Thursday 23 August 2012

Dr "Natural Causes" Patel struck off

One piece of good news for the people of North London today must be the long delayed, highly-justified striking off from the medical register of Freddy Patel, long-time pathologist in the Camden area of London, who was associated with so many dubious decisions on causes of death leading to both miscarriages of justice and, in the case of the Camden Ripper, two avoidable murders (avoidable had Patel done his job properly and led police to arrest the murderor, Anthony Hardy, before he killed again). The Guardian:
Freddy Patel, the pathologist who wrongly said Ian Tomlinson died as a result of heart disease, has been struck off the medical register over a catalogue of errors dating back more than a decade. 
A tribunal of the General Medical Council (GMC) said that it had no option but to erase Patel from the register after findings earlier this week of dishonesty as well as incompetence.
Patel, who qualified at the University of Zambia in 1974 and has practised as a pathologist for 35 years, was found guilty of misconduct but was not at the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS), sitting in Manchester.
Though the focus of the media now is on the last celebrated case in which Patel was a main player, the death of newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson in the G20 protest, in fact this was only one in a long line of seriously flawed examinations carried out by Patel that were familiar to those who followed news in North London over a couple of decades.

In the case of prostitute Sally White, killed by Anthony Hardy, Patel produced a superficial "death by natural causes" decision (heart disease again) despite the most extraordinary and suspicious circumstances of her being found dead and naked on a bed in Hardy's locked flat with cuts and bruises to her head: circumstances that should have obviously caused him to look more carefully at the death. The case was memorable to me because the block of flats was right by the Royal College Street segregated cycle track (which I helped to plan). Hardy's two subsequent victims were found dismembered in pieces, at least in part in the bins behind the pub, the College Arms (now demolished), that stood at the junction of Crowndale Road and Royal College Street, by the cycle-specific traffic lights that feature in this blog post. I rode past there regularly.

In fact, in Camden, in the 1990s and 2000s, every time you read in the local papers of an odd decision on a death, attributing it to "natural causes", be it as a reasult of an assault, a road crash, or some other claimed strange circumstance or accident, there always seemed to be one name at the bottom of the column: Dr Freddy Patel. There was a pattern that the casual observer of the local news could see, even if they had no specialised knowledge. It didn't seem to need an expert investigation by other doctors, it looked obvious that something very strange was going on. This has now been fully confirmed by the General Medical Council:
The Rev Robert Lloyd-Richards, the chairman of the MPTS fitness to practise panel, which heard the case, told Patel he had an "unwarranted confidence" in his ability, "a deep-seated attitudinal problem" and also "lacked insight". 
"Your rigid mind-set, illustrated by your inability to reflect on the case of Mr Tomlinson, and your unwarranted confidence in your own abilities, does not convince this panel that it would be appropriate to impose conditions, even with the most stringent supervision, on your registration," said the written determination from the MPTS.
"The panel considers that you have a deep-seated attitudinal problem."
Patel had tried to cover up his mistakes both in relation to Tomlinson and also to an earlier postmortem, of a woman referred to as Miss E.
He first appeared in front of a professional conduct committee in 2002 and in front of two fitness to practise committees in 2010 and 2011. He had been suspended from working twice.
Patel has actually been investigated over seven cases dating back to 2002, but I suspect there were more that should have been investigated. Why did this take so long? According to The Guardian again:
It has also emerged that, from 2005, the General Medical Council, the doctors' professional body,was examining other allegations of Patel's failings including his part in the notorious case of the Camden Ripper, but was held up by unrelated legal challenges to its investigative and legal authority.
So it's been a thoroughgoing regulatory botch-up, again. Signs that were obvious were not officially acted upon until too much damage had been done.
The Home Office and NPIA [National Police Improvement Agency – strange title for a body] believe measures introduced over the past two years will prevent a repetition of the Patel disaster. That means there is unlikely to be any further official review. The NPIA, which is being abolished under the government's bonfire of the quangos later this year, believes Patel probably only carried out one forensic examination into a death – that of Tomlinson – after June 2007 when it took over running the Home Office's register.
I hope they are right. Meanwhile, we still have the related justice problem of the validity or appropriateness of the system of coroners' verdicts.

Monday 20 August 2012

A day at the seaside, and the ghosts of the city

I saw a lot of people on bikes on Saturday. Many of them were on National Cycle Network (NCN) Route 2 along the Sussex coast, between Worthing and Brighton, explored by the group I was with on the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain Infrastructure Safari led by Jim Davis. NCN 2 here is largely traffic-free, and it is, of course, only traffic-free space that gets people on bikes as a mass movement, as Sustrans, the charity behind the NCN, have always realised. It is sad that so many compromises and manifest inadequacies exist on all the NCN routes that I have seen, however, and this is particularly true of NCN 2 on the Sussex coast, fitted in cheaply inbetween existing infrastructure with inadequate capacity and too many conflicts and "cyclist dismount" locations (one would be too many).

This failure to accommodate the demand for leisure and commuting cycling space adequately in the UK limits the take-up of cycling, when we should be doing everything we can to encourage people to be more active. It is a crazy situation that comes down to the existence of inadequate political structures for delivering and funding desirable changes to our environment. To be attempting to develop a national stratgic infrastructure through a charity rather than government agency is crazy: and to say that is in no way to do down the great and noble efforts that Sustrans employees and volunteers make to at least deliver something.

