Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Long Term changes in public opinion towards motor traffic in London, and the death of Dr Katherine Giles due to collision with a lorry while cycling in Victoria

The tragic death of a brilliant young scientist in Central London a few days ago, killed by a lorry driving into her as she cycled through Victoria, reminded me how important it is that cycle infrastructure in our capital changes for the better (and how appallingly dangerous Victoria is to cycle around). The fact that this death warranted in-depth coverage from the BBCITV, The Times, and Sky News, as well as an immediate political response from Boris Johnson (viewable in this ITV video), also had me thinking slightly positively about the future of cycling in London.

I read Ian McEwan's novel Saturday (2005) recently and was struck by how unconsciously car-centric it was. If you haven't read the novel, it's basically a day in the life of a neurosurgeon whose lives a financially confortable life in Central London. On the day in question this main character, whom we are repeatedly led to admire by McEwan, chooses to drive to his local sports club in a large Mercedes in order to play a game of squash. His squash partner, an anaesthetist, drives too.

This is despite that the day in question is 15 February 2003, the day 2 million people entered London to protest against the Iraq War, blocking many major roads. This is despite the fact that the neurosurgeon in question runs the London marathon every year and is highly concerned with keeping his fitness up. This is despite the fact that his squash partner, an anaesthetist colleague, goes to the gym every day. This is despite the fact that both men live in Central London, where their squash club is also located, meaning they could easily walk, jog, cycle, take the tube, or even a bus.

Yet despite all of these 'push' factors our admirable neurosurgeon rejects any form of remotely active travel and chooses to navigate the various road blocks around London instead, returning after a gruelling squash game to park his car right outside his house in order to avoid any walk to his front door.

Later in the novel McEwan describes in an overwhelmingly positive way what would I would imagine to be in fact an extremely tedious drive through traffic from Warren Street out along the Westway to Perivale. He notes the joy his 'man-of-our-times' protagonist feels at moving around London in his car with the noxious fumes (to which the neurosurgeon is himself significantly contributing) locked safely outside.

Finally towards the end of the novel McEwan's protagonist contemplates both the extremely high volume traffic of the Euston Road and the incessant buzz of planes flying over London into Heathrow as if both were completely unalterable facts of our urban existence, and more strikingly, things to be savoured and enjoyed by a 'Good Londoner'.

The Euston Road. Not something to be savoured or admired. Something to be changed.
Obviously this all says a lot about McEwan, but I would argue it also says a lot about public opinion in 2005, and in the previous decades. In 2013 I would be surprised to find an equally successful novel that employs a similarly car-centric protagonist.

Because, in fact, both the Euston Road and Heathrow are negative aspects of our urban lives, and both are alterable. The revolutionary new designs for Parliament Square and Blackfriars by the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) show that change is possible all over our city. The current storm over potentially expanding capacity Heathrow also demonstrates that urban dwellers are becoming less and less accepting of the harmful effects of local airports. 

Moreover, the implementation of large scale infrastructure projects such as The Tube upgrade, Crossrail, London Cycle Hire, and Boris Johnson + Andrew Gilligan's Vision for Cycling in London (all implemented after 2005), show that politicians are now willing to invest huge amounts of money and political credibility into financing incredibly ambitious non-motorised methods of transport  at least in urban areas.

Crossrail is costing the government billions of pounds and will increase London's entire  non-motor transport capacity by 10%.

City-changing improvements in cycle infrastructure cannot happen without large scale public support behind them, and the ideologies that they embody. This public support didn't exist in the second half of the twentieth century which is one reason we have so many horrible gyratories in London. However, there are hopeful signs that car-centric thinking is becoming less popular and we will have the political power to implement big changes in London in the early twenty-first century.

After all, all these gyratories were all installed in the last 50 years, so they can surely be taken out again in the next 50 years?

It's important for all of us to realise, unlike McEwan's protagonist from 2005, that urban motorways like the Euston Road are not enjoyable, nor immutable facts of London-life. Neither is having the luxury of on-street parking right outside your house (unless, of course, you are mobility impaired). In fact, luxuries such as this can easily accumulate and kill you through obesity.

The parking restrictions in large amounts of Central London next Wednesday for Margaret Thatcher's funeral (organised with barely a week's notice) will be implemented with no trouble at all. So why do we accept the lie that such high levels of inner-city car parking are 'necessary' the rest of the time?

Similarly, many major roads will be closed for much of the day for Thatcher's ceremonial funeral next Wednesday. Will business grind to a halt? Will money as we know it cease to exist? No. London will be fine. If you closed the inner-city tube lines on a weekday... then you'd have problems.

Thatcher's funeral will see all motor traffic removed from a large swathe of Central London on a weekday with barely a week's notice. Any problems? No. So why do we 'need' this motor traffic capacity the rest of the time?

We should remember that, like on-street car parking, the high level of motor traffic in Central London that we have at present isn't a 'necessity' either.

Ironically, the passing of Thatcher marks the point where we are going to see a similar decline in her incredibly flawed policy of promoting motor-traffic at the expense of all other forms of transport in our cities.

Thanks in part to pressure from cycling bloggers, as the BBC's Tom Edwards has highlightedchange is coming (an overwhelming show of hands at a recent London Cycling Campaign Policy Forum reflects the newly positive outlook of cycle campaigners).

Warren Street, a street which Ian McEwan's protagonist drives down in Saturday (2005) is now closed for traffic 'Except Cycles'. If McEwan wrote the same novel today his lead character would probably cycle or take the tube instead of driving in order to travel around London. Photo courtesy of Cyclists in the City.

Saturday proves it. Camden proves it. Hackney (where more people now cycle than drive to work!) proves it.

Disgustingly cycle-toxic politicians like Kate Hoey, Richard Tracey, and Mark Field need to watch out or they may not be in office come 2015...

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Dr Rachel Aldred, Chair of the LCC's Policy Forum, discusses the same phenomenon in a very interesting post on her blog, as do both City A.M.'s Alexander Jan and The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman in recent articles.

There is also a fantastic recording of Andrew Gilligan's talk and Q&A at the first London Cycling Campaign Policy Forum (8/4/2013) which you can listen to or download (right click on the link and then click 'Save Link As...') here.

Finally, here is a link to Boris Johnson speaking extremely intelligently and cogently about his new cycling policies on The Daily Mail (no less!)... who'd have thought it...