Friday, 30 August 2013

Cycling in the UK: 90% of people get nothing. Small urban areas get some clunky, indecisive funding. Not good enough, HM Government

Rush-hour in the City of London earlier this week. All 'elitists' because they're not driving, apparently. 
I'm beginning to feel sorry for Norman Baker MP. Baker is Parliamentary Under Secretary for Transport and the man who stands up to announce the government's plans for cycling. He isn't getting a very good press. Earlier this week, Baker headlined the Department for Transport's long-delayed response to the Get Britain Cycling inquiry. It's a fairly hapless document that announces things we already know about - a bit of funding for a couple of years for a handful of UK cities and national parks and some limited further commitments. Nothing much.

And that's kind of the problem. Baker has done some good things. He has focussed money on a number of cities and regions where it might have a chance of doing some good. And he has started to create an environment within the Department for Transport that is finally responding to really basic changes that need to happen (such as enabling "No Entry except cyclists" signs).

That said (and I am not completely certain but I get a strong feeling), Baker didn't have anything to do with securing the significant funding for cycling in London that Boris Johnson prised from the Chancellor earlier this year.

And that's the problem. My sense is that Baker is doing what he can for cycling within the narrow confines available to him. But his ability to manoeuvre is tiny. Tiny amounts of money. Tiny (but significant in their own way) amendments to road regulations to enable things like cyclist-friendlier road signs.

As a rule, I get the feeling he's doing his best within a government that simply doesn't think bicycles are important other than in areas like inner London where it is faced with a significant and vocal number of people who want to incorporate the bicycle into our city and where the Mayor (to give him credit) was prepared to demand proper funding. At a national level, however, there is absolutely no-one making big demands for big money for cycling or for big changes in regulations to support real change. Instead, as Peter Walker argues very powerfully in The Guardian we have the likes of other big brand politicians like Eric Pickles who seems to bully his way into the media and wants to encourage "roads full of cars speeding to copious and cheap parking spaces".

Ultimately, though, I think Pickles and his obsession with filling our towns with cars is an irrelevant distraction. He's just playing a populist card and it's very boring and predictable stuff.

There are very many people who want to see towns where kids can play outside; where high streets are full of people not cars; and where it's easier to bike two miles to drop your kids at school than to drive. Those of us who see this sort of future need to focus on the attributes that will make that achievable.

Waiting to cross the road outside Battersea Park. People have priority when they're in cars; never give way to children.
Eric Pickles seems to think that's the right way to be. Not pleasant

Maria Eagle, the (very impressive when I met her) shadow secretary for transport seems to understand what's needed. Writing in the New Statesman, she notes: "When nearly a quarter of all car journeys are less than a mile, making cycling a more attractive option has a huge potential to cut congestion and boost the economy; and is a good way to reduce the impact of rising fuel costs on the household budget". She also points out, correctly, that we have road and rail budgets established to 2020/21 but cycling budgets are only defined for the next two years.

The truth is that bicycle transport is only just starting to be taken seriously in this country in those handful of places where a large number of people already cycle and where there is political backing to boost it. In reality, I reckon that encompasses less than 10% of the population at most.

So, we are stuck with having to support Norman Baker and his tiny cycling budgets because, for the time being, that's all we're going to get. But we know that it is inevitable bicycle transport will grow in other towns and cities over time and that Eric Pickles is a man on the wrong side of history. And we owe it to ourselves to keep pushing the government and encouraging other people to realise that life in the UK doesn't have to revolve around crap town centres filled with free car parking and empty shops; that parents don't have to be permanent taxi drivers to their children; that older Britons don't have to get about only in cars; that we can have a much better quality of life for all of us if we start changing the transport mix available to us.  Our job is to encourage more and more people to start seeing the alternatives and encourage them to demand the same.

I'll be at the London Cycling Campaign #Space4Cycling ride on Monday in order to make these points. There will be feeder rides coming in from all over London. You have no excuse not to join us. 6pm Monday by the London Eye. Or join one of the many feeder rides coming in from around London. 

