War on Britain’s Roads

(BBC1, 6 Dec – viewed on i-Player on 12 Dec)

It was an exciting programme, and conveyed the sensation of cycling in traffic. It delivered a deft presentation of what it set out to do – paint a picture of the competition between cyclists and motorists on hostile roads. But it was more interested in blame and sensation than analysis or solutions.

As a seasoned London cyclist, I see traffic lights as discretionary at best, preferring to use my own judgement to stay safe and save time. I have never witnessed the battles depicted in the programme, courtesy of the dramatic footage from helmet cams. It’s true I was cut up once on the Gray’s Inn Road by a BMW belting out from a side road. In the heat of the moment I punched it, breaking my knuckle in the process. Then I realised he had been trying to beat a green light. So, as is usually the case, the traffic control system was to blame; he and I were pawns in the game of life and death conducted by traffic managers. The best time I ever had on a bike was when traffic lights were out across London, and everyone was free to filter. From King’s Cross via Cambridge Circus, Piccadilly Circus and the Haymarket – never were London roads more fun, less congested and less aggravating.

The programme had its moments, but its interpretation of events and apportioning of blame stemmed from an uncritical acceptance of the priority-based traffic control system. A classic case of priority causing danger and conflict was on the roundabout by the Hyde Park Hilton, heading north on Park Lane. If anything the cyclist was at fault, but you could understand his stress. He yells at a Range Rover who is trying to get out of the Park. I’ve cycled there, and it’s diabolically unsafe for vulnerable road-users. If you want to turn right at the Dorchester, you take your life in your hands because you have to cross five or six lanes of fast-moving traffic to get to safety. The danger is due solely to the inhumane design of the space. Glorious Park Lane is ruined by road design that promotes vehicle domination. Drivers put their foot down because they have just escaped from the innumerable traffic lights choking Knightsbridge and Victoria. Most urban roads should be single lanes free of traffic lights. As Poynton shows, this expands pedestrian and cycling space, creates gentle, civilised flow, and allows all road-users to share the space equally.

The programme’s commentary said congestion had reduced average speeds to 11mph. We were introduced to bobbies on bikes whose job was “to deal with the traffic”. The role of traffic control in causing congestion and aggravation was not raised AT ALL. (Encouraging for me, still trying to get a programme commissioned that will expose the villainy and vanity of the current system).

The programme aired standard complaints about cyclists crossing red lights. The bobby challenged a cyclist, who answered reasonably that the lights were green for pedestrians. He asked, “Are you a pedestrian?” She answered, “No”. She should have said, “Yes, I’m a pedestrian on wheels, which is what we all are!”

The next cyclist the copper stopped said he crossed the red light (slowly) because there was nothing there, i.e. the junction was empty. To camera, the PC said “OK, it’s not the crime of the century, but it could get you killed.” No it couldn’t – there was no-one there! The clarion call for cyclists to obey red lights is misguided, because it reveals a failure to appreciate the anti-social nature of the priority system. As I say in an early video, instead of being held in limbo by the tyranny of traffic lights, we should all be free to go on opportunity. Traffic lights symbolise a fatally-flawed system which usurps human judgement – our greatest resource. I’ve been stopped by police five times for crossing on red, three times on a bike, twice in a car. Once they’ve said their piece, I politely ask them a couple of questions, e.g. “Can you tell me why I have to stop at a red light when no-one is using the green? Who is the better judge of when to go – you and me at the time and the place, or lights fixed by absent regulators?” The Police ended up agreeing, or giving up the argument. As stated elsewhere on this blog, “red light jumping” is a misnomer. No cyclist crosses a red light at speed or without looking (although the programme showed some pretty hair-raising examples – mad minority stuff). Is it safer to cross a red light slowly or a green light at speed? Red light crawling sould be a better term.

