach it at speed, sweeping onto the roundabout. Combined with lorries’ large blind spots, this leaves the driver barely any time to check and react to the presence of a cyclist, however brightly dressed or prominently positioned on the road. Fortunately, on both occasions, Dr. Brennan’s reactions were swift enough that he could avoid the lorry’s wheels, but not every cyclist will be as experienced – or as lucky. With these sorts of conflicts built into not just one, but almost every roundabout in the UK, it’s no surprise that tempers flare on both sides. More importantly it’s no surprise that millions of Britons simply vote with their feet and opt not to cycle at all rather than risk encounters such as those regularly seen on helmet camera footage.

As Dr. Brennan says, ‘Almost since the introduction of the car, roads have been re-designed for cars and their drivers with little thought about how this design impacts on the safety of other road users. Conflict arises not because different groups of road users can’t get on, but because they are forced to share resources in a way they were never designed to do. This is why it is imperative that politicians both north and south of the border must invest in active travel now to ensure that the roads are safe for all who wish to use them.’

Alternative design for a roundabout

Alternative design showing how cyclists and motorised vehicles can be completely separated, to the benefit of everyoune

It needn’t be this way. In collaboration with the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, we have looked at how roundabouts like the one in Milngavie could be redesigned along Dutch lines to make them safer for everyone. This is achieved by tightening the geometry of the roundabout to slow vehicle speeds and also separating cycle, pedestrian, and motorised traffic. In contrast roundabouts in the UK are one of the most dangerous places for cyclists as well as being a barrier to pedestrians. The Department for Transport’s own guidance since 1997 has shown that such tighter geometry can be safer and do not significantly increase congestion in most areas. Unfortunately, very few roundabouts have been built like this in the UK. As a result, cyclists continue to approach them at their peril, or simply give up the battle altogether.

Jim Davis, Chair of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, says ‘It needn’t be like this. In the Netherlands, they have spent decades designing the conflict out of their roads creating decent, equitable networks for all users. They don’t need to dress up like a cross between Robocop and a Mardi Gras carnival float to ride a bicycle to the shops The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain will continue to fight for decent bicycle infrastructure that creates better conditions for all road users. It is in all our interests.’

Here at Pedal on Parliament we welcome the debate about road safety that such documentaries can trigger, but we wish to emphasise that we don’t welcome the suggestion that there’s a war on Britain’s roads. Instead, we ask policy-makers and planners to consider how they can remove the conflict from our roads, by designing them with all roads users in mind. In Britain’s towns and cities pedestrians and cyclists should be placed at the top of the hierarchy of road users. Our eight point manifesto emphasises the need for both world class design, and an increased spending to make active travel a realistic option for people of all ages and all abilities – not just those who are fast enough and alert enough to survive on the roads as they are.

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