Monday, 23 May 2011

Cycle campaigning moving up a gear – flashmob and the Cycling Embassy

It has been an interesting couple of days in cycle campaigning for me, having attended two unique events.

The first, on Friday, was the "Flashmob" protest at Blackfriars Bridge. Accounts of this event have been published on ibikelondon, Dave Hill's Guardian blog, and Cycalogical.

In what may be a significant change of tactics, London Cycling Campaign organised this quick-response protest against the intransigence of Transport for London's highway engineers, who seem determined, under Boris Johnson's direction, to make life worse for everybody who walks and cycles in London. The issue has come to a head in repeated attempts to re-design Blackfriars Bridge and the junctions at either end of it. A temporary scheme, corresponding to the redevelopment of Blackfriars Station, has been in place recently, with a 20mph limit on the bridge. Cyclists have now become the majority of the traffic on the bridge in peak hours. TfL's proposed redesign takes the speed limit back up to 30mph, gives cyclists paltry 1.5m painted cycle lanes, and makes the right turn towards the City at the north end very difficult, amongst numerous other backward steps for non-motorised road-users. The issue has been treated extensively here.

The London Cycling Campaign has previously adopted an extremely conciliatory, kitten-like attitude to the Johnson administration, which has been systematically making London's roads worse places to walk of cycle, with its policy of "smoothing the flow" (of motor vehicles) and generally bowing to the motoring lobby. This is despite Johnson being a cyclist, and introducing the Hire Bikes (which were an idea of the previous mayor). Johnson's flagship cycling policies, the inaptly-named Cycle Superhighways and the Biking Boroughs, are both scandalous, confused and mis-conceived wastes of public money.

A young participant on the flashmob ride: emphasising the demand for London's streets to be made safe places for all to cycle
Pushed, I rather suspect, buy the harder attitude of some of the cycling bloggers mentioned here, LCC on this occasion, for the first time, exploited both its own channels and social networking ones to mobilise cyclists for a one-off street protest. Cyclists took up a whole carriageway and cycled at snail's pace across the bridge and back before a brief demo at TfL's HQ Palestra House on the south side. The event was not unlike the long-standing Critical Mass rides that occur once per month in London and similarly obstruct normal traffic flow, but this was an obstruction with a more specific purpose.

In my opinion, LCC, despite being quite clear about what it does not want in places like Blackfriars, is still a bit ambiguous about what it does want on busy roads like this, and this is not helping its campaigning. I don't think the focus on the 20mph limit ("Keep it twenty" was a chant head at the flashmob) is the right one. Even with low speeds, large volumes of aggressive motor traffic tend to push cyclists out unless they have protected space. I don't understand why the first chap interviewed in the video on Dave Hill's Guardian blog (who is not a spokesman for LCC, but an independent blogger) pointedly avoids endorsing the interviewer's suggestion of "segregated lanes for cyclists", preferring the vague formulation "space for cyclists". Space for cyclists needs physically protecting if it is to have the level of subjective safety necessary to attract more of the type of traffic shown in my photo, whether the limit is 20 or 30. Generous segregated cycle lanes (more correctly termed "cycle tracks") are exactly what this bridge would have in any city in The Netherlands or Denmark, and in many other cycle-friendly cities in Europe.

Continuing this theme, on Saturday I attended the second meeting (and the first outside London) of the newly-formed Cycling Embassy of Great Britain (CEoGB). This curiously-named embryo association of like-minded people is the start of something I have long believed we needed in the UK: a national campaign for high-quality, effective cycle infrastructure.

Now we do have many national organisations that advocate for cycling already in the UK, such as the CTC, Sustrans, British Cycling, and the Cycle Campaign Network, also known as Cyclenation, as well as LCC, which, despite being "local", is large enough to have a national influence, so why the need for another one? Basically, because none of these have ever campaigned consistently for what we really need to achieve high cycling levels in the UK: high-quality cycle infrastructure. That cycling will never move beyond its current totally marginal position in the UK transport landscape without serious engineering measures to facilitate it, separating it from the fast and heavy motor traffic that intimidates most potential cyclists off the roads, is utterly obvious to me, but seemingly not to most who have made policy in these organisations in the past. A new organisation is necessary because these organisations have failed to perform this vital function over a long period (more than 120 years in the case of the CTC), and they probably will not start to do so without some external pressure. In trying to represented the interests of their members, who are, broadly, touring cyclists in the CTC, sports cyclists in British Cycling, and commuters in the LCC, these organisations have lamentably failed to capitalise on the potential for utility cycling to be made mainstream in the UK with the right conditions.

The CEoGB is to be a group:

free from the burden of history, legacy and ties, created to work in partnership with fellow organisations and charities in Great Britain, mainland Europe and around the world trading ideas and experiences in how to promote cycling and make cycling infrastructure work in urban and rural contexts

Its purpose is to research internationally-proven, effective cycling solutions and lobby for them to be introduced in the UK. It has to be a campaign at a national level, because efforts to improve cycling conditions at a local level in Britain are so often stymied by inappropriate national traffic standards, laws and regulations that are ill-adapted to creating an attractive cycling environment. The CEoGB's focus will be, distinctively, on high-quality infrastructure as the key to achieving increases in cycling, not on training, regulation, and behaviour-change, the areas that have been favoured by previous cycle campaigns. The failure of these campaigns is sufficiently indicated by the modal share that cycling has in all journeys made in the UK today: about 1%, compared to 30–40% for the highest cycling countries.

The CEoGB started as ideas on the web, and in blogs. These ideas are not new. Many of them were propounded in Camden Cycling Campaign (CCC) when I was involved with it in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The CCC at that time successfully campaigned for some of the best cycle infrastructure ever introduced in London, but political will ran out and, stymied by the local administrative disconnects in London, it was not extended far enough to make a great difference. The CEoGB has now come off the web and is a real pressure group, a determined group of intelligent and informed people. It seeks not to supplant any existing cycle campaigns or organisations, but to add something new and essential to the cycling landscape. I think it represents an idea whose time has come.

"Ambassadors" from the CEoGB gather at Manchester Piccadilly on Saturday before exploring the local cycle facilities

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