Monday, 30 April 2012

Boris Johnson is not sincere in his commitment to "Go Dutch"

On the eve of London Cycling Campaign's "Big Ride", Boris Johnson's campaign team finally told LCC that he would commit to meeting the demands of the Go Dutch campaign, joining the Jenny Jones (Green), Brian Paddick (Lib Dem), Ken Livingstone (Labour) and Siobhan Benita (independent) in that commitment. What all these have actually committed to is the following:
  1. Implement three flagship Love London, Go Dutch developments on major streets and/or locations. 
  2. Make sure all planned developments on the main roads that they controls are completed to Go Dutch standards, especially junctions. 
  3. Make sure the Cycle Superhighways programme is completed to Love London, Go Dutch standards 
In the case of Johnson, the commitment leads to a bit of puzzle. In fact, to a whole lot of enormous puzzles. Because he could have been doing any of these things for the last four years, but has most strikingly not been doing them. The "flagship developments" that LCC have suggested include Blackfriars, where he insisted on a design that had cyclists up in arms, protesting, for most of last year, and where he refused even to impose a 20mph limit, to do the bare minimum he could have done to make it more cycle-friendly. The suggested Go Dutch developments also include the Olympic Park, which would have been, to a considerable extent, within Boris's powers to make genuinely cycle-friendly, but in which he seems to have taken not a jot of interest, leaving it to a clueless (on the subject of cycling) Olympic Development Authority, recalcitrant boroughs, and irresponsible developers, to make a general hash of cycle provision in the area. And the suggested developments include Parliament Square, which Boris has made clear he sees continuing as the ugly and polluted traffic maelstrom that it has long been, with poor concessions to pedestrians, and none to cyclists.

Boris has made some other changes to major roads and junctions in his mayoralty. Completed examples include Piccadilly and Haymarket, and Henlys Corner in Barnet. Ongoing examples include Kings Cross and Euston Circus. These are all locations where extensive rebuilding has taken, or will take, place, and where he could have had an ongoing programme of improvements to the cycle network as part of these huge works, at no extra cost. But they either have included no cycle facilities (Piccadilly and Haymarket), or very poor ones that cyclists are unlikely to use (Henly's Corner and Euston Circus), or even made things actively worse for cyclists (Kings Cross and Blackfriars). So by committing to point 2 of the Go Dutch campaign, Johnson is committing to a complete about-turn in the way he has been approaching road infrastructure projects. Is he sincere in this?

And of course, he could have built the Cycle Superhighways that he has created so far, at massive expense, to proper standards, giving cyclists their own dedicated space on the roads 24/7, with safe, properly-signalised passage through junctions, on Dutch or Danish or German models. But he did not. He splashed blue paint all over the place and left cyclists to fend for themselves amongst the buses, taxis, lorries, boy racers and white van men. So why would he start doing something radically different with the Superhighways in his next term? It's not as if cycling groups have just come up with the idea, this week, that the Superhighways could, and, should, have been done far better. LCC has been protesting about their hideously compromised designs for three years, getting thoroughly ignored by TfL and its chairman, Boris Johnson.

So it's all a bit strange. Ken Livingstone, as I have freely admitted before, has a fairly poor record on cycling as well. But that was in different times, for politics, cycling, and for cycle campaigning, when cyclists were perhaps not so clear, or vocal, or united, in what they were asking for, and so he has a lot less explaining to do on his new commitment to Going Dutch than Boris has.

The Big Ride on Saturday was indeed the biggest cycling demonstration ever seen in the UK, as predicted, with over 10,000 participants turning out in terrible weather. It has been nicely covered on the ibikelondon blog and Cyclists in the City, so I'll not add much, except to say how lovely it was to see all those tiny children cycling though the middle of London, just loving being on their bikes. Some of them will remember the day for the rest of their lives, I have no doubt.

Cyclists with a mission pack a damp Piccadilly on The Big Ride
Gone to the dogs – he had three on one bike
One of the many tots having a roaring time

So Boris had some explaining to do on his conversion to Going Dutch, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and let him do that explaining, if he so wished, at The Times cycling hustings in Westminster on Monday. Indeed, the whole of the packed hall was agog to see how the candidates would interpret the "cyclesafe" agenda that the newspaper has so pro-actively and admirably been promoting in recent months.

