It would be interesting to find out if anybody has surveyed how the participants got to and from the FreeCycle. My guess is that the vast majority either came by car, by train, or they did cycle, but live very close to central London (say within 2 miles of the circuit). I really doubt the value of London Cycling Campaign's led rides. There were about 30 of these, from most of the boroughs apart from Westminster and the City. I would guess that they took about 50–100 riders each, so that would be of the order of 2,250 riders brought to the circuit in this manner, out of the 50,000 who took part: only about 5%.
LCC go a little money from this enterprise, and very limited exposure. LCC representation could be found in one of the tents in the Cycle Village in Green Park, along with British Cycling and some other concerns, but few participants would have found it or sought it out. Much volunteer time was taken up with the effort of arranging the led rides, in support of an event which was commercially sponsored, necessarily attracting attention away from the bread-and-butter work of trying to hold Transport for London and the borough's transport departments to account for their failure to create everyday decent cycling conditions for Londoners. Officers in those organisations who don't like being pestered by campaigners must have been most grateful to the holiday afforded them by Boris's clever diversionary tactic. The LCC exercise in collaboration over RideLondon seems strange to me in the context of the ongoing protests over the high death-rate for cycling in London and slowness of progress in "cycleising" the city. I think it was a wrong decision, and, as a member, I don't recall being consulted about it. If it was to take part with the feeder rides, LCC should at least have made a minimum demand that the roads on the routes of the feeders must be closed, temporarily, by the police, to allow the rides to pass.
Anyway, people turned out in their thousands, as they will do, in great weather, to ride on "closed" roads (but were these roads not "opened" to them in a more real sense?) FreeCycle, like its predecessors, the SkyRide, and Hovis Freewheel before that, mainly showed, of course, that Londoners, and indeed people who came from distant parts of the country to take part (Radio 4 today featured a family who travelled from Yorkshire), are desperate to cycle, but the vast majority won't do it on an everyday basis with our road conditions as they are. When the tannoys announced at 3pm on Saturday that "The circuit will close at 4pm and you must be off it by then", there was no mistaking the voice of doom. It was saying, in effect, "You've had your fun; now we return to normal, for the serious, proper business of the nation that is these roads' real purpose. You will have no place here anymore. Get out, go home. Right to Ride, what's that? Never heard of it. This ain't Holland, you know."
|Riders on the Embankment enjoying their theoretical "right to ride" ride here, briefly made real, for 7 hours a year, through the munificence of our city authorities|
@VoleOSpeed the prisoners and their children allowed to taste freedom but once a year while being taunted by the guards. #cruelty #freecycleAnd Kristian also made a good point:
#FreeCycle was mostly a big go-slow, they didn't close nearly enough roads to comfortably accommodate everyone ridingTo which Chris Lowe responded:
@KristianCyc @VoleOSpeed And some cyclists won't have gone because they didn't want to go slow - full demand not realised.So in other words if cycling had be allocated more space than the eight miles of "closed" roads, even more cyclists would have been attracted.
The route actually had been improved over previous years. Last time (the Sky Ride two years ago), there had been a huge jam where it turned left from Horseguards Road into Great George Street. This time the route was altered so it went straight from the Mall, through Admiralty Arch, into Whitehall, which worked far better. But into the City it was much the same, and crowded as before. Those who went earlier in the day seemed to have a better experience than those who were there after midday.
There were cock-ups in other areas of organisation. It seems as if, because the ownership of the event keeps changing, first Hovis / The Mayor, then Sky / British Cycling, now something called the London & Surrey Cycling Partnership, sponsored by Prudential, new mistakes are made every time, or old lessons are not learned in the organising of it. Publicity for the LCC feeder rides went wrong, with, in one case, nobody turning up at one of the start points because it had not been publicised. There was little or no free refreshment provided for the volunteer ride marshals, or, at least, nobody could find it: a fine reward for giving up your weekend to do a painfully slow ride sheperding inexperienced and unfit cyclists on dangerous astreets full of aggressive traffic.
But aside from details, I go back to the question: What the point of it all actually? One of the first things that happened to me when I arrived at Green Park was that I spoke to a lady with some foreign accent (probably not Dutch). She said, of the scene outside Buckingham Palace, as the riders arrived for the FreeCycle, "It looks just like Amsterdam Centraal. But there it's like this every day of the year". (She might have added, "And it's also the same in city and town centres across the Netherlands every day of the year"). She went on: "I won't cycle in London normally. The roads are too dangerous".
