Separation Anxiety

Yesterday’s sad but all too familiar news of another cyclist death (under an HGV) in London (on Cycle superhighway 2 – ‘CS2’) prompted me to put down a few thoughts on why these things happen on such a regular basis. There is evidently an issue with regard to HGV design/ driver training etc that I will not go into here. What I would like to dwell on is the problem of separation – both regulatory and physical. More to the point, it is the lack of separation in the case of cycling in London.
The point I want to make is simply that due to a lack of regulatory and legal separation, cyclists are forced to act according to a set of prescriptions laid down for motorised traffic: they are deemed to have the same capabilities as motorised traffic. In particular they must stop when motorised vehicles do, and go when they do. They must also occupy the same space. As a result the law does not easily allow any (legal) spatial or temporal separation of different road users.
Some past and recent initiatives are of course testament to the fact that planners recognise that separation is desirable in the case of road users with wildly different capabilities and potential to harm or be harmed. Many years ago (I can’t remember exactly when, under the GLC I think) night-time only deliveries for HGVs were trialled in London. The trial didn’t last long but I use it here as an example of an attempt at temporal separation – trying to get different groups of road users to use the same space but at different times so that they do not come into conflict. The proposed cyclist-priority light phasings on the Stratford to Whitechapel route are evidence again that the principle of temporal separation is being applied. However, the fact that this is only being trialled, and only at 5 junctions means that those riding elsewhere in the capital and anywhere else will still have to fend for themselves.
Aside from this we can also see the growth of cycle infrastructure as attempts to spatially separate to reduce conflict between road users. The growth of the cycle superhighways upon the remains of some of the London Cycle Network + routes suggests as much. Yet many of these are no more than blue paint and do not separate in any meaningful way, lest of all when it is needed most at busy junctions. What is required as a number of bloggers have pointed out is something similar to the Dutch principles of separation which set out the degree and type of separation required between cyclists and motorized traffic according to the speed and volume of the traffic.
As a result of this failure of the state to effectively separate road users, cyclists often try to separate themselves through practice – taking their lives in their own hands so to speak. Red light jumping I would argue is largely due to two different sets of affordances at work. Firstly the realisation by cyclists that when they slow down and speed up ate lights they are using energy that they actually feel in their bodies rather than their wallets. Whilst most will slow coming up to a red light, many will still go through it to save energy as well as time. Secondly and more importantly for this argument, cyclists also have an embodied understanding of what it feels like to be next to much larger and faster vehicles. They understand the potential to cause harm (if not the inability of many drivers to see them) and act accordingly by separating themselves in time by moving off whilst the lights are still red. They do this I would argue not because they are anti-social – indeed the majority of cyclist I have researched would rather not have to do such things, but because they feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. Yet these attempts at separation are illegal under UK law because cars, lorries and bike are still not adequately separated under law.
Many of the arguments regarding physical and temporal separation are well-rehearsed. However, a real problem remains in that whilst some of the physical environment for cyclists is being tinkered with to enable greater separation, the regulatory environment is failing to reflect what many planners and engineers (and certainly cyclists) already understand: bicycles are different from motorised vehicles; they have different capacities to cause harm, use road space differently, and experience other road users in a much more visceral way. Until this is recognised and enshrined in a set of laws fit for purpose, attempts at separation will be piecemeal and geographically uneven leading to some riders being placed in more danger or encouraged to take the law into their own hands purely by dint of where they are coming from and going to.