Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Former Conservative Transport Secretary: "Cycling should be encouraged as a ..way of getting around". Yet on September 5th alone, four people were killed cycling in the UK. That's simply not good enough. It's time for the current Secretary of State to act.

"The long-term paucity of proper cycling infrastructure
has forced many cyclists onto busy roads,
where they are bound to come into conflict
with drivers of cars"
Earlier this week Malcolm Rifkind MP wrote an article about people using bicycles to get from A to B in London. The article was the front cover piece in the Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle.

Frustratingly, the Chronicle chose a deliberately provocative headline: "Let's encourage cyclists who obey laws of the road" it screamed. To my mind, that headline deliberately attempts to equate cyclists with lawbreakers.

The irresponsible tone of the headline was rightfully parodied by the cycling website bikebiz with its own spoof article: "We won't build more roads until motorists start behaving, says Gov't".

The thing is, however, that the actual article itself has a lot to commend it. If you read it carefully, you can see that here we have a senior Conservative MP who is the former Secretary of State for Transport standing up and saying this:

"Cycling should be encouraged as a healthier, cheaper way of getting around that can serve our city’s wellbeing and provide relief to our public transport infrastructure."

He even goes one step further and refers to the lack of infrastructure to support bicycle transport when he says that "the long-term paucity of proper cycling infrastructure has forced many cyclists onto busy roads, where they are bound to come into conflict with drivers of cars". Hard to disagree with, I think.

There are certainly elements of the article that I disagree with and I think the headline is grossly misleading. But the thrust of his argument is fairly balanced: Better behaviour by all road users would be good; cycling is a positive force for change in our cities; to encourage bicycle transport, we need proper infrastructure.

London bike infrastructure. The lorry is turning
left. You're supposed to duck down the lefthand
side of the lorry and cycle straight ahead.
Not simply conflict, it's actually insane. 
And the reason we need that infrastructure is pretty simple: The Times points out today that on September 5th alone, four people were killed cycling in the UK. The newspaper believes the number of people likely to be killed this year will be more than last year. Tellingly, it notes that "Britain has the fifth worst record for reducing cycling fatalities" in the EU. 

Rifkind points out that there is "bound to be conflict" between cyclists and drivers of cars on London's streets. The thing is, there doesn't have to be conflict. As he says, proper infrastructure could help to reduce the level of conflict on our streets.

Another blogger agrees. Talking on the Cyclist No.1 website, Fi Wilson visits Amsterdam and concludes: "There are no battles between car drivers and bikes". Why? Because Dutch politicians have encouraged a 'cycling culture'. Talking about London in particular, she continues: "Things have improved, says the , but the argument so often cited for the lack of a network here is that Britain just ‘isn’t a cycling country’. It is difficult to believe that Holland was once like Britain, but it’s true. They decided to create a cycling culture and now it has towns with over 60% cycling rates...But it takes political bravery. Car drivers are voters, and to side with cyclists is seen as creating an embattled state."

And that's really the crux of it - cycling is political. And people need to show their local politicians that cycling matters to them.

In a funny way, I think Boris Johnson was actually quite brave in backing the growth in cycling. The problem is that he hasn't (to date) been brave enough and the reality is that cycling in London is growing faster than the blue paint on his cycle super highways can dry. The result is that we've ended up with the horrific compromises of Cycle Super Highways that are simply not good enough for safe, everyday cycling. And we have horrific new junctions being built in the name of safer cycling that are anything but safer for cycling.

Typical scene on Cycle Super Highway 8 at rush hour.
The bike lane is normally filled with coaches and taxis as well.
Woefully third-rate infrastructure.
Yet, when politicians like Malcolm Rifkind start talking about infrastructure for bicycle transport, you get the sense that slowly, slowly things are beginning to change.

But what scares me is that at the moment all these good soundbites are simply that and nothing more. Let's take a look at the House of Commons Transport Select Committee - a cross-party group that scrutinises the Department for Transport. Earlier this year, the House of Commons was deserted as 77 MPs joined a debate about cycling safety in the Palace of Westminster next door. And several months later, the Transport Select Committee published a very punchy report calling on the Government to take a much stronger lead on road safety and, in particular, safe cycling.

In that context, it was extremely disappointing to read the minutes of the Transport Select Committee last week when it met the new Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick Mcloughlin. The questions ranged from aviation, to rail transport to road building. But at no point did anyone on the Select Committee ask a question about bicycles as transport.

