Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Boris Johnson. I'm still hugely critical of his smoothing the traffic flow policy. But I feel he is starting to get serious about putting cycling at the heart of his decision-making in his next term. The cycling 'lobby' needs to work with him if he wins.

This morning's The Sun. Appealing to white van men but
from the saddle of a bicycle. Unifying or divisive?
Yesterday, Andrew Gilligan, correspondent in The Telegraph argued that the debate around cycling in this year's Mayoral election has become too party-political: "Cycle lobbyists need to put themselves in the heads of a non-cyclist or politician most of whose voters aren’t cyclists, asking why we should arrange the streets for the 2 per cent who cycle rather than the 98 per cent who drive or take the bus. (I’m not saying I agree with this view, by the way, but that is the political reality we have to consider.) The way to win arguments is to stress what better cycle facilities can do for London as a whole – reducing crowding on the Tube, for example – rather than just for cyclists, who are not the world’s most popular people." He went on to criticise charities like Sustrans and the London Cycling Campaign for 'endorsing' political parties that they regard as being pro-cycling.

Andrew Gilligan's conclusion seems to be that the 'cycling lobby' isn't ready to play a mature role in London's future. He says that if Boris Johnson is re-elected, as all the polls suggest, "he might reasonably think what’s the point of trying to please these people if all they do is ignore, or misrepresent, my record?"

I think Gilligan is wrong to criticise Sustrans and the London Cycling Campaign for having an opinion on the cycling policies of the political parties. I think that is part of their job.

But I do agree with him that the cycling movement needs more clearly embrace people who don't yet cycle and that it must also embrace politicians across all political parties. Look at other movements, say the gay rights movement, which lobbied across all political parties for years, in some cases having to hold its stance as part of a very heated and sometimes toxically nasty political debate. In fact, in the first Mayoral election, it was a Conservative candidate, Steven Norris, who forced positive debate on the issue as part of his candidacy.

People cycling to work in the Square Mile. Look
left-wing to you? Or right-wing? Or neither?
My own experience is that many in the cycling lobby are slightly left of centre. But that doesn't mean that 'cyclists' are left of centre. The fact is that 'cyclists' are just people who may or may not be left-wing or right-wing. The reality is that they are just people living in London and trying to get about on bicycles.

My other observation is that the cycling agenda has changed hugely in the last couple of years. The Guardian asked yesterday whether we are seeing the birth of the "cyclist vote" in these elections. The BBC has also noticed the shift with an excellent report here which remarks on the fact that this is the first time cycling has ever been a serious topic for debate in an election.

To some extent I think Boris Johnson has actually helped accelerate the development of the 'cycling vote' in the first place. I disagree with the headline of an article in the Daily Mail which states: "The Cycling revolution? How Boris courted and then lost the ever-growing cycling lobby". I'm not sure Boris Johnson ever really courted the cycling lobby. I think Boris Johnson has very publicly supported the idea of the bicycle as transport mode. And in doing so, he has helped create a debate around what cycling should look like on our streets. That's not the same as courting the cycling lobby.

During The Times's cyclesafe hustings this week, Boris Johnson committed to a some initiatives that he hadn't mentioned in public before. British Cycling is the only cycling body I'm aware of that has reported these points in detail, here. He talked about the fact that he is already lobbying the Department for Justice on tougher sentencing for road crimes. That is a significant move and something that cyclists should support him on. It could have repercussions for Londoners as well as cyclists all over the country. He talked too about the creation of a "cycling commissioner" and about cycling being represented on his proposed London Roads Taskforce. Although he stopped short of having a permanent cycling representative on the board of Transport for London, these measures do suggest he is putting cycling at the heart of the decision-making process about London's streets, in a way that it has not been represented in his first term, or in previous Mayoral regimes.

He is also going full-steam ahead with his Junction Review. I am involved in the workings of that Review and sworn to confidentiality about it. What I've seen so far is a serious effort by Transport for London to implement some real and meaningful changes to some of London's main road junctions in a way that would make them not quite Copenhagen standard but would certainly be a huge step in the right direction. I'll caveat that positive comment by warning that we still haven't seen what solutions Transport for London will ultimately choose (will we end up with the cheap and quick road schemes or with the ones that could really change our streets?) and it may be a year or even three years before some of these things are ever implemented.

In summary, I'm still very critical of the way that the Mayor allows Transport for London to implement his 'smoothing the traffic flow' agenda. I agree with his opponents that the implementation of this policy means more road casualties and that it means nastier and more aggressive streets. I fundamenally disagree with him that places like Elephant & Castle are fine to cycle around. If you're youngish, fit and (probably) male, then you might think you can chance it. If you've got your kids to worry about or you're a bit older or you simply don't fancy having to cycle at 20mph, these environments simply aren't 'fine' to cycle around. What's more, I think that Boris Johnson is failing to set ouf a vision of what London might look like with less motor traffic, less congestion and less pollution. He clearly doesn't feel that's an option. I think he's wrong and he should be planning ways to reduce London's unnecessary dependence on motor traffic.

