Friday, 8 March 2013

A Vision of Change

It was at the end of November that I last blogged specifically about cycling policies from the Mayor of London.

I reflected there that I had
Stated quite clearly in April my belief that Boris Johnson's commitment to the London Cycling Campaign's Go Dutch principles was not sincere.
and noted
It's now six months after the election, and there's still no real plan to put the Go Dutch commitment into action in any way, shape or form.
[Johnson] has not made good his promise to appoint a cycling "czar" or commissioner, and we have no idea what powers or influence such a figure would have, when appointed. He has spoken of some sort of new cycle link across central London to join the dangling ends of the Superhighways, which appears, from a limited press report, as if it will use the Embankment. It's being called a "super-corridor".
According to the Standard article, Boris is going to publish some sort of a "Cycling Vision" document this month, which will explain all.
I remain very pessimistic. At every stage I have been proved right about Boris's lack of real commitment to Going Dutch.

Well the Standard got it wrong, because the "Cycling Vision" document did not come out then. It came out yesterday, 7 March 2013. We got the Cycling Commissioner in January: journalist (and cyclist) Andrew Gilligan was appointed to the post. Gilligan blogs through the Daily Telegraph site, and it soon became clear that he was aware of what the cycle blogging community was saying about him and his position. On Twitter I called his initial statement on taking up the post "short but promising", continuing that, while I could appreciate the argument that some had made for a technician or engineer to be given the job,
[I] have time for Gilligan and I'm willing to give him a chance. It's a highly political job and he might just be the right man.
That's all I have said on the subject thus far. It looks, in retrospect, as if the delay in launching the "Cycling Vision" must have been due to negotiations between Johnson and Gilligan, and possibly others in City Hall or Transport for London, Gilligan getting bedded-down in the job and taking over the strategy, and further thought and development on it so it could be launched to his satisfaction, in a form that was not likely to raise a chorus of criticism or disappointment from bloggers, the London Cycling Campaign, and the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain.

Gilligan today succeeded in this. The details of "The Mayor's Vision for Cycling in London" were released at a meeting in City Hall at 11:30am yesterday to which I, and many others on the London cycling scene, were invited with less than 48 hours notice. (Actually the details were released slightly before this and were already appearing on websites and news reports earlier in the morning.) The document that we were given can be read here. It's already been well covered by Cyclists in the City, who has described the plan as "game-changing", ibikelondon, who has described it as "a bold and ambitious document", and LCC, who described it as "ground-breaking". I would not dissent from these descriptions at the present stage. It seems, from what we have seen now, that I was wrong to describe Boris' Johnson's commitment to the Go Dutch principles to which he signed up before the mayoral election as "insincere". He was sincere, he was just taking his time to develop the details, and I owe him an apology, which I will give to him in person if he invites me round (he was not present at the launch of his "Vision", it was launched by Deputy Mayor Isabel Dedring, along with Ben Plowden, Director of Intergrated Programme Delivery at TfL, and Gilligan, on whom the limelight mostly was.)

In case you haven't yet seen the headlines, they are that TfL intends to double cycling in London in the next 10 years, and the key measures they intend to deploy are:
  1. A new network of cycle routes in central London This is the "Bike Grid" originally proposed by LCC, which will consist of "high volume, high-quality routes, using a combination of segregation and quiet shared streets."
  2. A Crossrail for the bike This will be a segregated cycle highway east-west across London from the A40, which will get improved cycle tracks (back to something like they were in 1934?), to Canary Wharf and Barking.
  3. Better Barclays Cycle Superhighways "Delivered to much higher standards, closer to international best practice"
  4. New Quietways Routes created from low-traffic back streets, using filtered permeability techniques, and using other spaces, such as parks. "Unlike the old London Cycle Network, Quietways will be direct. They will be better-surfaced... They will not give up at the difficult places... We will build new cycling and pedestrian bridges across barriers [such as railways] to link up Quietway side-street routes"
  5. "Mini-Hollands" in the suburbs "We will chose between one and three willing Outer London boroughs to make into mini-Hollands, with very high spending concentrated on these relatively small areas for the greatest possible impact"
And here is the video for the "Crossrail" concept for the Embankment. This is by-now an obligatory part of any blogpost on this subject.

