Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Letter to the BBC over 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue'

Dear Sir,

I am writing to complain about a joke that was made in the I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue broadcast on Saturday 27 December, near the beginning, between 1’33 and 1’48” on the iPlayer recording. Part of Jack Dee’s introduction, this attack on ‘cyclists’, implying they do not know the Highway Code, was offensive, cheap and unpleasant humour to me, and to many others who I know.

I am sure you will claim that Clue is an ‘irreverent’ programme where attacks or jibes are meted out without fear or favour to all sorts of groups. Yes, the jokes following this ‘got at’ steam railway enthusiasts and UKIP supporters. But the joke against cyclists was unpleasant in a way that these, and similar jokes in the show, are not. They do not have the hostile majority-minority power-play implied that the joke against ‘cyclists’ did.

The background to this is that around 120 cyclists are killed on the roads of the UK every year and about 3,000 seriously injured (a figure that has been increasing in recent years). This is a bad record by international standards – cycling on the UK's roads is at least twice as dangerous as in some neighbouring European countries. According to statistics of police analysis of these incidents, in most cases the killed or seriously injured cyclist was not at fault and was cycling correctly and legally, and therefore most of these cyclist deaths and injuries are due to bad, illegal, and dangerous driving: that is, drivers wantonly ignoring the Highway Code. Yes, there are infringements of the Highway Code by all user-groups, but motorists have far more power to do damage than cyclists, who will in general only put themselves at risk by behaving badly on the roads. The issue is therefore the dangerous and irresponsible behaviour by those in control of powerful motor vehicles.

Unfortunately our society normalises many aspects of this behaviour, particularly the crime of speeding, and there is a mentality amongst many motorists that they have superior rights to the road compared to non-motorised users, and a culture of victimising cyclists with socially-widespread and acceptable inaccurate, prejudiced claims about their behaviour. It is right into this trap that the Clue joke about the Highway Code fell.

This kind of humour would be totally unacceptable when applied against religious or racial minorities, or other groups, such as the disabled. Cyclists have to put up with it as normality. It helps to sustain a set of attitudes in the public and official bodies that result in cases, such as the recent one of Michael Mason, a cyclist killed by a motorist on Regent Street (very close to Broadcasting house) where the driver who killed him has received absolutely no punishment despite effectively admitting full guilt and responsibility. The mythology of blaming and victimisation of cyclists excuses these deaths to our society and makes acceptable the fact that no-one is held responsible for road deaths in cases such as these, or  if they are, they typically receive derisory punishment.

I expect many BBC employees cycle to work on Portland Place and Regent Street, where Michael Mason, an experienced and expert cyclist, was killed, through no fault of his own. I wonder if any cycling BBC employees had the ‘Highway Code’ joke run past them before it was broadcast. I expect the answer is no, as if it had been, the scriptwriters would have realised their error. This was an offensive joke and should not have been broadcast. This was a favourite Radio 4 programme of mine, but I expect I will not be able to enjoy it in the same way again.

I hope these thoughts have explained to you why the BBC should apologise to the cycling community, and cycling organisations, for this error of judgement.


David Arditti

Friday, 5 December 2014

Whatever happened to the Biking Borough money?

After Boris Johnson won the 2008 London mayoral election, he formulated a new cycling strategy which involved ditching Ken Livingstone's London Cycle Network Plus programme, which had run into the sand because of a lack of political will to tackle the main barriers to cycling in London like dangerous junctions, and was never predicated on high-quality infrastructure standards anyway, and replacing it with a combination of the first-generation Cycle Superhighway plans, to affect mainly Inner London, and a project called Biking Boroughs, which was for Outer London.

