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