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