By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published June 06, 2011
A recent article in the Guardian examines the reasons most Britons don't regard bicycles as a legitimate mode of transportation.
Bicycles parked outside Fortino's at Dundurn Plaza (RTH file photo)
A British study interviewed many people to find out why they didn't cycle. (Note that the usual Hamilton argument - "it's colder/hotter more sparsely populated here" - doesn't work in the UK, since the Netherlands and UK share exactly the same climate and similar population densities.)
Many English felt cyclists are silly or strange, or that cycling was just for children or the sporty. In other words, cycling just doesn't have a good image in the UK. Those who tried cycling were rapidly put off by the stress of cycling in heavy traffic with inadequate facilities.
I lived and cycled in Cambridge for four years, which was was of the handful of high cycling cities cited in the study. In Cambridge the students led the way, but all ages cycled, from children to seniors (sometimes on adult tricycles!).
However, I have to say that the drivers in the UK (especially the taxi drivers) are even more aggressive to pedestrians and cyclists than in Canada. I can understand why someone trying to cycle in the average UK city would be rapidly turned off.
In brief, the study points to the same factors that make cities pedestrian-friendly: large numbers of cyclists (making cycling seem normal to both cyclists and drivers), appropriate infrastructure, and legislation that puts the responsibility on the most dangerous road users (the motorists) in the case of an accident.
Right now we have none of these ingredients in place, and so it is not surprising that cycling (and walking) remain fringe activities.
One of the recommendations in particular stood out: "Another reform would be a European-style 'strict liability' law in which the automatic assumption of responsibility would rest with the less vulnerable road user."
Local experience shows that motorists are not usually charged and convicted when they injure or kill pedestrians or cyclists. The book Carjacked by Anne and Catherine Lutz backs up this impression with statistics that show the same trend throughout North America: motorists very rarely face serious charges when they injure or kill pedestrians and cyclists.
In North America (and the UK) the assumption is that the pedestrian or cyclist probably did something wrong and the motorist shouldn't really be blamed for hitting them.
The mother of a friend of mine was hit crossing the street at the intersection, and the line of questioning from the police certainly seemed aimed at finding an excuse for the driver: "was she entirely within the white lines at all times," and so on.
The studies also strongly recommend physically segregated bicycle lanes as the single most important factor in getting people to cycle. Even a painted cycle lane makes a difference, but the segregated lanes provide an added safety level (and prevent cars from blocking them, as we see outside the Beer Store on Dundurn).
We don't have to resort to tortured arguments about how Hamilton is unique. In the relevant ways, it is just like all those other places that have low levels of walking and cycling (and underperforming downtowns).