Plumbing the tabloid depths

In the wake of the Daily Mail publishing a series of photographs of cycleways with nobody using them at the moment the photograph was taken, and asserting that those cycleways are therefore ‘lunacy’ (apparently in the belief that doing so is any more meaningful than publishing a photograph of an empty road or footway and making conclusions about lunacy) the Guardian’s Dave Hill has evidently decided to join in the fun, publishing his own photograph of an empty cycle lane above an article that applies a thin veneer of earnest, chin-stroking consideration to precisely the same tabloid arguments.


Go on. Look at it. It’s empty.

This is at the same level of intellectual endeavour as publishing a photograph of an empty bus lane on the same road, before making questioning noises about how much bus lanes are being used, and whether the new mayor ought to consider using all that valuable road space for other modes of transport.


A quiet time of day for Super Busway 2 at Mile End.

Newsflash – a photograph of an empty bit of infrastructure is absolutely meaningless, and it remains meaningless if you attempt to garnish it – as Dave Hill does – with some anecdotes about how you hardly ever see anyone using that bit of infrastructure.

'You can stand on the bridge

‘It is possible to look down at the east-west super roadway from the footbridge by Embankment station and never have more than one four-wheeled traveller, if that, within view.’

You might wonder at this point why any journalist who takes himself seriously is so eager to recycle the arguments of the Daily Mail.

Of course what actually matters is numbers and efficiency, and unfortunately for Dave Hill, all the evidence is pointing in the opposite direction. In his article he is happy to quote Transport for London’s Director of Road Space Management, Alan Bristow, when he commented that the speed of implementation of the latest superhighways was ‘suboptimal’, during the latest London Assembly Transport Committee session on congestion. But if Hill had listened to the session from the start, he would have heard Bristow saying this

‘we are committed to sustainable transport, and walking and cycling are one of the key parts of the mix that any city must have, for moving people around. And it’s actually a very efficient way of moving people. We’re seeing a lot of activity on the cycle superhighways, and we’re getting about 3,000 people an hour in the peaks, moving along the Embankment. We’re moving five percent more people.’

Get that? Bristow is quite explicitly stating that, even at current usage levels, the superhighways have made roads like the Embankment more efficient than they were before at moving people. This is hardly surprising – 3,000 people per hour in the equivalent of a single motor vehicle lane far exceeds the ability of such a lane to carry people in private motor vehicles.


You simply will not be able to move this many people through a junction in one go in motor vehicles. This is why cycling infrastructure makes so much sense.

So when it comes to ‘the matter of how much they are being used’, as Hill phrases it – well, let’s put it like this. If you think cycling infrastructure is a bad idea because the numbers of users fall away, outside of peak times, you are effectively arguing that roads should be made less efficient at times when that efficiency is most needed. No amount of anecdotes about how few people cycling you see outside peak times will change that blunt reality.

None of this should be surprising given Hill’s eagerness to distribute a discredited statistic about how much road space has been reallocated to cycling in London. Nor should it be surprising that Hill’s article also covers, again, other familiar territory, claiming that the new Deputy Mayor for Transport Val Shawcross believes ‘cycling policy should not only be about servicing the existing (and rather narrow) commuter and otherwise committed cyclist demographic but properly recognising others’ interests too’ – interpreting this to mean a

pointer to a broad, consensual approach, seeking to harmonise and give equal weight to the needs of cyclists and pedestrians and to introducing new infrastructure with the greatest possible consent.

But unfortunately this is a misreading of what Shawcross actually said.

“I’m really keen the cycling work we do isn’t just about the commuter cyclists, it’s about the little short journeys, not necessarily for work. It might be mums, it might be the retired, so the local communities get the benefits of this.”

In other words, designing for cycling shouldn’t just be about commuting, it should be about designing for all other kinds of cycling trips – cycling trips by mothers, and by elderly people, for instance. When Shawcross refers to policy ‘not just being about commuter cyclists’ she is explicitly talking about making cycling itself more inclusive, and not about watering down cycling policy to create ‘equal weight with pedestrians’, a spin Hill has added himself. (Note – ‘equal weight’ with pedestrians would actually mean cycling infrastructure on every main road, lowering the level of danger people cycling have to safe to an equivalent level to those who choose to walk).

Hill has evidently leapt on the ‘commuting cyclist’ term without pausing to look at what Shawcross actually said, which is unsuprising given his evident obsession with a desire to paint cycling in London as dominated by white middle class, middle-aged men, speeding to work, a conclusion not borne out by actual statistics.

