|Ride gathers at New Southgate Station, in a car-park graced by a strange, out-of-place Victorian ironwork relic|
(picture by Shaun McDonald)
|In the Hendon area: not the Tweed Run (picture by Shaun McDonald)|
|Staples Corner East roundabout (picture by Shaun McDonald)|
|"Taking the lane" on the A5 flyover at Staples Corner West (picture by Shaun McDonald)|
|A game young rider. Shouldn't he be able to get about this area on his bike without all these people to protect him? (picture by Shaun McDonald)|
|Not a bad spot for a picnic: Staples Corner East|
|Gathering on the hill for the final photocall|
Video of the ride compressed into 7 minutes, by Shaun McDonald
There are many Great Divides. There are physical Great Divides like the North Circular Road, that isolate communities. Then there are attitudinal Great Divides, such as those between cyclists and non-cyclists, in how they perceive the road environment. And there are Great Divides between cultures, between how different societies approach similar problems and come up with radically differing solutions.
The Great Divide Ride pre-publicity attracted the attention of Dutch cycle blogger Mark Wagenbuur, inspiring him to put up a post Huge roads do not have to be huge barriers, contrasting the junctions on the North Circular with a comparable trunk-road/motorway junction, Goyplein in Utrecht, built about the same time (1971). Ample, comprehensive and direct cycle path provision, fully separated from the roads, was part of the original Dutch design even then, and this was before the Dutch became really keen on cycle infrastructure, in the 80s and 90s.
At this time, the thinking of the UK government seems to have been that cycling was an old mode of transport that would disappear over time naturally, and that it should not be facilitated, as to do so would create a dangerous mix of slow cyclists and fast motor vehicles on the roads. So nothing was constructed for cyclists when the North Circular junctions were built, and, despite a change of rhetoric since then, there is nothing now: save for a few pathetic "shared use" pedestrian facility conversions – conversions of facilities that are inadequate even for pedestrians on their own, as Charlie Holland has pointed out.
Mark Wagenbuur wrote:
I recently came across a video of a crossing of London’s North Circular Road. The way cyclists have to maneuver through traffic, some of which heavy goods transportation, is shocking to anyone I believe. But if you are familiar with the situation on Dutch roads even more so.So a Dutchman thinks that the conditions cyclists have to endure to make what should be simple journeys in the North London suburbs are "shocking to anyone". Here is a cultural Great Divide. For they are clearly not shocking to most British people. If they were really shocking to them, they would be changed. When British society became shocked at the exploitation of child labour under terrible conditions in the 19th century, things were changed. Why is it not shocking to most British people that children, like the boy pictured above, cannot (normally) cycle between adjacent suburbs of North London without having to cycle through junctions that have 40 mph design speeds, and actual speeds often in excess of this, full of motor vehicles including heavy lorries, where their risk of getting killed will be very great indeed? This shocks me, it is a scandal to me, as it is to Mark, but not to most British people. Why?
|The violence of motor vehicles evident on the infrastructure on the Great Divide Ride. Pedestrians clearly need these barriers, but cyclists are given none. Cyclists are trapped on the wrong side of the barriers, given training and helmets and told to "keep their wits about them". (Picture by Shaun McDonald)|
|Physical barriers are used to separate one lane of motorists from another, because of safety, but the same consideration is not applied to cyclists. (Picture by Shaun McDonald)|
Dissatisfied cyclists may lobby by writing to their representatives, or writing to newspapers, but they discover, maybe over years and decades, that this results in little change, and it becomes dispiriting to keep on at such an apparently lost cause. They may join and support the activities of cycling organisations, but they find that even such organised lobbying has little effect on government, when it is on behalf of a widely-despised 1% of the population. They may also find that such lobbying efforts are often partially undermined by differences of opinion on appropriate solutions between different cyclists and groups. This is because the mental effects of the brutal road conditions are pernicious: they create their own mindset, where cyclists have to become hardened, to adapt, to survive – they have to transform into that mythical beast, the "vehicular cyclist", and in some cases they start to imagine that this is what cycling, fundamentally, is all about, this adaptation and hardening process – that is is a thing any cyclist must go through, and that, fundamentally, protection from motor traffic is not what cyclists need. This is another coping strategy. It is the one adopted by our cycling mayor, Boris "keep your wits about you" Johnson. So many people who start by wanting to "change the world", in cycling terms, end up by concluding either it is unchangeable, or does not need changing.
Then we have the 99% of the population that does not cycle. If they think about the problem at all, they mostly think, I suspect, that there is some "other way round". Many think, incorrectly, that cycling is legal on pavements. Others think, incorrectly, that it is legal to cycle in parks (it is not in any Brent parks or in most Barnet ones). Others may think that there is a "cycling network" that works, but they don't know about it because they have never looked for it. They may think that cycling on minor roads for the whole length of a typical cycling journey is practical, and that cyclists don't need to be on the major roads and junctions at all. They may have seen the bits of cycle lane around the place, and, because they haven't actually cycled, not discovered that the routes are not practical, they don't go where people need to get to, and that they are massively discontinuous and flawed.
Often some people in power, and some people in power who sometimes cycle, have similar ideas. A week after the Great Divide Ride I was at a Barnet Cyclists meeting at which the MP for Chipping Barnet, Theresa Villiers, spoke. She is a Minister of State for Transport, and she regularly cycles, or did until a recent accident in which she broke her collar bone (I wish her a speedy recovery). In discussion on the Great Divide Ride and the North Circular junctions, particularly Henly's Corner, though she expressed some sympathy with the points raised, and admitted that we need big improvements to London's cycling infrastructure, and that we could usefully learn lessons from other places (the Netherlands, obviously), she seemed to think that:
1) Shared facilities, as in the new staggered sheep-pen crossings for pedestrians and cyclists at Henly's Corner, are a sensible solution for many cyclists, and,
2) That cyclists don't need to use the A41 or the A5 to get to central London from Barnet, that there are other ways.
Well, there are other ways, in the sense that it is always possible to go round three sides of a huge square five miles across rather than take the direct route, and go up and down at least 100 metres of unnecessary elevation, but is that a way to ever get people cycling to work? No, I think not. I think people will take the bus or train or car instead. This ignorance of the physical infrastructure characteristics of "her patch"of London, from the point of view of a cyclist, was what I found most disappointing in Teresa Villiers' responses. An important point is that North London is hilly, and the straight, direct routes, the A5 and A41, are the flattest routes.
She had not actually seen the new Henly's Corner, so was not fully conversant with the issues there (but "Why not?" one might ask). But she was in favour of "cycle infrastructure", and thought the crossings at Hyde Park Corner rather good. I have to admit they are better than they were ten years ago, but regarding these constricted, low-priority, semi-shared, already grossly over-capacity crossings as decent cycle facilities just shows how low our standards are in this country.
The Great Divide Ride was one of a series of protest rides held recently in London to highlight the dire state of our cycling infrastructure. It followed on the heels of the Blackfriars flashrides and the Tour du Danger. At least it generated some new discussions with some different politicians, it created some local publicity, and it sent a message to the world (including the cycling world) that London cycling is not just the City, it is not just Hackney and Southwark, but "We are here, we are up here in the northern suburbs, and we have a terrible cycling environment, and can't we have a bit more attention please from government, TfL, media, Sustrans, and anyone who will listen, really?"
The next big event in London will be The Big Ride on April 28, just days before the mayoral election, the results of which will surely have a huge impact on how cycling develops all over London in the next four years, and there is also on that date a Scottish equivalent, the Pedal on Parliament. Be there, or there, or keep riding round three sides of that square.