Feeder rides to the #Space4Cycling ride on Monday. More details at London Cycling Campaign. 

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Sun: "we need more cycle lanes". Completely right. But this is only going to happen if you play your part in making it happen. Monday 2 September; be at the spaceforcycling ride; 6.30pm Jubilee Gardens, Waterloo.

This is the sort of image we are used to seeing on cycling blogs. But this image was taken from an article by the BBC asking "Can Reading ever 'go Dutch' and become a cycling town?"
Something is changing in the way that the UK media looks at cycling. Slowly but surely, the idea genuinely seems to be permeating mainstream media channels that the UK needs to create conditions for people to cycle instead of drive short trips. The BBC ran a fascinating article comparing the similarly-sized towns of Reading and The Hague last week. It noted that you could cycle from end-to-end of each town in about the same time. And it focussed on the fact that very few people cycle in the UK town because 'there is nowhere' to ride a bike safely. What they mean by that is that most people look at the roads in Reading and decide to use a car. In The Hague (pictured left above), most people look at the roads and decide cycling is more attractive than driving short distances.

Editorial comment in The Sun last week. This is a massive step from the UK's largest-selling newspaper (love it or hate it)
Two years, the only media sources to cover bicycle transport in any way seriously were The Guardian's bike blog and some more open-minded journalists at BBC London and the Evening Standard. Now, the call for safe bicycle infrastructure is starting to permeate the BBC nationally and the Evening Standard has firmly nailed its colours to the 'more, safe cycling' mast. In the interim, The Times has also led its hugely successful 'cycle safe' campaign. The BBC, which used to treat cycling as a freak side show really seems to be portraying cycling in a much more balanced context and is starting to argue for proper cycling condition. There was a very well balanced report on BBC London last week which would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. 

And last week, something quite extraordinary happened. There is a tragic case of a 16 year-old who is in a coma after being hit on his bike by a van driver. The teenager wasn't wearing a cycle helmet because he "didn't want to mess up his hair'. During the week, much of the press started to look like they had concluded that this horrible collision means cycle helmets should be compulsory (with the exception of The Telegraph which wrote a well-balanced piece on the subject). Forget calling for safer cycling networks like they have in the US, the Netherlands and in Denmark, and would keep teenagers on bikes away from people driving vans; no, let's just make the weakest road users take responsibility for themselves so that when a van hits them, they might not be quite as madly mashed up and we, the majority of road users in motor vehicles, won't feel so bad about it. I promise you that last week's media frenzy around this case very, very nearly led to a media campaign focussed on compulsory helmets. Until Friday that is. And that's when The Sun broke ranks. It covered the story in quite some detail but then instead of calling for mandatory cycle helmets, it said this:

"Making helmets compulsory is not necessarily the best solution. We need more cycle lanes. We need to improve training for motorists AND cyclists. And haulage firms should equip lorries with extra mirrors and sensors".

Well done, The Sun.

The amazing disappearing bike lane on Waterloo Bridge. Westminster council thinks free car parking is more important than allowing people to cycle safely along the bike lane (under the white car). Pic via Charlie Wilson

Slowly but surely, the media is starting to get the message: It's not about cycle helmets; it is about creating the right conditions for safe cycling to become the norm in a country where people have less and less money.

But as the BBC put it on its news clip last week "as more cyclists take to the roads, those in power are under more pressure to speed up their plans for cycling safety".

Well, yes and no. Look at that Reading example in more detail and you can see that 'those in power' really aren't under any pressure at all to 'speed up their plans for cycling safety'. The representatives of Reading Cycling Campaign point out that "We have had five workshops to look at different parts of Reading in the last two years, and there hasn't been any action [from the council] arising from any of them". What does the council have to say? The council deputy leader says: "we also have to balance the needs of all other road users - public transport as well as cars, lorries and pedestrians; There is only so much space." Yes, 99.5% of that space is devoted to helping people make very short journeys in cars which could more easily, more cheaply, more healthily be done by bike. That response by Reading council is utter tripe, to be honest.

This is a cycle highway built two years ago in London. Not good enough. 

