Casual Prejudices

After yesterday’s news of Margaret Thatcher’s death and the inevitable programmes and news articles reminiscing about her time in office and the conditions in the UK that led to her election in 1979, it occurred to me on my ride into work this morning that there are still places where the 1970s exists.

I don’t mean avocado bathroom suites, orange juice as a starter, kipper ties, the Bay City Rollers and the trades unions dictating the political agenda but in the casual way discrimination was so much a part of every day life that most people didn’t even notice it. Be it racism, sexism, he’s-not-from-around-here or just not trusting any Irish voice, there were countless ways that not being a white man born within a few miles of the spot you were standing really did impact on your existence because you were different and that matters.

We still see that on our roads on a daily basis.

The casual way cars turn left across bikes with barely a glance. The way motorbikes fill the Advanced Stop Zones with many of them not even aware that they’re committing an offence (or, more likely, they know they are, yet are doing it anyway). Moped in the ASZ The relaxed attitude with which lorry owners treat the safety of other road users. The unfathomable leniency that the law extends to drivers who kill and maim, in spite of the rules which they’ve transgressed. The canards from white van man about paying road tax.

I’m struck with the parallels to Apartheid in South Africa: the natives (cyclists) were suddenly invaded by outsiders (vehicles), who rapidly decided to make rules that were previously unnecessary (e.g. traffic lights, one-way streets), quickly deciding that the best land should be solely theirs (explicitly with dual carriageways, implicitly with many town centres) consigning the original inhabitants to shanty towns and the worse land (circuitous ‘cycle routes’, crap cycle facilities and acres of ‘cyclist dismount’ signs), meeting resistance with officially sanctioned violence (for all the deaths on the roads, very few result in genuine punishments).

In yesteryear, we knew that the South African way was wrong, but the politics of those times took a very long time to catch up with popular opinion. But times have changed in southern Africa and times are changing on our roads.

While I was pondering on this post I listened to the first episode in the new season of The Bike Show on London’s excellent Resonance FM. (The podcast is available here.)

Jack Thurston, the host, gets the wider meaning of cycling, but he also gets people to talk in meaningful ways – and his interview with Cynthia Barlow and Bill Chidgey was another example. Both long term campaigners, the former lost her daughter to a lorry and the latter was a cycle courier who has seen too many colleagues die on London’s roads.

Please, go listen to the episode, (and then go donate to Roadpeace) but I was struck in particular by the point made about the Health and Safety Executive. Lorries, in particular around construction sites, are subject to many rules and safety requirements when on site. But as soon as they’re off site, bang, normal laws apply and suddenly the rest of the users of the road are open season.

Our roads are not fit for purpose, our 21st Century discrimination should not be allowed to continue.