Tuesday 21 February 2012

And the next cycle protest...

The next protest, for your diaries, should be a major one. This Wednesday, 22 February, a "flashride" will take place in Westminster, to hopefully increase awareness amongst our MPs, the evening before their debate on The Times's Cities fit for cycling manifesto, of the strength of feeling on the subject of cycle safety. We hope to show MPs how many people are highly dissatisfied with the past performance of parliament and successive governments on the issue.

Meet at the bottom of Duke of York Steps (between Waterloo Place and The Mall) at 6:15pm for a 6:30pm departure. The ride will go via Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Parliament square, Lambeth Bridge, Westminster Bridge and Birdcage Walk before returning to Duke of York Steps. It is being supported and promoted by London Cycling Campaign, the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, and all the major London bike blogs. It will be an orderly ride and protest, with the collaboration of the police, and will be safe, non-confrontational, and fully-marshalled. The media should be there. Do try and come. The more people we have, the bigger the impact. Particularly if you don't cycle regularly, if you would like to cycle in London but are too worried by the conditions, come and add your presence. We want people of all types, ages, and walks of life, to send a message to our MPs that we want cycling to be normal. And if it is to be made normal, it has to be made safe.

Come, preferably, in ordinary clothes. Don't let non-cycling MPs get the impression it just them again: a separate breed, other people, in funny clothes and plastic hats. I reckon cycling protest will make more impact the more ordinary the cyclists look. But that's just my idea. Come however you like; just come. Help keep up the momentum generated by The Times campaign. Even if you think they haven't got their campaign exactly right (few cyclists would agree they have, though probably few of those same cyclists would be able to agree on what an "exactly right" campaign would be), support the protest (and write to your MP as well if you have not already done so) as the best chance for many years of getting some change for the better for UK cycling. The symbolic media and photogenic impact of a Parliament Square filled with cyclists should not be underestimated.

As others have pointed out, the last time MPs debated cycling properly was 1996, when there was supposed to have been established a National Cycling Strategy which would get 10% of journeys by bike by 2012 – this year. The strategy totally failed, of course, as cycling is currently at about 1% modal share nationwide – slightly lower than it was in 1996. The reasons for that failure have been extensively analysed on this blog before. We may see failure again, of course, but somehow things look more promising to me this time round. There is a much wider understanding now of exactly what the problem is (it's subjective safety), and what the solutions are: thanks to better availability of information, better campaigning, by the organisations mentioned above, and just experience. And there is greater imperative from the high cost of fuel, the high human and economic cost of casualties, and the costs of an obesity epidemic. There also seem to be more influential people cycling than there were in 1996, though this is largely an inner-London phenomenon.

Meanwhile, it is reported that
David Cameron will hear radical ideas for making Britain’s cities safer for cyclists at a Downing Street conference tomorrow.
Architects, planners and designers from around the world will suggest ways to improve overall city design.
Sounds good. But the report continues:
The urban design conference will serve to underline the appreciation inside Downing Street for Scandinavian policymaking in general and Danish popular culture in particular.
Speakers include Bjarke Ingels, a Danish architect whose innovative designs include the “8 House” development in the Danish capital, built in a figure eight, with a cycle path and pedestrian walkway that winds up to the 10th floor.
Carlo Ratti, an Italian architect and engineer and senior Fulbright scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will talk about the “Copenhagen wheel”. The device, fitted to the back wheel of a bicycle, stores electricity when the cyclist brakes and releases it to help to climb hills. Connected to a smartphone, it can also tell the rider about traffic and pollution.
Oh dear. A lot of geewhizzery. OK, there may be some value in these ideas, but they remind me of a phrase (to change subjects totally) near the beginning of Gordon Jacob's classic textbook for composers Orchestral Technique: "We are more concerned here with what might be called the roast beef of scoring rather than the confectionary". Unfortunately it sounds like this urban design conference will be about the "confectionary" of its subject rather than its "roast beef". It sounds like it may not be sufficiently concerned with the basic, mundane, established urban design principals that have allowed cities across Europe, led by those in the Netherlands, to open up a huge gap with those in Britain over the last 40 years in terms of their cycle and pedestrian-friendliness.

What the conference should be about is the kind of straightforward stuff that As Easy As Riding A Bike covers today, in an excellent explanation of how the Dutch signalise segregated cycle tracks at junctions to completely separate cycle and motor traffic flows. They've been doing this for decades, but almost nobody in the UK seems to understand it. Even "the UK's National Cyclists' Organisation", to judge from this page on their site, is thoroughly clueless in this area. I don't think we particularly need the futurism of some fashionable Danish architects if we are to get Cities fit for cycling, we need the boring, basic Dutch past first.

Dutch "simultaneous green" junction for bikes and pedestrians, Assen


  1. Well said, David. You're absolutely right that too much attention is paid to the "confectionery". Good luck to all of you at tomorrow's protest.

  2. My heart sank as well when I read the article about the figure-of-eight house and the "Copenhagen Wheel"; a sort of perpetual motion machine which regularly gets rubbished on the cycling blogs as contrary to the laws of physics (and a lot else) only to reappear somewhere else eighteen months later: a tribute, if nothing else, to a hugely persistent PR company. It just goes to show that in the main our cycling policy-makers simply haven't a bloody clue, most of the having never put a leg across a bike since they were seventeen and some like Ken Livingstone (reportedly) never in their entire lives. Explaining the niceties of Dutch road-junction layout to them, you feel, must be rather like promoting birth control to some remote tribe which hasn't yet worked out that pregnancy has anything to do with sexual intercourse.

    There we are though; I suppose we must do the best with what we've been given. I hope that after Thursday's debate we will go on nagging relentlessly, resisting both attempts to steer the discussion into the usual blind alley of personal protection, and likewise any tendency to let it float away like a helium balloon into the realms of visionary battiness. A well-planned and properly maintained system of segregated cycle tracks is what we need; so let's not be fobbed off yet again with inferior substitutes. The motorists will be furious at "their" roads being narrowed, of course, and also some cyclists won't be any too pleased at having to share metre-wide tracks with 9mph bimblers, as they call them. But we'll just have to live with that.

  3. Sadly, our politicians are easily suckered by baubles and novelties, thinmgs which "make a statement". You only have to look at Boris - a daft cable-car thingie where a pedestrian/cycle bridge would have been much cheaper, more practical, and free to use. A "New Routemaster" bus to replace the late unlamented bendy bus, when a bog-standard double decker would have sufficed, and been much cheaper. Oceans of blue paint where even a few proper engineering solutions at dangerous junctions would have achieved more for cycling. Would not the residents of the infinity-block prefer just to have a decent secure storage in the basement, and a lift to their apartment on the 8th floor?

    I shall be there tomorrow - I don't do high-vis and for the occasion my helmet - worn mainly because it makes my wife happier and makes a good mount for my front light - will be packed away in my bag.