Mayor Johnson’s “Vision for Cycling in London”: Part Four

Summing it all Up:

If my analysis in these posts here seems more critical than that of some cycling bloggers and cycling groups, this may be because I have experience of the lack of positive effects of numerous talked-up cycling strategies, initiatives and “visions” from those in power over the past 25 years in the UK. Not a few of these were hailed at the time as “step-changes” or “sea-changes” in support for cycling. My justification for an in-depth analysis of this document   is that unless we understand what is being incorrectly assessed and proposed, we won’t get it right this time either. The key point is to understand what opportunities are now open (or need to be pushed for afresh) in the current climate. Hopefully this analysis will allow for campaigners and practitioners alike to prepare accordingly.

But first, there are still

Some more problems:

 The vision thing:

Discussing the Vision with colleagues, I’m struck by how many concentrate on the wording, tone, and what they claim is “the basic message” of the document. With not a little reading between the lines, those most impressed by the document detect a fundamental break with the past. This is, allegedly, the first time a commitment has been made towards a cycle-friendly environment.

But most of the admirable sentiments in the documents are ones that I have come across before. Reference to engineering the highway to make the environment for cyclists less hazardous and more welcoming, has been made – albeit in different ways – since “Ways to Safer Cycling” in 1984. The need to think about cycling right from the beginning, rather than as a bolted on afterthought, has similarly been echoed since at least the launch of the long-abandoned National Cycling Strategy.

I remember sitting on a working group producing guidelines on cycling for local government associations in the early 1990s where plenty of good stuff about getting all relevant Council departments involved was clearly stated. Did it get us anywhere?

There is a fundamental point here. I am quite happy to accept that Andrew Gilligan and others have an honest commitment towards cycling, and I share some (but not all) of their tactics and strategies to achieve this. The point is this: There is a big difference between a vision (stated in general, and often abstract, terms) and the specific objectives required in order to achieve it.

Here is an example:

We will closely monitor all major new planning applications, schemes and developments…to promote meaningful pro-bike content and discourage anti-bike content.” (p.28)

Admirable sentiments, which if forcefully pursued for all developments, could have a fundamental effect. But let’s work through this:

  • “major” applications only – but most new development won’t fit into this category.
  • Who is “we” exactly? And what measures to “promote” and “discourage” will actually be taken? Does TfL/GLA have the sufficient legal powers to do this – or even the willingness to apply sanctions unless both the promotion and discouragement elements are adequately present?
  • I think that excessive car parking is one of the “anti-bike content” elements to be “discouraged”. Encouraging car use diminishes the possibilities for cycling. But is this accepted by TfL?  And what would they accept as being excessive in terms of car parking standards? What would they actually do to prevent a typical Outer London authority from pursuing the kind of car dependent scheme which is the current norm?

I am not nit-picking here. All I’m doing is pointing out what can go wrong between stating a vision and trying to get it into place. There is really quite a lot which can go wrong, and I suspect that those without the experience of the labyrinthine bureaucracies of local government do not quite grasp this.

 The “One Tribe” Myth

Most cyclists are also motorists and pedestrians; we reject attempts to set groups of road users against each other.” P.31.

If asked to put a label on my views, I would say that I am integrationist rather than segregationist. Cyclists will be in proximity to motorised road users on most of the roads and streets they cycle on, certainly for the time being and probably forever. Sharing the road is necessary and courtesy is desirable. We are indeed mainly (although many of us are of course not motorists) multi-modal travellers. So shouldn’t it make sense to emphasise the similarities between cyclists and motorists?

No, it shouldn’t. This tendency to suggest that we are “all in it together”, that we are basically all the same, and that we all just need to be nice to each other, is dangerous, stupid and wrong. There is a strong ideological push, and indeed always has been since the “road safety” lobby was founded, to deny the fundamental differences between the motorised and other road users in terms of their actual and potential adverse effects on others. Indeed, attempting to neutralise the fundamental difference in the potential lethality of cycling or walking as compared to driving is one of the key dangerous features of “road safety” ideology.