A rare cycling-related report on Radio 4's The World this Weekend today interviewed a selection of FreeCycle participants, all of whom expressed the same sentiment. People wish to be able to cycle away from motor traffic every day. And we know it could be done. Why does it look like that in Amsterdam and throughout the whole country of the Netherlands every day of the year? It looks like that because the have made permanent traffic-free space for cycling. And they have made far more space than just contained in eight miles of road. They have made about 30,000 miles of cycle paths. (And that doesn't take into account the ways in which the roughly 100,000 miles of other roads have been made cycle-friendly). And that traffic-free space is open 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. No officious stewards with megaphones are required to tell people that their ride is over. Ever.
|Caged-in in both space and time: the riders outside the home of the British monarch|
We've now got extensive 20mph limits, and we've got an increasing number of useful minor road routes opening up through councils implementing cycle exceptions to one-way schemes. Just on the way to the FreeCycle I utilised one of the latest of these, a great scheme by Camden whereby Priory Road, a long, straight residential road in West Hampstead that provides an alternative to a section of the congested A5 or the twisty and bus-riddled West End Lane, has been opened up to two-way cycling along its length, with minimal engineering, just signage. The resulting experience is exactly like cycling in a Dutch residential street: you have to exercise caution at give-ways where it crosses other residential streets, but there is no traffic to speak of, because cars cannot use this as a through-route due to the one-way system. Camden rightly won the LCC's award for "Best Borough cycling Initiative" (jointly with the City) for this and similar schemes elsewhere.
|Camden's recent scheme at Priory Road, West Hampstead, NW6|
There's been slow change, and its been terribly slow, but 35 years of campaigning have not been wasted. It may be that Hembrow needs to justify his move to the Netherlands to himself by claiming that nothing in the UK ever changes in response to campaigning efforts, or that the campaigning in the UK is always done wrongly, but those are claims I reject. In saying there is no change, he also underestimates the influence of his own blog.
We've got commuter cyclists now dominating the traffic at peak hours on some of the Thames crossings and other main roads in central London. That's really only a central London thing, and just on a few routes at a narrow times, and there are wide areas of Outer London where cycling is still languishing, and where it remains massively marginal. And it's still just fit young people, and mostly men. The rest just come out for the FreeCycle, and put the bikes in the shed for the rest of the year, unless they occasionally make a foray into the local park, or cycle on the pavements.
The disastrous collapse in London children cycling to school, and for other journeys, has continued over the last 35 years, and shows no sign yet of reversal. This has been a massive failure. We were told, back in the 1990s, that the London Cycle Network would be suitable for a well-trained 12-year-old child to cycle on, but that turned out to be a lie. Campaigning never focused enough on children, and it was never tough enough on the authorities, in the sense of trying to hold them to their professed claims of wanting to get children cycling, because children and schools didn't seem to have that much to do with the whole subject, to many. The only place to cycle was on hostile roads, and children could not be expected to attempt to do that. But I think these attitudes are now getting righted.
We've got a lot more words now, in the Mayor's Vison, that promise a "step change" in progress. The Embankment, that I photographed above, during the FreeCycle, should look very different in three years' time, with the promised cycle track. The extension of Cycle Superhighway 2 to Stratford is now taking shape, also properly segregated from motor traffic, and Gilligan is talking of bringing the whole route up to the same standard. We've got also a new willingness amongst cyclists to take to the streets as and when necessary to pressurise the politicians to make good their words, and we've got powerful support from large sections of the media. What we still lack is powerful support in the Westminster government. London and local government raise little of their own money. TfL's £1 billion cycling programme escaped the Chancellor's axe in the latest spending review (in fact, the last time I spoke to Andrew Gilligan, he claimed to have more money now than anticipated at the time of writing of the Vision), but this may only have been a lucky, brief reprieve, and the rest of England is doing very badly for cycle funding. But no progress in London in 35 years? I don't think so.
We certainly need less hype about plans, we need less marketing, and we need more and faster action. It would have been better if the effort and money that had gone into RideLondon had gone into the creation of infrastructure that could be used every day of the year. It's great that some already fit and active people, including Boris himself, had a 100-mile ride on closed roads, but I want the 89-year-old man next door to me to be able to ride to the local shops, and the children on the other side of me to be able to cycle to school. So many other people clearly want these things too. Fifty-thousand people on the FreeWheel circuit demonstrated the vast suppressed demand for traffic-free cycling space in our cities. Boris Johnson seems to be on-side. Bristol's new elected mayor, George Ferguson, has some ambitious plans also. I wonder when our other leading politicians will wake up to the issue.