Scene at the entrance to the hustings, appropriately at the Institution of Civil Engineers in Great George Street

The platform

Others who were there will give their own opinions on the meeting, and there is a complete report available through The Times. I won't say much about the "other" candidates. Jenny Jones was true to the form that we all know, a tireless promoter of safer streets for cycling. 

Brian Paddick came across as sincere, honest, and clued-up about the whole issue, understanding why few people are prepared to cycle in London as conditions stand (he freely admits he finds it worrying and stressful), and clear about what is required: an  end to policies designed to "smooth the flow" and put motor vehicle throughput above all other objectives for the roads, with pedestrian and cyclists safety moved to top priority, significant and meaningful reallocation of roadspace to cyclists, lower speeds, and sane junction designs. He condemned the attitude that regards dead and injured cyclists as "collateral damage" to be tolerated in an environment of rising cycling levels but static infrastructure, comparing Boris Johnson with a First World War general who just throws the troops (cyclists) into the slaughter (traffic), knowing there are enough of them, and that some of them will survive without assistance.

Siobhan Benita, whom I had not seen before, also came across as honest, clear and open, with a real agenda for change towards safer streets, as a mother who wants her children to be able to cycle without fear, noting the vast gap between established politicians' rhetoric on cycling, and the situation on the ground.

Ken Livingstone never appears all that comfortable talking about cycling, preferring to major on "getting people out of their cars" by whatever method, and talking a lot about long-term investment and long-term plans for transport in general, without giving too much detail on what he thinks a future, cycle-friendly London would actually look like. His main commitment is a tangential, but significant one: to install Jenny Jones as his cycling supremo, with authority to "do what ever is necessary" to reduce danger and achieve high levels of cycling. He was talking about cycling becoming 15% of road traffic, but this is actually is not much, and has probably been exceeded in many places already. He was also talking about re-starting the London Cycle Network, which, as I have mentioned before, failed so badly when he was Mayor last time. He sounded to me something like a manager trying to steer a middle course between competing expensive demands: tube, bus, tram, cycling, rather than someone who had a radical new vision for the streets. But he was clear that he thought the London of the future needed to contain far less motor traffic. And I have no reason to believe he would not, or that he would not allow Jenny Jones, as his cycling deputy, to implement the Go Dutch demands.

It appeared to me that Boris made no concessions to the campaigns of the last year at all. He did not admit that his Cycle Superhighways have been very poor and have not lived up to the initial promises he made for them. He did not agree that cycling casualties per mile are increasing. He several times referred to people who want a cycling infrastructure "ideal world" which is unachievable, implying that talk of giving cyclists proper, protected space on London's main roads, in other words, Going Dutch, is not really possible. Towards the end of the meeting he seemed to be implying that the cyclists in the room were all greeny unrealistic lefties, wanting to see the back of all motor traffic in London, saying, in a bizarre improvisation on words, that it was not possible to "Pasturise [or should that be Pasteurise] London". He also annoyed the meeting by dwelling on the law-breaking of some cyclists. Well, we all know about that, and it is a complex phenomenon with context and causes. But Paddick hit the nail on the head by remarking that comparing the law-breaking by cyclists with law-breaking by motorists is failing to compare like with like, for the totally different potential for damage that such actions carry. Again Paddick struck me as having common sense and humanity. Boris faffed and blustered and joked. He constantly resorted to attacking Livingstone by claiming that the latter would have no money to do anything because of his fares cut pledge.

Boris failed to get it. He failed to understand why The Times, a right-wing newspaper, had been pursuing its campaign. He failed to understand why LCC is calling for London to Go Dutch. He failed to understand why all the people in the room were there, not appreciating that they were all just normal people, of all political persuasions, all professions, all backgrounds, all types, who wanted to use bikes to get around the city without fear. He failed to acknowledge that as a legitimate aspiration, preferring to come out with some stupid stereotypes about the type of cyclist that he is not (brown skinny legs, or some such cobblers – it doesn't matter, it was irrelevant nonsense). He wanted to tell the audience that cyclists were not "morally superior" – when nobody had claimed they were, merely that they needed to be made safe. He failed to engage with practical, realistic arguments, referencing places like Holland and Demark, and German, Italian, Swiss, Swedish and South American cities, where it has actually been done, about how a city could and should be progressively, but radically, remodelled to favour people over cars, or at least to give pedestrians and bikes more equal priority with cars. He seemed to think people who thought like that were head-in-the-clouds eco-extremists who wanted an end to civilisation as we know it.