For the brutal fact is that one of the “…groups of road users”, namely the motorised, is indeed “set against” other road users in general, and those outside motor vehicles in particular. No, this is not because when driving one becomes part of a “tribe” of bad people. It just means that when you drive inappropriately you pose a particularly high potential threat to other people’s safety compared to when you walk or cycle. That’s why the third party insurance cycling organisations have for their members is so much lower than the third party insurance a motorist has ( about £15 per annum – some 20, 30, 40, 50 times lower?), to take just one measure indicating the scale of difference of potential threat.

It really is that simple. And that is without the vastly greater environmental threat posed by driving compared to cycling. A civilised approach in any vision of future transport arrangements would gladly accept this, rather than try to cover it up.

Enforcement and sentencing

This is the worst part of the Vision. A key feature of London’s transport scene over the last couple of decades has been the steady decline in numbers of police officers – into the hundreds – engaged in enforcing road traffic laws. There is no indication of an attempt to reinstate this level of commitment. Instead we get: 

We will expand the Metropolitan Police’s Cycle Task Force by more than a quarter, from 39 to 50 officers, to improve enforcement against antisocial road user behaviour (p.23)

My experience of officers in the CTF, including accompanying them on patrol, is that they are a potentially valuable resource. But there needs to be a general increase in enforcement to deal with issues like the hundreds of thousands of unregistered vehicles (which could be quite popular with most motorists) as well as increasing staffing of the CTF. And from 39 to 50 CTF officers throughout all of London? Frankly, this is little short of insulting.

On top of all this, there is no reference to how road traffic law may be used  to reduce danger to cyclists – and for that, matter, other road users as well. There has been substantial debate in the Road Danger Reduction – Real Road Safety community over the last decade about driver liability in crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians. It was briefly considered in TfL’s Cycle Safety Acton Plan – but is nowhere to be seen here.

Flagships

My view is that a big disease of modern transport thing is the Big Shiny Project, or BSP. Now a cycling BSP is obviously better news for sustainable and healthy transport than a rail, and certainly road, BSP. But what BSPs, or even smaller showpiece schemes like the “Quietways” miss is that most cycling will be on most roads. As pointed out before, this kind of focus misses out on the issues for most actual or potential cyclists in most places. Worse still, the BSPs tend to miss out on locations – like crossings of major roads and other gyratory systems – where highway engineering is really needed.

The east-west route using the Westway looks exciting, and I look forward to assisting in the design of entries to it if it passes through the borough I work for. As well as actually using it – but even though it will pass a couple of miles from where I live. It won’t be likely to assist on the vast majority of routes I use. The point is: will these schemes actually directly affect more than a small minority of the journeys of actual or potential cyclists?

That’s a list of problems with the Vision. I haven’t gone into as much detail as I could – but let’s see where this all takes us.

It’s the cars, stupid.

Or to be more precise: it’s the motor vehicles and motor vehicular traffic, stupid.

A key feature of current transport thinking, particularly among the Smarter Travel community, is the instruction, stated or not, to never say anything negative about motoring. You might upset people.

Let’s be clear about this. The RDRF accepts that there are going to be cars and other motor vehicles about on the roads. Indeed, many of us think it important to not panic people about the chances of being hurt or killed on the roads. However, we do think it necessary to emphasise (against the “road safety” lobby) the particular potential lethality of motorised road users as opposed to the less threatening modes.  We also highlight the numerous adverse effects caused by motor vehicle usage, on the local and global environments and public health. From loss of local community, restrictions of children’s independent mobility, noise pollution, visual intrusion, the financial costs of continuing road building, the list of problems is indeed long. Not least of these problems is the difficulty of actually directly addressing drivers with the negative effects of their vehicle use which they should be accountable for.

