Monday, 30 April 2012

Today's cyclesafe hustings: It felt to me that Boris Johnson either doesn't understand why he hasn't got the cyclist vote or he thinks the anti-cycling vote is more important. That could cause all sorts of problems if he wins this week.

The Mayoral candidates at today's The Times & Sustrans
#cyclesafe hustings
The Times newspaper and Sustrans hosted a hustings of five Mayoral candidates in London this afternoon.

I think the surprise of the day was Brian Paddick who came out fighting on the issue of safe walking and cycling for families, stressing that this must be a prioirity over 'speeding' motor traffic. Ken Livingstone was more articulate and better informed than I had expected and seemed to know his stuff on cycling issues. It may have been a throwaway comment but I was interested to hear Ken Livingstone suggest cycling should make up 10-15% of all road journeys in London. That is significantly more than rather vague 5% target by 2026 goal set by the current Mayor.

What really threw me, however, was just how badly Boris Johnson misjudged the room. The Times summarised the mood with this killer paragraph:

"Despite a Leader in The Times on Saturday which affirmed that cyclists “are not a special interest group. They are you, and us, and everybody,” Mr Johnson said: “I can humbly say to you, I may not conform to your idea of a stereotypical cyclist: I do not have whippet-thin brown legs or dreadlocks, I do not charge around in lycra, I do not jump lights […] but I ask you to recognise that I have cycling in my heart. I love cycling I think it is a wonderful and I will continue to invest in cycling.”

The editor of The Times happens to use a bike too, as do I. I'm not sure I have whippet-thin brown legs, would love to have dreadlocks (but don't) and only charge around in lycra at the weekends. The rest of the time, I'm zipping to work in a shirt. On a bike.

So where on earth did this sudden cyclists-are-lycra-toting-red-light-jumpers rant come from?

Boris Johnson could quite easily have wooed the cycling crowd at today's hustings. He did slip in one piece of good news - a commitment to create a cycling commissioner role at Transport for London. But he could have explained how, for example, London is slowly learning to build cycling into the fabric of the city (and my sense is that process is slowly happening. It's not perfect but Transport for London is certainly starting to make the right noises) He could have talked with real passion about the on-going junction review for which he personally secured £15million from the chancellor. Or he could have talked in more detail about the cycle hire scheme, how and where he plans to extend it. Last week he even came out in full support of the London Cycling Campaign's three GoDutch initiatives.

But he didn't go into detail on any of the potential positives for cycling in his campaign. Instead, he spent the whole hour on the defensive, explaining (fairly poorly) his policy of 'smoothing the traffic flow', a policy which Brian Paddick has described as 'killing people'. He talked a lot about how Ken Livingstone would deny London the investment it needs for transport infrastucture (valid point but it took up way too much of his argument). And he rejected a return to a 'road user hierarchy' - a Ken era policy that placed pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users above private motor vehicle users.

At no point did Boris Johnson seem to realise that he had a room full of people who would love to get behind a cycling Mayor, someone who could enable, say, London's family to cycle their kids to school rather than drive. I had the impression he still genuinely believes the statement he made last year when he said that cycling around somewhere like Elephant & Castle is 'fine. If you keep your wits about you, Elephant & Castle is perfectly negotiable. I want people to feel confident. The cycle superhighways are about building confidence."

Boris Johnson is clearly passionate about using a bike. But I had the distinct sense today that he really only understood cycling in the context of himself. He didn't show that he understood why ten thousand people took to their bikes in the rain on Saturday to show support for safer cycling in London. I almost wondered if he realises that cyclists come in all shapes, sizes and political colours. And that they want a Mayor who better understands why they want to cycle instead of drive. They're not anti-car, they're just people who want the choice not to have to use their cars as much.

I'm fairly certain that Boris Johnson will win the Mayorlty this week. He has the opportunity to use his junction review, extension of the bike hire scheme and the new cycle super highway plans to shift things up a gear or two. But he needs to come down much more clearly on the side of people who use bicycles. He failed to achieve that at The Times's hustings and came out instead with something more like a rant than a coherent message that shows he really believes cycling is a serious mode of transport in London. That's a shame. Because if he does win, we need him to continue to support cycling, not switch off the cycling agenda. My sense today was that Boris Johnson doesn't understand why he hasn't got the cyclist vote. We will have to hope he doesn't decide to abandon the cyclist vote if he wins this week.

You can watch a summary of the debate on this well-balanced BBC report here. Watching it made me wonder whether Boris Johnson wasn't deliberately winding up the cyclist vote to try and appeal to a wider non-cycling audience. It certainly feels that way when you watch the clip.