5 January 2012

The Need for Speed

We all love to hate the comments on the various blogs and comment sites where the enemy motorist thunders that cyclists who run red lights or ride on pavements effectively remove any moral right for  those squeaky clean unoffending riders to complain about their lot. I love to get hot under the collar about that and I also particularly enjoy dutifully stopping at red lights and riding on stupidly dangerous roadways in a constant battle to reclaim the moral high ground. As Homer Simpson said "it's not marriage that's the problem, it's the constant battle for moral superiority that's the killer".

My latest bit of moral grandstanding involves my double life as a car driver. Yes dear reader, I do enjoy a dalliance with the dark side now and then, but then again don't we all...

I have decided to commit to drive as near as I can to the posted legal speed limits wherever I go in my car; that statement in itself saying something about what follows. As a result, I have discovered two highly connected things. Firstly, the vast majority of car drivers break the law with impunity and secondly, it is very difficult not to join in this mass protest action against authority. Actually, that makes it all sound a bit jolly and rebellious, whereas in reality of course it is a corrosive and antisocial disease that is killing our public spaces, but more on that later.

Now, this is not going to be an authoritative or scientifically accurate dissection of motor speeding rates. It is private blog written by a hobbyist after all. If you want facts, go to Wikipedia. All I know is that I am now the slowest and most cringingly annoying driver on the road. Wherever I go, other drivers behind me often get stressed and upset just because I am trying not to break the law. So really the ridiculousness of anyone using RLJs as evidence for why cyclists should be licensed, taxed, burned at the stake or whatever is quite overwhelming. These incentives obviously haven't worked for motorists. In fact the only main requirements of the highway code are that we drive on the left, don't smash into each other and don't drive too fast. We only really  manage to drive on the left, despite all the taxes, licenses and bureaucracy that can be devised.

But, it is the second thing I discovered that interests me more than some boring and endlessly replayed argument about who stopped at the traffic lights and who didn't. The fact that breaking the speed limit is so easy should be the concern. I believe there is of course a cultural force at work here - my natural instinct to blend in and do as others do, to be part of the social "norm" makes it very difficult to drive differently (and thus slower) than  everyone else, but It is also the case that antisocial speeding behaviour is all facilitated and condoned by the highway network itself. The engineering strategies that ensure large visibility splays, gentle radii to bends, easy gradients, shallow dips, open vistas and a smooth (!) well drained surface all in the name of safety have created the perfect risk-free environment to go faster and faster. It seems intellectually bizarre to create a system which facilitates certain behaviour, which you then try to prevent with unenforceable rules.

The "Twenty's Plenty" campaign on one hand stands as a recognition of the tragic fact that the risks of the game are not accurately relayed to the most dangerous protagonists, and on the other as the apogee of this whole daft approach. In a sensibly designed network, there would be no need for speed limits as it would be obvious what an appropriate speed was. The design itself would imply the right approach. This is a purely selfish notion - despite the warm glow of law abiding citizenry, I am sick of feeling like a twat driving at  the legally correct 30mph over the Gabalfa flyover in Cardiff, designed in a similar style to the M4 just to the North, where 70mph is the limit. You could hit 100mph over that flyover without too much bother. Is it any wonder that so many fail this unfair morality test just a little every day?

I think it is fair therefore to consider the problem of speeding partly as an engineering failure, consistent with the failure to recognise that Dutch style road and cycle path design is the only sensible starting point if you wish to increase cycling rates. This is why the battles in London over key public spaces, such as Blackfriars, Kings Cross and Elephant & Castle are so important. It is at these locations that the clash of the arguments I have set out above has become clear and apparent. On one hand, we have the institutional engineering strategies of TfL that prioritise traffic flow over all else and which divorce the design from the appropriate behaviour. On the other, we have people demanding inherent safety and a genuine consideration of the importance of public realm, a sense of place and the way citizens use their public space.

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain will play a crucial role here, as it seeks to open our eyes in the UK to the approaches and solutions used in other countries such as The Netherlands which have grappled with this same conundrum, but have typically come up with a far more grown up and civilised approach.

1 comment:

  1. I witnessed 4 drivers drive through a red light at the pedestrian crossing in Llandaff North this morning (nobody on the crossing = ok to sail through lights..... Apparently). As for Maindy flyover......it's like some kind of roller coaster ride for accelerator happy motorists. There is an undeniable motorist 'groupthink' on stretches of moderately free road, where capture and punishment for speeding is seen as 'revenue generation' by the police and mild altercations by the cyclist as some sort of reason to deny riders any respect at all.

    In the double standard league table, motorists must surely be the runaway leaders.