Between the end of September and the end of November this year, Horsham briefly had a pop-up cycle lane, created in the space of less than a day by the addition of some bolt-down plastic wands and painted markings, converting one lane of our four/five lane wide inner ring road into a cycle lane.
The reaction to this scheme (and the others across the major towns and cities of West Sussex) was predictably vitriolic and the County Council, whose commitment to active travel is as shallow as a film of diesel on a puddle, rapidly announced they were removing every single one of them – spitefully, even the one that didn’t reduce capacity for motoring.
The opposition to this lane from people driving in the town centre – whose journeys were now sometimes taking longer than before – involved a great deal of what can only be described as selective concern. ‘Concern’ for the safety of people cycling at junctions like the one pictured in the photograph above – concern for safe cycling that has evaporated now that the scheme has been removed. ‘Concern’ that the cycle lane was ‘causing’ pollution (spoiler alert – none of the pop-up cycle lane schemes in West Sussex actually made any difference to air quality) – a concern that manifested itself only in a demand the road should revert to being entirely dominated by private motor vehicles in order to ‘solve’ the problem, and not in anything as meaningful as actually reducing the amount of driving, or stopping altogether. As with the ‘concern’ for the safety of people cycling, don’t bank on these same people raising the issue of air pollution any time soon, unless another opportunity arises for them to shamelessly use it as an argument for prioritising their driving at the expense of modes of transport that don’t pollute.
But the most obviously superficial ‘concern’ was for the emergency services, who were apparently going to get stuck in the congestion ’caused’ by the cycle lane. In turn this would lead, inevitably, to houses burning down, criminals escaping, and people dying in the back of ambulances unable to get to hospital in time.
This was all complete nonsense, of course, because the new arrangement was an obvious and objective improvement for the emergency services. It replaced two potentially clogged lanes of motor traffic (with no way through for an emergency vehicle) with a coned-off open lane that people cycling could easily move out of, if required. Far from being a potential disaster, the new lane provided an easy route for the emergency services to zoom past any stationary motor traffic, getting their patients to hospital, or to the scene of a crime or a fire, far faster than they would do without it.
Shamefully, these bogus ‘concerns’ were reported as apparent fact, without any kind of correction or clarification, in an editorial by the local newspaper celebrating the decision to remove the lane –
“the traffic piled up in the halved capacity for motorists – leading to jams, congestion, pollution and a fear that emergency vehicles would be unable to make headway in a hurry”
Quite why a newspaper which claims to be reputable and trustworthy chose to regurgitate this easily-disprovable silliness about delay to the emergency services even after the decision to remove the lane had already been taken is, frankly, a mystery – not least because the benefits to the emergency services of this lane being in place had already been pointed out to their reporters, several times. (And the newspaper’s offices are actually located on this road – the building next to the giant multi storey car park in the video below – so it wouldn’t have been at all difficult for them to conduct some on-the-ground research).
Needless to say, a few days after this was printed, the pop-up lane was gone, and with the November lockdown ending, the road is once again stacked with two parallel queues of motor vehicles at every traffic light – two queues that will be very difficult for the emergency services to negotiate.
Naturally, you might expect that those people who were genuinely concerned about delay to the emergency services would be even more concerned now, given that the lane that allowed the emergency services to bypass queues has gone, replaced, all too frequently, with static motor vehicles. But just as the road has reverted to being entirely dominated by cars, so we seem to have reverted to not caring at all about delays to the emergency services, or indeed to not caring about air quality, or about the safety of the children attempting to cycle around a town that remains unremittingly hostile to their mode of transport – children who, for the first time ever, I saw choosing to cycle on this road.
The case of the equally short-lived pop-up lane on Kensington High Street presents remarkable parallels. Notably, the space occupied by the pop-up lane, now removed amid claims that it apparently ’caused’ congestion, despite carrying thousands of people a day, has been replaced by intermittently parked-up motor vehicles.
Just as with the ‘concerns’ in Horsham, the ‘concern’ about congestion, so urgent that the council had to act immediately in the face of alleged local uproar, is now entirely absent when it comes to the equivalent loss of road space represented by these static vehicles. Because cars parked up at the side of the road, taking up valuable road capacity, never ever feature as a cause of congestion.
In all these instances, and doubtless in dozens of others up and down the country, it should be quite clear that the ‘concerns’ were never actually about air quality, or about safety, or about delay to the emergency services, or about the loss of road space – they were at root nothing more than a convenient fig leaf to disguise altogether more selfish demands.