Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Andrew Mitchell, a Greenway, and the bike as a negotiable carriage

Andrew Mitchell has become an unlikely hero of cycling. Though he should not have been uncivil to anyone, especially a policeman doing his job, the real point about the story is the confusion in this country about the use of bikes as transport.

On the one hand, we are continually told that a bike is a vehicle: a cyclist must ride on the road, not the pavement (except where cycle paths are provided, which is hardly anywhere) and obey all the rules of the road. Cyclists must behave a drivers of vehicles. No matter that the whole road system has been engineered, not for them, but for far larger, faster and more powerful motor vehicles which surround and threaten them at every point. A bicycle is a carriage in our archaic road law.

On the other hand, it seems like the vehicular status of bikes is negotiable: but not by cyclists themselves – oh no, they must keep pretending to be cars, and obey all red lights, even when doing so puts them in danger, and keep off the pavements, even when that means risking their necks in 60mph traffic – but by those in authority whom in in large or small ways would be inconvenienced or caused expense (which is always an inconvenience) by the consistent application of the vehicular principle to bicycles.

The policeman who refused to open the gate for Mitchell is an example of one who would be inconvenienced in a small way. Larger examples are provided in a route for a proposed new "Greenway" for walkers and cyclists in north-west London that I have recently seen. This greenway is proposed to run from Stanmore, on the northern edge of Greater London, to the Thames at Brentford.  It is a Transport for London funded project that has been planned by Sustrans, and is supposed to be implemented by the boroughs. It has some potential, in particular in bringing back into use as a useful route the line of a long-closed railway from Stanmore to Harrow. In other places it consists of the somewhat complex and twisty mixture of minor roads (lacking, of course, general priority for cyclists using the route) and paths across open spaces that Sustrans tends to favour for its projects. I tend to feel that this kind of thing is fundamentally misconceived anyway: cyclists, whether they be commuters, shoppers or schoolchildren, for practical journeys, really need direct, simple and consistent routes, with preservation of momentum and priority, which, in this part of London, due to the railway barriers, with crossing points only at the main roads, will only ever be achieved using segregated cycle tracks on those main roads: but Sustrans don't seem to be interested in this kind of idea (Dutch-style infrastructure with a proven record of working) but stick to their own idea of trying to connect up parks with a convoluted hodgepodge of measures.

Sustrans' bizarre masterplan for the Greenways in Brent. Who would use this convoluted network?
However, even if we ignore my view on this for the moment, and agree to be satisfied with the general principles of Sustrans' Greenway concept, we see that they quickly become unstuck with this route. For in order to try to connect up their chain of green spaces, they have to get to Northwick Park, on the borders of Brent and Harrow (point A on the map above), from the north, and there is no way to do this using current infrastructure. Their proposal involves cyclists dismounting and walking across one narrow pedestrian bridge over a railway, getting on again to cycle along a minor road (which, as it leads to a station, actually has quite a lot of traffic on it, including buses) and then, only about 200 metres further on, dismounting again to actually wheel their bikes through the ticket hall of the station, and then through a passage, used by substantial numbers of train passengers, going to and fro all day, that is literally only 1.25 metres wide, because this is the only passage under the Metropolitan Line that allows access to Northwick Park.

Sustrans thinks it's a sensible idea to include this passage in a Greenway route, telling cyclists to "dismount"
If the whole route were to work, and actually attract cyclists (which seems unlikely), this clearly would be a recipe for chaos and conflict, because no pedestrian could pass a cyclist wheeling their bike coming the other way in this passage. It is beyond me why the builders of the Met line decided to build such a stupidly narrow passage, but that is how it is, and since the line was put here early in the 20th century, nothing has been changed.

