I haven’t really got much to add to the excellent commentary on yesterday’s mayoral cycling hustings from Cyclists in the City, I Bike London and Vole O’Speed, the latter in particular doing an especially good job in forensically analysing Boris’s skin-deep commitment to cycling in London.
Out of the five candidates appearing on the platform before us, Jenny Jones was, as always, uniformally impressive. I am by no means a natural green voter, but on the issue of cycling, she knows precisely what needs to be done to make it safer, more pleasant and more convenient – the three key ingredients for instilling a genuine cycling revolution. Brian Paddick also performed well – I thought, like David Arditti, that he grasped the central problem of cycling being subjectively unsafe for most ordinary people, and recognised that one of the main barriers to addressing that problem is Boris’s commitment to ‘smoothing traffic flow’.
Siobhan Benita, about whom I know very little, appeared to engage with the issues, and I think made one of the most telling contributions of the hustings when, in response to a question to the panel from the audience about what they would do to make cycling easier around the Hammersmith Flyover (a question which was met with waffle from Boris) pointed out that as the candidates had all signed up to London Cycling’s Go Dutch demands, this shouldn’t even be a matter for debate. Point 2 of those demands explicitly states
Ensure all future redevelopments of junctions and main roads are to ‘Go Dutch’ standards.
Boris – having signed this manifesto – had equivocated about whether he would devote space on and around the flyover to cycling; Benita was right to highlight that he seemed to have forgotten about this commitment already.
It’s also hard to disagree with David’s analysis of Ken, namely that
Ken Livingstone never appears all that comfortable talking about cycling, preferring to major on “getting people out of their cars” by whatever method, and talking a lot about long-term investment and long-term plans for transport in general, without giving too much detail on what he thinks a future, cycle-friendly London would actually look like.
Ken is very definitely in favour of a reduction in the number of motor vehicle journeys made in London, but as David says he’s I don’t think he is particularly clued up on what that might mean for cycling policy. Nevertheless he is willing to appoint Jenny Jones as his cycling supremo, and did make two commitments, setting a rather vague target of ’10 to 15%’ of all trips by bike by 2020 (this is more ambitious than Boris’s uninspiring target of 5% by 2026) and, more importantly, a firm statement that he would reintroduce the road user hierarchy, about which more below.
And this brings us to Boris. It’s hard to know where to begin, but I think I will make two broad general points about his approach to cycling, and about what that means, in practice, for his policies.
The first is that he evidently still thinks cycling is not universal; that is not something for everyone. He made remarks to this effect on several occasions, the wording of which I cannot precisely recall; one that particularly stuck in my mind has a statement to the effect many people will still need to use their cars.
This is evidence of Boris’s compartmentalised thinking about cycling – that ‘cyclists’ are somehow distinct from ‘motorists’ when in fact they are, or should be, the same people. People will still need to use their cars, but the whole point of these debates should be about encouraging cycling for shorter trips that shouldn’t really involve car use at all (a principal example being the school run). I have to say Boris simply doesn’t get this. Motorists and cyclists, for him, stand in opposition, distinct groups battling it out for control of London’s roads.
On one of the several occasions that he badly misjudged the temparent and leanings of his audience – made up, let’s not forget, of several Times journalists, all of whom cycle – he said that cyclists want to ‘ban cars’. This comment was met with loud grumblings of dissension from the audience, and Boris quickly retracted the comment, saying ‘oh, well not these cyclists, evidently’ (or words to that effect), still implying that cyclists are generally people who stand in opposition to motor traffic in principle. In a similar vein he said that cyclists want to ‘pastoralise’ the streets of London, which is partly true (we’d like to see streets that are calmer and more pleasant for walking and cycling), but was clearly meant to imply that we are unrealistic dreamers akin to the Paris Commune.
Boris seems to think that people who want the streets made safer for cycling are green-leaning revolutionaries, or freaks, or weirdos, a sentiment apparent from his much-reported remarks, in which he distinguished himself, as a cyclist, from those stereotypical ‘dreadlocked’ ‘whippet-thin’ cyclists who race through red lights. Again, a total misjudgment of the make-up of his audience, and the make-up of the vast majority of cycling advocacy groups, and people who cycle in London more generally. Without wishing to stereotype, like Boris himself, what do you suppose are the political leanings of this smartly dressed gentleman I saw emerging onto the Mall, shortly after the hustings? Or the tourist on the Boris bikes in the background?