Please don't read this as an endorsement of Boris Johnson. Or as an endorsement of any other candidate.
But if Boris Johnson is going to win this week's election, then the cycling 'lobby' (as Andrew Gilligan calls it) must not position itself as anti-Boris Johnson. I disagree very strongly with some key tenets of his road policies. But I also think it's important we acknowledge, as British Cycling has done, that Boris Johnson has committed to some good and positive cycling initiatives in his campaign, ones I would very much like to see happen. If Boris Johnson does win, then the 'cycling lobby' will need to work with those initiatives and help to make them happen, not line itself up against them.


If you're undecided how to vote tomorrow, the following organisations have summaries of the cycling manifestos of each candidate:

Londoners on Bikes

London Cycling Campaign

British Cycling


  1. Good article and agree with you. There has been ill feeling towards Boris in recent days over his position on cycling, probably down to his choice of words in various debates and the fact he was the last of the main candidates to commit to the LCC Go Dutch campaign. The point of a "lobby group" is to try and influence policy. You can only do that by working with the policy makers.

    I have no fear that if Boris wins then the LCC, Londoners on bikes etc, the groups that form the cyclists lobby will continue to put friendly pressure on the Mayor's office to follow through with the promises made.

    My concern, is that like last time, the main policy will again be to smooth traffic flow and any plans to improve cycling will again be superficial.

  2. May I be the first to say in regards to Boris's (and any other candidates pledges for that matter), i'll believe it when I see it.

    Boris's first term has not been without ambition for cycling, but it has been severely short sighted and more about trying to bolt on mass cycling (hire bikes) and additional infrastructure ('superhighways') onto the existing transport system. On both counts they have proved to have limited success (the bikes) or have been woefully poor (superhighways).

    What Boris has been slow to realise is that the debate moved far more quickly than he anticipated and his pet projects were left looking pitifully meagre. I think he's finally getting the message, but until he (or any of the other candidates) grapples with the issue of reallocating road space, questioning unnecessary car use and raising awareness of the responsibilities of all road users to ensure each other's safety (not just shoving all the responsibility back onto cyclists) then I will withhold my judgement. Results count, not platitudes.

  3. Gilligan is right to point out no politician is going to favour the 2% over the other 98%. I believe the Dutch faced the same problem back in the 70's when they were lobbying for safer roads. They focused on the children with their Stop de Kindermoord, explained rather well by David Hembrow

    A good proportion of those 98% are parents and would like their children to be able to cycle to school safely.

    That is the best way to improve the lot of cyclists and pedestrians and reduce the carnage on the roads.

  4. One point very few people consider is that there may be some influence by Members of the London Assembly (if there is a hung Assembly)when it comes to setting the mayoral Budget.
    In such a case it would be desirable to have as many Green MLAs as possible.

    So think aboutb that after consideration of Mayor and the constituency MLAs.

  5. Best part of this blog entry is the info that you're involved in the junction reviews.

    Well done on whatever triggered that - I'm glad that there is at least one voice of sanity looking at things.

  6. Steve Norris recently told me: "I see encouraging much more cycling as an important priority for the Mayor in London. As part of the delivery strategy I see an extensive and interconnected collection of safe routes as being valuable. Any work to that end has and will continue to have my support." Echoing the last comment, good news that you are involved with the junction review.

  7. I think cyclists are angry because Boris has made it clear he doesn't really care about our safety. When confronted with official statistics showing an increased casualty rate he simply refuses to acknowledge them, instead deliberately trying to muddy the waters with some other misleading set of stats which happens to show him in a good light. These aren't the actions of a man who takes the issue seriously.

    I know he's probably going to win and we're going to have to pretend to respect him in order to get anywhere, but personally I'd like him to earn that respect first. He could start by showing that he possesses enough basic humanity to want to make our roads genuinely safe to cycle on, even if it happens to irritate the more ignorant motor-heads out there. So far he has completely abdicated responsibility, and we are paying for it with our lives and limbs.

  8. This post is spot on. The flaw with all this analysis and declarations of who we should vote for (and more dangerously, as you say, who we shouldn't vote for) is that I doubt anyone will vote purely on cycling matters. (I'm tempted to say that if you do - shame on you for being so uninterested in the many other issues that face us all as Londoners.) We cannot simply pretend that cycling should be the new Mayor's only priority; or suggest that our needs are more important than people who drive. (Have people who suggest that Boris' priority is cars ever tried driving in London?!) Instead, the benefits we believe cycling brings have to be sold to those who don't do it or see it as a sustainable form of transport. This means a sober, sometimes slightly boring analysis of policy, which is how government works. Hysteria about Boris killing cyclists achieves nothing, and is offensive.

  9. I very much agree with the whole content of this post. I am a committed cyclist but my politics are right centre. Many times I have commented on the fact that we have to remember we are only 2% - this has often been my bug bear with people making the point that cycling is dangerous as a route towards getting more infrastructure - what we need is more and more cyclists and then we will have more lobbying power.

