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.
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, 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.
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.