This isn't working: trying to squeeze both pedestrians and NCN 2 on to the prom at Worthing
Jim Davis seemingly going apoplectic over inadequate infrastructure. The pink pavement and the grey beyond it is all supposed to be shared by pedestrians and two directions of cycle traffic
Money cannot really be spent and space cannot really be found for cycling on the Sussex coast, so this is the self-defeating result in too many places
Silly width restriction and crummy quality generally of NCN 2 at Lancing
It is particularly sad to see penny-pinching and compromises that will reverberate down future decades being built into new, expensive infrastructure. At the quaint town of Shoreham-by-Sea, the route needs to cross the harbour. A bridge built in the early 20th century about 1.5 metres wide currently carries two directions of pedestrians, cyclists (dismounted of course), buggy passengers, wheelchair and mobility scooter users, and pets. On a busy day the result is of course great frustration. The good news is that this bridge is going to be replaced with a new one costing £7 million, and work has already started. The bad news is that the new bridge will be only 4 metres wide. To many people I expect a 4-metre wide bridge for non-motorised transport sounds generous. But it is obvious to anyone looking at the situation now on a day like Saturday that is is not. It is a short-sighted penny-pinching compromise. Two directions of cycle travel over a long bridge on their own would need 3.5 metres, and the remaining 0.5 metres is not enough for the rest. We never seem to make bridges for non-motoried modes wide enough in the UK. We used to be a nation of great engineers: why can't we learn about this?

The existing bridge across Shoreham Harbour on the left, and the beginnings of the new bridge on the right
Some bikes look like this: another reason you need enough width on cycle paths and bridges
There is more frustration where the route is taken through Shoreham docks, on more 1.5m-wide gangways that are now required, on a busy day, to take a large volume of cyclists and pedestrians, and which are closed (opened up) to allow boats through the locks. This infrastructure was never designed for having a national cycle route on it, and though it is fun to watch the docks in action, if you are not in a hurry, it is poor that this is all we can achieve. It is symptomatic of the way the NCN has been cobbled together from mostly existing bits and pieces, rather than actually having been planned and built as the real national prestige project it should have been.

More dismounting and waiting, and waiting, at Shoreham docks.
What's needed at Shoreham docks is something like this wheeling-channel bridge provided for when a lifting bridge is up in Groningen, Netherlands.
My main criticism of Sustrans (and I make this criticism of their concepts in London as well as on the south coast) is that in the many places where there is no alternative to putting the routes on main roads, they seem to shy away from pushing for real changes to these roads (real changes meaning not just dabbing paint on the pavements), and they seem to have no adequate concept of how cyclists (including young children) should be accommodated there.This leads to a lot of what Paul Gannon used to call "toytown engineering", which may not be directly Sustrans' fault but that of local authority officers implementing their route proposals, but still seems a fundamental inadequacy of the NCN project. "Toytown engineering" refers to the familiar meaningless, isolated, little constellations of white lines and squiggles on roads and pavements that indicate impossible, impractical or foolish cycling manoeuvres and which baffle all road-users. This kind of nonsense is also very influential in spreading the myth amongst "serious" cyclists that "cycle routes (or cycle paths) are slow". They are only slow if they are no good, and Dutch cycle paths are very far from being slow.

Toytown engineering on NCN 2 in Brighton
The safari did visit some better cycling infrastructure, however. Where it reaches Brighton seafront, NCN 2 works better on its paint-segregated path as it is further from the sea than it is in Worthing.

NCN 2 at Brighton
Furthermore, the route connects to two other good pieces of infrastructure in the town, which show different effective methods of segregating cyclists from cars on main roads. The first is on Grand Avenue and The Drive and consists of one-way cycle tracks on both sides of the road at carriageway level, separated from the carriageway by car parking outside kerbed segregating strips about 1 metre wide. The segregating strips reduce the chances of cyclists getting hit by opening car doors, which is in any case unlikely because the parking is in the direction of travel, so it is only a passenger door that could open into a cyclists' path. One their wider section in Grand Avenue these tracks are wide enough to allow one cyclist to overtake another.

The beginning of the northbound cycle track on Grand Avenue
Grand Avenue and The Drive connect the seafront route to the other new facility, the route on Old Shoreham Road, created this year by the Green-controlled Brighton City Council. This consists of single direction segregated tracks on a road that passes three schools, the space having been taken by greatly narrowing the previously-existing carriageway. These tracks are at an intermediate level between carriageway and pavement, and are good-quality, with a smooth surface, and there is no adjacent parking. The side roads are either closed-off, with mode filters that allow cyclists through, or they have give-way lines which give the track priority. The centre line of the road has been removed, and this, combined with the narrowing, and the provision of a very wide zebra crossing on one place, has, according to local accounts, greatly reduced traffic speeds. At one traffic lights, an advanced green phase for cyclists reduces the potential for conflict between cyclists going straight on on the track and traffic turning left from the carriageway.

There are still problems with these facilities and they are not up to Dutch standards consistently. There is no help for cyclists turning from the track on The Drive to the track on Old Shoreham Road at the traffic lights, the right-turn here being executed in the normal UK fashion, with a cyclist needing to pull out across the lanes of general traffic. However there is enough here that is pioneering (for the UK), and effective, for these facilities to be given high marks.