The initial Cycle superhighways (sponsored by Barclays) were merely strips of blue without any legal backing, mostly painted inside bus lanes on main roads, and often disappearing altogether where there were competing demands for road space. They did not treat major junctions in any safe or logical way, leaving them much as they had been, the blue lanes sometimes disappearing from an inside lane and reappearing in an outside one, leaving hapless cyclists to cut across multiple lanes of fast-moving motor traffic, if they dared. They were of course massively criticised, and at the time I commented, to the London Cycling Campaign:
The funding and the conception behind these routes is so calamitously inadequate to the task that they will be a total waste of time and money, and, worse, will attract inexperienced cyclists onto main road routes that have not been made any safer than they are now, with junctions that are still highly dangerous and unsuitable for all but the most skilled with-traffic cyclists.
Later came the much-publicised deaths on the 'calamitously inadequate' Cycle Superhighway 2, and following LCC's Go Dutch campaign and the appointment of Andrew Gilligan as Cycling Commissioner, we have a programme to rebuild the Superhighways to proper standards (or at least much better).

But let's go back to that other, less-publicised strand of Boris's first cycling strategy, the Biking Boroughs. This seemed to come out of an idea, propounded by Transport for London in its Analysis of Cycling Potential report of 2010 that:
The greatest unmet potential for growth can be found within outer London – 54 per cent of potentially cyclable trips – and only 5 per cent of the "total potential‟ in outer London is actually cycled, compared to 14 per cent of that for central London... and 9 per cent for inner London. The "total potential‟ is defined as the total number of trips currently cycled added to the number of potentially cyclable trips.
This was without doubt a true statement, given that so much of London's population lives and moves in the outer Boroughs, and given that cycling is so low there now, and yet one that gets us no further towards achievement of that potential without any definition of the standards that should pertain in the Outer London cycling environment, which were not hinted at by this study. Vagueness was thus built into the Biking Borough concept from the beginning.

The Biking Borough policy itself was very short-funded and gave little clue as to what it was actually trying to do in practice. I thought TfL might have tried to bury this embarrassment by now, but, surprisingly, a page on it still exists on the TfL website, saying this:
Thirteen outer London boroughs were given a share of £4m funding over three years to help raise the profile of cycling, improve facilities and highlight safety awareness locally.
All of these Biking Boroughs are funding initiatives to encourage more people to take up cycling, whether to work, or in their leisure time. The activities involved include:
  • Creating and improving cycle routes and access 
  • Educating people about cycle safely 
  • Making train stations more cycle friendly 
  • Building more cycle hubs
So a 'Borough' is an 'initiative': more confusion of thought and language. And to me, the term 'Biking' always suggested something to do with motorbikes. The first item, 'creating and improving cycle routes and access' sounds useful, but no-one actually could ever explain what a 'cycle hub' was, and Freewheeler's explanation is as good as any that I came across:
The answer is simple. A ‘bike hub’ is usually a shopping centre full of cars which contains no cycle parking. To access the ‘bike hub’ simply get on your bicycle and follow the signs that read ‘CAR PARK THIS WAY – PARKING FOR 600 CARS’. Remember to watch out for drivers of lorries, vans, 4X4s, Audis and BMWs, as these drivers find it particularly difficult to see cyclists.

If your local council is ‘Green’ you might find some cycle stands tucked away around the back of the car park block. These are rarely signed but it is always well worth looking for the waste containers. Remember that most bike stands are traditionally located in close proximity to rubbish.
But seriously, I am interested to learn from the TfL webpage linked above that:
A full report on all Biking Boroughs will be published in 2014 including results, case studies and lessons learned.
We are now almost at the end of 2014, and I have seen no sign of this report. It should be interesting.

I can, however, report on what happened in one borough that was awarded Biking Borough cash: Brent.

Brent was awarded £294,500 of Biking borough funding to be spent in 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14. This was one of the largest awards to any borough. This followed the production of a TfL-funded report for the council on the state of cycling in the borough. Anybody could have told them for free that the state of cycling in the borough was 'dire' or 'virtually non-existent', but this is not how local government works. Every time there is a new project, and any funding to do anything at all, first of all, a large tranche of that funding has to be spent on a report from external consultants that tells you what everyone can see anyway.

