Friday, 20 September 2013

The "wrong type" of cyclist: Whether you're in London, Manchester, Birmingham or Edinburgh, we have to rally around #space4cycling and make the message much, much clearer to our politicians

One council leader asked me why we can't have cyclists like they have in the Netherlands. Here's a relentlessly normal image of cycling there via AsEasyAsRidingABike
Last night, along with Ashok Sinha of the London Cycling Campaign, I was invited to a party hosted by the Evening Standard to be nominated as one of London's 1,000 "most influential" people. Naturally, I went by bike. I'm only aware of two others who did so and one of those was the Mayor.

During the night I met the leaders of three councils: Southwark, Wandsworth and....drum roll.... Westminster. I had the chance to talk cycling with each of them. And what fascinated me was just how differently each of them engaged with and understood why people have been out on their bikes protesting for better conditions.

First some good news. I had a good chat with Peter John, Labour leader of Southwark Council. He told me in clear terms that the council had scrapped its plans to go-it-alone with slightly crazy Cycle Design Standards that would have meant the council officially opposed segregated bike tracks like the ones pictured above. They've been put in the bin, he told me, and Southwark will be signing up to the new London Cycle Design Standards that are currently in draft form on tables at Transport for London. That's a huge relief. I got the impression that Mr John understood 'bicycle' = rational form of transport which can be used by all ages and people with varying levels of fitness. I had the impression he does want Southwark to become somewhere where the bicycle is catered for as a legitimate part of the transport mix.
Birmingham Flashride earlier this year, pic roadcc

Peter John then introduced me to the Conservative leader of Wandsworth Council, Ravi Govindia. Now, Wandsworth has slowly started to re-embrace the bicycle. This is a borough that did some good things a decade ago and then decided to utterly ignore bicycles until very recently. What Mr Govindia told me, though, did get me thinking. He made two points: Firstly, he explained that he wants to see normal people out on bikes doing normal journeys. He said that the bulk of people using bicycles in his borough are commuters - fit, young, speedy. And he's probably right.
Edinburgh 'pedals on Parliament'
Photo courtesy of Richard Cross. See this site for more details
My point to Ravi Govindia was that if he wants people to use bikes rather than cars (and remember, the majority of car journeys in outer London are under 5 miles, therefore hugely easy by bike), he's going to have to build Safe Space For Cycling. Simple really. If you want to see mums, dads, older people, kids, normal, average people out on bikes, you need to build for it. And that means creating SPACE that is sensitive to the needs of people on bikes. The only way I know of crossing the centre of Wandsworth east to west on a bike right now, for example, is through the massive Wandsworth gyratory. That means pedalling across five to six lanes of fast-moving traffic, several times in a row. It's horrific.

And then we came to Westminster's leader who made nice comments about wanting to do more but struck me as not really seeing this as a particularly pressing issue.

Ravi Govindia also made another point that I thought very useful. He mentioned that he found it difficult to engage with cycling groups because (and I paraphrase) "they seem to want everything". Here's a man who is extremely busy and for whom cycling is an issue but only a very small one in the scheme of things. He needs to hear one single message, and one alone.
And now Manchester pedals to protest for Space for Cycling
So it struck me yesterday, that there is a single message. It is the message of Safe Space For Cycling. It only dawned on me yesterday that four cities have now stood up, got on their bikes and said more or less the same thing. Birmingham pedalled in September, followed later that week by the London Space4Cycling ride on Parliament. Edinburgh pedalled in May on Holyrood, and in a week's time, Manchester will pedal on the Conservative Party conference. All of us in our own way pedalling to demand #Space4Cycling.

My point is pretty simple really. It is four years ago that I sat in a room with the London Cycling Campaign and one of their best campaigners coined the campaign term 'Space 4 Cycling'. It has taken four years to get to the point where people who use bikes are starting to talk about demanding 'Space 4 Cycling'. It will take more years before our politicians, people like Ravi Govindia of Wandsworth, actually start to hear what we're all calling for. We have to rally around a single message and we have to keep pushing that message home. Again and again and again. Until we're sick of it. Only then can we expect that our politicians will have started hearing our message for the very first time.