Friday, 1 July 2011

I can't get used to the idea that I am worth less than a car. Why we need to make cycling a vote-winner

Zurich - city where people have equal value, whether on a cycle, on foot,
on a tram or in a car
"With politicians and most citizens still largely behind them, Zurich’s planners continue their traffic-taming quest, shortening the green-light periods and lengthening the red with the goal that pedestrians wait no more than 20 seconds to cross. “We would never synchronize green lights for cars with our philosophy,” said Pio Marzolini, a city official. “When I’m in other cities, I feel like I’m always waiting to cross a street. I can’t get used to the idea that I am worth less than a car.

How refreshingly different to London this New York Times review sounds. How often do you have to wait more than 20 seconds to cross the road in London? When I use one particular joint pedestrian/cycle crossing in Lambeth, the lights take up to three whole minutes to change, depending on the time of day. The reason for this is that London's transport authority insists on pushing as much motor traffic through the streets as quickly as possible. For a brutal analysis of what this means in reality, see this blog here which analyses Transport for London's own data about our new pedestrian crossing countdown indicators that shows: "Pedestrians are more rushed and more at risk...[and that] TfL are pushing a project to decrease vehicle delays at the expense of pedestrian safety."

I lived in Zurich for 18 months. When you sit on a tram in Zurich, the traffic lights flick in favour of you and people in motor vehicles have to wait. Everywhere you go, the city makes it absolutely clear that people on foot, on cycles and on public transport have priority over private motor vehicles. So I'm not at all surprised to see a Zurich town councillor saying that he can't get used to the idea he's worth less than a car when he's in cities like London.

Compare that to a councillor from Westminster I met late last year: "If you don't think [the cycling facilities are good], you should drive." Now, this comment was made in a social environment and off-the-record so I don't feel too comfortable identifying who said it. But let's just say that this is a Conservative councillor who is very involved in what Westminster calls 'parking and transportation'

Zurich has plans for a cycling revolution. As many streets as possible, including all pedestrian zones, should be made two-way for cycling; on main roads, bicycles should be kept well apart from motorised traffic and should only mix with the traffic on roads with a 20mph speed limit. The entire old town will be made 20mph. The cycling plan actually includes a strategy for taxis as well, to ensure taxi drivers don't get cheesed off.

Our own Mayor has a plan for a cycling revolution too. He talks, quite rightly, of having "cycling embedded into the way our city is planned and run". And I want to believe that is going to happen.

But again and again, Transport for London and Boris's own party in London keep showing that they don't understand how to embed cycling into the way our city is planned and run. The talk at Party-level or at Transport for London is about 'equality' for all road users. Andrew Boff, a Conservative Assembly Member, posted a comment on this blog last week where he stated:

"It is true that we [the Conservatives] are, by instinct, anti-hierarchical and I agree with you that we should be making decisions to accommodate people’s choices not what we think their choices should be."

The councillors of Zurich take the exact opposite view. They positively favour cycling, walking and public transport. And in doing so, they have convinced generations of their citizens to switch from private motor vehicle (motor vehicle use has decreased unlike in London) and created a safer and much more people-friendly city. And you can't acuse the Swiss of being anti-conservative. Having lived there, I can vouch for the fact that an extremely conservative vein runs through the place.

I think my objection to Andrew Boff's comment is very similar to that taken up by others. By supposedly not supporting a hierarchy on the roads, the Conservatives are supporting a natural hierarchy instead. Namely, the bigger and stronger your position on the road, the more you have priority. That's the reality on London's streets and that is the reality that TfL and the London Conservative party seem to advocate.

In a way, though, I think none of this matters. My instinct is that the Conservatives don't back a policy of prioritising cycling, walking and public transport because they worry it's not a vote winner. In fact, I'd hazard a guess they think it's actually a vote loser.  

I'd like to back Boris Johnson and his push to embed cycling into the way London is planned and run. But I'm not sure I trust his lieutenants to support him.  

Perhaps it's time we found a way to prove to conservative politicians (and they are not all Conservatives by any means) that cycling is a vote-winner


  1. Not so sure Boris really gives two hoots for cycling - or the media monkeys managing his twitter profile don't at least. I only say this as in this week's ask Boris malarky on twitter they ignored all questions on cycling apart from the tandem he gave to the newly wed Royals. Hardly seems as though he or his lieutenants are that really that serious...

  2. I'd disagree with you on TfL - the people are much the same people who did focus on pedestrians, cycles and buses under Ken. They, like any civil service department, are merely doing what they're told.

    And of course Boris doesn't care about cycling. He's A Tory. Tories (at least, London Tory activists) care about cars, think everyone should drive around in cars, and believe anyone who doesn't is a failure & probably a communist. If you want London to be friendlier to non-car-users, you know which candidate not to vote for next year.

  3. It's true, it seems like local councils are still too scared to introduce cycle lanes where they really need them - fearing they might slow down people in cars perhaps.

    I recently visited Stockholm and was blown away by the cycling culture there too. Cycling just seemed ingrained in the ethos of the city with all types of people cycling, whatever the weather. Superb.