We should be honest about the need to talk about these issues, and pleased to point out the numerous advantages of having motor traffic reduction. While bicycle are a lot more than “not car”, “not car” is one of the big pluses of cycling. As Philip Darnton of the Bicycle Association put it when commenting about the “Get Britain Cycling” enquiry,  “that this is not an Inquiry about how to increase suburban cycling trips, but rather the start of a recognition across the whole of society that we can choose – and must choose – what sort of place we want Britain to be for future generations”. The same applies here with any real vision for London.

But actually contributing towards the responsibility of addressing these issues is generally only obliquely addressed in the Vision. A key reference in it is: “Our routes will specifically target parts of the Tube and bus network which are over capacity, promoting transfers to the bike “(Better places for everyone) – which is fine (as cycle use is better than tube use) but there is rather less on reducing car use.

 Everybody happy?

More people cycling will also benefit motorists – by taking thousands of cars off the roads.” (p.32) “It means more seats on the Tube, less competition for a parking place and fewer cars in front of yours at the lights.”

Never mind the overly car-centric assumption that we are all motorists: is this really what will happen? Do motorists actually appreciate a cyclist overtaking them as they sit stuck in jam? Might not “taking thousands of cars off the roads” generate more space for other cars?

Most important of all, insofar as space is re-allocated towards cycles, it inevitably has to involve the loss of motor vehicular capacity on the network: the loss of car parking space, and/or general traffic lanes and/or time at signals is on the cards. And where space is not formally allocated to cycles, motorists have to watch out for cyclists and drive properly.

This may be acceptable to plenty of motorists, and one hopes it will be. There would indeed be a better environment for everyone. But a significant proportion of the motorised won’t be happy, and their objections need to be confronted. I don’t get a sense that this is part of the agenda of the Vision. And dealing with car supremacist ( an admittedly rather pompous name I cooked up some years ago) ideology is something that will have to be done – not just to  advance sustainable transport policies generally – but  to defend pro-cycling measures.

And finally…

In conclusion, what we can say with certainty, and no trace of either pessimism or optimism, is that 2013 is going to be the pivotal year in cycling and sustainable transport policy for not just London, but the whole of UK.

What counts now is not the Vision document, but what happens in the bidding processes ending in June and September made by the boroughs. I would argue that even more important is the writing of LIP 2, the Local Implementation Plan by the boroughs,  due towards the end of the year. This will affect the conditions for cyclists whatever happens in the ringfenced cycling areas – and I repeat that TfL should base its allocation of funds both in cycling-specific monies and in LIP funding on that basis.

The crucial point is that campaigners and practitioners should be working out what goes into all these bids throughout 2013, and carefully examining them at all stages to see how exactly they will impact on actual and potential cyclists.

Watch this space…

5 thoughts on “Mayor Johnson’s “Vision for Cycling in London”: Part Four

  1. Mike Chalkley

    I think it’s time for the introduction of short-range RF transmitters to be fitted to cars which have unique IDs linked to the car’s registration. You could even use the MAC address of a bluetooth style device in principle. Produced in bulk, the devices fitted to cars would cost very little and could be requirements at MOT time.
    This would make it significantly harder to change the ID of any car and also would allow for covert monitoring of vehicles. This could so easily be linked to databases of cars, insurance etc and provide real-time alerting to police units of offending vehicles. Collected data could be analysed offline to flag any potential ‘clones’. Traps could easily be set to catch any untagged vehicles.
    Also, linked networks of these devices could provide covert average speed monitoring, traffic stats and potentially be used in serious crime solving.
    A unit the size of a drinks bottle could be installed in a lamppost, take power from it and use the ever-growing public wifi networks to link to central computing stations.
    It would decimate (centimate? is that a word?) the current fleet of illegal and unregistered vehicles in very little time and provide resources for the future. It would allow Policing to be more effective and cheaper too.

    Reply

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