Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Jeremy Clarkson admits he loves Copenhagen-style cycling and implicitly rejects Boris Johnson's cycling strategy, as fourth transport organisation slams Mayor's transport policies. Why are London's Conservatives so out of touch on cycling as a normal, safe, everyday mode of transport?

Jeremy Clarkson in the Sunday Times. Copenhagen, a city 'that works' because of cycling

Last week, as the campaign for the new London Mayor become a debate about income taxes, a number of organisations published their verdicts on the Mayoral candidates' policies - notably their cycling policies,

I mentioned last week how the Chair of the Transport Planning Society - traffic forecasters - had declared that the plans on which Boris Johnson is relying (more traffic, more congestion, more cars) are 'no longer realistic'. The previous week, Sustrans, the national cycling charity also slammed Boris Johnson's manifesto saying there was "not a single commitment to additional funding for cycling or walking. It seems that Boris is intent on bringing the capital to a standstill."

The London Cycling Campaign issued its own line-by-line analysis of the cycling plans of the four main candidates. The Campaign concludes rather damningly that: "None of the candidates’ manifestos makes concrete commitments in terms of funding for cycling provision, nor do they set targets for increasing the proportion of journeys by bike."

The London Cycling Campaign ranks each of the Mayoral candidates' policies. The scorecard gives much more strongly delineated results than I'd have expected. Jenny Jones (Green) comes first, followed by Ken Livingstone. Boris Johnson and Brian Paddick both fail dismally. Johnson is singled out in particular and scores 0/10 on some cycling issues.

Brian Paddick and Caroline Pidgeon (LibDem) join Val Shawcross (Lab)
and Jenny Jones (Green) at the third cyclist protest on Blackfriars Bridge
Photo courtesy zefrog
I'm slightly surprised by the low score for Paddick. Although I think Paddick himself is a rather new 'convert' to the cycling message, he has at least been out on Blackfriars Bridge protesting for better facilities (seen here on a Boris bike), and his transport spokesperson Caroline Pidgeon, has been consistently supportive of cycling measures. Pidgeon is one politician who I think does genuinely understand the issues.

Over the weekend, another transport organisation issued its verdict. Boris Johnson's transport policies, says the Campaign for Better Transport, 'mark a return to 1960s' transport planning'. The report states that the Mayor's policy has "helped speed up car journeys at the expense of the safety and convenience of cyclists and pedestrians". This is the same thing that several London politicians have been saying all year.

What I find interesting in all of this is that Boris Johnson is someone who has made a lot of noise about cycling. The fact that he has recently secured money to make junctions safer for cycling is very positive news indeed. Yet, it's not really a cycling strategy, it's just a one-off project.

What's even more interesting is that the Mayor seems to be increasingly out of step on the issue of cycling. I'm not going to take this as evidence of a wholescale change of heart but I was stunned by a piece written by Jeremy Clarkson in this weekend's Sunday Times. Cycling in Copenhagen, says Clarkson is "fan-bleeding-tastic. And best of all: there are no bloody cars cluttering the place up. Almost everyone goes almost everywhere on a bicycle." You can read more about the article on road.cc's website here which has most of the text or in a summary (free) on The Times's website here.

Even more tellingly, Clarkson points out that in Copenhagen cars and bikes do not share road space. Sharing road space, he says, "cannot and does not work". In making this statement, Clarkson is just the latest in a string of high profile figures to completely reject Boris Johnson's mantra that people should just hurtle themselves through massive road gyratories on their bikes. Earlier this year, Olympic road cyclist Nicole Cooke slammed the Mayor (implicitly) for saying that people should just 'keep their wits about them' and pedal furiously through junctions like Elephant & Castle roundabout. Now Clarkson is suggesting similar.

I've never understood why London's Conservatives don't 'get' cycling. If you look at last week's Mayoral transport hustings, what seems to be happening is that Labour, LibDem and Greens are all converging on policies that are about giving more choice to Londoners to walk or cycle. Often, that means giving people the chance to cycle where the roads are made calmer and less intimidating. Sometimes that means separate   flows for motor vehicles and for people on bikes. Sometimes that means quieter, traffic-calmed routes. Either way, there seems to be growing consensus that things need to change on London's roads. Unless you're in the Conservative party. The Conservative line (represented at the hustings by Richard Tracey) seems to be 'cyclists ride on pavements'. And that seems to be the end of the debate. It's a view that completely and utterly misses the point. Imagine a political party that refused to take car driving seriously because some drivers speed or use mobile phones when they're driving.

The thing is, if Jeremy Clarkson can 'get' cycling, then Boris Johnson's party ought to 'get' cycling as well. But so far, they're completely and utterly failing to do so. The Mayor's road transport policy has alienated Sustrans, the national cycling charity; it has the thumbs-down from the London Cycling Campaign; the Campaign for Better Transport has dismissed the Mayor's policies as 'unsuccessful' for motorists as well as being anti-cycling and the Transport Planning Society (not a particularly political body, as far as I can tell) doesn't seem to think much of Boris Johnson's plans either.

It's going to very interesting to hear how the candidates handle this topic in a few weeks' time when they're grilled by the editor of The Times, just before the election. My own view? I'm not all that impressed by Ken's cycling credentials but agree with the London Cycling Campaign on their relative merits. I'm certainly not impressed by Boris's plan to turn London into a place full of road building and fast cars. I'm looking for the candidate who will deliver what's best for Londoners who want to use their bikes safely.