The Brent Biking Borough report can be found on the Brent Cyclists website. I am not sure how much this cost to produce, but funding was provided by TfL of 'up to £25,000' for such a study, so it's a fair guess that the cost approached this. I first came across the wonderful world of cycling blogs, literally, when someone pointed me to Freewheeler's devastating critique of the Brent Biking Borough report, amongst the highlights of which were these paragraphs:

This MVA Consultancy report does a professional job of identifying the poor condition of cycling in Brent. However, it doesn’t diagnose it because it is incapable of understanding the reasons for it, and therefore its cures for the condition are rather like medical cures of the pre-modern era – a mixture of quackery and superstition. All the traditional cycling folk remedies are here – cycle training, signposting, promotional activities, recycling old bikes – and none of them will save the patient. 
This report shows no understanding of the central importance of addressing subjective safety. Instead of safe and convenient cycling infrastructure what is really on the cards is developing relationships with parents to ‘encourage’ them to send their children to school on bicycles. 
It won’t work. Cycling will at present only increase to the extent that people can be persuaded to cycle in Outer London traffic. There are few signs that persuasion and minimalist new cycling infrastructure will ever be enough to encourage the surge in cycling which even the Mayor’s deeply unambitious target requires. Cycling in Brent appears every bit as doomed to stagnate as it does in the London Borough of Waltham Forest or in any other Outer London borough.

The report was launched at a 'Stakeholder Engagement Forum' on 3 March 2010 that I attended. I described this event in the April 2010 Brent and Harrow Cyclists Newsletter:

We heard a lot of interesting statistics collected by the consultants, though the gist of most of the important ones are things we already knew or could pretty much have guessed. Facts included here were that the proportion of people cycling to work varies from 0% in much of the north of the borough to over 6% in Kensal Rise, that 90% of Asian residents never cycle, compared with 74% of white residents, and that the highest levels of cycling are amongst middle-income earners. This last came as a surprise to the consultants, but not to us...

The stated objective for the “Biking Borough” is to achieve a 5% modal share of trips by bike (TfL’s statistics say that the modal share is currently 1%). The main problem with this forum, in our view, was a general underplaying, or a lack of understanding, of the role of the physical environment in determining cycling levels. There seemed to be a naive view amongst some, including the consultants, that raising the levels of cycling in Brent would primarily be a matter of promotion or publicity. A concept of a “Cycle Hub” was being discussed, but it was entirely unclear what this was supposed to be. Boris has apparently introduced this concept, but not defined it, and it is up to boroughs to interpret. It seems, however, as if it is not going to be primarily conceived as the provision of physical infrastructure.

Participants were asked if they thought the strategy should focus on trying to get more cycling from communities in Brent that already cycle quite a bit, or on trying to reach the communities that are highly reluctant to cycle, such as the Asians of north Brent. We do not think that making any such choice is desirable. We believe that the cycling environment needs to be improved radically across the whole borough, and that doing this would, pretty much automatically, raise cycling levels in all communities. The measures that need to be taken are well-known, it is a matter of political will and the commitment of funding. The main points we were keen to emphasise were the widely- perceived danger of cycling on Brent’s roads, which will not go away with a bit of promotion, and the lack of cycle permeability of the borough, with the major barriers of the North Circular Road and the railway lines preventing the creation of attractive and safe cycle routes. Until the major funding needed to address these is forthcoming, we do not see much prospect of Brent really becoming a “Biking Borough".
The money that Brent was allocated by TfL under the Biking Borough project was divided up as follows:

Project area
TfL Biking Borough funding to your borough
Cycle Hub
Cycling Communities
Raising the Profile
Total per year

What the headings on the left really meant always remained a mystery to me. But I can tell you that the 'cycle hub' selected was in the south of the borough, in Kensal Green. SKM consultants were engaged for three years to find ways of spending this money around this area (which was already pretty much the highest-cycling area of Brent, owing to it being fairly affluent and only three miles from the West End, and having no major main-road barriers worse than Maida Vale and the Harrow Road, and already a reasonable functioning twisty backstreet London Cycle Network route from the West End (via Hamilton Terrace, Blomfield Avenue and Shirland Road)). They thus thought that in a borough with generally exceptionally cycle-hostile infrastructure, this area would be the easiest nut to crack.