    The trouble is (and I am heavily involved in London politics from a professional POV)is that if you come across as being from a political side then the other side will ignore you much more. All cycling lobbying should be from an apolitical POV. It should focus on cycling and show the advantages of it's expansion to all sides. Sadly cycling seems to me to currently be heavily over represented by the left and given Boris (who will probably win) is on the right, then automatically the bargaining power will be reduced.

    I also will be voting for other items in the running of London first over cycling - but my second vote will be used for cycling so the greens will get that vote.

    1. I agree that it is self-defeating to claim that cycling is dangerous, as it may deter some people who would otherwise take it uip and increase the size of our "lobby". All things are relative, and cycling on roads is apparently safer - in terms of casualty rate per unit of activity (time spent, distance covered, or whatever) - than many other pursuits such as playing football, DIY, or even walking.

      That does not mean to say that we should not state volubly that cycling FEELS dangerous to many people, who will not take it up while they feel this way, and as the arguments about the benefits to health, congestion, pollution etc are no longer in dispute, the perception of danger does need to be addressed, and often that can only be achieved by measures such as traffoc separation, reduction or calming which at first sight advrsely impact motorists - but only at first sight.

  10. Whether or not Boris has actually had a Damascene conversion on cycling policy (yeah right), there are plenty of other policy areas where he is woefully inadequate and which directly impact on cyclists and those who might want to cycle. I'm thinking issues like congestion, pollution control, 20mph zones, cable cars instead of bridges, etc.

    In other words (assuming he gets in) I'll believe it when I see it, but I won't be holding my breath and, based upon his first term, won't be giving him my vote.

  11. I dread another four years of Boris and his HUGELY disappointing cycling "initiatives". So sad that Svitlana, Brian and fourteen other cyclists had to die last year alone - n.b. not ONE fatality in similar-sized Paris last year!! - because Boris couldn't be arsed to shake up the motor-centric status quo. Believe me folks his signature on the Go Dutch campaign is written in that magic ink that will disappear by Saturday morning.

    1. I guess a disappointing cycling initiative is marginally better than no initiative*... So our best hope is that Boris continues to come up with ideas, but that he secures higher budgets for cycling from a Greener-looking London Assembly.

      *: Possible exception being a Cycle Superhighway that ends half way across Bow roundabout, although I believe that is more a result of Newham Council than TfL...

  12. There are plenty of rightwing cyclists. Just look at the Cabinet: David Cameron, George Osborne, George Young. And how about Peter Hitchens: "My own personal view is that no healthy resident of Oxford needs to use a car in the city at all. "

    The difference comes down to the question of whether state intervention is a good or bad thing, when it comes to reducing road danger or shaping people's choices. I think that those on the left tend to be more disposed to shaping people's choices 'in the greater good' and more willing to curtail the freedoms of the road users who tend to be the overwhelming source of road danger, that's to say, those driving fast, powerful motorised vehicles. Whereas those on the right, particularly the libertarian right of which Boris Johnson is a member, tend to say that it's not the state's business and that people should grow up, take care of themselves and not rely on a nanny state putting down cycle tracks all over the place. Which is, of course, a false argument, since roads have already been constructed in way that tips the balance in favour of the motorised.

    1. George Young definitely, and one you don't mention, THeresa Villiers, who unfortunately suffered an accident on her bike not long ago - get well soon - although I don't know whether another vehicle was involved.

      George Osborne? Hmmm, not sure. David Cameron? Oh puhlease - he only rode a bike because his strategy guru Steve Hilton (a genuine cyclist) advised him to, to give him a more blokeish image before he was elected. Actually, he is clearly more comfortable with a different type of riding - Met police horses!

      Anyway, there are legions of cyclists around central London, especially in the City, who can probably be regarded as conservatives by nature, even if they might have supported Blair and Brown thanks to their support for the City, in that bygone age. My office, a large accounting firm, sees perahaps 500 of its 7,000 staff currently cycle commuting on a regular basis. Several large City law firms have similar proportions of cycle commuters, as do various banks and insurance companies.

      I suspect that by no means all of those would be supportive of the LCC and its Go Dutch campaign, and many would be to a greater or lesser extent sympathetic to the Boris "wits about you" line. The thing is, they already cycle in the hostile London environment, and they already know that the streets are statistically less dangerous than they at first sight seem to be. They are by nature pushy, sharp-elbowed individuals - that is how you get on in this environment - and the "God helps those who help themselves/Fortune favours the brave" types are probably not that unhappy with things the way they are.

      It might be good to convince them that it is a good idea to lower the ladder down below them and invite more people to climb up, as tey are by and large influential individuals.

      But, picking up on Gilligan's misused statistics (98% of commuters don't cycle but that does not mean that 98% commute by car or bus - the great majority take the train or tube amd walk the final few hundred metres) cyclists do need to build lasting alliances with other people who have an interest in improving road conditions and challenging the dominance of the motor car, even if they are, like most cyclists, motorists themselves in another guise - they are also pedestrians, residents, parents of small children, offspring of elderley parents, etc etc.

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