I strongly suspect they don’t give a toss about ‘banning cars’ or being green, or taking over the streets, any of the other positions Boris seems so willing to attribute to ‘cyclists’.
The fact is that cycling shouldn’t be a party political issue; it just makes sense as a transport mode regardless of your political persuasion. Unfortunately we are in a situation, at present, where it is only the Green party, and to a lesser extent the Lib Dems and Labour, who really understand what needs to be done. I’m not coming at this from a party political angle – if Boris were, for instance, to ensure that one of London’s new major junctions or developments was designed to the highest Go Dutch standards, I would be praising him from the rooftops.
But Boris doesn’t seem to think like I do – he thinks that giving cyclists some space of their own on London’s more dangerous and intimidating roads amounts to preferential treatment, cyclists being privileged at the expense of motorists (again, the oppositional thinking). This is the second of the points I wish to make, about Boris’s apparent unwillingness to change the status quo.
For me, the standout quote from him on this subject during the hustings was
We’ve got to move away from the idea that cyclists are somehow morally superior to other road users
To be clear, this wasn’t some comment about cyclists being ‘smug’ or ‘self-righteous’; it was specifically made in the context of Ken’s commitment to reintroduce the road user hierarchy. What Boris meant by this statement was that all road users should be ‘equal’ in the eyes of transport planning; he was explicitly reaffirming his belief that no particular type of journey should be privileged over any other. In doing so, he is sticking with Conservative Assembly policy, which, without going over old ground, has this to say -
Roads should be thoroughfares which enable all users, whether they are cyclists, motorists, pedestrians, bus passengers, van drivers, taxi passengers or motorcyclists to get from A to B as swiftly and as safely as possible. Neither the Mayor nor the Government should impose an artificial road user hierarchy as this inevitably has the effect of deliberately slowing down some users. Further to this, the Mayor should encourage cycling by emphasising that it is cheap, healthy and quick, not by worsening conditions for other road users.
The problem, if you can’t spot it for yourself, is the word ‘artificial’, and it is central to Boris’s (and more broadly the Conservatives’) complete failure to grasp what needs to be done for cycling.
This is because it assumes that there is, somehow, a ‘natural’ order to London’s roads, the antithesis of an ‘artificial’ order imposed on it from on high. That somehow Boris and Transport for London have stood back from the network, and just let it settle into its own spontaneous organisation and arrangement.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Our roads, and how they work, are the direct result of how our planners, and their elected masters, have decided how they should work.
The current order (‘equality’ if you will) on London’s roads only appears to be ‘natural’ because it’s been like that for so long, and we don’t know any different. People make transport choices based around what the network suggests to them, and how easy and convenient it to make journeys by different modes. This isn’t ‘natural’; it’s a direct consequence of how the network has been arranged, and how various modes have been privileged or promoted or facilitated.
Now it is my firm contention that there is barely a single major road in London that is not designed to facilitate motor vehicle journeys at the expense of vulnerable users. You can see this in Parliament Square, a few paces away from where yesterday’s hustings took place, where people on bikes have to battle their way through five lanes of fast flowing motor traffic.
Where pedestrians – most of them tourists taking a look at the sights (or trying to) are herded into tiny pens when they have to cross the road.
Doubtless Boris would tell you that any moves to address these rather horrible conditions for cycling and walking would amount to an attempt to impose an ‘artificial’ hierarchy on London’s roads, that goes against his principled commitment to ‘equality’, justifying such a position by saying that pedestrians and cyclists are not ‘morally superior’ to people making journeys by car.
Indeed this is precisely what Boris has done – blocking moves to civilise this square, into which millions of people pour every year to see the sights flanking it, and are met with this insulting street arrangement.
It is only by pretending that what is currently in Parliament Square is ‘natural,’ and that any attempt to change it is ‘artificial’, that this state of affairs can continue to be justified. It is a very thin argument indeed.
A cold, objective look at nearly any street in London will tell you the reality – if any one mode user is privileged, or treated as ‘morally superior’, it is the motorist.
Boris thinks this current state of affairs is ‘natural’, and consequently will do next to nothing to address it. That is why he is, and would be, an absolute disaster for cycling in London.