Inspired by Freewheeler’s recent experience of Transport for London cycling propaganda, I decided to take a closer look at one of their adverts, one featuring Edith Bowman.
This advert dates from last year, and is designed to promote the Cycle Hire scheme. Curiously, despite this intent, Ms Bowman – who I am not having a pop at, because she does appear to be someone who genuinely cycles around London on her own bike – does not use a hire bike in the video, apparently preferring her own steed. (And why not?)
The video starts with her cycling in the Inner Cycle of Regent’s Park.
Conveniently, the directors have managed to find a location where the parking bays are completely empty, allowing Ms Bowman to cycle in what – superficially – appears to be a cycle lane.
Streetview provides a more accurate picture.
Not quite as pleasant for cycling, as I’m sure you’ll agree, given the need to stay out of the door zone.
Her journey, she tells us, started in Primrose Hill, before continuing through Regent’s Park. I’m not quite sure why, therefore, she finds herself on the Inner Circle. It’s rather difficult to get to, given that cycling in Regent’s Park is banned – as you can see in this image of the entrance to the Park from Primrose Hill.
The sensible route would be to use the Outer Circle (going nowhere near the Inner Circle), but I suppose that wouldn’t have allowed the directors to include fluffy images of the zoo. Maybe Edith ignored the ‘No Cycling’ signs, which in a sane world she should be entitled to do, as long as she watches out for pedestrians.
What happens next? After Edith has bid goodbye to the giraffes, she tells us that you
hit that crazy bustle of Soho and central London.
And it certainly looks crazy – we see images of taxis, and large lorries and buses.
Evidently this ‘bustle’ is something that should self-evidently be rather entertaining to navigate, but Edith helpfully reinforces the message for those who might be inhibited, telling us that
it’s doable on your bike.
It certainly is ‘doable’, but whether the reality is captured in a glossy film like this, I am not quite so sure.
We next see Edith navigating Upper James Street in Soho.
How she got here from Regent’s Park is not revealed. The only sensible route – avoiding the hellish and confusing system of one-way streets to the north – would have been to progress down Portland Place, and Regent Street. But I suspect it would have been hard to capture Ms Bowman making serene progress along these roads, given they are afflicted by multiple lanes of heavy, fast traffic.
Upper James Street is, of course, a one-way street, like most of this area.
So it’s fortunate that Ms Bowman happened to be travelling in this direction. It’s also worth noting that Beak Street – from where she must have entered Upper James Street – and Golden Square, which she is entering, are also one-way streets – not very convenient for cyclists.
Our next location is Leicester Square.
We are looking back towards Piccadilly Circus, which Ms Bowman would surely have crossed to come here, but again that, unsurprisingly, was not shown in this video. Note again that Coventry Street – the street in the background – is another one-way street, with no exemptions for cyclists.
Having achieved whatever it was she wanted to, we find ourselves heading back north, this time on Wardour Street, past the Moving Picture Company.
Looks civilized, doesn’t it? Here’s what this one-way street actually looks like at this location, courtesy, again, of Streetview –
Not quite so civilized.
Our final stop-off is at Old Compton Street.
Here Edith is not the only cyclist – a gentleman is cycling in a care-free manner behind her. However, the directors appear to have carefully positioned their cameras to hide the “NO ENTRY” markings that lie just before the give way line in the foreground –
The cyclist is quite rightly ignoring a pointless restriction on his movement.
Not many other cyclists appear in the advert – although one gentleman does strangely manage to make an appear twice, at two different locations.
Either Edith has a stalker, or the director decided that actual cyclists were a bit thin on the ground, and instructed a member of the film crew to hop on a Boris Bike and tactfully appear in the background. I’ll let you decide which is more plausible.
Is the kind of deception embodied in this video is really justified? Or – more pragmatically – is it even sensible? I can understand the need to for Transport for London to present cycling in the best possible light, but I can’t really see how this kind of video is going to fool anyone who has the use of their eyes, and has experienced central London. Presenting Soho as some kind of cycling nirvana – albeit one that is euphemistically described as ‘bustling’ – is just going to fall flat for anyone who has already been there, either on foot, or by bus, or by taxi.
They’ll either think cycling is possible, or they won’t. These adverts will fail to persuade those who don’t already think it is possible, because it does not correspond with their reality. No one is going to jump on a bike just because Edith Bowman does so. The conditions need to change, not the presentation of those conditions.
I think Transport for London need to ask themselves whether a policy of lying about the friendliness of their streets for cycling is productive, let alone honest.
Much as I am in favour of marketing cycling as a means of practical transport, I can help feeling that in the case of London the money would have been better spent on improving the infrastructure instead…
Indeed bollocks. It’s odd and conflicting on so many levels to me (and most certainly for Londoners re: the ‘bustle’).
It seems to me TfL also doesn’t really like helmetless riders of Boris Bikes. Edith is (happily) not wearing one (which is part of the message), but aside from the planted ‘stalker’, the ‘spontaneous’ shot of the other BB user has a framing that cuts of the person’s head. It becomes suspect when you realize the woman merging into traffic from the left DOES have one. Then you immediately wonder whether they planted her as well. Virtually no one rides a BB with a helmet and the odds of filming two in one shot are suspicious at best.
Finally, you try to rethink it all & figure that #TfL mandates its employees to wear helmets on the job, for liability sake. Then you wrap it up with a big sigh.
I’ve just noticed that the Boris Bike user with the ‘cropped head’ is, on closer inspection, wearing a helmet – you can see the straps under his chin.
It hadn’t occurred to me, but as you say, it is indeed odd that all the Boris Bike riders in the video are employing helmets, given the low prevalence of helmets amongst Boris Bike users as a whole.
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