The comments made on BBC 94.9 by the Met’s Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, prompted a bit of controversy over the last few days. I’ve transcribed the exchange that provoked the debate.
Nestor [presenter]: Would you ride a bike in London?
Hogan-Howe: No, I don’t think I would. I’ve never been a big bike rider anyway. But it seems to me that if you get it wrong, or the driver gets it wrong, the person who is going to pay is the cyclist. It seems to me there’s a lot of traffic, and personally I wouldn’t.
N: Do you have a view on the people who do?
H-H: Well, I think they’re brave, but of course some people don’t have the choice, economically. It’s not easy. If you’ve got someone who can’t afford to take a car into a congestion zone – and if they did, they can’t park it anyway – some people have got limited money, and they can’t pay on public transport, so I understand why take the choice, but it wouldn’t be mine.
N: Is there something that you would do? If you had your way, is there something that you would do, that you are convinced would reduce the number of incidents?
H-H: It seems to me that the strategy that is being employed is a good one, which is to try to provide a separate area for the cyclists to be in. Eventually to try and provide a physical separation. But of course London is such a big place, where cyclists have arrived all at once, you can’t expect all that to be separated… [interrupted]
N: Yes, it’s almost as though it’s all happened too quickly, and everything is reactive, and we’re trying to catch up with the huge increase…
H-H: I’m not sure that’s fair. I think what we’ve seen is that petrol’s gone through the roof in terms of cost, we’re in a recession so people’s money has gone down, people have moved towards cycles, with the Boris scheme you’ve got more cycles available…
N: That’s where people are dying, Sir Bernhard. [appears to be confusing reference to Boris Bikes with Superhighways]
H-H: Well I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.
N: On the Bow Superhighway 2, in or round it, four people have died.
H-H: Right, but all I’m saying is that I can understand why there are more cyclists, and they’ve arrived very quickly in a recession. It’s a natural thing.
N: But it’s not great if the very thing that’s put in to protect and allow cyclists has seen four of them die.
H-H: Well, of course, that’s where most of the cyclists are, so that’s where we’re getting the highest numbers of cyclists. And I’m not sure that anybody’s proved the Highways have caused it. I think…
N: But your officers have said… your very officer has said it gives people a false sense of security.
H-H: But Eddie, you asked me ‘would I cycle’, and then you asked me ‘how do I feel about other people who cycle’, and I’m trying to answer that question. So all I’m saying is I do understand why people cycle. I understand as well why there are risks in cycling. That’s the question I’m trying to answer. And at the end of the day, people do what they like – it’s a free country, it’s a free society. I’m just saying I wouldn’t. But that’s my choice, and I can afford not to.
From the comment that appeared in newspaper articles yesterday, Hogan-Howe refers only to ‘some people’ who don’t have a great deal of choice, and who cycle as a result of economic circumstances. This is in the second response, quoted above.
But having listened to the whole interview (and from the whole passage above), it’s pretty clear that economics is the only reason Hogan-Howe seems to be able to give for people riding a bike, as people pointed out to me yesterday. Whether this is just because he was put on the spot, or because he hadn’t really thought things through, I don’t know, but it’s fairly clear that there are plenty of people in London who ride despite the fact they could afford to travel to work in different ways. Hogan-Howe has now clarified his comments, and conceded this point.
But it’s quite interesting to examine why Hogan-Howe might have made the assumption he did, and why he could only think of people cycling because, essentially, they had been forced into doing so.
I think the answer lies in his other comments. He doesn’t want to ride a bike in London because he doesn’t feel safe. He is worried about the consequences of inattention, and mistakes, which will have serious consequences for the person on the bike.
Now of course we can say that it is Hogan-Howe’s responsibility to make London’s roads safer, but there are many things beyond his control, particularly the layout of the roads. Even with much greater enforcement and stiffer penalties for driving, people will still make mistakes on London’s roads, and as they are currently configured, that will have serious detrimental consequences for the most vulnerable parties. On this particular point, Hogan-Howe is right, and I don’t think it makes sense to criticise him on it. He just doesn’t feel subjectively safe. Nor is it right to criticise him for choosing not cycle.
Hogan-Howe’s feelings about cycling on London’s roads probably go a long way towards explaining why he made the assumption about people cycling through economic necessity. Cycling in London does not look attractive to him; consequently it is easy for him to assume that people cycle because they are forced too. (This is not to deny that cycling in London can usually be pleasant for many people).
Indeed, this points at an explanation for the wider cultural assumption that cycling is ‘for poor people’. Most people in Britain are put off by the thought of cycling on roads full of busy traffic. It is something they wouldn’t dream of doing. So when they see someone on a bike, it is a quite natural assumption (if usually an incorrect one) on their part that the person cycling has somehow been forced into doing so; that there are negative factors pulling them into cycling, rather than positive factors attracting them to it. That they can’t afford a car, for instance, or because they can’t afford petrol.
Perhaps Hogan-Howe’s comments are most interesting for what they suggest about wider British attitudes to cycling as a mode of transport.