One would think that serious, high-minded journalists and broadcasters, with national audiences, would never willingly display ignorance, prejudice and stupidity on any topic they choose to investigate. Yet on the subject of cycling, a basic expectation that the subject is understood and presented in a rational, impartial and fair-minded way by journalists of this calibre is, it seems, too much to hope for.
To take just three recent examples.
Nick Ferrari is an award-winning journalist, the kind serious enough to interview prime ministers on his show, on a national radio station. Yet on the subject of cycling, all that seriousness and high-minded scrutiny disappears out the window. One particular line of the questioning he put to Labour’s London Mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, was embarrassingly woeful.
He was pressing Khan on whether he would ‘mandate cyclists to use the cycle lanes that have been provided.’ Khan attempted to duck the question, pointing out that this was more reasonably a matter for national legislation, but Ferrari was having none of it, belligerently repeating the question, before producing what he obviously felt was his unanswerable argument –
Would you mandate [cyclists to use lanes]? Because at the moment – and I’ve asked the Mayor about this, and I’ve asked Zac Goldsmith about this – you could have the ludicrous situation that £160m has been spent, and the one lane that buses and coaches and trucks and taxis are allowed to use, will have a little old lady on a bicycle in the middle and we’ll all be behind her. Unless she’s mandated to use that cycle lane.
This is a bit like asking whether the use of pavements should be made compulsory, because otherwise a little old lady will walk in ‘the one lane’ that trucks and coaches can use, and we’ll all be stuck behind her. Unless, of course, little old ladies are mandated to walk on footways.
That question would never be asked, of course – because it’s utterly brainless. Nobody is going to choose to walk in front of lorries when there’s a footway. And precisely the same is true for cycling – why would any ‘little old lady’ choose to cycle in front of coaches and HGVs when there’s a cycleway?Ferrari’s question reveals total stupidity on the matter of cycling infrastructure and behaviour – never stopping to consider why a ‘little old lady’ (or indeed anyone else) might choose to cycle in a horrible environment if the alternative was reasonable. What’s his explanation? Does he think people who use bicycles are masochists?
This is the view from behind the windscreen – small-minded, betraying a total lack of understanding and empathy, proudly on display on national radio.
Bridget Kendall is another award-winning journalist. Last week she hosted a programme on the BBC world service, devoted to the subject of the bicycle and the role it has played (and is playing) in human freedom – in female emancipation, as mobility in poorer parts of the world, and as ideal city transport, everywhere. A high-minded programme, but again, like Ferrari, Kendall didn’t appear to have done a great deal of research, and allowed her prejudices to interrupt serious consideration of policy.
For a start, Kendall didn’t seem able to grasp how space for cycling could be allocated at ground level.
Kendall: There’s always a problem with making a city more bicycle-friendly – how do you actually find the space for cyclists, to keep them safe, and give them room to operate, so that they don’t get in the way of the non-pedallers, which are either the car drivers, or else the pedestrians?
Posed this question, Dr Sheila Hanlon responded –
Hanlon: I do quite like the idea of some of the Cycling Superhighways, and having separated spaces for cyclists, to insulate them from traffic.
Kendall: So you’d have different levels. Cyclists way up high, and the cars down below. Or vice versa.
Given that this was a programme specifically about cycling as ‘ideal city transport’, this was a dreadful response, demonstrating a total failure to engage with the actual ways in which cycling has been, and is being, separated from motor traffic in urban areas around the world. This includes high-profile infrastructure being built right now in London, where the programme was being recorded, and broadcast.
But it got worse. Presumably in an attempt to educate Kendall about current practice (not putting ‘cyclists way up high’), Hanlon went on to describe how junctions are now using separate traffic signalling for cycling, to keep people cycling separate from motor traffic. But rather than engaging seriously with design issues, at the mention of the words ‘traffic lights’ Kendall couldn’t help herself, actually talking over Hanlon to vent some tired prejudice.
Kendall: Well that would be great if the bicyclists would actually look at the traffic lights. Very often they just cycle straight through them. So that’s all about more maybe cycling training.