Old Shoreham Road
Wide zebra crossing on Old Shoreham Road
But most of the people I saw on bikes on Saturday were not on the cycle paths of Sussex. They were  on the roads of East London, on which I made a journey for a different purpose on Saturday night. It was one of the hottest nights of the year, and everybody who had not left the stifling city for the seaside or the countryside seem to have decided to party that night. London Fields in Hackney was virtually one huge, spontaneous, communal barbecue. I suppose because people had decided to party, and drink alcohol, and thus could not drive (the suppression of drunk driving being one of the great UK road policy successes of modern times), that this, combined with the weather, and the temporary exodus of cars from the streets due to the Olympics and other summer factors, combined to produce a situation where people seemed to be on their bikes, at night, in huge numbers throughout Islington and Hackney.

These night-time cyclists are the ghosts of the city. They are not generally your type of dedicated, highly-equipped commuter cyclist. They will largely disappear when the traffic returns on Monday morning. Most people won't cycle when there are large volumes of motor traffic present. But for a while on a hot, relatively car-free Saturday night in East London these cyclists seemed spontaneously to have taken over the streets.

The lack of motor traffic did not mean conditions were very safe. I experienced a conflict with an aggressively-driven car at a pinch-point on a road by London Fields, where the driver did not seem to be able to predict, as I could, that we would both arrive at the pinch-point at exactly the same time, and that therefore he would not be able to pass me. And I witnessed plenty of danger due to fast driving on main roads at junctions. Getting large numbers of cyclists on to the streets and reducing motor congestion does not improve the behaviour of drivers of itself; there is no "safety in numbers" for cyclists in this sense, as the rising casualty rate for cyclists at the same time as a rise in cycling rates illustrates. The apparently better behaviour of Dutch drivers is not due to the large numbers of cyclists in the Netherlands, it is forced on them by better infrastructure design (for example, narrower carriageways and tighter and better-controlled junctions).

Despite the under-resourcing of cycling infrastructure, the problems of the political structures, and the absurd policies of London's Mayor (his latest brainwave being not fixing the roads but providing cycle paths alongside railway lines – and do we have surface railway lines crossing central London? – no we don't), there are some limited grounds for optimism about the future of cycling in Britain. There are one or two examples about of satisfactory infrastructure which could  be copied and extended. There is a massive popular desire for safe cycling space, particularly from families, which could start to translate into noticeable political pressure. There is the general feeling arising from the Olympic summer that it is the duty of government to provide for people being physically active. There is a more coherent world-view and platform from the various cycling organisations, as was apparent in the debate on cycling held in the London Assembly last month, part of their enquiry into the subject. And when unusual circumstances occur, the emergence of bikes in the inner London boroughs (but not yet in the outer ones) can be quite striking – possibly the austerity of recession also has something to do with this. But which way it will all go is still hard to predict.

Friday 17 August 2012

Fear and loathing

I listened to a good programme on Radio 4 today which got me thinking. This programme, "I'm Suzy and I'm a Phobic" dealt with phobias: chronic fear of certain situations or things. Phobia is what we call it when the normal, natural, and helpful emotion of fear gets out of control in everyday situations, and needs to be treated as a medical condition. It is estimated that 10% of the UK population have some sort of phobia.

You can listen to the programme on iPlayer (for the next 7days). I was arrested by the opening lines:
Fear can save you life. If you are being chased by a tiger, or standing on the ledge of a tall building, or you simply want to avoid being hit by a car in the road, fear is you friend.
Of course, this got me thinking about the psychology of cycling on the road, fear of traffic, and how natural this is, and how it fits in with the wider spectrum of fear, rational and irrational, helpful and unhelpful, and how it should be dealt with socially.

Again, interestingly, the programme did deal largely with a phobia, that of the narrator, Suzy Klein, that was transport-related. She has claustrophobia, and, in particular, she has been terrified of being on trains in tunnels, and terrified of going into the London Underground, both into stations and onto trains. Part of the treatment, or therapy, featured in the programme, involved Suzy being taken on to the Underground with the therapist, and trying to overcome this fear. She did succeed in getting on a train.

Elsewhere in the programme there was discussion of to what extent phobia really is an illness. There was an attitude from the Daily Telegraph's medical man James LeFanu that the great increase in the number of people diagnosed with phobias in modern Britain is due to an increasing tendency to medicalise conditions which are in the normal range of human behaviour and emotion, which he thought might be driven by potential profits to be made by the drug companies. There can be no doubt, however, that phobias are a major problem for many people, seriously impairing their lives.

So how does all this connect with cycling? Well it's clear I think. We know that most people won't cycle on our roads full of motor traffic, because it makes them, rightly or wrongly, rationally or irrationally, scared. Cycle training programmes aim to get people to overcome that fear, a bit like the cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and exposure therapies, featured in the programme on phobias. CBT gets people to analyse and deconstruct the reasons for their fear and their reactions, and hence aims to help them to overcome the fear. But, as LeFanu told us, it is not all that clinically successful, with only a 30% success rate. It needs to be combined, he told us, in most cases, with exposure therapy: actually getting the phobic person to do or get in contact with the thing of which they are frightened. Which of course what cycle training aims to do as well. As the very well-written Cycling Embassy of Great Britain response to the London Assembly's current investigation into cycling puts it (page 4):
... cycle training [–] attempts to help people to scale the barrier to cycling, rather than to remove that barrier; to enable cycling it requires acquiring a confidence in traffic which many will never attain. 
(There is much more to what the Embassy has to say, and I recommend you to read it all.)

