Sunday, 29 January 2012

'My ward has been the scene of too much tragedy. Four cyclists have died in the last two years within a two-minute walk of my home'. The response to this situation in Southwark by its Labour council is utterly irresponsible


Welcome to Southwark. Four lanes for motors. Err, none for cycling
Last week, a LibDem councillor in Southwark council stood up and said this:

"My ward has been the scene of too much tragedy. Four cyclists have died in the last two years within a two-minute walk of my home"

That councillor is Mark Gettleson of Bermondsey. The debate was about the environment and talked specifically about cycling safety.

Gettleston added this point: "This is not a party issue, but it does require political bravery, responsibility and vision." He was highly critical of the fact that Hackney borough has cycling rates of 10 per cent and called Southwark 'utterly pathetic' for having a vision of increasing cycling from 3 to only 4% of road trips by 2016.

In fact, that puts Southwark behind even the City of London which expects 10% of people to cycle to work by 2020.

I think that the 'bravery' he is referring to, is the bravery that our councillors need if they ever hope to change the way London's streets work. I have spent much of my free time over the last year meeting politicians all across inner London. All of them feel that cycling is a good thing, that it can solve all sorts of transport and health issues. But my opinion is that the politicians are scared of calling for safe cycling and for safer streets. It's a kind of weird we-know-that-you-know-that-we-know situation. The politicians I have met - and that includes London Assembly Members, Westminster MPs and local politicians from four political parties - have all backed safer cycling and proper bike infrastructure. But only one or two has been prepared to call publicly for radical change to the way people get about London. So far. (I can think of one huge exception to this statement and he's a politician in Newham.)

In that context, I wasn't at all surprised by the backward-looking and feeble response of Peter John, Labour leader of Southwark council who defended his council's extremely poor cycling targets and by Councillor Barry Hargrove,  saying that rather than build proper bike infrastructure the council will focus on "equipping cyclists with the skills to interact with other traffic rather than building a network of segregated routes."

Cycling training is good and sensible. But it won't encourage mums, dads, kids, grandparents, workers, doctors and the public in general to get out on their bikes.

Councillor Peter John - will your policies encourage these kids
to bike to school? No chance. Will it increase road deaths? Quite possibly.
In what other walk of life is it acceptable to close your mind and say, oh well, let's just get the cyclists to wear helmets, wear hi-viz, have more training, make the HGVs have warning alarms, add HGV mirrors at traffic lights. At what point do we stop adding ridiculous sticking plaster to the problems? The problems are many - congested streets, polluted air, children who can't walk or bike to school, old people can't cross the street, shops give up on our high streets because they've been turned into traffic corridors. I'm not suggesting cycling is the sole solution to these issues but it certainly has a large part to play in inner London.

I have one message to say to Southwark council. And it's very simple. Rather astonishingly, this is a message that was carried by columnist Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday a couple of weeks ago.

"I think our roads are statistically safer largely because soft targets, particularly child cyclists, have almost entirely retreated from them. But the roads are not really safer. It’s just that people have learned to avoid them unless they themselves go out in armour, and have narrowed their lives as a  result."

Labour councillors in Southwark: you are preparing your borough for more car-ownership, for more pollution, for more congestion, for an increase in the number of road deaths. And you worsen all of our lives as a result. You are preparing a Southwark in which the roads will be safer because you are making people retreat from them. Harsh but, I think, true.

As Councillor Gettleson implies, I fear that the Labour councillors in Southwark lack political bravery, responsibility and vision.