Saturday 1 September 2012

In Defence of Boris Johnson's cycling credentials

EDIT (25/3/13) - 6 months on from writing this blogpost I feel my qualified support for Boris Johnson has been vindicated. 

Change is coming!

In early March 2013 the Mayor, along with his new cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan, announced a whole host of innovative measures to improve cycle safety in the capital, primarily through segregation, segregation, and segregation.

A superb analysis of the Boris Johnson's 'Vision for Cycling in London' by Cyclists in the City can be found here.


The more I inquire into local cycling infrastructure projects in my area the more I have come across local officials telling me, "well, the Mayor supports this, but we don't want to go through with it so it hasn't happened".

Boris Johnson on a Boris Bike
Amateur photo from today (2/9/2012). How many of London's other politicians are regularly seen cycling?

Among other projects, I have been told there is strong support from Mr Johnson for putting segregated lanes on major carriageways in Kensington and Chelsea, and for permitting cyclists to cycle in Hyde Park between Lancaster Gate and Queensway (allowing a 'full circuit' route to be created for cyclists travelling around Hyde Park so they don't need to use Bayswater Road). The proposed cycle lanes have been blocked by local authorities worried about restricting road space on what are already 4-6 lane roads while the cycle route through Hyde Park has been blocked by Royal Parks officials worried about the hazards new cyclists might pose to pedestrians. These people seem frustratingly oblivious to the far greater hazard posed to cyclists now as they are routinely forced to share lanes with motorists overtaking them at over 60km/hr down Bayswater Road and other London carriageways that lack even the most rudimentary cycling infastructure.

If Boris is being given a pro-cycling spin even by his antagonists in local government then he must to some extent be fighting the good fight on behalf of London's ever growing number of cyclists. Indeed, it is very easy to overestimate the amount of power that Mr Johnson actually has as mayor; the London mayoralty has only existed since 2000 and is much weaker constitutionally than its equivalents in America, which has a far more federalised government, granting significantly more power than we do to authorities sitting between the local and national. Even TfL only run 5% of London's roads. Essentially, if the local authorities don't want their local Cycle Superhighway to be segregated then it won't be segregated. End of.

So this post is a plea, of sorts, for London's cycling community to not give BoJo quite so much ire. Or at least direct that ire somewhere else.

I'm not saying that every decision or comment that Boris has made in relation to cycling in London has been a good one (although I am an umitigated suporter of the Boris Bike scheme and its rapid expansion).*

But all of my inquiries into local cycling infrastructure so far have uniformly given the distinct impression that the real opponents to good cycle infrastructure are the (often Conservative) local councillors and MPs of Central London who see a cyclist doing 25km/hr in a Royal Park as an intolerably dangerous hazard not to be countenanced, but a regard a motorist doing 48km/hr (30mph) down a residential street as a basic human right not be curtailed with speed bumps or poxy 32km/hr (20mph) speed limits.

Space for even an advisory bit of 'blue paint' on Bayswater Road (pictured here)? Local councillor says no. It would hold up the taxis, which are probably empty anyway. Plus local councillor needs sufficient spare space to have a large chevroned area in the the middle of road serving no purpose whatsoever. (these people are idiots).

It is these councillors and MPs (Conservative Richard Tracey AM - London Assembly - I'm looking at you...) who are repeatedly opposing cycle lanes which might restrict the constant flow of Taxis, Minicabs, and Chelsea Tractors (all stupidly large vehicles) through the already narrow streets of Central London.** They don't seem to realise that getting more people on bikes will actually create road space since someone cycling somewhere takes up so much less road space than someone driving somewhere.

It is these councillors and MPs who, despite all their talk of an 'Olympic Legacy', oppose the removal of on-street car parking to make way for safe and direct contra-flow cycle lanes, because losing a fraction of the borough's parking spaces would make it more difficult for their constituents, and themselves, to easily keep 2 or 3 cars in Central London.

It is these councillors and MPs who, quite frankly, couldn't give a solitary shit about creating more cycle racks in locations that integrate with other transport networks and discourage thieves.

It is these councillors and MPs (Conservative Mark Field MP - London and Westminster - I'm looking at you...) who still cling to Thatcherite pro-automobile policies from the 80s that are completely unsuitable for 2012 due to various geopolitical and societal changes over the last 30 years; e.g. global fuel squeeze, highly politically volatile oil-rich Middle East, desire to exit Afghanistan and Iraq, climate change, pollution in cities, road congestion in cities, national recession, growing health problem of obesity, global green movement, significantly improved London public transport system, and the lack of a British-owned volume car maker that lobbies for demand stimulation (although we do now produce very successful Brompton Bikes which improved cycling infrastructure would certainly stimulate demand for).

Therefore, it is these councillors and MPs that the cycling community should (primarily) be having a go at. Not Boris. 

