Thursday, 27 January 2011

Herding cats: Why we need to shout with a single voice and why no one else is going to do it for us

I posted earlier this week about Moor Lane, a road in the City of London that is going to be redesigned to slow traffic and make it a generally nicer place to be. I'm dubious about whether or not the redesign will make life any nicer for cycling.

That aside, what really interested me was the way that the City of London went about securing public support for the scheme. It sent leaflets to residents and asked for representations from the developers and other property interests around the site. All fair and well. A total 248 people wrote back.

I suspect - and I can only suspect - that of those 248 responses, very few of them would mention cycling.

That's because very few people cycle.

Now, imagine that the same process is happening all over the country, every time a local council has money to spend on transport schemes. If you assume fewer than 2% of people are bicycle users, then you've got to assume that public support will very rarely think about how a scheme might impact on cycling. It's just basic numbers, really.

Now, let's combine that reality with another way that local government gets feedback from its local community. And that is in the form of some sort of local representative meeting. I've written about a typical local police priority meeting in the Barbican before . Once again, those are meetings that are dominated by people who don't use bicycles. In fact, at the meetings I've been to, I'd say most people attending were long since retired and had very trenchant views about people on bicyles.

Take a look at the sorts of minutes that are taken at local consultation meetings over in Westminster and you'll see that the issue of cycling, if it comes up, is an entirely negative issue:

"The key concerns you raised at the forum included: the behaviour of cyclists and their safety on the road; measures to control pedicabs; parking policy and management of roadworks"


"The key issues you raised included: the need for more effective residents' parking....; south bound traffic congestion on Baker Street...; Illegal riding of cycles on footways and through red traffic signals; poor air quality on Marylebone Road"

Our efforts to get the City of London to stop treating bicycle use as a catch-all for sustainability and start treating it with a proper strategy that makes it safer and more sensible to use a bicycle seem to be creating a stir. Which is great.

But the more I speak to people - whether they are people who use bicycles or local politicians or local transport officials - the more I realise that the UK needs a complete and utter overhaul of its discourse on things cycling-related.

Two of us stood on Blackfriars Bridge this morning handing out flyers to encourage people on bicycles to write into the City of London and put their views across. And we had some success. But a number of people on bicycles took issue with the fact that we are asking for space to be allocated from motor vehicles to bicycles. I posted this very issue on a web chat site and was laid into by a whole host of cyclists who complained about things like a) bike lanes mean I'll have to go slower b) bike lanes are dangerous c) why would I cycle to the pub, d) my bike will get nicked e) London's roads are 'too narrow' for bicycles and the list goes on.

Sometimes, you feel a bit hammered from both sides.

We need strong leadership to get things moving in a cycle-friendly direction.

The government isn't giving it. It has decided to push responsibility down to local authorities. Which is great if you live and work somewhere like Hackney. Hackney is quite happy to state things like "The Council provides strong political support for cycling" and to set sensible, achievable goals for cycling.

But if you live in Westminster, the council's transport plan is effectively saying (in my view), that cycling = cycle hire docking station and cycle parking. It doesn't feel like much of a strategy to allow people to feel they have the option of cycling. Just read the comments from Wesminster council surgeries, though, and it's hardly suprising that this particular local council might feel cycling is something it just doesn't want to support in any meaningful way.

The problem is no one else in government wants to support cycling in any meaningful way either.

So the question I mull when I jump on my bicycle to head home is how to help make things change. Our efforts with the City of London are definitely creating waves. Nearly 100 of you have written in to the City and expressed what you think is wrong with their strategy for cycling (namely, there isn't one). We've had vicars, bankers, lawyers, accountants and all sorts of people stand up for making the Square Mile somewhere they would actually like to cycle in. We have been invited to talk to people at the London Assembly (more on that next week I hope) and we have secured corporate support from two sizeable, well-known companies that will remain nameless for now. But we need to consolidate around a single loud and shouting voice.

For my part, I'm going to this at the weekend. And I hope some of you might feel inspired to as well. If you can't make that, then at least write to the City of London while we have a few more weeks left to note our concerns.

It's going to be a bit like herding cats, I suspect. But it's important.