Now if bicycles are really "carriages", then they can't be dismounted and pushed through 1.2m wide passages. If they are road vehicles, them sharing this sort of infrastructure with foot passengers is clearly impossible. So there's a big and costly inconvenience implied here for the "authorities". They really need to knock a bigger passage through, under the Metropolitan line at Northwick Park Station. And I expect the Dutch would actually do this (they would actually have done it decades ago, and would probably have done two, one wide one for pedestrians and one for bikes). I have no doubt it is feasable in pure engineering terms, and could be done while the railway continues to operate above, but it would cost many millions of pounds. And that's not the kind of money that is associated with these kinds of schemes. So what's going to happen? Well, there might be a rethink, and Sustrans and the boroughs might find a better route with the aid of local campaigners. Or the route might prove just another largely cosmetic waste of money, in a long tradition. But any real solution in this area, even if it avoids this passage, is going to require much bigger engineering than the planners of this route seem to have been imagining.

If a bike is a vehicle or carriage, the barriers that would have to be overcome, or opened up, to create a route for a vehicle or carriage, must be opened up for bikes. So, in a rather more tractable case, the gates of Downing Street need to be opened for those visiting on bikes. If not, then we should have consistency, and those arriving for meetings there in in cars shold have to park ouside the gates in Whitehall, get out, and walk through the side gate. A dismounted cyclist is a pedestrian pushing a useless lump of metal on wheels. Dismounting means changing modes. Why should the cyclist, but not the car passenger, be forced to change modes?

It's all about convenience, and making the bike actually a practical mode of transport. A bike can be wheeled, unlike a car. But that's not an excuse for ignoring its true nature. If we continue to do that, in dealing with both small and large, easy and difficult, cheap and expensive barriers, we will fail to generate a cycling culture.


  1. On Sustrans, I would suggest you're being rather unfair.

    It depends what you're after, but if it's a weekend ride with the family, then joined up parks, tow-paths, forest-trails and loop-lines is as good as it's going to get at present, and I use Sustrans routes for that regularly.

    I imagine Sustrans are aware that useful routes for commuting and so on are more of a pressing issue, although I'd like to have both - the Dutch model seems to include parks and tracks away from roads. But there are sections like the relatively recently completed Bridgewater Way tow-path which makes cycle commuting towards Manchester from Sale far more viable.

    I would imagine that Sustrans works on the kind of routes it does because that's where it can achieve something, rather than because they think it's most useful. Seriously, how can a charity install segregated cycle tracks on main roads through a city? That's a council's job. Sustrans can and do campaign, but charities have to be careful about getting political from a legal point of view. The ridiculous thing is that cycling infrastructure is left to a charity in the first place. And their maps are still more accurate than the Google ones in my experience.

    As for the rest of the article, I agree that the police should have opened the gates, and not to do so was a case of double standards, although the main focus was Mitchell's subsequent behaviour, which he himself has apologised for (twice). And I'm sure those who like to generalise about cyclists already consider this "typical cyclist behaviour" so perhaps trying to defend his initial point just (unfairly) adds to that.

    It always seems odd to me that, when approaching a pelican crossing with a light turning red, I can't legally proceed slowly and carefully, but (I assume) I can hop off, jog the few metres through the crossing and hop on again. And I actually do this on occasion, being both generally law-abiding and in a hurry.

    I guess the point is that a person on a bike is neither a pedestrian nor a motor-vehicle. Treating that person as either one is a simplification which short-changes cyclists and severely limits the potential of cycling in general. And treating that person as both depending on which suits you at the time is just hypocrisy.

    1. I don't want to imply that all the work that Sustrans has done is poor or useless, it is not, but it is rather variable, and, particularly in the city context here, I think their strategy needs looking at. Often Sustrans do not seem to be as aware as local cycling campaigners about what is going to be politically practical, locally acceptable, or actually useful, in a particular environment, and sometimes, in my experience, they don't seem to want to learn.

