The UK’s feral roads deter cycling – we need enforcement, not calls for respect


Laura Laker

Our public space is increasingly out of reach for all but the fit, the brave, and those in motor vehicles


Almost 40% of respondents to British Cycling’s survey said they experienced a ‘close pass’ daily.
Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA

Almost 90% of cyclists experience a “close pass” – an overtake within 1.5m – at least weekly, and 70% say conditions on Britain’s roads haven’t improved in the last five years, according to a new damning survey from British Cycling.

Of 15,000 respondents, 66% said they were concerned about their safety while cycling on Britain’s roads, and almost 40% said they experienced a close pass daily.

The government may truly believe its own claim that it wants to make cycling and walking the natural choices for short journeys, but it will never achieve that if it does not tackle the number one reason people don’t cycle: fear of cars.

Our public space has drifted out of the reach of any but the fit, the brave and those in motor vehicles. The vast majority of our friends, family and neighbours don’t even consider cycling on our increasingly lawless roads.

Chris Boardman, Greater Manchester’s walking and cycling commissioner and a British Cycling policy advisor, said it was “shameful” things had not improved, and put the boot in to repeated, fruitless calls for protective cycling equipment and absent investment in a safe cycle network.

“I sincerely hope that this will act as a wake-up call for us, to let evidence lead our decision-making and make bold decisions on funding and investment, rather than simply taking the easy option and telling people to look after themselves,” he said.

The survey found people’s most common concerns when cycling were close passing, unsafe road surfaces and vehicle speeds. More than three quarters of respondents said they did not believe cycling was taken seriously by their local authorities.

British Cycling notes hostile road conditions disproportionately affect women, children and older people. When 30% of British Cycling members – who are probably more experienced and confident than your average cyclist – say they drive trips under three miles, you know there’s a problem.

British Cycling is calling for what survey respondents think might work: a mutual respect campaign for all road users, ring-fenced funding for cycling and walking, and a national network of employers to help the government understand how to get more people cycling to work.

I would urge caution when approaching the first – as Boardman says, we need to follow the evidence. Campaigns calling for mutual respect risk creating a false equivalence between drivers and cyclists when none exists. People on bikes may behave badly sometimes, as all road users do, but the greatest potential for harm on the roads comes when we drive.

West Midlands police’s exemplary evidence-based operation targets drivers who close pass with education and, in the worst cases, enforcement. In a year, reports from people cycling of close passes halved, and cycling collisions dropped by 20%. As the unit writes on its blog, officers created an environment where any time or place a driver is tempted to break the law, they know they could be detected or prosecuted – and those who choose to cycle know they are protected. It’s no wonder several forces have followed suit, but it’s nowhere near as widespread as it needs to be.

We have a huge problem on our roads, and we have to ask ourselves what we, as a society, are going to do about it. When our streets are so feral that fewer than 0.5% of cyclists say they have never experienced a dangerous overtake, when someone thinks they can get away with throwing a can of beer out of their car at a Paralympian on a bike, risking her life, what are we going to do?

I doubt education alone would wash with such a driver – we need enforcement to tackle such individuals. But our police forces have been hollowed out by funding cuts, leaving them struggling to deal with routine crime – and the government’s one-off £1m fund, announced last year, doesn’t go nearly far enough.

We know the benefits of cycling, from health, to air quality, to reduced absenteeism, and it’s striking that more than 60% of the new survey’s respondents said cycling was beneficial for their mental health. We know the returns on investment for cycling projects are huge. But most people still can’t access these benefits – and we won’t be able to until we tackle our shamefully unpleasant roads.


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