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.

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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 www.writetothem.com 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.

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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.