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Towards safer streets: the Highway Code and cycle lane proposals

Park City Bicycle. Photo: Mohamed Hassan

One of the most noticeable aspects of lockdown was the reduction in traffic on our streets, and the attendant increase in wildlife. After the initial lockdown period ended and people started going about their business a little more, councils throughout the UK started narrowing roads, and widening cycle lines, at least temporarily. This has provided a boost for environmental campaigners wishing to reduce car usage and increase healthy forms of transport.

This is the context for the current open consultation on the Highway code. We should see this as part of the government’s stated drive to make people healthier and protect the NHS during the Covid-19 crisis.

What is its purpose?

The aim is to improve safety for vulnerable road users: pedestrians; cyclists and horse riders. Here are the main proposals, as laid out on the page linked above:

  • introducing a hierarchy of road users which ensures that those road users who can do the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they may pose to others
  • clarifying existing rules on pedestrian priority on pavements, to advise that drivers and riders should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross the road,
  • providing guidance on cyclist priority at junctions to advise drivers to give priority to cyclists at junctions when travelling straight ahead
  • establishing guidance on safe passing distances and speeds when overtaking cyclists and horse riders

As can be seen, these proposals are not set out in terms of their environmental impact; rather, they are about safety and equality. However, it’s obviously the case that any proposals that mitigate against the tendency of car drivers to assume they have greater rights than other road users will have the capacity, in however small a way, to contribute to the general cleaning up of our roads.

Furthermore, how we behave on the roads is shaped by the Highway Code, both in terms of how we treat each other, and how we are policed. Alongside the review, there are £50 bicycle repair vouchers available and design guidance for cycling infrastructure.

This is Cycling UK’s take on what is meant by “a hierarchy of road users”:

“Pedestrians, in particular children, older adults and disabled people, followed by cyclists, horse riders and motorcyclists. It wouldn’t remove the need for all users to behave responsibly or give priority to pedestrians and cyclists in every situation, but it would ensure that their needs were considered first.”

It has been pointed out by campaigners that this does rather give the impression that some road users are more important than others, and that therefore “a hierarchy of responsibility” would have been a more appropriate phrase.

New rules for drivers as part of the review include a designated amount of space to give cyclists when overtaking that increases with speed and drivers not being allowed to turn left across cyclists at junctions. Cyclists will now be permitted to filter through traffic on either side of slow-moving vehicles, and to ride two abreast, with the idea being that this reduced the amount of time the driver needs to spend in the opposite lane to overtake.

It is something of a truism to state that anything increasing cycling safety has the capacity to increase the number of cyclists on the road. Currently, two thirds of adults questioned in England feel that cycling is dangerous. This is a 5% annual increase.

Therefore, alongside the consultation on the Highway Code, the government has pledged £2 billion in spending on protected cycle lanes, as well as a regulator to stop councils building substandard cycling and walking infrastructure.

An opportunity missed?

However, it’s not clear if that’s enough. Ruth Hannan, a community campaigner I spoke to in Manchester, felt that the opportunity that Covid-19 presented to really make cycling part of the infrastructure via a genuine culture change has not been taken up. One issue mentioned was the lack of citizen engagement and caving into political pressure.

More positively, she felt that the proposed change to the Highway Code was to be welcomed, as it will embed cyclist safety in law. Despite this, there will be challenges, as there will still be too many cars on the road. Around £6 – £8 billion is needed over the next 5 years to double cycling levels, according to both the government’s own figures and cycling campaigners.

Chris Heaton-Harris, the transport minister responsible for cycling, had this to say when announcing the spending:

“I know from talking to people, and looking at my very active cycling social media response, that dedicated infrastructure is essential to make people feel safe. One of the big parts of this investment is to try and make the streets safer for people to cycle on. I tend to believe that in cycling, it’s very much Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams territory: if you build it, they will come.”

It remains to be seen whether this is the case, of course, and indeed if the proposed spend is adequate. We don’t have the figures for 2020 yet, but it is the case that there hasn’t been any significant uptick in people cycling in the last half decade. The evidence we have all seen with our own eyes these last 6 months points to a change in this regard, but sustaining it is of course the challenge. Given the obvious health and environmental benefits of cycling – and more generally not being in cars – it ought to be an urgent task for government, in these pandemic times.