The programme showed a cyclist zooming through on green and hitting a pedestrian. The priority system abetted by traffic lights is at fault, of course, but clearly the cyclist should have anticipated and given way. Again, on a path, when a cyclist failed to anticipate a pedestrian movement, he was clearly going too fast for the conditions, so in that case, he was a jerk. Duty of care should rest with the bigger road-user. In a cyclist/ped “accident”, unless the cyclist can prove a reckless act by the other party, it should automatically be the cyclist’s fault.

Editors want conflict and controversy because they attract viewers, but the BBC shouldn’t neglect its public service duty to challenge the status quo. In the programme I’d make, there is of course scope for conflict and controversy. I’d be exposing defective policy and practice, exposing the law as an ass, challenging authority, and demanding change that could save time, save lives and make a difference. Instead, this programme spectated uncritically at the fallout from traffic mismanagement, and failed to question the system.

It said that ¾ of the 3,000 accidents involving cyclists in 2011 occurred at or on a junction. Hardly surprising. As I’ve written elsewhere, Westminster City Council’s latest safety audit shows that 44% of personal injury accidents occurred at traffic lights. How many of the remainder were due to inequality aka priority? Compiled in the defective context of priority, the stats don’t tell us. Come on, let me make a programme lifting the lid on this peacetime carnage!

Then the programme played an emotional card. “But not everyone gets to walk away.” We had the desperate story of the bereaved mother whose daughter, 24, was killed by a left-turning lorry. Terrible, but again, the analysis and apportioning of blame were not incisive. There was nothing about the possibility of corporate manslaughter charges against the authorities for designing roads for danger.

There was a shocking sequence about a Scottish cyclist with a headcam who was cut up on a roundabout by a white articulated lorry from the left. In a way it’s the nature of the beast – the bike is smaller and harder to see. It was in bright sunlight, so in my view the cyclist should have been prepared to give way, even if he had priority. Misguided policy turns the roads into a fight for gaps and green time. Again, the problem was the cyclist’s assumption that he had right-of-way based on prescribed priority instead of natural flow and time of arrival. In the event, he had to brake to avoid hitting the truck. I reckon he should have anticipated the driver’s manoeuvre and given way, instead of expecting the truck to stop. (Re-starting from a standing start maximises emissions and fuel use, so it would have been better for the environment to let the lorry glide through.) The programme didn’t go into any of this – it just invited us to gasp at the close shave and the renegade lorry driver. If the driver didn’t see the cyclist, it’s another argument in favour of an advanced driving test with cycling proficiency as a mandatory component. It’s also an argument for single lane approaches.

The soulful, dignified mother, Cynthia Barlow, now a campaigner, had the best line: “It’s a competitive space when it should be a cooperative space.” Does she think it’s only a matter of changing behaviour through public awareness? Certainly that’s vital, but the key point, which this programme didn’t consider, is that the problem is the current system, which imposes unequal rights and responsibilities, licenses conflicting speeds, dictates our every move, denies infinite filtering opportunities and expressions of fellow feeling. The way to achieve authentic road safety is to reform the system and design roads for safety. On roads that express equality and a social context, we rediscover our humanity and make common cause.

Traffic Droid is a man on a mission, but absurdly confrontational, and he too misses the point about the dysfunctional traffic control system.

Drivers who insist on overtaking or get uptight if a cyclist impedes them because of insufficient lane width is another argument for re-education, and for making cycling part of a revamped driving test. That way, drivers would appreciate things from cyclist’s POV and learn empathy.

Oddly, captions only gave first names – what is this infantile trend all about, BBC?

The programme interviewed Dr Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist from the University of Bath (he appeared in my Newsnight report and is a purveyor of good sense). Well, they shot an interview, but didn’t use it. Ian offered general analysis, which the programme didn’t require. You could say it was an example of good tabloid TV. But that was all. It won’t change the world.

About Martin Cassini

Campaign founder and video producer, pursuing traffic system reform to make roads safe, civilised and efficient
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