And yet you can see why the council utters this sort of rubbish. Firstly, most of its residents already get about by car, so it feels it needs to be seen to support them. Secondly, it has the government breathing down its neck criticising local councils for being 'anti-car', believe it or not. This stuff matters. I met a senior official from a very pro-cycling London council last week and he says that every time Eric Pickles warbles on about anti-car local government, it makes it just that bit harder to stand up for cycling. And he's right.

So we need to change the status quo on our streets.

The media has already started to smell change in the air. Slowly but surely, the mainstream media is beginning to talk about one core message: create safe space for cycling. But the message still isn't getting through to our politicians, particularly not those politicians banging the anti-car, more road-building drum.

Which is why we need to bang an ever louder drum. We need to get out there in person and we need to write letters and we need to change the way the politicians are thinking, so that it becomes necessary for them to stop banging on about 'there's only so much space' and start taking action to allocate some of that space to safe cycling.

This is why I urge you to attend the London Cycling Campaign 'space for cycling’ protest ride on Monday 2 September 2013, this time coinciding with the Parliamentary debate on cycling that evening. The ride will depart from Jubilee Gardens near Waterloo by 6.30pm. There will be feeder rides and marshalls. People and politicians need to see that people like them are fed up of them refusing to change and fed up of irresponsible and lazy local councils telling them there 'isn't enough space' for safe cycling. There is. Full stop.

You can also write to your MP and local representatives and urge them to attend the Parliamentary debate next week. Ibikelondon blog covers all the easy ways you can do this. 

Please be there next Monday. We need thousands of people to come together and tell the government we're not 'anti-car' but we're fed up being fobbed off with excuses.


Saturday, 17 August 2013

UK government announces that it thinks creating separate space for motor and bicycle traffic is a good thing. The shift in political messaging is great but the newly-announced investment in cycling is tiny and there's no guarantee it'll last more than a year

The mood music starts to change: government starts making baby steps in messaging that bicycle transport is a good thing. 

Last week, something quite strange happened. Amid the press noise about an additional £77million to fund cycle infrastructure in a handful of cities and national parks, the government issued a detailed briefing note about its 'ambition for cycling'. Lurking in the detail of that note two things stand out. For the first time that I can recall, the UK government stated that it supports the idea of creating infrastructure that is specifically for cycling. It marked this by saying that investment in cycling will help "motorists – by reducing congestion and conflict as a result of the careful segregation of traffic".

Just listen to those words again: "careful segregation of [bicycle and motor] traffic" (I've added the bit about bicycle and motor). Now read what the Dutch road safety institute says about creating safe conditions for cycling: "The ultimate solution for the blind spot problem is a structural separation of trucks and cyclists." The Dutch have been saying for years that we need to create separate traffic flows for bike and motorised traffic. This is the first time I've heard the UK government state anything even close to the Dutch perspective and I think it marks a turning point.

London rush hour (pic via ITV News). Just along the road from here, cyclists (who make up over 60% of the traffic rush hour) are banned from the bus lane and diverted via a lethal 5-lane gyratory, scene of yet another cyclist death early this month. Not good enough, Camden council. 
There are a number of other indicators of a shift in tone from government in that report. The document states clearly that cycling is good for business "[it] improves access to employment sites, local shops and leisure facilities". This sort of language might not sound radical to people who read this blog but, again, you don't have to look far to see countless examples of government NOT saying this sort of thing.

What also stands out to me is the fact that for the first time, the idea of 'bicycle = transport' seems to be starting to permeate mainstream Westminster thinking. And that's not all. A couple of years ago, mainstream professional organisations seemed to think that bicycle transport would just happen by people making 'smarter travel choices' (whatever that means), some of them are coming round to the idea that there is a genuine need to invest in bicycle infrastructure. The Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation, for example, states that it "supports the development of programmes that integrate investment in both high quality infrastructure and smarter choices". That's important because we need support for proper infrastructure to take hold.

Tower Hamlets clearly thinks this is good cycle infrastructure. It's not, it's dreadful; and an utter waste of taxpayer money. But we could see more of this without decent design standards. 

