Monday, 31 December 2012

Boris "We're not going to let the motor car let rip in outer London". Good. A member of the Mayor's Road Task Force (i.e. me) asks whether Boris Johnson can get outer London on its bikes.

People using bikes in London. Lycra, Boris bike, matching bike and red belt, hipster.
There is no such thing as a 'cyclist'. We are Londoners. And we come in all shapes and sizes
"We mustn’t let people run away with the idea that we’re going to let the motor car let rip in outer London". So said Boris Johnson in response to a barrage of questions from London Assembly Members at Mayor's Question Time on 19 December last year

What was fascinating about this exchange was the way that the Mayor stuck to this one central theme and repeated it several times: When asked whether he would support more people driving in from outside London to outer London shopping centres he said yes to more shoppers but no to more motor traffic "We don't want to cause an increase in traffic congestion that it becomes frustrating". He quoted the recent census data which shows a massive decline in car ownership in inner London and talked about the need to bring "mass transit" to outer London to replace the private car. 


A two mile car trip would take less than 10 minutes on a bike. If London could replace half of those two mile car journeys with bike journeys, it would be a major game changer for the quality of life of everyone in this city. But Boris didn't say he plans to bring about mass cycling in outer London. He talked about replacing the car in outer London with 'mass transit' - that means trams, better buses and light rail. As a side note, it's worth noting that the Mayor has twice cancelled plans for mass transit in south London - notably in the form of the tram extension to Crystal Palace. 

Cycle super highway planned for Stratford. Source
Evening Standard
Some of you who know me personally may be aware that, since the middle of last year, I have been a member of the Mayor of London's Road Task Force. I sit alongside the likes of the pro-cycling President of the AA, Edmund Kind and the smart and - surprisingly - measured Chairman of the RAC, David Quarmby.

If you look at the list of members of the Task Force, you'll see three people representing cycling - there's the London Cycling Campaign, Sustrans and me.  From sitting on the Task Force, I know that there's a huge debate going on within Transport for London and within the Mayor's office about what London's roads are for. At times, that debate turns into something more approaching an argument. But the fact of the matter is that the debate is very real and I have to credit the Mayor for including a decent number of people who use bicycles. 

That said, I'm very aware that the purpose of the Task Force is to deliver a strategy for London's roads. And for my part, I want that strategy to shift towards some actual facts on the ground, in particular towards a meaningful shift in favour of cycling as a normal, sensible way for people all across London to travel from A to B.

London might finally catch up with the
Netherlands where bike lanes like this are standard.
Courtesy: AsEasyAsRidingABike blog
There are some very gentle hints of change coming out of the Mayor's office. Some (but by no means all) of the proposed Cycle Super Highway from Victoria to New Cross looks promising, for example. Promising, mind you, not game-changing. 

Slightly better plans seem to be emerging in east London. In the week before Christmas, the Evening Standard ran a piece about the planned extension of Cycle Super Highway to the Olympic Park where several miles of "segregated cycle lanes will be created along the A11 between the Bow roundabout and the Stratford gyratory, notorious for its fast-moving traffic." For an excellent review of those plans, see As Easy As Riding a Bike's blog post.

These are both positive steps. But they are by no means enough to make cycling something that most Londoners see as normal and everyday transport. 

What we need is for the Mayor to start talking about normal people from all over London getting on bikes. He seems to have abandoned any discourse of normal, everyday folk getting on bikes to go to the shops or to visit friends and family. Bicycling in London is heavily focussed on fit, young men (mostly) getting to work quickly along main roads. Cycling is not being sold to Londoners as something that everyone could and should be doing for those short trips. In short, my concern is that Boris Johnson is building a 'cycling revolution' for the people who already use bikes, not for the majority of Londoners who could and probably should be using bikes. 

Contrast that with the Mayor of Memphis, Tennessee Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr: who told the New York Times recently "We need to make biking part of our DNA... “I’m trying to build a city for the people who will be running it 5, 10, 15 years from now". 

Bicycling in Memphis, says the Mayor's office is about using 'bike lanes as an economic development tool, setting the stage for new stores and enhanced urban vibrancy'.

My question to Boris Johnson is: Does he see cycling in the same way as the Mayor of Memphis? Does Boris have the foresight to build a cycling culture in London that helps make our city function better, serves London's economy better and that strives to make this fantastic city even better in five, 10 or 15 years time?