It looks great, and the bones of the "Vision" look great too. There is a lot to pick over in these bones, and I cannot do so now. That will be for future blogposts, to consider in more detail how the five headline initiatives might, or should, work, what the possible pitfalls will be, where we need more concrete details to understand and make up our minds, and to mention any ideas in the vision that I might take issue with or have reservations about. But I can say now that these reservations will not be fundamental. The Mayor and Transport for London have clearly moved on decisively in producing this plan, taking into account virtually everything that this blog, many other vocal blogs and commentators, the LCC, and other campaigners have been saying about the problems with the earlier stages of the Johnson administration's cycling policy. It's vital that we don't let them off any hooks, and keep pressing for the highest standards, and criticising and protesting, if necessary, about any backsliding or unsatisfactory compromises in the delivery of the vision.

This change has been born of criticism and public protest, I am certain of it. If we can trace it back to a point in recent history, within the lifetime of this blog, it would be to the first "flashmob" protest organised by LCC at Blackfriars Bridge on 20 May 2011, which was one of the first campaigning events I reported on this blog. We had never had a mass protest by cyclists of this type, on a specific issue, in London, before. These protests continued, culminating on the flashride on 22 February 2012 in Westminster to coincide with the parliamentary debate on cycle safety inspired by the Times's Cities fit for Cycling campaign. I wrote on 4 March 2012, slightly over one year ago,
A rubicon was passed on the night of 22 February 2012. The vast ship of public indifference to cycling safety and cycling conditions in the UK, that campaigners have been pushing and shoving at for decades, getting nowhere, had started moving. Almost imperceptibly, over the winter of 2011–12, it had started to slide down the slipway into the river. The Times campaign had given it a welcome shove, but their effort was dependent on those of many others who had toiled away long before.
There was another absolutely critical element to the story, apart from protest, though. This was campaigning clarity and vision. The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain was formed almost contemporaneously with the start of this blog, and they started a campaign – initially without me, I only found out about them after their first meeting – with a crystal clarity of purpose, namely, to make known, and campaign for the import to the UK of, the world's best practice in engineering safe and attractive cycling environments, from wherever that best practice might be found. This changed the cycle campaigning landscape nationally, despite the fact the Embassy was, and remains, only as small group of activists, with a much larger group of supporters. And the London Cycling Campaign changed tack. It had had a lot of varied and complicated, sometimes even contradictory, campaigns in the past with no tremendously clear vision at its heart of what a "world-class cycling city", in one of the buzz-phrases, would actually look like. It had not had a sufficiently clear or consistent critique of where the Johnson administration (and the Livingstone one before that) were going wrong in their cycling policies. Its methods were highly diplomatic (despite not being an "Embassy"), and public statements and actions sometimes rather weak.

Change was initiated by a new, highly-focused CEO, Ashok Sinha, and other key campaigners such as Mustafa Arif, Campaigns Chair, who, in addition to being willing to confront TfL and the Mayor more directly with the mass cycling protests, openly organised by LCC, decided to run a huge campaign for the 2012 Mayoral election based on one campaigning headline, chosen by the whole membership in a vote, a thing the organisation had never done before, its methods and policies of old having been determined by a small coterie of committed activists. The vote, in July 2011, was on the following options:
1) Start Right: getting 100,000 children cycling regularly to school
2) Love Thy Neighbourhood: double the number of local journeys by bike
3) Go Dutch: clear space for cycling on main roads in every borough
4) Unwind: replace the 10 worst gyratories with cycle-friendly junction
I fronted the campaign to get the membership to choose Option 3, with a performance in this video, filmed at the Torrington Place segregated cycle track in Bloomsbury. Option 3 won by an overwhelming margin. Option 3 developed into the Love London, Go Dutch campaign that culminated in a petition which gathered 40,000 signatures, a ride in which 10,000 cyclists took part in, in pouring rain, to press the Go Dutch demands onto the mayoral candidates, and a public debate organised by The Times just before the electionat which Johnson acquitted himself none too well. As a result of that, most cyclists that I know were campaigning against him being returned to City Hall. But he did join Ken Livingstone, Brian Paddick, Jenny Jones and Siobhan Benita, mayoral candidates all, in endorsing the Go Dutch demands – much to my surprise, but not to the surprise of Mustafa Arif. So that was another occasion when I mistook Johnson.

