The Law, Cycling and Why So Much Makes So Little Sense

Those of you who follow us on twitter might have noticed that in recent months the occasional tweet from UC has been pointed firmly in the direction of both Birmingham City Council and West Midlands Police. These tweets have sought to question why both West Midlands Police and Birmingham City Council appear to be turning a systematic blind eye to the enforcement of traffic laws particularly those concerned with speed limits and parking in urban conurbation's.

I’m well aware that to some this may have appeared either unnecessarily harsh criticism or bad business yet there have been others of you from whom we’ve received notes of thanks for our willingness to raise our heads above the proverbial parapet of despair. 

The problem we’ve been keen to confront is not concerned with a particular action or lack there of, although there are thousands of (in)actions which cause us deep concern; but with an emerging culture of complacency which willingly and consistently places the car as boss and vulnerable road users as a mere ‘problem’ to be ignored.

It’s seven o’clock on a Friday evening. It's been a long week I’m tired and I'm making my way home from work at a pace far, far slower than the norm. It’s hot and the evening sun is burning right into my eyes. I’ve left my sunglasses at the pod. All is not well! I’m heading along my regular route home and towards an area of the city well known for it’s high levels of childhood health inequality and low levels of participation in regular physical activity.

With an NHS on the brink of financial crisis it strikes me that the simple mantra ‘do everything you can to encourage physical activity’ ought to be written on a sticky note and stuck to the computer of every publicly paid office holder. Not so. Standing at the bottom of the road are two on duty police men. To my utter amazement on either side of them are cars parked the entire length of the road including across double yellow lines, school zig zags and all over the pavement. As I pass the Police officers and approach the bottom of the road a small girl no more than six years old and considerably shorter than the height of a Range Rover bonnet appears between two parked cars walking straight into the line of oncoming traffic. I scream ‘MOVE!!!” and the little girl immediately jumps backwards saving herself from what would otherwise have been a severe head injury. 

The insanity of this situation is circling my mind at a thousand miles per hour. How can this be!?!?  In a quiet uncharacteristic moment I approach the two police men still stood only yards from the incident and facing the other way. The following is a word for word quote of our conversation. 

“Excuse me officers; why are you allowing cars to park all over double yellow lines and zigs zags as well as blocking the pavement”
“It’s not a priority” (think grumpy man who can't believe someone has dared to question him)
“But it is against the law, you are here to enforce the law; right?”
“It’s not a priority now move on or we’ll arrest you”

My blood is boiling. I count to ten and another ten and another ten. I eventually ride on. I am now safe only in the knowledge that neither my safety nor the safety of any other vulnerable road user is a priority. 

I hit a parallel main road, still in a 30mph zone and car after car flies past me at well in excess of 50mph. One mile down the road and to my utter amazement I pass another traffic car where two further officers sit and watch the traffic fly by. 

I drove a car for long enough to know that at this point in my discourse many rational people will have one simple response, 

“Chill out! It’s just a little parking  and a little speeding there’s way more important problems!!”

But that’s my problem it’s a little thing and a million of them now lead to a highly destructive norm. 

In his brilliant book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell narrates how, by the mid 1980’s much of New York’s entire Subway system had become a no go area for the vast majority of New Yorkers. Train after train was covered in graffiti, ticket machines covered in urine, lighting damaged and ticket jumping endemic. The subways were subsequently running at a colossal lossand the city's infrastructure grinding to a steady halt. That was until Mayor Giuliani took the bull by the horns and implemented the ‘Broken Window Theory’. Mobilising every resource he had (remember many of his critics told him he had none) to repair small broken windows and remove graffiti on an industrial scale. This cvourse of action sent a clear message that lawlessness in any form will not be tolerated and that includes not paying for your ticket. Once the trains were clean, the lights repaired and the ticket machines working ordinary people returned; revenue from tickets and advertising soared. Altering the context altered the result. 

On the 15th July 68 year old Zainib Bibi stepped out of her house and became the innocent victim of a tragic hit and run only yards from the spot where days later West Midlands Police refused to enforce basic traffic law. On Saturday August 1st an innocent cyclist was knocked from her bike by a passing motorist and immediately taken to hospital by Paramedics. In the first instance the Birmingham Mail saw fit to report this incident only in terms of the 'delay it caused motorists'; a headline they later amended. 

In our whole approach to mobility there are many, many broken windows. 

What made the difference to New York’s Subway? The little things. The little things had tipped in the wrong direction and needed tipping back. This is the point both West Midlands Police and Birmingham City Council need to grasp. Let’s have a city council which stops bemoaning its size and starts doing the little things well. Let’s have a Police Force which does not tolerate the norm if the norm does not protect the sanctity of human life.  

A little later and nearly home, I ride past a sign for Active Parks. You are apparently welcome to ride your bike around the local park on Saturday morning’s. ‘Good luck’ I think. Getting there safely will be your first challenge!