Bolting the stable door with barriers on bridges, bins and bike lanes

August 12, 2017

After the recent terrorist attack at London Bridge, safety barriers appeared, as if by magic, on the bridges over the Thames. Protecting pedestrians from vehicles being driven at them, surely that’s a good idea, right? I wasn’t so sure.

I resisted the temptation to put anything out on social media at the time - after all, does it need to be said, now, by me? Also I didn’t want to phrase things wrongly, and seem insensitive, or come across as yet another self-righteous self-centred cyclist. But as I went in and out of central London over various bridges on my daily commute, I kept getting wound up about how badly done the whole thing had been.

On the plus side, it proved that things can happen quickly and without consultation when they need to. That’s as it should be - we need an executive branch of government who can make decisions in emergency situations.

But to me it seems a strange decision to make. For one thing, it seems to be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Perhaps lightning might strike again, but will these barriers really prevent more attacks?

Besides, aren’t we supposed to be getting on with our lives as normal? If we stop doing our usual thing, aren’t we letting the terrorists win?

More to the point, it won’t work. There isn’t anything special about bridges - as we saw at Finsbury Park Mosque, vehicles can be driven at pedestrians anywhere. If putting barriers up alongside roads really is the right thing to do, we’d need barriers everywhere. It’s not so long ago that barriers were being removed from pavements because too many cyclists were being squashed between barriers and vehicles. Now we’re putting up barriers in cycle lanes that are already too narrow. And that’s the bit that annoys me most.

Even if we agree that barriers are necessary, in most of the places they’ve been put up, surely they could have gone on top of the kerb and taken up part of the pavement. It wouldn’t have taken much to think about the relative widths of pavement and cycle lane before deciding where to put up barriers.

This kind of ill-thought approach to infrastructure contributes to a sense among cyclists that the rest of the city sees us as an irritation to be tolerated, a group whose needs can be sacrificed to some greater good, even when the sacrifice isn’t necessary. The worst bike lanes in the world aren’t isolated examples - if we’re lucky, provision for cycling is an afterthought in town planning.

I’m old enough to remember dustbins being taken away in response to the IRA bombing campaigns. Meanwhile in France, they took the bins away, but replaced them with small cardboard litter trays - it seemed so much more pragmatic. Somehow in Britain we seem to be doomed to a series of kneejerk responses to events. Part of the trouble is that politicians need to be seen to be doing something. The press clamours for action, even if nobody is really sure what the best thing to do might be, and a politician who hesitates risks being seen as weak.

I grew up in a small seaside town, with beautiful but crumbling chalk cliffs. From time to time, there would be an incident, and someone would call for fences to be put up. It must be a horrible thing to go through, and the family have my sympathy, but the idea of putting up a fence along the whole clifftop is mind boggling - we cannot eliminate all risk, and nor should we try to. It isn’t just parents who need to realise that risk is a necessary part of life, and it’s important to take a balanced view of it.

As part of that balanced view, we should have a clear picture of the probability and the impact of events. Terrorist attacks have a low probability but a high impact, so they’re powerful as perceived risks. Meanwhile, cyclists face real risks on the streets everyday - a higher probability but a lower impact.

Every action has unintended consequences, but they shouldn’t be unforeseen - governments, even more than all of us, need to think about what those consequences might be. In the case of removing dustbins, there’s likely to be an increase in litter. In the case of narrowing cycle lanes, the effects are likely to be much worse.

So what do I want? A more considered response to risk. When do I want it? After someone has spent more than 5 minutes thinking about it.