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The bicycle was a great disrupter of social norms when it first became popular in the 1800s. It was accused of eliminating barriers between social classes and the sexes as it provided young people with a means of escape from their usual stamping grounds and any watching chaperones.
In the 21st century, the bike is seen in many nations as a way of reducing traffic congestion and pollution.
In London, more commuters are taking to bikes, with cyclists making 645,000 journeys a day in 2014, up a third from 2008. The UK capital’s Santander hiring scheme enjoyed almost 10m hires last year, up from 7m in 2011. Cycling is also very much on the political agenda. New east-west, north-south and west London routes are in the works, in addition to six existing “cycle super-highways”. Additionally, some dangerous trucks that afford drivers limited visibility — which were involved in 78 per cent of cyclist deaths in 2015 — are to banned from 2020.
However, carmaker Ford is planning to launch its first commercial driverless models in 2021 and, as automated vehicles take to the city streets, the bike itself may be subjected to technological disruption.
The big unknown is how cyclists will cope with having to share the roads with robotic vehicles. On the one hand, proponents of driverless vehicles argue they would reduce opportunities of human error contributing to accidents.
Google has taught its driverless cars to recognise cyclist hand signals to predict their movements. Vehicles will also be programmed to brake immediately if a cyclist or pedestrian steps out in front of them.
Driverless vehicles may require a different approach to transport planning in metropolitan areas, says John Parkin, professor of transport engineering at the University of the West of England.
He says that, currently, much infrastructure is being added to roads to keep bikes and vehicles apart that might not be needed in future.
When fewer cars are driven by humans, in cities at least, there would be less need to segregate cyclists from traffic. This would allow roads to be designed as more open, shared spaces, Prof Parkin argues.
However, other challenges remain more problematic. Adrian Lord, associate director at transport consultancy Phil Jones Associates, says. “Once people realise that an autonomous vehicle will stop [automatically], will pedestrians and cyclists deliberately take advantage and step out or cycle in front of them?
“If that’s the case, how long would such a vehicle take to drive down Oxford Street or any other busy urban high street?”
His concerns about the added congestion that driverless cars might cause are shared by Andrew Gilligan, who championed cycling under Boris Johnson, the previous mayor of London.
If the day arrives when people do not need driving licences or have to pay for insurance, and can simply call a driverless car at a moment’s notice, the number of vehicles on the road is likely to increase, Mr Gilligan says.
And the eventual arrival of self-driving cars may lead to more arguments about how space is allocated between different road users, Mr Gilligan says. “Even now, taking out one of four [vehicle] lanes on Victoria Embankment [to be turned into a cycle lane] was treated as if the world had fallen in. Nigel Lawson, former chancellor of the exchequer suggested in a speech that this was the most damaging thing to happen to London since the Blitz.”
But Mr Gilligan argues that the only way to accommodate both cyclists and cars happily in such a future would be to take space away from vehicles and give it to bikes.
The arrival of autonomous vehicles will require innovative solutions to share the limited road space efficiently and keep the world’s commuters moving.