In the "Vision" published today we see a serious attempt to incorporate the principles of Go Dutch into the planning and management of London over the next 10 years, backed up by credible political leadership and credible (but by no means over-generous) funding commitments (getting on for £1 billion over ten years so far promised). The Vision accepts the central premise of the Go Dutch campaign: that for cycling to develop into a mass phenomenon in London (and anywhere else) it must be made subjectively safe, pleasant and easy, with its own protected, dedicated spaces.

Of course, long before the Go Dutch campaign, David Hembrow was blogging from the Netherlands in his trenchant manner to explain exactly what a subjectively safe, attractive cycling environment that generated a mass cycling culture looked like. His blog was an enormous influence on most of the people who drove both the Cycling Embassy and the Go Dutch campaign. But long before he was blogging, Camden Cycling Campaign was campaigning, successfully, for Dutch-style, segregated cycle infrastructure in central London. And that started off, I recall, because a chap called Mick Hamer, who wrote for New Scientist and cycling publications,  and had experienced Dutch cycle infrastructure back in the 1970s, had an angry outburst in a meeting in Camden Town Hall that I attended, when I was very new to cycle campaigning, in the mid-1990s. The campaign for Dutch-style infrastructure in Camden was later driven forwards by Paul Gannon, Paul Gasson, and others in Camden Cycling Campaign, resulting in the tracks we have today that are soon going to start getting upgraded.

I've written about the Camden campaign, and the infrastructure that resulted, warts ands all, a few times. And one of my my central themes has been that to get it, we had to demand it, in an optimistic spirit of it being possible, not go around saying "It'll never happen in Britain, everything is wrong here, it's pointless, the culture is wrong, everybody is against us, it can't be done". Demanding top-quality cycling infrastructure does not, of course, guarantee getting it, but unless you demand it, you cannot get it. On a London-wide basis, we've now demanded it, and we've had, yesterday, the response.

I'm not complacent in any idea that we are inevitably on the way now to a cycling nirvana in London. London is currently, by and large, a pretty abysmal pace for cycling, with 98% of all journeys not by bike, for excellent reasons. It's going to take a true revolution, on any definition of the word, to turn that around. So far we only have promises. We've had plenty of those before. But the signs are very good. I believe that, if Johnson, TfL and Gilligan can carry through the policies they have now outlined, truly, without compromise, they will easily achieve far more than the stated objective of doubling cycling in London in a decade. They will revolutionise transport in the United Kingdom. Watch this space.


  1. So nice to hear some good news. Especially after some coverage of the end of the Get Britain Cycling enquiry was less than optimistic. The pdf really appears to have been written by people who get it.

    So...two things.

    1) Ensuring it actually happens as specified.

    2) And for me this is important, how do we get this kind of appropriately targeted investment outside London? The council here in Manchester just keeps saying there's no funding available for anything like this. Over a year ago in the paper we saw "20mph speed limit to be introduced on all non-major residential roads in Manchester"! Admittedly no panacea but it's a positive sign. "Cross party agreement" we were told. And yet it's all still on hold while the council tries to "identify funding sources". And if they can't manage that I won't anticipate a cross city segregated cycle superhighway any time soon.

    1. And it really needs to be an integrated plan across Greater Manchester. I get equally frustrated at seeing the same attitude in the Bolton Cycle Forum, and if I go into Manchester I cycle through 3 separate local authorities.

    2. We've had exactly the same response from Leeds council: "We have the commitment, but need help in the form of funding from central govt".

      They think that "funding for cycling" means specific pots for specific cycling projects. The Council have spent their general highways budget pretty exclusively on measures to improve conditions for vehicles over the last 40 years. The situation can be improved massively if every time they re-do a bit of road, instead of replacing like-for-like or (much more common) tweaking road designs to increase vehicle speed and capacity (more lanes, smoother curves), they tweak the roads to make them safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and cyclists.

      Of course the major roads need massive changes, requiring big sums, but let's remind the Councils that they have perpetrated the situation we have now, and spent plenty of our cash getting here.

  2. Great blog as ever David. I always enjoy your posts for their historical context. Always good to look at where we have come from, and acknowledge those like DH who have helped get us here. I think a huge well done, and now let's get down to details is in order. Well done on your contribution.