Good Chaos

There have been a lot of cyclists killed on the roads of London lately. I am not a road safety expert, and I don’t know the circumstances of the deaths. Nevertheless, these fatalities make me, as much as anyone else, wonder about what’s to be done to make cycling safer.

It seems a lot of the cycling-safety-related debate, when coming from the cyclist side of things, hinges on cycling lane provision. There’s any amount of evidence that shows that government, local or national, either can’t or won’t do anything sensible on that front.

Setting the question of cycle lane provision aside, on a couple of short-ish, too-cold-and-windy-to-be-much-fun-rides this week, what I found myself wondering about was what would make cycling safer anyway.

I think we know that in the big scheme of things, the more cyclists there are on the streets, the safer cycling becomes. Other road users get used to cyclists; cyclists become a larger presence collectively.

I used to live in Oxford where there are cyclists galore and I still visit occasionally, mainly for gigs on the Cowley Road. It was often hectic when I lived there; nowadays whenever I’ve been there, it’s chaos. There are cyclists all over the show, pedestrians criss-crossing everywhere and all sorts of motor vehicles, large and small, trying to pick a way through it all. However you’re travelling, you ain’t going anywhere in a hurry.

It can appear, if not intimidating, then certainly a bit daunting. But once you get used to it all, accept that you’re going to have to go slow, and go with the flow, it’s OK. To the best of my knowledge, Oxford’s certainly no worse than anywhere else for cycling fatalities per mile ridden and I’d be happy to bet it’s probably a lot better.

And so, I found myself wondering whether we’re approaching this issue from the wrong angle. Perhaps, rather than segregation and close management, what we need is more uncertainty – in effect, less of a feeling of ‘right of way’ on any road user’s part and as a result more caution.

(Of course there’ll always be idiots who get frustrated by that, but you’ll get idiots whatever system you have in place.)

To bear this out, just local to me in Reading, a busy slalom of a through-road with lots of parked cars on it (Rotherfield Way) has recently been resurfaced and hasn’t (to date) had its central white lanes repainted. This, it seems, is a good thing: people I know who live there say it has slowed drivers down. And, interestingly, I gather there are moves afoot for the centre of Caversham to also create ‘uncertainty’, with exactly the same aim.

So, perhaps some ‘managed chaos’ might be an inexpensive, achievable way forward; let’s make all road users have to think.