In fact, you can even do it yourself, using to contact your local politicians about their cycling infastructure policies in your borough

With local elections coming up in 2014, and the popularity of utility cycling set to continue increasing over the next two years, these regressive politicans might even get nervous and start publicly collaborating with TfL's and Boris's repeated efforts to build safe Cycle Superhighways through their boroughs... So email them now and let them know you're not happy with their current policies!

(comments welcomed)

* i.e. the whole 'smoothing traffic flow' idea is deeply flawed; faster traffic logically means more pedestrian and cyclist deaths (but on bright side it seems like the Mayor - hopefully - might have dropped that now).

** I know that Taxis and Minicabs very occasionally operate at capacity take 4-5 people but the vast majority I see on my travels around town either have just the driver, or the driver and one single occupant. It is a ridiculous management of street space to have so many of these barely filled vehicles constantly bowling around our city, especially during a recession when the vast majority of Londoners can barely afford taxis anyway.


EDIT (18/9/2012): Sir Malcolm Rifkind (who I originally targeted in this article as the 'anti-cycling' Conservative MP for Kensington and Chelsea) has today written to me saying that he is actually supportive of proper cycle infrastructure, pointing to this article in the Hammersmith & Fulham Chronicle - published ten days after this post - where he states that:

"a long-term paucity of proper cycling infrastructure has forced many cyclists onto busy roads, where they are bound to come into conflict with drivers of cars"

Arguably he's thinking clearer than CTC (The National Cycling Charity) when it comes to highlighting the patent and obvious flaws of an approach where cyclists integrate with traffic on busy roads, although the headline of the article in question - 'Let's encourage cyclists who obey laws of the road' - is admittedly rather too Daily Mail for my tastes (and has been parodied here).

In fairness, I believe I unfairly misrepresented Sir Malcolm when I wrote this article, and that he's clearly leaps and bounds ahead of some of his Conservative colleagues, such as the infamous Richard Tracey

Still, would be nice to see his signature on The Times's #CycleSafe Early Day Motion (EDM) and British Cycling's Justice Review Early Day Motion (EDM), and as he's my MP I'll keep on pestering him until he signs them; as you should all do with your MPs too.


  1. I have rather less faith than you apparently have that Boris is about to give up on his “smoothing traffic flow” agenda – in fact, I think you will probably extract it from his cold, dead hand.

    I don’t however dispute Boris’ credentials as a genuine user of bicycles as a means of transport. We shouldn’t confuse his cycling image with that of his rival David Cameron, who only ever rode a bike because his strategy guru Steve Hilton advised him to ride a bike to make him look more blokeish. Even then, the truth was out, that his stuff followed behind in an official car, and we now know that he actually more comfortable in the saddle of a retired Metropolitan Police horse than on the saddle of a bicycle.

    Boris on the other hand really does cycle around town, to and from work but also to meetings outside City Hall. People have seen him do it. His own staff chuckle about it (apparently he doesn’t cycle very fast). He fosters the image of an ordinary guy (sort of) who wears a suit and tie when he rides, and eschews a cycle helmet. There are any number of stories about the number of red lights he has blown through or how many pavements he has cycled on – I have no doubt somewhat overtold in reality.

    The problem with Boris, as with most of his contemporaries in the Tory party, is their libertarian conservative credo, which is far removed from the One Nation Toryism of old. Under this credo, people should have the freedom to do much as they please, but the state should not intervene top influence their choices. Hence Boris I am sure genuinely believes that we should all be free to cycle around London, and I know that his colleagues Andrew Boff and James Cleverley, both regular bike commuters to City Hall, believe the same. What they don’t seem to “get” is that people will not exercise that freedom, because it isn’t really a freedom at all if you are afraid of it, and that telling them to “man up” because it isn’t all that dangerous really, and you’ll be fine as long as you have your wits about you (in other words, if you are an able bodied early middle-aged male, like them). They also don’t seem to get the fact that in contrast, people’s freedom to use a car is by no means uninfluenced by actions of the state. Indeed the whole smoothing traffic flow thing is state influence in favour of car use. This state influence has been applied for decades, with the introduction of roundabouts and traffic lights, pelican crossings replacing unsignalled crossings, corners having their radii increased and bends in country roads straightened out so that cars do not have to slow down as much, ever more on-street car parking shoehorned onto narrow city streets, fuel taxes and duties falling in real terms while rail and bus fares rise relentlessly.

    I have no great expectation that the Tories will do much about cycling while they remain captive to the libertarian tendency, “Maggie’s Militant Tendency” as a BBC documentary once described it – Cameron, remember, came from that wing of the party and only briefly went fluffy while he relied so heavily on the NHS for his poor dear son Ivan.