      Where you say "how can a charity install segregated cycle tracks on main roads through a city? That's a council's job", you have to realise that most of this work will be done by councils in the end, and will be publicly-funded. Therefore I think it's right to look critically at whether Sustrans is giving good advice to councils as to how to effectively spend their money to boost cycling in their areas. Basically I think many of Sustrans' urban routes fail, and will continue to fail on current plans like this one, because they are not politically ambitious enough to make a difference, and they are too low-budget for the length of route and too much "fitted in where people won't object", so the cycling environments that they deliver are not above the consistent quality threshold where things really start to work, as you see in the cycle path cycling in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

    2. My recent experience of Sustrans is the following.

      a) I've seen them create some great "leisure routes" from scratch where cycling may have been impractical or even banned previously. In some cases this even includes owning the land.

      b) Plus fewer utility/commuter routes which are arguably slightly less useful, but are helpful nonetheless.

      Obviously there is crossover between a and b.

      c) Campaigning more generally that cities should allow everyone to walk, cycle and play in safety, and specifically that 20mph limits should be imposed more widely.

      I can't comment on their specific advice to councils - I'm sure you're probably better informed than me on this - but all of the above seems helpful and broadly in line with the Dutch way of thinking, so I'm not sure about the wisdom of broad criticisms which could potentially drive wedges between cycling campaigners and groups which have so much in common. I'm sure many (most?) Sustrans campaigners would love to see Dutch style cycle paths alongside busy roads.

      I do appreciate that getting councils to spend time and money on routes which are subsequently under-used can be counter-productive, and perhaps I'm being overly defensive about your passing comment.

  2. I agree with almost everything you say, especially the point about contradictions in the treatment of bicycles as vehicles. Personally, I do not wish to be regarded as a vehicle, not ever, in any circumstances, and not only would I not be offended that I should use the side gate, I would embrace it as almost certainly quicker and more convenient, just as I sometimes rejoice at the fact that I can hop off and push to get through a junction as a pedestrian, or slip through a gap which even a heavier two-wheeler couldn’t.

    However, I cannot accept the notion of Andrew Mitchell being a “hero of cycling”, whether of the likely or unlikely kind. Mitchell is not of course responsible for the bigoted drivel ostensibly provoked by his actions out of Jan Etherington – honestly, the Telegraph should be above that – but he was not thinking of or acting for the interest of cyclists in his behaviour.

    If David Cameron turned up at the gates of Downing Street on a unicycle or a skateboard, the police would let him through in a heart-beat. Andrew Mitchell is way down the food chain. I have no idea of the hierarchy there but I have no doubt there is one. I can think of two (at least) plausible explanations for the police refusing to open up, a simple one and a complex one: the simple one is that the main gates involve four gates, two for the inner and two for the outer. That’s four policemen occupied in opening them, the side gate involves at most one. You might think that standing around all day doing nothing, those policemen could do with the exercise but that is not your, or my, call. Maybe they really do have something better to do like looking fierce for tourists or polishing their Heckler & Kochs.

    The more complicated explanation is that there is a back-story here, who knows what, but that Mitchell has got right up the noses of the police contingent so that they decided to get their own back on him, and figured that the circumstances would excuse them in the resultant furore. Judging by Mitchell’s reaction, I would say they called that right. Perhaps it is as simple as him standing on his dignity and demanding the main gates be opened for his bicycle. I bet Samantha doesn’t, or Theresa Villiers, or Sir George Young. I bet they, like me, would much prefer to impose themselves as little as necessary. That is the beauty of a bicycle – it doesn’t impose itself unduly on others. While I want my rights and my life and limb properly respected, and that means major changes to road design and traffic law, I am not looking for my self-importance to be respected likewise.

  3. See Tony Parsons in the Mirror- (link at the ever wonderful Crap Cycling in Walthamstow). Be wary of being dragged into other disputes. Times/Sky in favour of cycling. Mirror left behind. Therefore Mirror/Parsons have to slag off cyclists, never mind if it's nonsense/borderline incitement to murder.