Monday, 3 October 2011

Will 'hating' cyclists be acceptable until cycling gets a proper place in the city?

Get out of the way! Montreal-style.
Rouleravelo blog
"I hate cyclists. Get a car!" tweeted Danny Care, Harlequins rugby player last week.

A few weeks ago, the residents of the Barbican held a Community Partnership Meeting with the local community policing team.

Two issues were on the agenda. Rough sleepers. And 'cyclists'.  The evening was spent listening to comments like this: "Pedal cycle offences have got worse since the last meeting – especially with Boris Bikes." Or "I was assaulted by a pedal cyclist and informed police but nothing was done.

Then this weekend I was at a party near Notting Hill, not my normal stomping ground. 'You're not one of those cyclists who [insert self-righteous exclamation along the lines of runs red lights, weaves in and out of traffic, rides with ear phones, doesn't wear a helmet, hi-viz. The list goes on]...?"

War on Germany's streets
And the list goes on.

These sorts of comments are depressingly familiar to the people I know who cycle. I think it is socially acceptable to deride people for cycling and accuse them of all sorts of abuses. I can't help wondering whether one reason for this is government pandering to motorists as if they were unfairly oppressed . In London, the Mayor, although he talks a lot about his cycling revolution, doesn't care to give cycling genuine priority on London's streets. We get some blue paint and are expected to fling ourselves through junctions designed for faster-moving motor vehicles, just the same way we were before the Super Highways came long.

Meanwhile, in other countries a real debate is going on about exactly who the roads are for, with Germany's Der Spiegel making it the main feature of one edition last month.

A very interesting case is Montreal, home of the Bixi, the original version of London's cycle hire bike. I've cycled a lot in Montreal. It's laid out like a typical North American city, wide streets, multiple lanes in each direction, fairly sprawling. Lots and lots of cars. Many of the streets look like the one pictured above. Fairly normal for London as well, in other words.

And yet, over the years, Montreal has been changing its streets. Lanes have been taken from motor traffic, junctions redesigned and bollards installed to keep motor traffic well away from people cycling. It's not perfect but it's lightyears ahead of London.

The Montreal Gazette ran a piece a few weeks ago about what these changes mean to people on the city's streets.

The first chunk of that article feels depressingly familiar: "Cyclists had to take on a different mentality; some would say they had to act like cowboys. We became cowboys because there was no place for cyclists in the city. We'd go through intersections on walk signals; no one wanted us on the roads, so we'd follow the rules of the sidewalk. We'd go on green lights with a no-walk signal; no one wanted us on the sidewalk either, so we'd follow the rules of the road. We had to jostle our way between parked cars and speeding traffic, keeping a careful eye out for parked cars opening doors."

Sounds very similar to the sorts of comments being made at that Barbican community policing meeting, really. But notice, these comments are made in the past tense. Because what stands out is this: ""We became cowboys because there was no place for cyclists in the city".

Montreal - giving cycling a place in the city.
Rouleravelo blog
I think that comment is true of London at the moment. When you look at any road scheme in London, what you see is cycling getting a few scraps here and there and being told to fit in around motor vehicles. 

What's been happening in Montreal, meanwhile, is this: "an incredible network of appropriate bicycle paths has been built, giving access to a growing population of urban bicyclists".  

And guess what: "With this transformation there is a slow but sure change in the mentality of cyclists.
We now have a dedicated place on the roads. With this newly established sense of place comes pride for our space and a desire to hold onto it and ensure that these paths are not taken away from us.

Give us time to grow into our new place and police us to make sure we follow the rules of the road. Let the younger generation grow up in a city where cycling has a proper place, and you'll see the cowboys in us slowly settle down."

I often feel like a second-class citizen when I cycle in London. I can't help thinking it's time the Mayor gave cycling a proper place in our city and let us become normal citizens. Danny Care would find it harder to 'hate' us. And so would plenty of other people.

That's yet another reason, I will be attending the Flashride on Blackfriars Bridge at 17.45, Wednesday 12 October. For more details click here.