Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Catch-22 (for London cycling)

I recently have become extremely (and perhaps even comically) into cycling in London. So I’ve decided to start a blog where I can express my opinions to people other than my (by now already very bored) close friends.

I’d like to start by discussing something that I feel some cycling lobbies have slightly forgotten; that we live in a democracy, not a benevolent dictatorship.

This means that no matter how progressive our leaders are, they are unlikely to force through expensive, radical changes to road layout on an unwilling populace. Though hopefully every town planner in the UK now understands the commonplace truth that segregated cycle lanes are a million times safer than sharing road space, these lanes will simply not be implemented en masse unless there is perceived widespread majority political support for them.

Hyde Park family cycling
Hyde Park cycling brood. Cycle campaigners needs to be getting new people to cycle as well as making the Government improve conditions.

Jon Snow correctly said with regard to cycle infrastructure, "build it and they will come". However, any democratic government inevitable must function on the default position of ‘if they come, then we’ll build it’.

I was recently struck by the City of London’s response to a complaint that intermittent cycle paths on Hampstead Heath were a ‘right pain’. The Local Authority replied that the Heath was a ‘compromise’ and some groups would ‘ban cycling altogether’. Given this 'compromise' situation, surely the most effective way to improve cycling provision on Hampstead Heath would be to make the group saying ‘ban cycling altogether’ as small possible, and the group in favour of more cycle paths as large as possible?

This means cyclist lobbies putting time and effort into getting new people onto bikes. Perhaps even getting motorists themselves onto bikes, instead of declaring war on them…

There are many different ways of doing this. Disheartening as it is to say it, TfL’s continual increase of public transport prices has probably been one of the effective.

But there are various paths which cycle lobbies could pursue themselves:

They could start by whole-heartedly supporting the expansion of the BCH scheme, whose popular and visible Boris Bikes cannot help but decrease the size of the ‘ban cycling altogether’ group and make cycling a more visible issue in every voter's, and politician's, mind.

Giving extra publicity to popularist news-stories such as Arnie getting on a Boris Bike also helps ("heck, if Schwarzenegger is cycling around London, maybe I should too? It can't be that dangerous/polluted/stressful if Arnie is doing it, can it?"). So does making sure the London Cycling Wikipedia page is regularly updated (no one wants to start doing something which 2% of Londoners did way back in 2010; people want to become part of what is on the increase, not what is staying stagnant).

Getting one of our recent cycle ‘heroes’ from the Olympics to publicly support increased cycle infrastructure in London would be better still; the recent AV referendum showed us how influential celebrities can be atswinging public opinion. (However, I must admit this might be harder than I imagine it to be).

In short, cycle lobbies should - in addition to their current policies - actively support anything which brings cycling in London into the eyes, ears and minds of people who are not currently cyclists in London; anything which makes cycling in London look like a majority issue, rather than a minority one. With this in mind, there is even something constructive to be taken from Boris Johnson’s recent elevated cycle highways idea:

Even if it never gets built, there is at least an article published about it in the Daily Mail (which has a mass readership), and anyone reading this piece is subconsciously accepting the given assumption in the article that cycle lanes in London remain an issue that needs to be dealt with.

Yes, more people would certainly be using this route on a bike if that cycle lane was protected. The cyclists in the picture would also be statistically safer. But they're not going to die simply because the lane isn't segregated (especially if they are aware of the truck behind them and take active steps to avoid it). And neither are helmets, hi-viz, or even proper footwear necessary for safe cycling around our Capital. We need to be encouraging these 'casual' cyclists, while unremittingly pressing local authorities to have that cycle lane improved.

We should accept that there is a horrible Catch-22 to cycling in London: mass amounts of people are unlikely to start travelling by bicycle until we have much better infrastructure, but the political will to build this infrastructure is unlikely to present itself unless many more people start cycling.

So with regard to fatalities and injuries cycling lobbies need to, in a sense, ‘look both ways’. They need to tell the government that it isn’t good enough and dangerous junctions need to be improved (as they are doing with admirable vigour).

But simultaneously they need to tell the general public that cycling in London - if you are responsible, cycle well, and avoid noted dangerous junctions - is without doubt comparatively (to other modes of transport) safe enough for anyone to get involved in.

‘Scaremongering’ about London’s roads will simply reduce cycling numbers, and therefore the political will to improve roads, making them even more dangerous than they already are, indirectly contributing to more cycling fatalities.


To be clear, I am not saying that any of the activities which cycle lobbies currently engage in are pointless or ineffective. On the contrary the work they do is extremely important and necessary.

I am suggesting that in addition to all the work they already do, cycle lobbies should also be much more actively seeking to promote cycling as a method of transport in London in any way they can, even if that might mean reassuring Joe Blogs that cycling in London can be an easy business if you approach it right, while telling the government that it isn’t half easy enough and radical changes must be made.

It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but until we have something approaching the 50% rate of commuter trips by bike which Copenhagen boasts, we are unlikely to have anything approaching their cycle network. 

I’m playing devil’s advocate in this article; the two can clearly grow in tandem with each other and in no way am I excusing the woeful lack of government action in improving conditions for utility cycling. However, it is simply a political fact that the more people we can get on two wheels, the faster cycle provision is going to improve in our capital.

There is no reason, if we make clear to new cyclists the importance of cycling responsibly in a city like London, not to pursue both these goals (more people on bikes + more infrastructure) at the same time.

(comments welcomed)