Thursday, 28 July 2016

Five years ago

Five years ago today the video below was issued by London Cycling Campaign as part of a consultation exercise with its members to find out what their preferred campaign might be for the 2012 London Mayoral election. In it, I argued that the key first step towards mass cycling is the provision of high-quality segregated cycle tracks on main roads. This overwhelming support this concept gained from the membership led directly to the Love London, Go Dutch campaign, the commitments secured from Boris Johnson, his Mayor's Vision for Cyclingand the system of quality segregated cycle tracks we now see starting to be developed on the main roads of London, so conspicuously enabling all-abilites, 'eight to eighty' cycling in places where this had not be dreamed of before. So I am proud of this.

This is not to decry the proposers of the other three possible campaigns mooted in the video. They all make excellent points. But it was a matter of what was the best, most effective strategy for us to pursue at the stage we were at (and largely still are) in our development of a utility cycling system and culture in London.

In the video, the first proposed theme, that of getting larger numbers of children cycling to school, was an objective, not a mechanism. There was no contradiction or competition with my proposal there because the one was necessary for the other. A very large number of schools are only accessed on major roads that would need segregated cycle infrastructure in order to get kids and parents cycling to them. Other schools in other places would require different treatments of the roads around them. But putting a social result of good cycling infrastructure forward to be the campaign itself was not quite logical. And one might be struck by the fact that for a demonstrator background to that bit of video, a temporary 'artificial' situation was used, of the FreeCycle (then called SkyRide) ride round London where children do indeed come out cycling in large numbers because the roads are closed for a few hours. In contrast, the background to my segment was the real, permanent situation created by the Torrington Place cycle track in Bloomsbury (which was doubled in capacity last year).

The third proposal, for 'unwinding urban gyratories,' also contained a fallacy: the idea that merely making these major roads two-way would be of great benefit to cyclists and pedestrians, would actually transform them into pleasant places to be, without measures to also reduce the total motor traffic. I've dealt with that one here, and I think we've moved beyond this concept in policy terms now. I pointed out long ago how, where in it was tried in practice, for example in Piccadilly, the simple unwinding of gyratory systems proved to be no good for pedestrians or cyclists.

Then the final proposal, Love thy neighbourhood, for a campaign for area-wide traffic motor removal schemes through modal filtering, did of course advocate a policy that is essential to creating a truly people-friendly city. But it can never be the primary solution for cycling on the road grid that we already have, because we can't get rid of all the motor traffic arteries that most real cycle trips will need to use for part of the journey. A comprehensive application of Love thy neighbourhood principles would, at best, lead to a series of separate small districts in which cycling was an attractive option, cut off from one another by still-hostile main roads.

Then, proposing this as the first step from where we were, also, I hold, badly underestimated the huge political challenge of creating these calmed neighbourhoods in a political climate where most people cannot imagine everyday transport by bicycle and believe in general that having all possible routes for motor vehicles open is a good thing. The  Quietway element of The Mayor's Vision hit precisely this snag. It turned out, as I expected, that it was actually poltically far easier to carve space for cycling out of main roads by physical segreagtion, than it was to create routes on minor roads by closing rat-runs. Those who depend on car transport typically only think their street should be quieted. The next one, and the next one... they should all be  rat-runs to allow them to get places fast. This is a fundamental problem. We have seen that there is not yet political consensus on the general desirability and practicality of low-traffic residential areas in London.

We've seen that again and again, in Lambeth (Loughborough Road area), Camden (West Kentish Town), Hackney (London Fields) and so on, where progressive proposals from boroughs for area-wide traffic reduction in residential districts have been defeated by opponents. But, judging from consultation results, and also conversations I have with politicians, we do have consensus that main roads should allow protected space for cycling. We need the calmed neighbourhoods as well, of course, for many reasons beyond cycling, but it looks like being a while still before that argument can be generally won. Then again, a main point about the 2012 campaign was we were trying to influence the Mayor, and he controlled not the neighbourhood roads, but the major ones. So it made sense for the campaign to be calling for stuff that he could bring about directly.

The point about the main road treatments is they really do generate new users, they get people out of their cars and off the buses and tubes, and start to build up the mass of influence we need to get the other, more difficult changes through. That's why attempting to start with the other stuff wouldn't be very effective. That's why I stressed in the video: This is the first step to generating a real, mass cycling culture. The propaganda power of the cycle track carved in granite out of what was previously space ruled by motors is huge, and immediately comprehended by those who have never thought about this subject before, in a way that filtered permeability just isn't. In other words, as Paul Gannon said to me back in the last century: people cycling on separate tracks on busy roads make other people think I could could do that too to a far greater extent than any other engineering measure or piece of promotion does.

The proof of all this seems to me to be amply demonstrated by what we see on the roads of Central London today. Mind you, I never expected to see the scene that was videoed by Wayne David last Saturday at the Embankment, site of the East-West Cycle Superhighway, the route for which I first suggested to Andrew Gilligan, the future Mayor's Cycling Commissioner, in 2012.

Clearly this was not the normal usage of the Embankment even on a busy day for cycling. Bike Biz tried to get to the bottom of what it actually was: seemingly a semi-organised, semi-counter-cultural, semi-commercial youth street 'happening'. It attracted criticism, but I cannot but agree with one commentator on the BikBiz article, who wrote:
Looks like they've done a better job at getting young people on bikes than all of the government schemes put together...
They may have been preparing for the RideLondon FreeCycle this Saturday. This annual mass ride around closed streets in Central London has existed for many years under various names and sponsors. It was first suggested to the then Mayor, Ken Livingstone, by LCC. I've been somewhat negative about this event in the past: of the 2011 event, then called Sky Ride, I wrote:
In this event, a seven mile circuit of central London streets is given over exclusively to bikes for a few hours once a year, cyclists are dressed up like yellow canaries for no apparent reason except to unwillingly advertise Sky Sports, and a huge number of obstructive barriers is erected around The Mall to prevent anybody from conveniently walking anywhere, enforced by a huge number of paid-for-the-day officious event staff who shout orders at you and tell you what a good time you are having.
I saw it as  rather tokenistic and an excuse for the Mayor not taking decisive action to make cycling an everyday option for Londoners:
To expect Sky Ride to encourage more people to cycle under everyday London traffic conditions is like expecting the experience of taking a cross-channel ferry to encourage people to swim the channel. It unrealistic, as the conditions are so profoundly different.
But from where I sit now, having seen the changes since then, I reckon I was a bit harsh. Perhaps these events, though demonstrating the suppressed demand, did contribute to generating the political pressure that brought our present infrastructure programme into being. And, strangely enough, I am quite looking forward to this weekend's event. It looks far better than ever before, with a route that does not use the same roads there and back, as in the past, but is a real loop round, with various interesting alternatives to explore, using in part the new East-West Superhighway, but closing a lot of other roads to motor traffic besides. And, of course, if you are lucky enough to come from an appropriate direction, you can use a Superhighway to get there.

Maybe I will see you there. Look out for the Vole!

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