Friday 17 June 2011

A grey protest for a greener city?

There has been, as readers of cycling blogs, websites and Twitter feeds based in London will know, a lot of frustration and anger around at TfL's intransigence over the Blackfriars Bridge re-design. So far, protests from everybody from ordinary cyclists to London Assembly Members have not achieved the results we want. There are various shades of opinion amongst cyclists on what exactly they do want. For these, see earlier posts in this blog, or many posts in Cyclists in the City or Cycle of Futility. All are agreed, however, that cyclists, the majority traffic on the bridge at peak times, do not want what TfL are offering, which is raising of the speed limit to 30mph, an increase in the number of general vehicle lanes, and maintenance of the dangerous design of the junction at the north end of the bridge, which has cause two deaths and additional serious injuries in recent years.

Thanks to the efforts of those campaigners shown in the YouTube video posted here yesterday, the issue has now gone closer to the top of government, with cycling transport minister Norman Baker promising to talk to TfL, though he has no control over them. While we wait to see if this, and LCC's photo petition, achieve anything, naturally there has been much discussion amongst cycling bloggers on what further direct action can be taken to keep up the pressure. There was a "flashride" protest on 20 May, where 300 people cycled slowly across the bridge with "20mph" signs, round the junction, and then to the TfL headquarters. Organised quickly by LCC through social media sites, this showed what can be done.

I have been mulling this over, in the context of other cycling events that have occurred in London recently, the Tweed Run and the World Naked Bike Ride, and think I have come up with a concept that merges all these. The idea is to keep doing a Flashride on Blackfriars Bridge, every week at the same time. Publicise it so it grows bigger and bigger. But the "gimmick" would be that it would be the reverse of the Naked Bike Ride; rather than looking whacky, as most cycle protests do, it would emphasise the normalisation of cycling: everybody on it would be dressed in business suits. Not fancy dress, not Boris Johnson wigs, just straight, serious, everybody in formal suits.

Because this is a movement starting in the heart of London, the City of London, no less, at Blackfriars Bridge (but which could grow) give it a distinctively City of London feel. Emphasise that fact that cyclists are not scruffy, left-wing, homespun veggie types, but concentrate on the new face of cycling, the mainstreaming of it; establish an idea that cycling is the new establishment method of transport, not a fringe activity carried out by fringe-types. So we combine a protest on the specific issues at Blackfriars and the specific attitudinal problems in TfL with a general media assault on the image of cycling.

Danny (Cyclists in the City) wrote recently:
When I have met Conservative opinion leaders and politicians and when I have sat down banging my head on the table (virtually) opposite the many conserative (smaller c) councillors in the City of London, they have tended to type-cast cyclists as left-wingers, not part of their core constituency, not 'people like us'. 
What I think neither the Conservatives in the London Assembly nor most of the Members (councillors) in the City of London realise is that their transport agenda is alienating a sizeable slice of people you might consider to be the Tories's core constituents: People who work in the Square Mile, who might live in the more prosperous parts of London and might own an SUV or two. These are the same people who book black cabs to get home after a gruelling deal into the middle of the night.
And as one of the respondents to this post wrote:

Yeah, Mr Johnson – like me. Partner in a big 4 accounting firm, resident of leafy Surrey market town, wouldn’t blink at spending over a grand on a bike, own a landrover and a convertible, clean-shaven, don’t own a pair of sandals, meat-eater, take foreign holidays, sometimes by air.
Why would you want to alienate me just because, partly for convenience, partly health benefit, and partly a deeply buried green conscience, I prefer to get around London on a bike?
This is the message we need to get to Boris and other politicians. This movement is middle-class, middle-England and mainstream. Even if we are not middle-class, middle-England and mainstream, we can pretend to be. Now, while I think it would be great if we could have a different kind of really broad pro-cycle and pro-pedestrian protest movement in the UK, equivalent to the Dutch "Stop the Child Murder" campaign of the 1970s, and maybe that will come in time, I don't think we are at that stage yet. I would love get all the mothers and young children of Barnet massed outside the Town Hall in Hendon baying for Brian Coleman's blood and demanding safe streets for the kids to cycle on, but I can't see that happening for a while. No, in London, at the present stage, we need need to work with what we have got, and we need to do something different and distinctive: distinctive to the place that is the City of London, claimed financial capital of the world.

The advantages of my idea are that it would be stereotype-busting, and memorable, and media-friendly. It would be repeatable, and exportable (other cities could copy it). It would be it's own "brand", as the Tweed Run is. Its deliberately grey image would not only confront social stereotypes about cyclists, but also the victim-blaming "cyclists need to dress as high-vis Christmas trees to remain safe" mentality. This would be normalising cycling dress with a City flavour.

Now I can see some practical problems. Those who commute a long way may find it hot or impractical to cycle in formal clothing, but maybe they could keep part of it in panniers and partially change before the protest. Maybe some people could get to work first and change there. One could allow compromises, the uniformity needn't be prefect, cycle helmets could be allowed, but even so, we could still create a new, unexpected image for a cycle protest.

As protesters, we shouldn't be afraid of causing a level of inconvenience and disruption to London. This is a a just cause. People die because this stuff is not right. That's what we are protesting about. Not like the selfish London Taxi Drivers Association, threatening to bring London to a standstill over the issue of their exclusion from the Olympic Road Network in 2012, which is just a protest about private, commercial interest. Cyclists are now standing up (actually, sitting down) for their own rights, plus those of pedestrians, and of the great mass of people who want to cycle on London's streets but can't, because of the appalling conditions. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, and decades of timid and deferential cycle campaigning have not got us very far.

"A grey protest for a greener city." Who's up for it?


  1. I'd be delighted to join a weekly flashride. I think the time has come to really start saying enough is enough. Even with all the media hype, I think a lot of people haven't seen what TfL is planning at Blackfriars. It's the same death trap they've installed at Oval on their cycle super highway. Weekly is good. Just make sure to get the timing right. Us City types start quite early....

  2. Could it be worth trying it out this week by combining with Stop Cycling Friday?

  3. I think it is an excellent idea.

    I am sorry I am not a fan of things like Naked Bike Ride - great for publicity yes - but things like that just make cyclists seem different from everyday people - that IMHO only alienates cyclists, and in the long term harms increasing the number of cyclists on the road.