CYCLING: A GEAR TOO HIGH FOR MASS ACCEPTANCE?
Bauman et al (1) provide an appealing overview of the potential role of cycling in healthy living. The successful and sustained promotion of cycling is well illustrated by the examples of the Netherlands and neighbouring states. However, elsewhere there seem to be deep-rooted problems: my own experience is of the UK and, specifically, Northern Ireland. One problem here has been a belief that cycling - particularly in the context of everyday commuting - never successfully addresses the parallel discomforts of heat and sweat on the one hand, and adequate protection against the weather on the other hand. However, the most pertinent disincentive must be the obvious dangers in loss of control of a bike, particularly that occasioned by collision with a motor-vehicle. A crucial issue here is the fourth-power relationship between motor-vehicle speed and fatality rates (2,3).
Potential amelioration could reside in the mass slowing of motor traffic. After all road-humps and chicanes can ease the lot of pedestrians; unfortunately, cyclists would likely have to negotiate the same obstacles designed to control motorists.
Instead, engineering to promote cycling has typically entailed some measure of separation from motor traffic. However, poorly designed and policed facilities may render the situation for cyclists worse than if no attempt at amelioration is provided. This has arguable been the case in Northern Irelan. Cycle lanes are provided. Despite official prohibition (4), motor-vehicles frequently park on or straddle cycle-lanes before undertaking manoeuvres: junctions are particularly problematic regarding rights-of-way. Furthermore, cycle lanes are often well short of any plausible journey. Cyclists are free to use other traffic lanes (4) - but motorists seem unaware of this and often evince hostility towards cyclists exercising this freedom. The poor cyclist is uncomfortable on any part of the road, whether designated solely for cycle-use or not. Not infrequently, cyclists will resort to the sidewalk. However, by law sidewalks are solely for pedestrians: cycling and driving are outlawed (4). The conclusion is that the development of mass cycle-use is discouraged, despite what the authorites may say they intend.
Dedicated paths are also available, although these are shared with pedestrians. Pedestrians no doubt provide better fellow-travellers for cyclists than do motor vehicles, but the two groups are nevertheless imcompatible: cycling through groups of pedestrians or walking through streams of cyclists are both uncomfortable experiences. As intimated in the last paragraph, these dedicated paths - however well-intentioned - represent a lack of joined-up thinking, given that sidewalks are for the exclusive use of pedestrians.
Perhaps real change will ultimately arise from the reduced availability of fuel, coupled with its ever-increasing cost. This may force reduced speeds on motorists in order to save fuel - with a comcomitant saving in road-casualties. Perhaps many motorists will fully adopt cycling, eschewing car-ownership altogether. These suggestions are given support by the fuel-crises of the 1970s, when amongst other measures the UK goverenment reduced the maximum speed to 50 mph; casualty rates tumbled as an unintended consequence(5). Unfortunately, no thought was given to maintaining such measures after the fuel-crises passed.
(1) Bauman A, Titze S, Rissel C, Oja P. Changing gears: bicycling as the panacea for physical inactivity? BJSM doi:10.1136/bjsm.2010.085951.
(2) Hyden C, Varhelyi A. The effects of safety, time consumption and environment of large scale use of roundabouts in an urban area: A case study. Accident Anal Prev 2000;32: 11-23.
(3) Finch D J, Kompfner P, Lockwood C R, Maycick G. Speed, speed limits and accidents. Project Report 58. TRL: Crowthorne UK, 1994.
(4) Anon. The Highway Code. Basingstoke: AA Publishing, 2008.
(5) Harrison I. Travel 1900-2000. London: Harper-Collins, 2000.
Conflict of Interest: