London’s ‘cycling superhighways’ are ideal … for kamikazes | Charles Montgomery

The latest round of headlines detailing cyclists crushed under lorries and buses in London are proof of deep flaws in the mayor’s cycle infrastructure schemes. But they also reveal flaws in the ways that all of us – including Boris Johnson – make decisions about risk, reward and daily travel.

People who cycle to work report experiencing more joy and less grief and frustration than people who drive or take public transport. London should be doing everything possible to enable more people to travel this way. But every new cyclist death is a reminder that the city is just not serious about providing this kind of freedom to residents.

Consider the mayor of London, a famously brave cyclist known for his near-misses with death on London roads. The mayor is of a breed known in transportation circles as the “vehicular cyclist”– someone who has the guts and inclination to steer his wheels out among herds of stampeding cars and lorries. Drawing from his own considerable two-wheeled prowess and kamikaze-like tolerance for risk, it is only natural for the mayor to have invested in cycle infrastructure that is high on thrills and low on safety.

London’s cycle superhighways are inherently dangerous pieces of infrastructure. When you study the scenes of these accidents such as those on the cycle superhighway on Whitechapel Road, you realise that Boris Johnson’s blue path leads cyclists directly into confrontation with other vehicles.

Responding to this week’s deaths, the mayor issued a call for more personal responsibility on the road. But this ignores the truth I explore in my book, Happy City, which is that our road behaviour is generally determined by design. Through their form, roads send us unconscious messages about how to move. Wide roads with gentle curves induces faster driving regardless of posted speed limits.

At the same time, a blue painted lane may induce cyclists to travel with a greater sense of safety than is warranted. So the so-called superhighway is sending dangerous mixed messages to cyclists and drivers. All you have to do is look at the wear on the blue paint on Whitechapel Road or the roundabout beneath the Bow flyover to see that drivers regularly cross those lines.

I believe Johnson made his plan for London cycling with the very best of intentions, but it did not account for the psychological effects of infrastructure. We are just beginning to understand the flawed ways that all of us make decisions about risk in cities. The solution is to take a more behavioural approach, which is less about telling people how they should behave and instead building with the knowledge that infrastructure designs action. In this case, there is no substitute for physically separated bike paths and sidewalk bulges or islands so that buses don’t have to constantly interweave with cyclists to pick up passengers, and low-velocity zones in residential neighbourhoods – 20 mph maximum – with plenty of speed bumps to slow those drivers who only respond to design.

Statistically, people who cycle to work are likely to live longer than people who drive, because the extra life years you gain through active travel far outweigh the risks presented by your relative vulnerability on the road. Even with the dangers of cycling in traffic, if your goal is actually to live longer, you would be better off cycling than not. But psychologists have found that most of us just aren’t that good at assessing risk. We give too much weight to threats that feel immediate and spectacular – the bloody road accident – and not enough to those that are slow-moving, such as heart disease. The result? Only a tiny fraction of the population is willing to bike out in traffic like Johnson.

To be honest, if I had children in London, I wouldn’t be sending them out on to the streets on a bike, regardless of the statistics. My visceral response to these horrific stories, and the sight of all those fast-moving hulks of metal would run right over my rational analysis.

Your streets say a lot about what you value as a city. If Johnson really does care about cyclist safety and building a city that offers maximum freedom to move for everyone, then he is going to have to invest more, and invest more quickly, in safe cycling infrastructure. The examples are out there for him to follow – other mayors have done it, from Copenhagen to the dusty streets of the developing world. It’s time for London to catch up by making space for all riders – not just the kamikazes.

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