I have been caused to think about these relationships before in my cycle campaigning career. Sometimes I have been told that I am over-emphasising the dangers involved in cycling, and I was once told by a very well-known exponent of cycle training, and a very well-known figure on the London cycling scene, that he thought this was actually a personal, psychological problem that I had. He thought I actually had a phobia, or an insecurity that manifested itself in an emphasis on the dangers of cycling in motor traffic  – despite the fact that I was, at that time, cycling over 3,000 miles a year in London traffic.

So this is an interesting problem, this fear and behaviour thing. Because fear of a big mass of hard metal with a lot of kinetic energy coming into contact with your flesh is surely a very right and natural and helpful fear, as the radio programme suggested at the outset. And perhaps even fear of being in the same space as that mass of metal with high kinetic energy is also rather natural and helpful. But that covers all cycling on the road. Do we medicalise all the people who won't cycle under current conditions in the UK? Do we attempt to treat them for a phobia?

Paul Gannon wrote about this very well, in discussing the arguments for and againast "Shared Space" treartment of roads. I've quoted what he wrote before, and I'll do so again:
The facts of power and status on the roads – which people understand tacitly – is what lies behind people saying that cycling is dangerous. The effectiveness of the cavalry attack depended on the horse and rider, individually or in a mass, approaching at a high speed and with weight. If a square of soldiers could withstand the shock of the attack, they could survive; if they dithered and cowered, or as individuals, they never stood a chance. The psychological component of the weapon was intimidation, playing upon the natural human inclination to get the hell out of the way when a half a ton of fast-moving mass is coming straight at you. The modern equivalent of the charging horse is the motor vehicle (and not just the 4x4) because it uses the same effect as the charger to establish its priority by fear of ‘flesh to metal interaction’. 
This can be seen by referring to the recent discussion about pedestrian priority at junctions, as per Highway Code, and vehicle priority, as per reality. Pedestrians did not give up that priority willingly, saying to car drivers, ‘no, no, you go ahead, please’, but in stepping back from potential bodily damage from an approaching mass, eventually established the ‘standard’, with only a fossil memory somehow still preserved in the Highway Code. 
The simple fact of the matter is that people do not want to have to be put in the position of constantly having to face the life and death decision of "Do I carry on or give way?". When the odds are so heavily against you in the event of an error (in terms of asymmetric physical consequences for cyclist/pedestrian and vehicle driver), factors of power are unavoidable.
It seems to me that James LeFanu, though, is on to something with his discussion of the significance of numbers and population proportions who are diagnosed with a problem. You can't medicalise an entire population. Diagnosis of a disorder depends on it being a small minority suffering from the disorder. 

There was some discussion I recall, also from Radio 4, I think it was in their programme All in the mind a year or two ago, about the actual proportion of the UK population with, or who had suffered at some stage in their lives from, any kind of mental illness. An advertising campaign for a charity (that had put adverts, incidentally, on the London Underground) had spread about the claimed statistic that "One in four people in the UK had suffered from a mental illness". But the discussion raised a large amount of disagreement amongst experts as to whether this was a justifiable statistic. There are many was of defining mental illness, and, under the broadest, it turns out from studies, the proportion of the population that ever suffers from mental illness is higher than this, more like one in two to one in three. But the idea was put forward that the one in four figure had been promoted because it was more politically acceptable, though it doesn't seem to correspond with the results of any authoritative study. It "sounds about right", and the higher figure will seem, to most people, as an exaggeration of the problem, or an over-broad defining of illness, or medicalising almost the entire population, which most people find unacceptable.

So with Suzy Klein's fear of going into the Underground, and its practical implications. Let's imagine for a moment a world in which everybody suffered from her form of claustrophobia. Or, let's say, 90% of the population, a proportion which I guess to be similar to the proportion of people who now find traffic on the streets too scary to cycle in. Would we build an underground railway system as we have it, and then try to treat with psychotherapies all the people who are too scared to use it? I don't think we would. We would not build it. It wouldn't be worth it. Treating people is too expensive, difficult, intrusive and uncertain. We would instead demolish some buildings and put all the railways at street level, or have a tram system, like many other cities. The reason the lady who is afraid of being in tunnels was given psychotherapy was that she was in a small minority of the population with her particular phobia. In that situation, it is easier and cheaper for our society to put railways underground in an urban area like central London, and treat a few people for a phobia.

You can draw your own conclusions from all this. You can claim, based on whatever statistics you want to give, that cycling is "dangerous" or "not dangerous". I've discussed that recently, and in earlier blog posts. My point here is more about what it is actually practical for society to do, to solve a structural problem connected with transport, that is also bound up with human feelings and fears. An approach to attempting to increase cycling that relies largely on training, as I think our government's does, it seems to me is trying to do an extraordinary thing, trying to treat the mass of the population rather as doctors and therapists normally treat people with rare and unusual conditions. It's an approach which would not be used in any other comparable context.

