This post is about London TravelWatch, but it could really be about transport in Britain more generally, and about how ‘transport users’ are conceptualised – in particular, those who use bicycles, or might want to use them.
London TravelWatch describe themselves as follows –
London TravelWatch is the official watchdog organisation representing the interests of transport users in and around the capital. Officially known as London Transport Users Committee, we were established in July 2000.
They also state
Funded by the London Assembly, we speak for all London transport users on all modes of transport.
But what does this actually amount to? Who are the ‘transport users’, using all modes, that they claim to represent?
As we’ll see, the interests of ‘transport users’ in London are not particularly well represented by London Travelwatch if the mode of transport they happen to be using is a bike. They’re even less well represented if these transport users might want to use a bike, but are discouraged from doing so because of hostile conditions for cycling.
Children getting to school are ‘transport users’. If they are using the bus, their interests are well represented by London Travelwatch. If, however, these same children are attempting to get to school by bike, their interests are essentially ignored.
To take one example, London Travelwatch responded to Camden’s consultation on their West End Project, last year. This is a major scheme, costing tens of millions of pounds, and involves major changes to the roads in the Tottenham Court Road area. There was a significant opportunity to improve conditions for cycling in the area. Yet from the summary of responses collected by Camden Council, London Travelwatch essentially had nothing to say about the comfort, convenience and attractiveness of cycling in the scheme. Indeed, their only mention of cycling appears to be
Concerns about the use of light segregation and the potential for this to be a hazard to pedestrians crossing the street.
Namely, concern that the only (inadequate) separation from motor traffic initially proposed by Camden could be a hazard to pedestrians. London Travelwatch had nothing to say about the safety or comfort of cycling on either of the main roads in the scheme, particularly cycling mixed with motor traffic on Tottenham Court Road, which will be a busy two-way road open to all motor traffic after 7pm, and all day on Sunday.
Similarly, in their response to Transport for London’s proposals for Superhighway 5, between Oval and Victoria, which involves (for the most part) a bi-directional cycle track physically separated from motor traffic, London Travelwatch opposed these proposals, arguing instead for cycling to be accommodated within ‘4.5 metre wide bus lanes to facilitate buses overtaking cyclists’.
This is in accordance with London Travelwatch’s latest policy update on cycling, from September last year, which states that
The best practicable solution for cycles on many of London‟s roads would be to accommodate them in wide bus lanes (4.5m) or wide (4.5m) inside lanes in order that cycle can pass wide vehicles and wide vehicles can pass cycle
So a group which professes to represent the interests of ‘transport users’ suggests that the best way to accommodate cycling is… mixed in with motor traffic on main roads, in lanes that will often be busy with taxis and large, intimidating vehicles.
Some ‘interests’ may be being represented here, but it’s doubtful that it includes those of people who might want to cycle for short trips in London, but are put off doing so because they are reluctant to share space with large, fast-moving vehicles, like buses.
This failure of representation flows, I think, from a failure to reflect on whether existing patterns of transport use in Britain are natural. By ‘natural’ I mean that those patterns arise out of a genuinely free choice between modes of transport. It is more than likely that bus use (and indeed driving and walking) is much more popular than cycling in London (and other towns and cities across Britain) because cycling is quite a scary and intimidating mode of transport for most ordinary people. Many ‘transport users’ who might opt for the bicycle if it were a safe and attractive choice are consequently not doing so, even if that mode of transport would make a great deal of sense for them, not least in terms of time and money saved. Their interests are not being represented because of a lazy assumption that the interests of ‘cyclists’ correspond to the behaviour and habits of the minority of existing users.
The interests of the young girl in the picture above – a genuine ‘transport user’ like anyone else – are being represented by the road layout she is riding a bike on. She can navigate otherwise hostile road environments, like the large junction shown in the picture, because that environment has been designed with her interests in mind when she is riding a bike, just as the footways here are designed for young girls to walk on, or buses that pass through this junction are designed for young girls to use. She is separated – either physically or temporally – from heavy motor traffic as she cycles along this road.
By contrast it is extremely unlikely that her interests would be represented by shared bus lanes, even if they are slightly wider than normal.
We know this because young children are not seen riding bikes in these kinds of environments. They, and their parents, haven’t made a free choice between cycling in this kind of environment and walking, driving, or getting the bus through it. Instead, riding a bike in this kind of environment with young children is genuinely unthinkable to most people, just as it would be to walk with young children along a busy road that doesn’t have a pavement.
Indeed, more broadly, framing the debate in terms of specific ‘transport users’ is an unhelpful way of defending interests, because people are, essentially, multi-modal. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to present the interests of ‘bus users’ in opposition to ‘cyclists’ (as London Travelwatch appear to do) because with a sensibly designed transport network everybody would be a potential bus user or bike user, every single day. Indeed, this is typical in the Netherlands, where cycling and getting the bus are extremely well integrated.
Dutch people use bikes to cycle to bus stops, and then catch the bus for the longer stages of their journeys that would be less convenient to cycle.
Nobody is born a ‘bus user’ or a ‘pedestrian’ or a ‘cyclist’ – they are all human beings who happen to be choosing a particular mode of transport at a particular time. On that basis a proper defence of ‘transport users’ interests’ should examine whether people have a genuine choice between the modes of transport that would make sense for them, for the trips they make on a daily basis. To take just one example, if it turns out that cycling (for instance) would make a great deal of sense for children to make their way to school, and yet few children do actually cycle for these trips, then quite plainly the interests of these transport users are not being represented, even if they are not ‘cyclists’ at the present time.
To ignore this and other ways in which choice of transport mode is constrained when examining the kinds of improvements that could be made to our transport environment would be a fundamental failure.