The differences couldn’t be more striking.
In February, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a new five-year transportation bill that completely eliminates federal funding of bicycle programs. Republican Congressmen Tom Petri (WI) and Timothy Johnson (IL) led a heroic effort to amend the bill and restore bicycle funding, but the committee voted against it. Meanwhile, the Senate’s version of the Transportation Bill, while not as rabidly anti-cycling, would still remove cyclists from many federally-owned roads.
It’s a different story on the other side of the Atlantic. Cycling is now legitimately mainstream. The evidence? The Times of London’s Cities Fit for Cycling, the most amazing bicycling advocacy campaign I’ve ever seen. To understand the significance of this campaign, imagine if the New York Times began advocating that we needed to make the roads safer for cyclists. And not just in the occasional story or editorial, but in an entire section of the paper, devoted day in and day out to bicycling advocacy.
If that isn’t amazing enough, consider this: The average British Times reader is more likely to be a driver than a cyclist. This means that the Times’s safety campaign isn’t just preaching to the cycling choir; it’s reaching the crowd that needs to be reached—the drivers cyclists share the road with.
It’s reaching another crowd, too. In Parliament, the House of Commons responded to the campaign with a debate on cyclist safety. Support for cycling extended across party boundaries in Parliament, with British politicians of all stripes stepping forward to speak in favor of making the roads safer for cyclists.
The issues raised are the same serious problems that most American cyclists are familiar with: lenient sentences for drivers who kill, unsafe road speeds, dangerous gaps in cycling infrastructure, and government funding cuts for cycling programs.
Commenting on the Times’s safety campaign, Mary Eagle, the minority Labour party’s spokesperson on transportation issues, said:
“It has recognized that collisions involving cyclists are not simply accidents, but have a cause and therefore can be prevented. They are ultimately the consequence of our collective failure to do enough to make our cities fit for cyclists—the apt title of the campaign that the Times has launched as a result.”
She pledged that if her party wins the next election, it would commit to spending $158 million per year (an amount equal to two percent of the annual transportation budget) on cycling infrastructure. While not committing to spend as much, the current government’s transport minister outlined his own Conservative party’s commitment to cycling, noting that cycling was a component of the $883 million allocated to the Local Sustainable Travel Fund.
Can you imagine the Democrats and the Republicans competing on the floor of Congress to be the party that will spend the most on cycling? I can’t either. I can’t even imagine the Democrats and Republicans competing to be the party most in favor of improving safety for cyclists.
So where does Britain’s national conversation go from here? In his closing remarks, Dr. Julian Huppert, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (similar to our own Congressional Bike Caucus), said:
“This is an immediate issue, but we need to keep it going for the future. It is not just about them and us: It is about making roads and cities that work for everyone. Safety is important. We should also remember all the great benefits of cycling: It is cheap, healthy, efficient, sustainable, and fun. We must remember the sheer joy of cycling. Cycling must become a normal activity that people can engage in from eight to 80, and beyond both those ages. We can make a difference.”
The next step comes in a few weeks, when the House of Commons will hold an inquiry into cycling safety, to investigate ways to reverse an increase in fatal collisions involving bicycles. “There are far too many deaths and accidents with bicycles, and the Times has highlighted this,” says Transport Committee Chair Louise Ellman. “It is important that the committee look at this in more detail.”
In case the House of Commons isn’t quite sure what needs to be done, the newspaper’s campaign—which began after a reporter was seriously injured in a collision with a turning truck while cycling to work—has an eight-point proposal for action:
- Require all trucks entering city centers to be equipped with sensors, extra mirrors, turning alarms, and side safety bars.
- Identify the 500 most dangerous intersections; improve safety at these intersections by redesigning them, or by installing cyclist-priority traffic lights and mirrors for truck drivers.
- Conduct and publish a national audit of cycling to determine how many people ride in Britain, and how cyclists are injured or killed.
- Commit two percent of the annual transportation budget to building world-class cycling infrastructure.
- Increase safety training for cyclists and drivers, including making cycling safety a core part of the driving test.
- Adopt a default speed limit of 20 mph in residential areas without bike lanes.
- Encourage corporate sponsorship of new bikeways and cycling super-highways.
- Have every city in the UK appoint a cycling commissioner, with the responsibility of making the city fit for cycling.
This campaign for cyclist safety isn’t going away, either—in fact, it’s only getting stronger, with Britain’s top cyclists offering support.
This kind of support for cycling advocacy from competitive cyclists is exactly what’s needed. In the U.S., cyclists David Zabriskie and Tim Johnson have both gotten involved, and the League of American Bicyclists is putting bicycle racing and advocacy on the agenda at its 2012 National Bike Summit.
I hope we will see more of this kind of support from cycling’s leaders in this country—and, of course, from our media and political leaders as well. The British have already set an example. So who’s ready to step up and take the lead?
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.