This article was published in the Brighton & Hove Argus on 22 January 2022 (print only)
Imagine there are only a handful of bus routes in town – there’s one along the seafront, one along part of the Old Shoreham Road and down the Drive, and a couple that stop in inconvenient places to the east. How likely would you be to take the bus?
This is what cycling is like in Brighton & Hove. A few roads – around 2% of the city’s network – have protected space for cycling. Yes, you can cycle on any road, but surveys show that most adults don’t feel safe cycling on UK roads. Not all drivers leave the 1.5m minimum overtaking distance stipulated in the Highway Code, and close passes are terrifying. This means that the people you see cycling around the city are just a fraction of the potential number you’d get if the roads were safer.
We now have the opportunity to make our roads safer. The council’s Local Cycling & Walking Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP) is currently under public consultation. The city needs it to get government money for walking and cycling improvements.
Any network is only as strong as its weakest link. If you leave out a major road the government won’t give the council money to improve it and most people whose journeys include that road won’t be able to cycle.
Some people had problems with temporary cycle lanes on the A270, which were removed despite traffic data revealing no decrease in average journey times. Despite being in place through a number of lockdowns, the lanes saw an increase in cycling in three out of four monitoring periods, and the government financially punished the council for removing them without evidence of detrimental effect.
Any problems people had with the temporary lanes can be resolved with a permanent, high-quality design, while maintaining existing junction capacity for vehicles.
A minority of people got very angry – and continue to be angry – about cycle lanes. Much of this is to do with the feeling that they have no say about changes made to roads. This is understandable. The pandemic hit us overnight, and the government responded quickly, with changes to road layouts, to aid social distancing and prevent a ‘car-based recovery’, once the pandemic was over.
The city has undergone huge change over the last hundred years, and we’ve had very little say. How many of us would vote for the roads to become so unsafe that few children can cycle to school? Would we vote ‘yes’ in a referendum on bulldozing shops and houses in Portslade to widen roads? Would we vote yes to ever-increasing traffic; yes to the seafront becoming a noisy, polluted dual carriageway?
The LCWIP is a chance for the city to have a fully-planned, high-quality cycling and walking network, which everyone can have their say on. But a consultation is not a referendum. Safe streets for cycling are an essential part of a twenty-first century city, just like access for all. You might take part in a consultation on making a park accessible, but you wouldn’t expect the park’s designers to remove wheelchair ramps because you don’t like the idea of having to walk round them. You also shouldn’t expect cycle lanes to be cancelled just because you’re fearful of the impact they might have on your car journey.
Some people dismiss cycling as ‘woke’ – they think it’s about showing off that you’re fit or environmentally-friendly. For most people, it has nothing to do with showing off. It’s a quick, easy, cheap, enjoyable way of getting around. Of course you can’t transport a washing machine on a bike and you wouldn’t want to cycle in a blizzard, but you can cycle in most weather, with the right clothing, just as you can walk in most weather. You don’t have to be particularly fit to cycle, and if you’re unfit, regular cycling will help you get fit. People with a range of disabilities can and do cycle, but won’t if they feel unsafe, or if cycle lanes are too narrow or bumpy for a trike or other adapted cycle.
Even if you never cycle, transforming our streets will benefit you. Aside from giving us a calmer, more attractive and less polluted city, making the streets safer for cycling and walking will ultimately improve driving conditions. There are twice as many cars on UK roads as in the 1990s, and we have some of Europe’s most congested roads. Data from schemes in Brighton & Hove and elsewhere show that many people gladly walk or cycle more when when it’s safer, easier and more pleasant to do so. This ultimately frees up space for buses, delivery vehicles, taxis, blue badge holders and those who simply prefer to drive, making everybody’s journey quicker and easier.