    I also have little expectation that Labour will be much better – as long as they identify “Mondeo Man” or his modern equivalent as the key to electoral success, nothing much will change. That only leaves the LibDems, and I guess I will have to swallow my nausea about their record in making a Faustian pact and hope that they can use their surely limited remaining time in office to force through some real changes.

    Ps: perhaps Mark Field has three cars parked in Westminster, but the borough’s car ownership is not much higher than most poorer boroughs in Central London – less than half of all Westminster households actually have access to a car at all, and I have had conversations with affluent professionals living in Westminster and K&C in particular who say that they see no point in having one. You can hire one on the rare occasions when you need one, otherwise it is cheaper and more convenient to use taxis or public transport.

  2. I take your points, Paul. But I would argue that the BCH Scheme, the Cycle Superhighways, the youtube videos with 'Dermot' telling us to cycle, the 500 junction review by TfL, and the pro-cycling adverts around town, are all examples of the state (in fact, specifically the Mayoralty) deliberately intervening to influence our choice of transport in direct opposition to the 'credo' you describe..

    Yes, none of it is enough. Yes, we need more of a focus on safety. Yes, the Mayoralty hasn't really had the balls (yet) to build significant amounts of properly segregated lanes rather than just painting tarmac blue at a ridiculous cost. But it's start.

    Moreover, this state-led intervention by the Mayoralty (i.e. Boris) completely outstrips any state-led efforts on the part of either national or local authorities to promote cycling in London (apart from perhaps a few progressive councillors in specific London boroughs).

  3. So, in short, Boris is arguably doing more to promote cycling (through the state) than any other politician in either local or national government.

  4. Sadly, the examples of the current mayor's interventions you use don't contradict the comment above, which claims that his priority is still keeping motor traffic moving:

    - Cycle Hire is useful for cyclists and great PR for Boris, but it's clearly an intervention that doesn't affect motor traffic flow
    - Superhighways have been built to the lowest possible spec, without removing roadspace from cars or improving cyclist safety
    - Junction Review outcomes are not known at present: will changes for the sake of safety be allowed that reduce motor traffic?
    - Promotional activity (pretty videos etc) is of extremely low value when most people cite 'fear' as the number one reason they don't cycle

    It's not fair to say Boris isn't doing anything, but there are cities like New York and Paris which are forging ahead with policies to promote walking and cycling, and aren't afraid to reduce motor traffic when necessary.

    We should be aiming for the highest standards of continental infrastructure here, as promised by the mayor when he signed up to the London Cycling Campaign's "Love London, Go Dutch" campaign in April 2012.

  5. All of the points you make are valid. However, I would argue that if you talk to any Central London driver they would say that Boris Bikes have reduced motor traffic flow since so many Boris users will cycle so much slower than regular cyclists and often take up entire lanes of traffic - which is a good thing! Moreover, the Cycle Superhighways may not be half as good as they could be, but I would always prefer to be cycling on one of them than a normal London carriageway. Therefore it is incorrect to say that they haven't improved cyclist safety. They have improved it, just not half as much as they could have if they'd been built properly.

    However, you comparisons with New York and Paris are telling.

    New York, as I've argued above, gives many more powers to its Mayor than London does. The Economist recently wrote an article on precisely that topic. Yes, the Cycle SuperHighways have not been built to a high spec, but if local councils do not support segregated lanes in their carriageways then their is very little the Mayoralty or TfL can do, as I've argued in this article. This is why the City of London has currently so much better cycle infrastructure than Westminster. Because the City of London council is so much more supportive than Westminster's. Boris Johnson, unfortunately is relatively insignificant in this example. If the local councils want to keep motor traffic moving, then motor traffic will be kept moving. You can just blame the Mayor for everything.

    Paris, as I point out in my most recent post, is a the capital of a country with a comprehensive National Cycling Strategy with cross-party support. Again, if we had a Government that were unanimously backing the prioritisation of cycling as an emerging method of transport there would be a lot more Boris Johnson could do. But instead when you turn on Prime Minister's Questions, even from the opposition, it's all about roads roads roads. Very few MPs give a shit.

    If you want to make a difference you need to make the MPs (wherever you are based - I'm assuming London) give a shit rather than constantly slating Boris Johnson. I'm not saying he's perfect. But compared to the vast majority of MPs in this country he's practically a saint.

    Look at Mark Field MP (or many others) if you want to see someone who really cares about keeping motor traffic moving at all costs.

  6. Furthermore, here is a quote from a reply to a query I sent TfL about a Cycle Superhighway near where I live:

    'Please be aware that any new cycle route or Superhighway is designed in partnership with the local boroughs '

    Put simply, if the local boroughs want their part of the route protected, it will probably be protected. If they don't want it protected the it'll just be paint on the road.

    Without local and national support (both of which seem, in my humble opinion, to be distinctly lacking in most parts of the country) there is little TfL can do, so its pointless to continually complain about the Mayor and TfL. Complain about your local MP or council instead.