Motorcycling: Time to get in lane

Transport for London is still looking at allowing bikers into bus lanes. Be brave, says Tim Luckhurst
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Sometimes it is hard for motorcyclists. The era of mods and rockers is prehistory, but, in the imaginations of many Britons, we remain Neanderthals. To the extent that motorcycle manufacturers have challenged this prejudice, and they have tried, they have often done so by depicting motorcycling as a luxury lifestyle choice.

Too few of the motorcycles sold in Britain are promoted as cheap, reliable and clean. Images of adoring couples in matching leathers, cruising through sun-dappled Alpine gorges, are preferred. That or knee-down racing action of a type that would be insane on most British roads (and is, in fact, photographed on bike launches in southern Europe).

Even scooters, used elsewhere as cheap urban transport, are marketed here as style icons. Small wonder that many riders are dispirited by the experience of riding in British weather without proper protective clothing. Pictures of tanned and beaming scooterists clad in T-shirts are taken in Rome for a reason.

The truth, of course, is that motorcycles of any size are an excellent way to get around. Parking is always available and almost always free. Congestion charging does not apply and cutting through heavy traffic is a doddle. The only reason not to ride a motorcycle is the ever-present danger that some semi-comatose car-, van- or bus-driver will knock you off. For me it is a risk worth taking. Millions of others disagree.

The consequence of the negative perception is fewer motorbikes, increased environmental pollution and gridlock that grows ever more intense even in places where, only a decade ago, it was virtually unknown. So, any serious attempt to make motorcycling safer deserves to be taken seriously. And, in recent years, the government agency Transport for London (TfL) has been responsible for one initiative that has immense potential.

A decision taken in the 1990s by Bristol City Council saw that sensible city open all its bus lanes to motorcyclists, and similar schemes were introduced in Colchester, Reading and Swindon. In the autumn of 2002, encouraged by the Motorcycle Industry Association and riders' groups, TfL set up three pilot schemes allowing motorcyclists to ride in bus lanes in the capital. The experiment involved stretches of the A41, A23 and A13 and was scheduled to last 18 months.

An interim report published in 2004 hinted at the scheme's efficacy in terms of motorcycle safety. Collisions involving motorcycles fell during the morning rush hour, and there appeared to be no detrimental impact on bus journey times.

But TfL was not ready to make a final recommendation that bikes should be granted wider access to bus lanes. It extended the trials.

A final report is now imminent and, in the motorcycle industry, concern is growing that bikes will, once again, be excluded from London bus lanes. Riders who have had extensive contact with TfL speak now of a "growing pressure to marginalise motorcyclists".

One industry insider complains of "a spreading tide of latent bike-ism that has sought to persuade decision makers that motorcycling poses a threat to public safety."

TfL is impartial and diligent, but it is required to consider the impact on all road users. And, to the fury of motorcyclists, cycling activists have lobbied strenuously against allowing motorcycles to use bus lanes. The alarming aspect of this is that evidence that motorcylists harm pedal-cyclists does not exist. The 2004 report found evidence that 59 per cent of cyclists using bus lanes had experienced near misses with other vehicles; 8 per cent had endured an unpleasant experience with a bus and 45 per cent with a car (and one that had no right to be there). Just 4 per cent of cyclists reported close calls with motorcycles.

Accident statistics suggest that even this figure overstates the actual danger. A tiny minority of cyclists may ride in terror of being hit by motorcycles, but their fear is not evidence-based. "The cycling lobby is just plain wrong," says Craig Carey-Clinch of the Motorcycle Industry Association. "These people need to learn to share the road."

None of the cities where motorcyclists are allowed to ride in bus lanes have reported problems or hostile campaigns.

The advantages of motorcycles to their riders and the environment have been maximised with no adverse impact on other road users. TfL's final report on this issue has huge potential to promote the same desirable result in London, setting a compelling example for the rest of Britain.

A TfL spokesman said: "The report is yet to be published as information for the trial sites is still being reviewed. The mayor of London will need to review the recommendations before a decision on the future of the lanes can be made."

I am not optimistic. Any really serious attempt to establish the safety of mixing motorcycles with fleets of pedal cyclists would simply visit Rome or Beijing.



The author is professor of journalism at the University of Kent

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