Wednesday, 18 April 2012

AddisonLee: There's every chance that minicabs might win bus lane access. Could this spell a very rapid end to London's "cycling revolution" or is it finally time for people who cycle to play hardball?

London bus lane, masquerading as a 'cycle super highway'. Soon to be a minicab express lane as well?
There have been lots of rumblings this week about minicabs in bus lanes. Specifically, AddisonLee minicabs in bus lanes.

I want to get one thing clear. Minicabs freak me. When I'm a passenger (rare but it does happen), I find that nine times out of 10, we're whizzing along at the fastest possible speeds, cutting other people up. Why? Because the guy driving the cab wants to get on to his next job.

When I'm on my bike, they freak me out even more. Precisely because I'm at the receiving end of the minicab driver who wants to get his job done. If AddisonLee gets its way, 50,000+ minicabs will soon be racing up London's bus lanes. I can't think of a single thing that would put me off cycling more than sharing bus lanes with London's minicab fleet.

If I put my cycling cap aside, I think AddisonLee is being very clever. John Griffin, AddisonLee's founder, comes across as an articulate man who has a clear vision of where he wants to be. You can hear his thoughts in this news footage on ITV. From the perspective of someone who runs a (much much smaller) business, I think full marks to him for trying.

But from the perspective of someone who cycles, I regard bus lanes as almost the only safe patch on London's main roads. And that's a statement I make with some major caveats. As Mike Cavenett of London Cycling Campaign says: "It's a measure of the poor quality of cycling provision in the capital that many cyclists see the bus lane network as a safe haven, even though it's shared with buses, black taxis and motorcycles." I couldn't agree more.

Outside of bus lane hours, though, I often find bus lanes are intimidating places to be. Cycle down Super Highway 7 towards Clapham at 11pm on a Friday night and it's either a) filled with parked cars or b) turned into a sort of minicab express route with drivers jostling you at 40-50mph to undertake motor traffic in the main lane. In short, it can be an extremely uncomfortable place to cycle. South London bus lanes seem worse than North for some reason.

What's striking is that none of the major London news outlets has realised the bus lane story isn't just about buses. There's almost no public comment on the fact that bus lanes are the nearest thing London has to bike lanes. Listen to Leon Daniels, Managing director of the London road network on ITV news here. His criticism of AddisonLee relates solely to bus passengers, not a word about cycling. So much for the head of TfL's roads looking out for people on bikes.

Full credit, however, to The Times for pointing out: "The [AddisonLee] edict spread concern among cyclists who have grown wary of the branded cars and people carriers on London’s streets" The thing is, as Cavenett points out, it's not like those of us who cycle have many other options.

Labour politicians are, led by John Prescott on twitter, are framing a story around 'cabgate', as he calls it, and talking about the large cash donations that John Griffin has made to the Conservative party and links to cabinet ministers' road policy decisions. There may or may not be something in that.

The black cab taxi trade has some very legitimate points to make about the AddisonLee manoeuvre without needing to resort to questions about party funding. But I've begun to realise black cabs are a bit like cyclists: A broad range of very different individuals with some loose trade bodies to make noises on their behalf. The black cab trade needs to ditch the mud slinging that's cropped up on twitter this week and coalesce around core issues on this topic, rather than get too bogged down in party politics.

But my own sense is that Addison Lee might well win this battle. And my concern is primarily this: Will this make cycling even more marginalised and will it turn cycling along main roads from something that is a viable option (at least, viable during peak hours when the bus lanes operate) into something that only those prepared to stand up to race track conditions on the street are prepared to undertake?

At some point, the Mayor (who has been silent so far) will have to decide who he thinks the roads are for. At the moment, though, I don't hold out heaps of hope that he'll side with cycling. He's working on assumptions of 43% motor traffic growth (despite the fact that these sorts of insane forecasts have been fundamentally kyboshed by non-political trade bodies). Both Boris and Ken have been pretty pro-car in their electoral mandates. As Christian Wolmar put it in yesterday's Standard: "Cities such as, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Munich and even Paris have grasped the nettle, creating extensive facilities for cyclists and putting them at the heart of urban planning. They have strived to make their cities liveable as well as accessible. In the process they have sometimes had to make short-term, unpopular decisions to bring about a long-term improvement. In London, it seems, we have a pair of conservatives who can’t think beyond getting re-elected."

I think Wolmar is spot-on. I would like London to be liveable as well as accessible. John Griffin said he wants minicabs in bus lanes so his passengers can make 'quicker' journeys. We have to decide if speed and more motor traffic are the only defining factors in our streets.

Or do those same passengers actually want streets where their kids can cycle to school, where they can drop into the shops, where their older relatives can easily cross the road, where there's less congestion and less pollution? That's not an anti-car agenda but it's an anti-speed agenda and also pro a more 'liveable' city.

You could get an awful lot more people moving much more efficiently around London if you allocated more of the street to people on buses and people on bikes. But my sense is that sort of debate isn't even on the table. TfL's response to the AddisonLee challenge says it all: Maximising motor traffic is all this is about.

If AddisonLee is going to play hardball on bus lanes, so be it. I think it's time cyclists played hardball on cycle lanes. Proper cycle lanes. Not blue paint. You have two ways to influence this. First, sign the London Cycling Campaign petition NOW (please). Second, you have no excuse whatsoever not to turn up to Hyde Park Corner, 11am Saturday 28th April. And let's get at least 10,000 of us out (on motor-traffic free roads no less) pushing the point. Make London somewhere anyone and everyone can get on a bike and use it as normal transport.