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Retired surgeon Professor Chris Oliver says transport strategy must put cycling, walking and public transport first

A prominent cycling campaigner in Scotland has called for speed limits for motor vehicles to be reduced in Edinburgh to help safeguard cyclists – but his appeal has been given short shrift by readers of the newspaper which published his appeal.

Professor Chris Oliver is a retired orthopaedic surgeon and former chair in Scotland of CTC (now Cycling UK), and has now taken up the role of communication officer at Spokes, the Lothian cycling campaign, which is one of  theUK’s largest regional cycling campaign organisations.

His open letter, published this morning by Edinburgh Evening News – a sister publication of The Scotsman – read:

As an Edinburgh trauma orthopaedic surgeon and keen cyclist, my day-job was always saddened when I personally saw a death in the emergency room or an injured cyclist in outpatients. Not just the death to deal with but the relatives to console as well. The reconstructive orthopaedic surgery would sometimes not restore full body function, time would be lost from work and sometimes chronic disability would occur.

As communication officer for Spokes – The Lothian Cycling Campaign – my email inbox constantly fills with angry messages about unnecessary death, pointless cyclists’ road traffic injuries and lenient sentencing from the courts. Frankly, it has put me off cycling in areas where there is poor or non-existent segregated cycling infrastructure. I have campaigned for 20mph, more active travel, presumed liability, fewer potholes, better bike storage and brought the plight of Edinburgh cyclists’ tram injuries to the attention of the courts. It must be remembered that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by 20:1.

It is therefore very disappointing to see the significant rise in deaths and serious injuries per million kilometres cycled in the recent Cycling Scotland annual cycling monitoring report. It is noticeable that although these figures go back to 2010, this increase is entirely in the three years from 2015 to 2017. It is impossible to know exactly what has changed in the last three years to cause this, but use of mobile phones, both handheld and hands-free, must be a prime candidate. You simply cannot blame cyclists for not wearing helmets, not wearing high-viz or not obeying the Highway Code.

The figures in the report again re-affirm that high-speed roads are by far the most dangerous for using a bike, in terms of the risk of a serious injury. On 60mph roads, five per cent of cyclist casualties were deaths and 33 per cent serious injuries, whereas on 20mph roads there were no deaths at all, and only 20 per cent of casualties were classed as serious. This makes it even more disastrous for the Scottish Government to have voted out Mark Ruskell MSP’s Bill for a default urban 20mph limit across Scotland.

We applaud Police Scotland for the highly successful experiment of average speed cameras on Old Dalkeith Road, and their intention to assess a further 25 roads in the Capital for similar treatment. Police Scotland’s Operation Close Pass has reduced incidents, but these are still a problem and make many cyclists, particularly some women and children, fearful.

We would like to see the government investigating automatic detection equipment for mobile use in motor vehicles, since there seems no other solution to this growing menace to lives and limbs on our roads. Rules are also necessary for hands-free, since research shows these to be almost as serious a risk as handheld.

The needs of motorists are still the overwhelming priority for government public expenditure on transport. Although public transport investment has improved substantially, investment to provide safe and welcoming conditions for cycling and walking still trails woefully behind.

I believe that councils and government should have an overall transport strategy in which cyclists, pedestrians and public transport genuinely come first – and that includes both funding and roadspace. Cycling and walking will undoubtedly contribute to combating the climate chaos emergency.

We are sadly many years away from a comprehensive safe cycling and walking network in Scotland where our children can safely walk or cycle to school.

The newspaper, which said that the article had “attracted a massive response from readers,” published a follow-up piece this afternoon highlighting some of the comments it had received.

Most road.cc readers, we imagine, will be aware that any newspaper article about cycling will attract plenty of comments, many of them unsympathetic to cyclists, and with a couple of exceptions the ones the Edinburgh Evening News chose to include certainly reflect that.

Cyclists, we are told, should be fined for not wearing a helmet or hi-viz clothing, or for riding on the road instead of a cycle path. None of which, of course are illegal.

Contrast that with press coverage from pretty much any local paper about how speed cameras serve as a cash cow to extract money from law-abiding motorists. Oh wait … a fine for speeding follows on from the law being broken.

Professor Oliver’s call for a default 20 mile an hour speed limit also attracted ire from people insisting that cyclists regularly ride at that speed or above, on the pavement, or who run red lights, or otherwise ignore the Highway Code.

By means of ‘balance’ the newspaper did however manage to unearth one comment from a reader who took up road cycling two years ago and called for decent segregated infrastructure, pointing out:  “Anything that can separate cyclists from cars is a good thing for both – less frustration, less danger. But most of the cycle paths are terrible, and some just end abruptly for no reason, like one on the Glasgow Road that just gives up.”

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.