As Joe Dunckley of At War With the Motorist put it in an excellent post The definition of madness, going into this subject from a slightly different angle (and by madness he does not mean mental illness):
The idea that somehow physical engineering is difficult and expensive and unpopular, while changing human behaviour is quick, easy, cheap and effective, is one that the British are remarkably strongly attached to.
But it's one the British are attached to only in certain contexts. For we have promoted car travel by making it fast and safe through good engineering. We have made it much faster to travel between towns by car than it was when I was born, and that was achieved through government policies. My father spent a lot of time travelling around in a car for business. When I was very young it took him 4–5 hours to do the 100 miles exactly from Christchurch to London. Now it takes 2 hours. The increase in speed was achieved by building motorways, bypasses round towns, and trunk roads. In other words, it was achieved using engineering, not psychology. It was not achieved by trying to educate drivers to overcome their fear of driving at 70 mph on twisting narrow country roads, trying to get them to treat their journey as a slalom race, and training up their skills of vehicle control to the level of a racing driver's. On the contrary, such antisocial use of the roads was discouraged using law-enforcement methods. The increase in speed was facilitated by infrastructure. To say this is so obvious, it sounds stupid.

My point in the end is about the contrast in approach between mass activities and issues and minority activities and issues. Driving is a mass activity. Mass activities and issues we address with infrastructure, minority activities and issues we address with education, training and therapy. The approach we take with cycling is both bound up with, and key to, its continued minority status.

Thursday 16 August 2012


If you search for "Neasden" on this blog, you don't find stuff that's very nice. Neasden, the centre point of the borough of Brent, is kind of a byword for a poor urban environment, a crossing place of major roads and railways where amenity for the local community seems in short supply.

Already somewhat isolated by the 1920s by the construction of several railway lines with few crossing points, Neasden was sliced though by two stages of 20th century road-building: firstly by the building of the North Circular Road in the 1930s, which severed the area in a SE–NW direction, and secondly by the bypassing of the high street (Neasden Lane) through the construction of the modern line of the A4088 in the 1970s through a canyon which cut residential streets in half and severed the area in a SW–NE direction, leaving narrow pedestrian footbridges as the only connections. This latter was a peculiarly useless piece of roadbuilding, as a motorway-style dual carriageway section about 500 metres long that simply dumped its traffic back on to narrow roads (Neasden Lane North and Dudden Hill Lane) at either end. This stage of roadbuilding also worsened the earlier severance by the North Circular Road by removing the surface connection between the two halves of Neaden Lane and forcing pedestrians into a subway (cyclists of course were not considered at all). The stub of high street in Neaden Lane that remained was semi-pedestrainised, a procedure which works well in some places, but here just produced a neglected-looking backwater of a street full of parked cars, the car having been made the only feasible way to get around the area.

The North Circular road slicing Neasden in half. The building opposite used to be a library. Brent Council have recently closed the library that replaced this one, in Neasden Lane.
Though Neasden does have a possible big environmental asset in the form of the Brent Reservoir, or Welsh Harp, the open spaces adjoining this are hard to access and disconnected, and hence under-utilised. Planning seems to have gone wrong at every point in the history of Neasden. Access between Neasden and neighbouring Wembley is remarkably poor because of the lack of crossing points of the River Brent, a tiny stream, all traffic passing across an inadequate bridge in Neasden Lane North (Kingsbury Bridge) that was last widened for the British Empire Exhibition of 1923 (for which the original Wembley Stadium was built), combined with the presence of the London Underground Depot that takes up a huge swathe of land and cuts Neasden off to the south-west. Neasden also suffers from some very dirty industry which, in combination with the roads and railways, gives it the worst recorded air quality in London.

What can one say that's good about Neasden?  I'm sure there must be some good things that people who live there could tell us, but one thing I can say is that Neasden has long been used as a peg on which to hang humour. Usually it has been humour of a type affectionately mocking the mediocrity of an unattractive suburbia of which Neasden is taken as an exemplar. I don't think this actually has that much to do with Neasden as a place, though it might do, to an extent, as Private Eye magazine, the source of quite a bit of this humour, was originally printed in Neasden. I think it has more to do with the name. There seems to be something funny about the name (which is actually of Anglo-Saxon origin, and means "hill in the shape of a nose").

All this is actually just a long preamble to give exposure to a comedy classic which deserves it, the much-missed Willie Rushton and John Wells' 1972 record Neasden. Rushton and Wells were making fun of Neasden before it had got as bad as it is now, the high street had not then been severed by the last round of road-building, but they chose to characterise the place through its domination by roads:
You won't be sorry that you breezed in,
The traffic lights and yellow lines,
The illuminated signs,
All say "weclome to the borough that everybody's pleased in",

Thanks to VinylHell for putting this on YouTube. I suspect there might be a technical infringement of copyright, but it is a copyright that was not doing anybody any good, the recording being otherwise unavailable. And having it definitely increases the "gaiety of nations". And apologies to Schubert.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Promoting sports cycling has absolutely nothing to do with generating a mass cycling culture

After some hints that he would say something about a "cycling legacy" from the London Olympics, Boris Johnson announced on Friday (or rather re-announced) that next year there will be a two-day festival of cycling in London to be called (rather boringly) RideLondon.