What we also need, however, is robust criticism of the government's plans. And it's very encouraging to see some mature criticism around cycling policy emerging at a political level and within the sorts of professional and trade bodies that we're going to need to deliver some of this change. The Chartered Institution, for example, notes that total shambles of bicycle design standards. London still doesn't have its own cycle design standards (technically it does but they've hardly ever been applied, more details here) and yet some boroughs are already busily designing their own. Southwark council, for example, has just released its draft standards which are pretty patchy. What this means is that there is a significant risk London will end up with 36 different sets of bicycle infrastructure design standards. That will mean cycle ways that look and feel completely different from one borough to the next. That's not acceptable when we design roads for motor traffic so why should it be acceptable for bicycle traffic?

It's also very interesting to see that it's no longer just the bloggers who are pointing out one undeniable fact about the government's cycling investment: People are starting to notice that the amount of money being invested is peanuts. What's more, the manner in which investment for cycling is being provided is really not encouraging. The Chartered Institute notes that the amount of money being invested is hardly any more than was provided by Cycling England (a body that invested in cycling infrastructure in some UK cities and was dismantled by the government in its bonfire of the quangos) and it quotes the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain's excellent point that there is no continuity or security in any of this funding. That's important. If you look at some of routes on the existing London Cycle Network, you'll see that most of the routes have had zero investment ever since Boris Johnson came to power. The result is potholed roads, missing signposts, changes elsewhere on the road network that have rendered some of the cycle links completely useless. You need to invest and you need to sustain investment, not just do a bit here and there when it pleases you.

I'm encouraged by the shift in the political language around cycling but I really feel that we're still stumbling around when it comes to meaningful investment in bicycle transport: bits of money here and there; design standards all over the place; no certainty of on-going investment and maintenance. The mood music is good but the delivery is unbelievably patchy.

Friday, 9 August 2013

BBC Newsnight: "Cyclists are accommodated here in the same way motorists are elsewhere". Time for that to change in the UK, not just in the Netherlands.

Most-shared article on the BBC yesterday.  BBC asking why Dutch people cycle so much. But the real question is why Brits don't cycle. We're not that different but our towns, cities and roads are. 
Earlier this week, BBC Newsnight carried a seriously-good review of cycling and asked one simple question: "Why do so many Dutch people cycle?".

Actually, the real question that the programme was asking was "Why do so few Brits cycle?". The answer seems to boil down to two statements made by Anna Holligan, the BBC's correspondent from The Hague:

Firstly, she states that "cycling is popular in the Netherlands because the infrastructure is intuitive & integrated" and secondly because "cyclists are accommodated here the same way motorists are elsewhere".

You can watch the Newsnight piece on iplayer or, if you're outside the UK, I've embedded a version of the programme below.

In other words, what the BBC is saying is that Brits would cycle more but they don't because the infrastructure ISN'T intuitive and integrated and because cycling is not accorded the same privileges in this country as motoring is. It is a purely political choice. Absolutely one hundred percent spot on.

What's so telling about this excellent piece is the way that Boris Johnson talks about cycling in London. He talks a lot about how the culture of cycling in the Netherlands is gentler than in the UK and people are pottering about in normal clothes on bikes. He wants to create that culture in London. Well, yes they are pottering about in normal clothes. But the reason they are doing that is because government policy has been to create conditions that make it inviting to just use a bike like an extension of your own legs. Your biggest threats on a bike are rain, wind and maybe stray dogs. In the UK, your biggest threats are HGVs, buses, white vans and cars. No wonder we have a culture where people feel the need to act like road warriors on a bike, Boris.
Royal College Street protected bike way - note the new 'armadillos' to keep parked cars off the bike way.
Pic courtesy James Gleave

That said, there are glimmers of good news starting to emerge. Over in Camden, the council has nearly finished putting together a new bike way on Royal College Street (behind St Pancras). The council has built bike ways the length of the street by moving car parking away from the kerb and using (for the first time in the UK) 'armadillos' to keep cars off the bike way. Excellent stuff. And frankly, who wouldn't want to cycle on a route like this? More of this please.