Amid the storm of Covid-19, a raft of cycling and walking announcements has landed as part of the government’s attempt to promote a healthier population, save the NHS from collapse and fend off the worst outcomes from coronavirus.
The plans, which were in the pipeline before the pandemic, are good news for anyone who wants cleaner, safer roads, and residential streets that do not moonlight as rat runs for short-cutting drivers.
Alongside long-awaited design guidance for cycling infrastructure, training schemes and £50 vouchers for bike repairs, there is a much-needed Highway Code review for walking and cycling. Although it may not be grabbing the headlines, it is potentially one of the most impactful parts of the announcement.
The Highway Code matters because it shapes the culture on our roads, from how road users treat each other, to how we police road users.
Three of the most important proposals, which follow a review announced in 2018, are:
An explicit road user hierarchy, with vulnerable road users at the top. This means priority for those walking and cycling over those turning at side roads.
Rules on giving enough space when overtaking cyclists.
Detail on road positioning and riding two abreast, which aim to clarify a common source of conflict and confusion, even with roads police.
As Cycling UK explains, a hierarchy of road users would work as follows: “Pedestrians, in particular children, older adults and disabled people, followed by cyclists, horse riders and motorcyclists. It wouldn’t remove the need for all users to behave responsibly or give priority to pedestrians and cyclists in every situation, but it would ensure that their needs were considered first.”
Campaigners would prefer it to be called a “hierarchy of responsibility”, rather than risking the suggestion that some road users are more important than others, but it is good news nonetheless.
Until now, there was nothing explicit in the Highway Code saying motorists or motorcyclists should not left hook, or turn across a cyclist’s path at a junction. The changes suggest just that, putting cyclists’ rights at junctions on a par with those driving.
Proposed overtaking rules include that drivers should give cyclists 1.5-metre space if driving under 30mph and at least 2 metres if driving over 30mph, with larger vehicles required to give 2 metres at all times. Cyclists are explicitly permitted to filter through traffic, either on the right or left of slow-moving or stationary vehicles.
There could be new “Dutch reach” rules to encourage motorists to look before opening car doors into the path of cyclists, which can be fatal.
Cyclists would also explicitly be able to ride two abreast or more, and would no longer be advised to ride single file in some circumstances unless they felt safe doing so. As anyone who has ridden in a group knows, it is often far safer for everyone – including drivers – for riders to position themselves two abreast as it reduces the time a passing driver needs to move into the opposite traffic lane. Cyclists are explicitly advised to ride in the centre of a traffic lane to make themselves as visible as possible, unless it is safe to move over.
“This is quite important,” says Cycling UK’s Duncan Dollimore, “because there are some roads police who believe you should ride 50cm from the gutter, and that you shouldn’t be riding two abreast on a country road.”
Dollimore says the proposals would go a long way to making roads safer. “We all want separated cycle lanes and those announced are hugely important but at the moment we haven’t got the money that will enable that to be a complete network. They won’t be built overnight so there’s still a requirement to address driver behaviour, even if we do get a complete network in the future.”
He adds: “People’s behaviour isn’t going to change the next day, but this is relevant to my son who is learning to drive, because that is the Highway Code they will be asked to look at.”
Ultimately, we will see what comes out of the consultation, and from the spending review, to back up these grand proposals. According to the Cycling and Walking Alliance, and to the government’s own analysis, £6bn-£8bn is needed over the next five years to double cycling levels – well above the £2bn committed by the government so far. However, this is being hailed as a real step change in its ambition for active travel and it appears Boris Johnson and his team believe in the proposals.
We know cycling and walking can help solve almost every major problem we face, from obesity to air pollution, congestion, injuries and deaths on the road. Thanks to a global pandemic, their true value has been highlighted, and our government must seize this opportunity to improve our roads.