There seem to be two main elements of this. The first is a "family fun ride" on an 8-mile loop of closed roads in central London: exactly what we have had for several years annually, under the name, first, of Freewheel, and then, of the Sky Ride. This idea, was, indeed, originally suggested by the London Cycling Campaign (but not by me) to the previous mayor. The other, new, element, is a 100 mile road race for amateur and professional racing cyclists that will use a route similar to the Olympic road race.

The reaction of various cycling organisations and websites to this news has been of a certain form.

The ibikelondon blog said:
I welcome the RideLondon festival and know that it will be a phenomenal event, made so by all of the wonderful participants and crowds that turn out to cheer on our cycling heroes.

But I'm livid that a one off event is being spun by the powers that be as a "permanent legacy for cycling" in London. It is nothing of the sort, and sadly only demonstrates the utter paucity of imagination from the people whose very job it is to run our city.
The LCC said:
The London Cycling Campaign welcomes these events, but shares the disappointment of many Londoners that an announcement supposedly offering an ‘Olympic legacy’ for cyclists doesn’t include any new infrastructure to make London’s streets more safe and inviting for cycling.
The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain said:
The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain welcomes the Mayor of London's newly-announced Ride London festival. However, we note that, while closed roads for cycling, even for only two days a year, are obviously appreciated, a real legacy for cycling would be to make the roads of London safe and inviting for people of all ages and abilities, every day of the year, not just for a weekend in August.
So, all of the form, "We welcome this, but..."

Ever iconoclastic, I'm going to break the pattern. I don't welcome it. Not at all. I've been to enough of those Sky Ride type events. They are horrible. They amount to a kind of unique torture for cyclists, cramming us together like sardines in a tin on a few niggardly-handed out kilometres of closed roads in central London, for which privilege we have to suffer a bombardment of unwelcome music, moronically-cheery "motivational" announcements over PA systems, the advertising of sponsors forced down our throats, a sea of stupid yellow tabards, the promotion of helmets, and the presence of boring cyclesport celebrities. Like everything else to do with the official treatment of transport cycling in the UK, it's just another insult.

If you've seen the Netherlands now, you've seen what we could have in the UK. We could have spacious, calm, relaxed, quiet, helmetless, tabardless, traffic-free cycling for everyone, every day of the year, everywhere in the country, without damaging the economy, or banning cars. Sky Ride, or RideLondon, or whatever it is called this week, is just a grotesque travesty of this vision. I hate the whole thing, and I will not be going. If I do, it will be only to hand out Cycling Embassy publicity to try to built the campaign for transport cycling to be treated seriously by the UK.

The road race, well, there's nothing wrong with having that. I'm not interested in it, but I have no objection to it, but still, I'm not going to say "I welcome it but...", because there's no particular logic in me saying that. What I am interested in is building an everyday cycling culture in the UK similar to that which exists in the Netherlands, based on infrastructure, if that's at all possible.

In a long comment on my last blogpost from Paul M, which is worth reproducing part of here, he says of the "Olympic legacy":
But even if cycling does see a boost, and even if that boost does turn out to have legs, is that something for a “segregationist” to take much pleasure from? I doubt it – the entire thrust of Olympic cycling coverage has been about cycling as an extreme sport. Whippet-thin men with improbably muscular thighs careering along at 50kph+ on carbon bikes, got up in canary coloured lycra, helmet and wraparound shades, duelling other riders and occasionally coming to grief. All this on enclosed elliptical tracks or roads totally closed to non-official motor vehicles. There is more than a whiff of danger even without the HGVs and the boy racers to contend with. 
Segregationists, I submit, are about the very young, the fairly old, and the otherwise faint-hearted [in other words almost the entire population], who would like to use a bike in the manner of a wheeled pedestrian. There is absolutely nothing for them in this. Sure, some youngish men, and maybe indeed some youngish women, may be inspired to take up sports cycling. They will be drawn from those who are fit, confident, relatively unconscious of their own mortality, and assertive, perhaps aggressive in temperament. In other words, like the dominant cycling culture we have today, on our commuter journeys as well as out on weekend rides. To borrow from those popular postcards people pin above their desks, You don’t have to be fit, fearless, and aggressive to ride here – but it helps! 
Just as (apparently, according to the BBC last night) Darwinism can explain the athletic prowess of African-Americans through their experience of slavery and the journey across the ocean that brought them to it, the condition of our roads has evolved British commuter cyclists to have the genes which render them more likely to behave in the manner which upsets and infuriates some pedestrians and apparently all Daily Mail readers. We are caught in a vicious spiral of conditions breeding attitudes which in turn reinforce those conditions. I can see nothing in London 2012 which will change that – it will take something considerably more radical.
I agree fully. Paul puts it well. Having given considerable thought to the subject over the years, I have concluded that the promotion of cycling as sport has absolutely nothing to do with achieving the conditions needed for mass utility cycling. Absolutely nothing. Now I think the converse argument is not the same. I think that if we did have mass utility cycling, that would be good for cycle sport. One can see that from the Netherlands, where, as I wrote last year after I had been on David Hembrow's study tour:
When you have created such good conditions for cycling as the Dutch have, and cycling becomes normal transport from kindergarten to dotage, non-utility cycling also mushrooms and blossoms in every conceivable direction. Far from there being a lack of "enthusiast" or "sports" cycling in the Netherlands, the country is full of racing cyclists, time-trialists, Audaxers, long and short distance touring cyclists, leisure and enthusiast cyclists of every description, even, would you believe it, mountain bikers (there are specially constructed rough and muddy mountain biking courses, to make up for the lack of true mountains, or even hills). Every town of consequence has a racing bike track (far from the case in the UK), and you see all these breeds of leisure and sports cyclist far more frequently than you do in the UK.
I think it works this way round. The pyramid of cycling must stand on its broad base, it can't be inverted. I see no evidence that the encouragement of cycle sport, by itself, in any way influences conditions on the roads that utility cyclists (or indeed non-sporting leisure cyclists) have to cope with day in, day out. The thing I notice is that most people involved in cycling want to believe that this is not so. They are, even when they are engaged day to day in campaigning for better cycling conditions, as are, for example, so many good members of LCC and CTC, pretty much to a man, or to a woman, at least to some extent interested in the sporting side of cycling, and they want to believe there is a connection. They want to believe that if cycle racing is held in high esteem, that if half the nation follows Bradley or Chris's every move, if Team UK is winning races and if roads in Surrey are closed for the peleton to pass, that somehow this overflows into more people on bikes generally and stronger political demands for roads safe for cycling.