What relevance does this have for designing cycle safety into our cities? Would we interrupt someone describing how to make cities more pedestrian-friendly with nonsense about how ‘pedestrians don’t actually look at traffic lights’ and how ‘they’ (and it’s always ‘they’ when it comes to cycling, not ‘us’, or ‘we’) just walk straight out into the road?
Finally, another award-winning journalist, the Times’ Janice Turner. As with Ferrari and Kendall, cycling is evidently a topic where impartial and considered opinion can be discarded, replaced instead by tired cliches and stereotypes.
In London, cycling has ceased to be a mode of transport and become a religion. “Cyclist” — rather like “feminist” to some — is now a political identity whose absolute righteousness excuses every deed.
To the zealots, no car journey is justifiable and drivers must be erased from streets. And so, in my ’hood, the council has shut a triangle of residential roads to cars. No warning, no diversion signs, just concrete blocks in the road: deliveries, ambulances, police, tradespeople, funnelled on to choked main roads.
Businesses within the triangle are stranded; homeowners feel “kettled”. Huge, furious public meetings have been been held. And in frustration residents have moved aside some barriers — only to have cyclists re-block the streets with paint-cans and rubbish bags.
Why must every debate now be so angry and polarised? Many of us are, at various times, cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. Why can we not, with safety adaptations and mutual respect, share the streets? My correspondent may be interested in a Transport for London report that a cyclist is “typically white, under 40, male, with medium to high household income”. Boris with his super-highways is spending £1 billion on these guys.
This is clearly little more than a whinge motivated by the Loughborough Junction scheme, a scheme Turner has plainly failed to bother attempting to understand.
Motor vehicles haven’t been ‘erased’ from the streets, nor have businesses or homeowners ‘kettled’ or ‘stranded’. All the roads and streets in the trial area are still accessible for drivers; the purpose of the scheme is to divert through motor traffic onto Coldharbour Lane, and away from Loughborough Road. Loughborough Road remains accessible for residents and businesses; you just can’t drive all the way along it. The intention is to the ‘residential roads’ (the clue is even there in the word Turner uses) safer for residents, and for ordinary people to cycle on.
This ignorance about the scheme is served up with tedious dog-whistle drivel about cycling being a ‘religion’ [it really isn’t – it’s just a mode of transport] ‘a political identity whose absolute righteousness excuses every deed’ [Good grief, no – think for a second about what you are writing] and then concluded with a (deliberately?) divisive and mistaken interpretation of the purpose of the Transport for London’s investment in cycling –
My correspondent may be interested in a Transport for London report that a cyclist is “typically white, under 40, male, with medium to high household income”. Boris with his super-highways is spending £1 billion on these guys.
A quick glance at the actual motivation for Boris’ decision to invest in cycling reveals this to be utterly mistaken. The Mayor himself states in the document which announced this investment –
I want cycling to be normal, a part of everyday life. I want it to be something you feel comfortable doing in your ordinary clothes, something you hardly think about. I want more women cycling, more older people cycling, more black and minority ethnic Londoners cycling, more cyclists of all social backgrounds – without which truly mass participation can never come.
As well as the admirable Lycra-wearers, and the enviable east Londoners on their fixed-gear bikes, I want more of the kind of cyclists you see in Holland, going at a leisurely pace on often clunky steeds. I will do all this by creating a variety of routes for the variety of cyclists I seek.
In other words, rather than spending £1bn on rich white men, the purpose of the investment is to enable anyone to cycle; to make this simple mode of transport attractive and easy for all Londoners.
The Loughborough Junction scheme falls into this template; by calming the ‘residential roads’ Turner refers to, the intention is at least partly to make these roads a viable proposition for children and elderly people to cycle on, broadening the appeal of cycling beyond the rich white men Turner refers too.
But of course this same column loudly trumpets her opposition to this scheme. Who needs consistency, let alone fair-minded, objective and rational scrutiny, when it comes to discussing cycling? Not journalists, it seems.