What the 'cycle hub' actually amounted to in the end was the installation of cycle stands, mostly at Kensal Green, Kensal Rise and Queens Park Stations, and other places on the streets, and provision of numerous blue direction signs around Kensal Green, giving cycling mileages to various destinations. The roads were not improved in any way at all, except that there was contemporaneously, and seemingly incidentally, not funded out of the Biking Borough budget, a programme of installing cycle-unfriendly speed cushions and speed tables on residential roads in the area. Cycling remained firmly banned in Queens Park, under the control of the Corporation of London, and so there remained pretty much zero traffic-free space for cycling in the area, and no-where to take kids to teach therm to cycle.

Copious cycle signage supplied as part for the Biking borough Cycle Hub in Kensal Rise
There was an attempt by the consultants and the council to identify some permeability measures that could be implemented on minor roads in the area. They whittled it down to three possible schemes:
  1. Tidying up of an exiting messy road-closure in Hazel Road, near Kensal Green Station, and formally allowing cycle passage through it;
  2. Removing or modifying the barrier in the centre of Brondesbury Park (a road) between the two halves of Christchurch Avenue (two side roads) to allow cycling between these two roads, currently blocked along with the passage of all other traffic in an existing anti-rat-running scheme;
  3. Allowing contraflow cycling on Clifford Gardens, just north of Kensal Rise Station.
Tiny and profoundly unambitious, or 'realistic', if you will, as these schemes were, none of them were realised. The reasons are too tedious to go into at length.

Possible scheme 1:Road closure in Hazel Road, bikes formally banned, no dropped kerb at far end
I mentioned Number 1 in a previous post, The red tape that strangles cycling provision. The red tape strangled this tiny proposed change. Though the bit of digging and kerbstone-lying required would only have taken a couple of men half a day to do, it would, apparently, have been too expensive to change the traffic order. (Some of the professional opinions on that latter post were that it should not have been, and that Brent officers were interpreting procedure or the law wrongly, but I cannot adjudicate on that. I can just tell you it did not happen.)

Possible scheme 2: Christchurch Avenue barrier in Brondesbury Park: an easy-to-fix snag that eluded solution under the Biking Borough /Cycle Hub projects
Scheme number two produced another set of meetings and a consultant's report, which proposed a bad fudge that no-one liked, and again that scheme never made progress. The consultant's suggestion of widening the barrier to create a cycling refuge in the middle of Brondesbury Park would just have created more problems for cyclists on that road. The solution for that location was clearly, and still is, clearly, for the barrier in the middle of the main road to be moved to one of the side roads, and for a cycle gap to be made into it there, with maybe a combined cycle-pedestrian crossing of Brondesbury Park to aid cyclists in getting across from one side road to the other. But that would be a change to the traffic system, with changes to allowed movements in and out of the side roads. Though this change would not necessarily be 'anti-car', car movements here are restricted by the current setup, Brent officers believed they would not win any consultation of residents in the area on such a change, which they believed firmly could be painted as being 'anti-car'. So nothing has happened, despite children and staff at Malorees Primary School in Christchurch Avenue, a school which is doing its bit to encourage cycling, wanting a route across here. This should have been a classic 'easy win' for cycling, but it couldn't be achieved in the three years of Bikling borough funding, though it remains on the Brent Cyclists Space for Cycling 'Ward Asks' wish-list.

Possible scheme 3: Clifford Gardens
Scheme 3, the contraflow on Clifford Gardens, a side-road off Chamberlayne Road, planned to connect with an existing contraflow (one of the few in Brent) on Bathurst Gardens, got further than all the others. Though there were doubts amonsts some cyclists as to how well this might work, with parking on both sides of this narrow road, and a need, if it the scheme were implemenred, for cyclists to face down some fast rat-running traffic in the confined space, it was supportyed by Brent Cyclists, as really the last hope of getting anything concrete out of the Biking Borough project, and it was designed and went to consultation. The results of the consultation were 52% in favour, 48% against. Brent Council decided that this was too close a margin, and abandoned the project.

