We’re often told we should walk and cycle to combat climate change. Whilst this is certainly true, it’s not hard to see why many people don’t do so; pedestrians and cyclists are often treated like second-class citizens, in the UK at least.
Roads are built for cars, and other users are little more than an afterthought. Cycle lanes are few and far between, and cycling on busy roads is dangerous. A friend of my mum’s was killed when she was dragged under the wheels of a lorry whose driver didn’t see her.
Pedestrians and cyclists inevitably have to breathe in noxious petrol and diesel fumes when they use busy roads. This may seem trivial, but air pollution causes thousands of deaths every year. Meanwhile, many roads have narrow or non-existent pavements. And it’s pretty common for them to be obstructed, by scaffolding for example, forcing pedestrians to walk on the road.
I’ve noticed that disruption to motor vehicles and trains is usually resolved as quickly as possible, whereas disruption to pedestrians and cyclists tends to go on longer. In my area, there have been a couple of notable examples.
We’re lucky enough to have several footpaths, where we can walk and cycle without worrying about traffic. One is a towpath, running alongside the river to the city centre; it’s much more pleasant than walking alongside the road. At one point, a bridge across the river was replaced. Since it was deemed unsafe to use the towpath while construction was ongoing, walkers and cyclists were diverted onto a busy road for half a mile. On this road, the traffic is always heavy and the fumes are choking. In one place, the pavement isn’t even wide enough for two people to pass each other.
This wouldn’t have been so bad if the project was completed quickly, but it dragged on for months, the towpath remaining closed the whole time. For much of that time, they didn’t even seem to be doing any work on the bridge. If it had been a road rather than a footpath, disruption would likely have been kept to a minimum.
The path I use when going to the supermarket crosses over a railway line. A while back, the train company decided to electrify the line, announcing that the stretch of railway would be closed for a week. For some reason, they had to demolish the footbridge over the railway to do this. Mysteriously, the road bridge was left intact, despite the fact that it was just a few metres from the footbridge and the same height.
The electrification was indeed complete within a week, and trains immediately started running again. However, work to replace the footbridge didn’t begin for several weeks, and is still not complete. Walkers and cyclists have to use the road bridge instead.
Navigating supermarket car parks can also been challenging as a pedestrian. Many don’t have a path for walkers, meaning you have to dodge moving vehicles. My local Lidl expects pedestrians to walk between a painted line and a row of parked cars. This is nothing short of dangerous – a careless driver reversing out of a parking space could easily hit someone. It would’ve been so easy to provide a walkway leading up to the shop – you have to wonder why they didn’t bother.
Maybe by now you see my point – motor vehicles are generally given more priority than pedestrians and cyclists. If the government is serious about getting us to walk and cycle more, they need to make it safer and more convenient for us to do so. Yet they keep championing projects like the HS2 high-speed rail link, whilst proposals such as creating a cycle network over London receive less support.
Having said that, it’s really important that we do walk and cycle where safely possible, and there are a lot of benefits to doing so. It helps the environment, it’s good exercise and it’s free! I just wish the UK would follow the example of countries like the Netherlands, which consider the needs of cyclists and strongly encourage cycling over driving.
What is it like to be a pedestrian or cyclist in your area? Do you think improvements are needed? Leave a comment below.