Thursday, 17 January 2013

London gets its first ever cycling commissioner. I think we need a tipping point of 'non-cyclists' to start thinking cycling is "A Good Thing". Can Andrew Gilligan help make that happen in London?

Everyday reality of getting around London by bicycle.
Not surprised most people look at the streets and don't hop
on their bikes
Earlier today, London journalist Adam Bienkov announced London's worst-kept secret: London's first cycling commissioner will be Daily Telegraph journalist Andrew Gilligan.

The Guardian followed up with a political angle on the news, screaming "Boris Johnson triggers fresh cronyism claims with Andrew Gilligan job". There's no doubt that for many people - in particular a lot of journalists - Gilligan comes with a history attached.

But Gilligan also comes with a history in cycling circles too. As he points out on his Daily Telegraph blog, he started campaigning for segregated bike lanes back in 2007 when he was a journalist at The Evening Standard.

And his stance on cycling has been fairly consistent. Writing in 2010, he quite rightly pointed out that: "The point about almost all “cycle infrastructure” in London is that it is not designed for cyclists. It is designed so that politicians can say that something is being done for us." I'd agree with that.

He also, rather correctly as it turns out, dubbed London's first Cycle Super Highway "completely pointless...The superhighway [offers] no protection against what is a very busy, and in places very narrow and congested, main road." Remember, that he was writing this was at a time when the London Cycling Campaign was making (publicly at least) very ambiguous comments on the Super Highways. The London Cycling Campaign certainly wasn't calling for protected bike lanes on main routes in 2010, for example, but only for better 'priority' and lower speed limits.

City centre cycling in Barcelona. Looks very different to central
London, doesn't it? Yet, none of this infrastructure
existed a couple of years ago. All it needs is political will.
Courtesy ibikelondon blog
Not everything in Andrew Gilligan's cycling story is rosy. I think he called it wrong when he criticised the London Cycling Campaign and Sustrans when both organisations took a very political stance during last year's Mayoral elections. The point being that making cycling as normal and everyday mode of transport is political. Very, very political.

And this, in the longer run, is where I have hopes that Andrew Gilligan might - just - get it right. The one theme that he's thumped out again and again is this one: "I believe that the way to win arguments is to stress what better cycle facilities can do for London as a whole.. rather than just for cyclists."

He's absolutely right about that. He talks in another post about the need to "create the political space for radical improvements to the cycling experience in London." This is something I've heard so often from politicians. The conversation generally goes something like this: Politician says they would like to support cycling; then politician says 'but my postbag is never full of letters saying my constituents want safe or convenient cycling'. So, it needs political will to make cycling happen. But to create that political will, we have to get as many people to tell the politicians that they want safe and convenient cycling. And that means getting cab drivers, bus drivers and a whole range of people to support cycling. In particular, we need a tipping point of "non-cyclists" to start thinking that cycling is A Good Thing.

More 'normal' city centre cycling. This time in Nice, France.
On bike lanes that didn't exist a few years ago. And are good enough for
dads to use with their kids. Again, great reporting by Mark at ibikelondon blog. 
Andrew Gilligan's challenge is pretty daunting. The role is not full-time (which seems very wrong to me) but my sense is that he's right that we need  Londoners as a whole to start supporting more investment in cycling: People who might like to use a bicycle to get to work or go visit their friends or head to the shops. I suspect there are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people like this in London. The trick is to re-start Boris Johnson's 'cycling revolution' so that these are the people who start cycling. And, frankly, most of these people aren't going to use the existing Cycle Super Highways. Because, as Gilligan said in 2010, they're almost "pointless".

Once we start getting everyone and anyone on a bike, then maybe we can all stop being 'cyclists' and start being Londoners who just happen to be using a bicycle to get from A to B. If he can help pull that off, then all credit to him. But we'll all have to stay very attentive and make sure we hold Andrew Gilligan to his word. This is a highly visible post, with a highly engaged community of people who are willing to support the overall goal.

Whatever your politics, I think we owe it - for now at least - to let Andrew Gilligan give it his best. And we need to measure his achievements on what he helps deliver and judge him based on those.