It's worth reminding ourselves now that in 2011, in a letter to Brent's then Head of Transport, Ben Plowden of TfL wrote:
Your funding bid has now been evaluated against the following criteria:
  • Demonstration of local political and stakeholder commitment to increasing levels of cycling;
  • Evidence that the measures proposed will achieve a step change in levels of cycling and offer good value for money;
  • Deliverability by March 2014.
I am pleased to confirm that a total of £294,500 has been awarded to your borough to fund proposals relating to the development of Cycle Hubs, Cycling Communities and Raising the Profile of Cycling locally as set out in Table 1 below. I would like to congratulate you on the scope and quality of your bid.
So even where a consultation was won, on the last-ditch attempt to push some change through using the Biking Borough cash, Brent Council turned back. So much for the 'local political commitment to increasing levels of cycling'. So much for the 'proposed changes'. So much for the 'step change in levels of cycling and good value for money'.

The £294,500 awarded to Brent disappeared into promotional activities (such as dubious victim-blaming things like "Exchanging Places"), some funding for training courses and Sky Rides, and production of a promotional booklet about cycling in Brent, which contained basic errors, like a map that showed a route that did not physically exist, and promoted the dubious ideas that cyclists were safest using cycle infrastructure where available and that they should always wear a helmet.

I can't say anything about the Biking Borough projects in the other twelve boroughs. But the way the Biking borough played out in Brent was a scandal. The £300,000 went down the drain, emptied into the pockets of consultants and the people who made the blue signs, so purposeless in the absence of meaningful subjectively-safe routes on the roads they signposted. Only the few thousands of pounds spent on the cycle stands could be said to have been possibly money well-spent.

A few stainless steel Sheffield racks are the only infrastructural legacy of the Brent Biking borough project
The £300,000 went down the drain because it was 'calamitously inadequate' to the task in hand, and nothing it could have been spent on would have caused substantial progress in raising Brent's cycling level from the existing 1% modal share to the Mayor's target of 5%. But it had to be spent, so it had to be wasted. After the money for the studies, money for leaflets, money to pay the lorries to come and do 'Exchanging Places', money for the events organisation and for the trainers was taken out, there was too little left, divided three ways between three tiny infrastructure schemes in a small (and anyway already relatively cycle-friendly) area of the borough, far from the disastrous cycling environment of the North Circular and the suburbs beyond, to even achieve those tiny schemes, given councillor-level indifference and officer-level timidity.

The Biking Borough project left Brent exactly as it had been before for cycling. Because it was such a small amount of money, I suppose no-one really cared about it. Boris's second term cycling strategy looks far better, because Andrew Gilligan has removed much of the fluff around 'cycle hubs' , 'cycling communities' and 'raising the profile', and directed a much larger investment into much clearer infrastructure objectives.

The three Outer London mini-Holland schemes in Walthamstow, Enfield and Kingston are each getting about a hundred times the Brent Biking Borough allocation. This is enough to matter, enough to make a difference, if spent wisely, and enough for people to care about getting wasted. On the other hand, some of the issues that bedevilled Brent's biking borough could come back to haunt the current mini-Holland and Quietway projects, and they should not be neglected. The Brent failure needs to be learned from, and I await this promised report into the overall effectiveness of the Biking Boroughs with much interest. Even if a sensible amount of money is provided to change an area of car-dominated Outer London, and even if it is not, this time, divided up into such small parts that nothing useful can actually be done with it, the same risks exist, of council double-speak, consultant opportunism, lack of engineering and administrative competence, timidity and foot-dragging, to waste it all again.

Four years after the Biking Borough study, and two years after its mini-Holland bid failed, Brent is conducting a survey to inform a new cycling strategy. There appears to be no limit to the amount of paper that can be pushed before we get the real infrastructural change in Brent that everyone interested in the subject can see we need. Since the end of Ken Livingstone's LCN+ project in 2008, not a single, tiny piece of cycling infrastructure has been built in the Biking Borough of Brent.