Helen Martin: Invest in ‘active travel’ but make cyclists liable

'Is it too much to ask for a sensible discussion on mutual respect and road-sharing?'
'Is it too much to ask for a sensible discussion on mutual respect and road-sharing?'
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I ADMIRE cyclists. I really do. They are healthy, courageous beings. Not only would I need an oxygen tent to pedal uphill, but no benefit or amount of money would persuade me to take on buses, lorries and tram tracks. In that respect, I am a wimp.

Nor am I against nearly £1.5 million of public money being invested in making Edinburgh a better city of “active travel”, as opposed to “passive travel” which I assume to mean sitting in a bus, car or taxi.

I hold my hand up to being passive. Despite that, I agree with the cycle lobby that the more cyclists there are, the better us motoring slobs drive. I’ve learned to use my wing mirrors a lot more, to look in them before turning so that I don’t cut off or crush a cyclist, before opening a door in case I knock them for six, and generally I try to be alert for them at all times. Cyclists have improved my driving.

Whatever ardent cyclists believe, no driver wants to cause them harm or sets out to make their two-wheeled journey more treacherous than it need be.

The problem is that any criticism, no matter how minor, and any suggestion that cyclists could also learn to be a tad more considerate, is often taken by those on two, exceptionally narrow, wheels as a declaration of war.

Cycling is the latest politically-correct holy cow, and anyone who dares to challenge any cycling initiative or in any way question the absolute rightness of cycling and every cyclist, is a polluting, lazy, selfish driver out to cause carnage to the always innocent and superior cyclist.

Is it too much to ask for a sensible discussion on mutual respect and road-sharing and what the responsibilities of cyclists should be?

I even heard the generally accepted wisdom of cyclists wearing helmets being pooh-poohed by a lobbyist on radio, who argued with what can only be described as convoluted logic, that if helmets became compulsory, casualties would rise because car drivers would be even more careless and cavalier believing the cyclist to be protected.

Everyone accepts cyclists (whether they are in a helmet or a full suit of armour) are vulnerable on the road in comparison to any other vehicle. Most accidents will be caused by motorists. But it is another thing entirely to say that cyclists cause absolutely no accidents – ever. What happens when they do? Does the driver’s insurance pay out for his own injury or death as well as the cyclist’s? Who pays out when a cyclist collides with a pedestrian causing injury?

We know road tax doesn’t actually pay for roads though it’s not always easy to figure out where it goes and what it funds. In the days before cycle lanes it therefore seemed perfectly sensible that only cars, vans, lorries and buses should pay it. Now whole swathes of our roads are marked for cycles only. And even more funding is going on further development and maintenance. I still don’t think cyclists should contribute to this – with one proviso. There is no point in any of us shelling out this money if cyclists refuse to use the lanes specifically created and marked for them.

Watch out for the number of cyclists who reject their own lanes in favour of the rest of the road (car lanes, if you will) and you might be amazed by the day’s total.

This is extremely dangerous behaviour that poses a threat to themselves and drivers. If we have cycle lanes we expect cyclists to be in them, not dodging traffic in the rest of the road and popping up where we least expect them. Is it really so outrageous to suggest that, where there is a cycle lane, cyclists should be fined for not using it? Or that there should be some 
deterrent to them cycling along pavements where they also shouldn’t be?

Which brings me to paths in public parks, used by walkers who often have with them dogs and toddling (or baby-cycling) children who can be particularly impulsive in their sudden change of direction. In that case the cyclists are no longer the vulnerable ones, especially those who, Lycra-clad and helmeted, are out for a fast, serious cycle and often make angry faces or shake their heads at the dogs or kids who have the audacity to get in their way as they speed along quietly without a bell.

More cyclists? Fine. Safer cycling conditions? Excellent. Public money paying for it? No problem. But everyone has responsibilities and it would be nice to know what responsibilities cyclists should display as their part of the bargain.

Perhaps just a little of that £1.4 million could go on clarifying and enforcing those so that we can all move towards “active travel Edinburgh” together in some kind of fair partnership, understanding and increased admiration.