A few years ago I moved to London and began working out how best to commute to my new job. I had always cycled everywhere, so I borrowed a bike and tried out the route. It was very different to the other places I had cycled, with aggressive drivers in narrow and busy roads. I never felt safe in London traffic, and commuted by bus the whole time I lived there.
It’s a little different now. A lot of cycling infrastructure has been added since, including the ‘cycle highways‘ that cut through back streets and are largely separate from the cars. But there is still more to do, and some very dangerous intersections that are real black spots for the growing ranks of London cyclists.
In looking at sustainable transport, the bike is an obvious solution. We all know that. The challenge is to get people out of cars or buses and on to bikes, and one of the big factors in that decision is safety. If people feel vulnerable or have had a bad experience, they’ll stick to the car. Make people feel safe and secure on a bike, and they’ll cycle. Road safety is actually an important piece of sustainable transport.
Vision Zero is an international agenda for safer roads, aiming for zero fatalities by effectively reducing the conditions for accidents to occur. It began in Sweden in the 1990s, the Netherlands have adopted it, and a variety of cities and towns around the world have Vision Zero goals. Edmonton and Vancouver have Vision Zero strategies, so do Austin, Boston, Seattle. In Britain we have plans in Brighton, Blackpool and Edinburgh, and campaigns to get such plans in place in a number of other locations.
There are a number of central principles to Vision Zero, but the core is this: ‘in every situation where a person might fail, the road system should not’. In practice, that might mean barriers between lanes so that cars simply can’t meet head on. It could mean dividing cars from bikes so that they cannot collide with each other. Where cars have to share the same space as pedestrians, speed limits are dramatically reduced. And speed limits aren’t just posted on signs in the hope that drivers will obey them. Roads can be designed so that speed limits are self-enforcing, using strategic narrow points and chicanes, bumps and raised areas, or coloured surfaces – a geography that requires slower driving by design.
You can find out more the Vision Zero Initiative here, or the Vision Zero UK campaign. For the detail of ‘systematic safety’, here’s a useful explanation from professor Peter Furth of Boston University.
One final consideration on the topic of road safety – roads in the developing world are usually far more dangerous. Since many countries are still formalising their road networks, there is an opportunity to leapfrog straight to a Vision Zero system. That would save millions of lives in the coming decades. Safer roads are more expensive to build, which makes road safety a good target for aid and charity support.