The problem for Hill is that the very best way to enable cycling beyond the allegedly narrow demographic he repeatedly refers to – to enable cycling by women, by kids, by the elderly – is to build precisely the kind of infrastructure his own articles keep denigrating. This is the conclusion of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine report he keeps tediously linking to –

In cities where cycling uptake is low, the challenge for healthy public policy is perhaps to de-couple cycling from the rather narrow range of healthy associations it currently has, and provide an infrastructure in which anyone can cycle, rather than just those whose social identities are commensurate with being ‘a cyclist’.

Building cycleways is the very best way of achieving inclusivity. Not building them limits cycling to the people who are only prepared to cycle in hostile conditions on the road network.

Young asian kids cycling from the centre of London to Tower Hamlets on new cycling infrastructure

Young asian kids cycling from the centre of London to Tower Hamlets on new cycling infrastructure

You might argue Hill’s position on cycling infrastructure is disingenuous. I couldn’t possibly comment.

This entry was posted in Infrastructure, Journalism, London. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Plumbing the tabloid depths

  1. paul says:

    Great article Although one of the cyclists whose been willing for years to mix with motorised traffic I appreciate the superhighways and allocation of collision free space They seem to be getting used more every week in London and I passed over 80 bikes on a few miles the Embankment route at mid morning last Thurs. Last night at 5.30pm it was very busy People will take time to get used to reallocation of road space but they will. It’s great to see more people willing to cycle as a result of safer routes. London needs this lift in air quality, health of the population and livability.

  2. Andy Clarrke says:

    I’ve being using CS2 for nearly a year now. Despite the removal of the cycle lane to form a fat bus lane by Whitechapel market, it is, quite simply, superb! Even the Mrs has started to cycle! More please.

  3. Bmblbzzz says:

    In terms of broadening the bike-using demographic to include children and teens, the reaction to Bike Stormz is illustrative:
    Example vid from Bike Stormz website:
    Bike Stormz on

    The truth is, this attitude of “young people having fun are bringing the world to an end” is by no means limited to bikes, it’s a very sad general attitude in our society to those under ~40.

  4. Bmblbzzz says:

    On the topic of encouraging more children and young people to ride bikes, check out the media response to these kids having fun on bikes:

    • Bmblbzzz says:

      Sorry about the double post: the first one didn’t appear for some reason, so I made another post and now they’re both up.

  5. John L Thornton says:

    A good piece. My only criticism is that you use the term “choose to walk” for pedestrians. Many pedestrians don’t have a “choice”. They are prevented, due to physical, sensory or psychological impairment, from cycling.

    Also, as people age, they don’t become one homogeneous group. Hence, Age UK and other older people’s organisations state that it is preferable to use the term ” older people ” rather than “the elderly”.

    • “Many pedestrians don’t have a “choice”. They are prevented, due to physical, sensory or psychological impairment, from cycling.”

      Same could be said for some people who can cycle but not walk.

      • HivemindX says:

        Some people are also prevented from driving by disability. It’s an interesting point. I read a letter in a newspaper a while ago that was replying to an article that I had not read. The article appears to have been about someone who had been told by the police that they should no longer drive, the letter was saying that the police had no right to do that, told the story of their difficulty passing the regular eyesight test as an elderly person and finished by concluding that the right to drive was an essential for modern life.

        At the time I wondered what the letter writer thought happened to the people who couldn’t pass their eyesight exam? Did they just curl up at home and die of neglect? Perhaps they could get down to the shops or to social events on their bikes but that option is limited both by lack of infrastructure and by the attitude of a lot of motorists. Cyclists are labelled as MAMILs. Bogus statistics are trotted out to create the impression that cyclists are an elite (and we hate elites right?). All designed to enable the attitude that it is ok to abuse and exclude them. Of course there are older people who cycle because they can’t drive any more. Of course there are busy mothers who bring their kids to school on a bike because they need to get to work and they can’t waste 45 minutes driving 2 miles through the crowd of other busy parents bringing their kids to school in SUVs. Of course there are 18 year olds whose parents can’t buy them a car who cycle to college. You would think that the public would support these people, but no we get sneering about MAMILs from the likes of Jeremy Clarkson.

  6. And don’t forget, that’s only a few kilometres of a few routes on such a tiny minority of routes in London, most of the back streets aren’t even well calmed yet. Yet they attract so many people. Imagine how many cyclists there could be if every distributor road in London had cycle tracks and the access roads had speed and volume calming, let alone unraveled routes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s