I don't think Boris much cared about how people at this meeting felt, in the end. That's the only way I can explain his behaviour. I think he believes he has this election in the bag. I think he intends to serve another four years as Mayor pursuing exactly the same policies as he has pursued for the last four. That seemed to be very clear from what he was saying. I expect he will then not stand for the mayoralty again in 2016, but will go back into Parliament and attempt to win the leadership of the Conservative party whenever David Cameron relinquishes it. I think his calculation is that none of this, not The Times, not this hustings, not LCC's campaign, nor anything that bloggers like me say, will make any difference to this. I think his calculation is that he can continue to treat the cyclists of London with contempt, with no undue long-term harm to his political career.

It follows that his endorsing of Go Dutch is a cynical and dishonest ploy. It was clear from all that he said that he has absolutely no intention of carrying out the three Go Dutch pledges in the way LCC means them, and has clearly defined them. No intention at all. He is taking us for a ride. A Big Ride, one might say.

So I'd like to think again, at the end of this piece, about those young children enjoying their first taste of cycling freely, and without fear, on the roads on Central London on the LCC Big Ride on Saturday. They will remember that day. Will they remember it, in twenty or thirty years' time, as the start of something big and new, themselves in the roles of an unwitting, innocent, advanced guard of a revolution that started that day? Or will they think of it, sadly, as a brief, elusive, glimpse of how things might have been, had history been different? Will they be able to send their own children on bikes, on their own, across their city, in near-certainty they will come to no harm, as the parents of Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Helsinki can do today? Or will they have to fight the same battles again, go on the same protests for the same basic rights once more? 

Time will tell. I don't know. At the moment it doesn't look good.


  1. Some politicians, I'm thinking mostly of Tories, but I'm sure it's not just them, see politics as a great game, the cyclists here are being played for a win by Boris. It's not about what cyclists think, it about what everyone else thinks about cyclists. First you sign up, "hey I'm reasonable" then you point out that they're greenies (look where Jeannie is in the polls) and that they are Livingstone supporters anyway (politically motivated, not credible). Dis-credit with Metro/Standard support (its getting safer anyway!) and Boris is released from any obligations re:Go Dutch.

  2. Excellent analysis David. I think cycling is a particularly vivid test of Boris Johnson's brand of conservatism, which dresses up the same old laissez-faire in a new discourse of 'equal' treatment and instead of setting any ground rules for behaviour just exhorts people to 'get along'. Of course Boris would like to see fewer cyclist casualties, but he is completely averse to doing anything that will even mildly inconvenience motorists so instead we are seeing more and more casualties every year. Similarly, he likes lower levels of congestion but would never in a million years have introduced the congestion charge himself. It's hard to say whether he just doesn't see the case for strategic intervention, or whether he sees it but rejects it, but in the end it doesn't really matter. Like the rest of the Tory party, his approach will completely fail to reduce either congestion or casualties. The difference with Boris is that he is usually so much better at distracting people from the consequences.

  3. Looking at the live updates of vote counting at midday Friday, it does look like Boris will be returned as Mayor.

    It also looks like the Tory vote for assembly members has collapsed, to the point that they may be lucky to retain more than eight assembly seats: the odious Brian Coleman looks like toast, and Richard Barnes also appears to be losing. "Dick" Tracey is neck and neck with his Labour rival. London-wide votes show labour ahead of conservatives whereas in 2008 it was the other way around. The greens appear to be doing better than the Libdems, which is fairly neutral as far as I am concerned. More concerned about BNP and particularly about UKIP.

    Anyway, it is my understanding that the Mayor needs at least a third of the assembly seats to block a veto by the assembly of his budget. Let's hope the Labour/Libdem/Green bloc have 17 of the 25 seats and that they use their 2/3rd majority effectively.