Which is odd really. Because whether the motoring lobby likes it or not, transport by bicycle is not going away. In today's Financial Times, the chief executive of Tesco said this: "as fuel prices have increased, shoppers are less inclined to travel to out-of-town stores". Rifkind makes a similar point in his article too. Getting about by bicycle is simple and above all it's cheap. The demand is there to make bicycle transport a normal part of our towns and cities. We all need to keep pressure on our politicians to make sure they push for governments (Westminster is only responsible for England's transport these days, Edinburgh and Cardiff have their own challenges) to supply the rules, the funding and the connectivity to make it easier for people to start pedalling.

In England, at least, what really needs to happen is that the current Transport Secretary needs to get behind cycling with real money, real legislation, real regulations and real infrastructure. So far, there's absolutely nothing to suggest that's on the agenda.

12 comments:

  1. It seems that as soon as we seem to be reaching the summit of the foothills, the cabinet shuffles and we're back at base camp again to make the same arguments over and over again.

    Surely the Times and it's hugely influential campaign recognises this? Surely reiterating the point of the campaign with the benefit of months of fresh evidence is what's needed? Surely they can put cycling on the cover again so that the new ministers know that cycling as a political issue isn't going away?

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  2. I have to say that I agree with every single word that Sir Malcolm said. He didn't say what the headline said he said, after all.

    And besides, the greatest pain to human nature is the pain of a new idea. Sir Malcolm wrote an article that is going to be read by many non-cyclists, and if these people are going to accept the sorts of changes that we would like to see implemented, it's better for all that they're not dragged along kicking and screaming.

    When Sir Malcolm wrote that support for cycling should also be complemented by a shift in behaviour of a minority of cyclists who flout the rules of the road, he's not saying anything unreasonable. In Copenhagen 45% of cyclists think other cyclists cause them to feel unsafe. In their case the problem is congested cycle lanes, but even so.

    Indeed, Steffen Rasmussen recently said that there’s an ongoing discussion in Denmark about the behaviour of cyclists, particularly those who use the pavement as a short-cut to somewhere. Their actions don’t necessarily result in many injuries, he said, but it is an irritating aspect of city-life for many pedestrians. There are publicity campaigns urging cyclists not to do this.

    And so when Sir Malcolm said that cycling should be encouraged as a healthier, cheaper way of getting around, and that it is fair to say that a long-term paucity of proper cycling infrastructure is a cause of tension, that's alright, isn't it? And even the newspaper headline - Let's encourage cyclists who obey the rules of the road - could be interpreted as meaning that we need to develop an environment that enables women, children and the elderly to ride in safety. Well that's alright as well.

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  3. 90% of what Sir Malcolm said was very promising. But... and there is always the but, in this case literally. The last paragraph said it all and is what the Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle decided to base their headline on:

    "But support for cycling should also be complemented by a shift in behaviour of a minority of cyclists who flout the rules of the road."

    i.e. Until (the minority) of cyclists stop breaking the rules of the road, you won't get the investment. Yet again, "cyclists" have to be whiter than white before we deserve any investment.

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    1. But what I am suggesting, based on the evidence from Copenhagen, is that we're never going to get a situation where all cyclists obey all the rules. So it's not like we're in the classroom or anything, where one or two people actually can spoil it for everyone else; it's realpolitik.

      It has nothing to do with winning respect as a precondition of investment in cycle infrastructure either. A lot of it concerns the give and take that Roelof was talking about.

      We want to win the war; but we don't need to win every single battle along the way. Fine, we'll start behaving ourselves, but you start building.

      Incidentally, LCC have a similar attitude towards my proposal for a revitalised LCN as you're saying Sir Malcolm has towards cyclists: until every junction in London is safe, they say, they are are not going to support the placement of route confirmation markers in the road.

      There we go. But of course getting every single junction safe first is never going to happen, in the same way that getting all cyclists to behave themselves first is never going to happen. The difference is, I do not take Sir Malcolm Rifkind for a fool, and for all I know to the contrary, the stuff that he's talking about, and the stuff that Chris Boardman is talking about, and so on, is all part of a publicity campaign that would enable us to turn a corner. And once we've done that, it should be downhill all the way.

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    2. We agree, an improvement in cycling infrastructure should not be dependent or linked to an improvement in cycling behavior.

      Unfortunately Sir Malcolm's last paragraph will likely be interpreted as one is dependent on the other, especially by the non-cycling readers of the article.

      And as the article points out, the headline equates cyclists as lawbreakers which will do nothing for cyclists in the eyes of the readers.

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    3. Let’s turn this around – instead of cyclist behaviour being a condition precedent of an investment programme, have the investment programme be the driver for the change in behaviour. I have to admit that I think Rifkind is arguing the former, but I think the latter is the probable right answer.