But in reality all the confusion and hoo-ha following Bradley Wiggins's ill-advised pronouncement on cycle safety and helmet-use just shows how difficult all this is. If we get into a world that is about speed, competition, risk, adventure, what have you, we are going further and further away from what we actually need to normalise everyday cycling in the UK. There is no way that these elite athletes, who are going to keep getting asked for their opinions on everything from helmets to cadences to energy bars to the best colour for a cycle superhighway, are ever going to be experts on safety or cycling policy. The more we in the UK focus on the image of the bike as the tool of a sport, it seems to me, the more the picture of ordinary people of all ages and fitness levels using bikes for daily short journeys goes out of focus. The more we associate cycling with speed and courage, the more reasonable seems to be the view of the "right" place for cycling as part of a flow of motor traffic, the "Effective Cycling" view of cyclists "driving" their bikes that has driven cycling into extreme marginalisation in the English-speaking world, that concurs with Boris Johnson's view that cycling on multi-lane gyratory systems designed for fast motor-vehicle throughput is no problem "if you keep your wits about you".

So I'm not going to "welcome" the organisation of a 100 mile race round the home counties by the Mayor of London, just as I'm not going to "welcome" Wimbledon, and I'm not going to "welcome" the Epson Derby or the London Marathon. I have absolutely nothing against any of these events, they are all great things to those who follow or participate in those sports, but they none of them have the slightest connection to the promotion of cycling as transport, and none of them belong in a paragraph of the form "I welcome..., but if we want to see everyday cycling...".

I was standing at a small vigil on Friday, the day Boris made his boring announcement. It was the vigil for Dan Harris, the cyclist killed by the Olympic bus at the entrance to the Olympic Park the night that Wiggins won his gold. There was a small group of cyclists there, not more than 30, and a lot of police standing round at a respectful distance from the crowd, the ghost bike, and the "shrine". The feeling I got was that we were like a tiny sect being guarded over, gently but firmly controlled, and overlooked by the security apparatus of the state. We were like the Druids who are allowed to have a ceremony at Stonehenge at midsummer, so long as they don't damage the monument, or like some other tiny minority religion, being humoured and allowed to exist by the state, though regarded essentially as a curious, slightly nutty irrelevance. That's how I think the British state regards non-sports cyclists. The reality is, behind all the warm words of encouragement, that we are held at a cold, tolerant distance. We are utterly marginal to the main thrusts of our state and society. And this is simultaneous with the whole nation loving Bradley's sideburns and Pendleton's... whatever.

What I saw in The Netherlands was the polar opposite: it was cycling embraced by state and society warmly, genuinely, unconditionally. As the mission statement of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain puts it:
We at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain want to see an end to cyclists being pushed to the margins; we want to see a network of direct, well-designed, separated cycle routes that are safe even for young children to use.
That's it. That's how it works. RideLondon is not a step towards that in any way, and I condemn Boris Johnson absolutely for it.

The vigil for Dan Harris. More pictures here.