      I have my own pet theory which is that we get the cyclists we deserve (as a society that is). That is because the multi-celled organism known as “the cyclist” has evolved, through a quasi Darwinian process of natural selection, into what it is because of environmental factors – the arguably dangerous and certainly very hostile and nasty road conditions we face has nudged evolution in the direction of cyclists who can withstand those conditions. In many cases they have done so by adopting or adapting the method known as vehicular cycling, which is to ride fast, maintaining high speed, lots of acceleration, and “primary position” which may make sense to the initiated but feels entirely counter-intuitive to a novice rider. If you follow the Daily Mail approach you would say it has evolved into the “lycra lout”. That is a bit extreme, but the undeniable fact is that the majority of cyclists are male, aged between 25 and 49 years old. Children, women, and older people hardly feature at all.

      And it is also a fact that prime-of-life men will have a tendency towards greater recklessness, assertiveness and perhaps even aggressiveness than other sectors of the population. You could say that “it’s the testosterone, stupid”.

      I neither condone nor condemn such characteristics. They are what they are. They manifest themselves in many places, many of which are a great deal more dangerous than on a bike. I’ll lay odds that the most egregious examples of bad cycling behaviour are transferred, in evenings and weekends, to bad motoring behaviour as we are constantly reminded that more than 80% of all adult cyclists also drive.

      But I also doubt we can change them all that easily. What we can change is the macro-composition of the organism, by creating the conditions which permit it to evolve into a softer, fluffier, and more Mail-acceptable animal, mixing in more grandpa-bikers and mummy bikers. And we certainly should, because it is not fair that grandpas and mummies can’t cycle just because people don’t like all the daddy-bikers who make the running today.

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  4. Philip Clarke did indeed write those words in his FT article, about fuel costs leading to fewer people travelling to out-of-town stores. However I somehow don’t think that what he meant by that was that more people would/should cycle to them, or that Tesco should respond by installing more cycle stands, or working with local government to create safe cycle routes to their stores. Apart from the shameless plug for Tesco’s own on-line shopping portal what he really appears to be saying is that fuel prices should be reduced by cutting fuel duties, so that people can once again drive to his out-of-town sheds – and to quote the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, he would say that, wouldn’t he, because encouraging walking and cycling would be good for traditional town centres, and not for retail parks. In any case he doesn’t want cyclist replacing drivers because unless you buy yourself a Bullitt cargo bike, there’s no way you can load up the trolley the way you can when you have a car boot. I know that one of the reasons I prefer to cycle to my local supermarket is that knowing that you have to carry it home discourages you from frivolous purchases which you later wonder why you bought.

    I am also cynical about anything Malcolm Rifkind has to say about cycling, as I had always been under the impression that he was one of the most toxically anti-cycling MPs in the central boroughs (perhaps only Kate Hoey can beat him on that score) and that his remarks could be read in the same vein as the infamous “I’m not a racist, but.....”

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    1. ^^^this^^^ second paragraph.

      Many of the more sensible people round my neck of the woods use the footways to cycle on when there are few pedestrians about, because they are too frightened to "force" themselves on the road. But this means they are breaking the law, so according to Rifkind's argument, maybe they don't "deserve" any infrastructure. Meh.

      Just off to "force" myself to cycle on a busy road.

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  6. The devil is in the details. It isn't enough to just keep calling for better cycling facilities. We have political momentum but you can't leave it there, you need to convert it into material changes on our roads.

    If you really want to make a difference, now is a very exciting time to be getting involved with your local borough campaigning group and work with them to encourage local councillors, council officers and highway engineers to build cycling facilities to Dutch standards.

    If you don't, you're just another chump having a rant on the internet about how much better it could be.

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  7. I've just moved, after nine years' cycling in London, to New York (as I write in this blogpost - http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/09/farewell-to-london-where-cyclings.html ) I don't think anything like enough of the thinking about cycling in London deals with the needs or real cyclists. Politicians seem to expect cyclists to take up no real space, to get in nobody's way and to behave angelically in the face of the atrocious behaviour of most other road user types. It's telling, I think, that Sir Malcolm talks about cycling from the point of view of relieving the pressure on public transport and making people fitter. Everyone wants cycling to solve problems - they don't actually seem interested in cycling for its own sake.

    As for the point about cyclist behaviour, I think it can be safely ignored, really. No-one suggests provision for motorists should depend of their behaving better. Indeed, the current UK government is scaling back efforts to catch motorists who speed, talk on their mobiles and generally pose really serious danger to others. Cyclists pose far fewer dangers to others.

    Invisible.

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