Friday 10 August 2012

Vigil for the death of Dan Harris

The history of the relationship of the London Olympics to cycling has had many chapters, each individually saying so much about the British relationship to the bike, each succeeding the last with the inevitability of epic tragedy, like something made-up, so artistically, tragically perfect has been the symmetry of dramatic construction, running from the early official claims about how the Olympics were to be actually built around "active travel" including cycling, through all the broken promises and failure to deliver even the slightest attempt at cycling infrastructure to the venues, while a mass of pro-bike promotion flooded out of TfL; through all the protests by LCC that the road network being constructed around the Olympics was unsafe for cyclists, totally ignored by TfL and the ODA; through the death of two cyclists on the main recommended route to the Olympic Park at Bow roundabout last year under the wheels of lorries in near-identical incidents entirely attributable to the bad design of the Cycle Superhighway; through TfL's half-baked efforts to correct that design; through the closing of the one safe route near the Olympic Park, the Lea towpath, on "security" grounds, forcing all cyclists in the area onto lethal road systems; through the implementation of the Olympic Route Network, entirely ignoring, of course, the safety and comfort of cyclists; through the opening ceremony of the Games themselves, which featured winged bikes, while outside the stadium the police treated the Critical Mass riders, people just out for a bike ride, like criminals, kettling and arresting them, then holding 182 of them overnight before releasing all but three of them without charge; through the triumphs of Britain's cycling medal-winners on the track and in the road races; through the death, on the night of geatest triumph – the gold won by Bradley Wiggins in the Men's Time Trial – of cyclist Dan Harris under the wheels of an Olympic bus right outside the park, at a place where LCC had condemned the road design; through the (later retracted) suggestion by Bradley Wiggins, when asked about that tragedy in a way he perhaps was not prepared for, that a solution to cycle safety issues in the UK might be compulsory helmets (despite the fact that Harris was crushed bodily, like so many other cyclists, under the wheels of a turning heavy vehicle, and that a helmet would have been of no help), to today, Friday 10 August, when cyclists plan a mass ride and vigil to commemorate the death of Dan Harris, and the Mayor, Boris Johnson, plans some new announcement on a "cycling legacy".*

A summary of all this might be to say that though we in the UK have started now to treat our cycling sportsmen and sportswomen as heroes, our public authorities still treat those who try to get around on a bike like dirt. It's a weird juxtaposition, and one that, through its sheer existence, shows the folly of trying to equate popularity of high-level cycle sport with the dedication of political and public respect and resources to transport cycling. It shows rather that this contrast can exist, and maybe even the more we elevate sports cycling as the image of the way bikes are used in this country, the more we depress and crush the simple concept of the easy mode of transport for anyone. I'm not certain of this idea, but I throw it into the philosophising as a suggestion worth of consideration. For throughout this whole saga everyday cyclists and their organised representatives have been ignored, patronised, conned, insulted, fobbed-off, and treated as a minor irritant, not really cared about at all, by the ODA, LOCOG, the Olympic boroughs, the government, the cycling Mayor, and Transport for London, while these all claimed to espouse some kind of "cycling revolution" or "renaissance" that was nebulously linked to sporty cycling.

The vigil for the death of Dan Harris will begin with a ride from the National Theatre (where Critical Mass gathers, though this is not a Critical Mass event) setting off at 6:30pm. The vigil itself will be quiet and dignified gathering at the crash site, at the Lea Interchange on the north perimeter of the Olympic Park, from 7:30 to 8:30pm.

There has been some controversy arising out of the fact that the family of Dan Harris have reportedly said that they do not wish his death to be used for "political purposes". But it should be apparent from what I have written above that his death was not an isolated and random event, it was part of a whole history and scenario which is deeply political. Perhaps the family do not yet appreciate this. Every cyclist death on road systems where cyclists' interests have not been taken in the slightest way into account is a political issue. It was totally right for LCC, as a cyclists' representative body, to refer to the death of Mr Harris in its press release and public statements about the need for safe junction designs for cyclists in London. It is their job to try to prevent such tragedies recurring, therefore they need to describe what has actually happened, in a specific case where representations were made about a dangerous road design that was not fixed, where a predictable death subsequently occurred (exactly as at Bow roundabout). To make the points they have to refer to the specific case. This is an entirely defensible and moral thing for them to do, indeed not to do so would be immoral.

There is a tradition in the UK of road deaths being swept under the carpet as "accidents" that "should not be used for political purposes". The results are injustice, and more deaths. Bereaved families have to greave, but the rest of us should take action.

*Update: this announcement was merely of another Skyride-type event for next Summer, not of anything worthy the epithet "legacy". Utterly pathetic, but no surprise.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Why Brent's cycling strategy will fail

I suppose I've attacked the Olympics enough recently. Time to attack something else. The Biking Borough of Brent? Why not.

The Biking Borough (proportion of trips made by bike: 1.3%, proportion of school trips made by bike: 0.3%, and one of the worst places to cycle in the known universe), actually had some good publicity last week from the Brent and Kilburn Times, under the headline Brent Council awarded for taking residents for a ride:
Brent Council has been awarded a framed Team GB cycling shirt in recognition of their efforts to get residents on their bikes. 
The kit, similar to those worn by British riders in the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, has been handed to town hall bosses for providing a series of free guided rides in the borough throughout the summer. 
British Cycling, who made the award, teamed up with the council and Sky to offer ‘Sky Rides’ to beginners and cyclists who are out of the habit.
and the chirpiness continues through familiar British cycle promotion territory:
If you’ve not been on a bike for a while don’t worry, our friendly and experienced ride leaders are there to help and support you.
We want more people to get on their bikes in Brent and what better way to start than in this fantastic year for sport and cycling.
 So "cycling" in this Olympic year becomes more than ever identified with a sports activity.

One thing that is wrong with this is, of course, that, even in Olympic London, there are, horror of horrors, many people, probably, at a guess, about half the population, who are not interested in sport at all. They are just putting up with all this Olympic nonsense, staying quietly in their houses, or they have gone to Scotland or somewhere. They will be back. An appeal to them to cycle, on the basis of its sportiness and fitness-giving qualities, will not work. These are the people who are least likely to cycle in the present sports-promotional climate, but who would perhaps benefit most from cycling.

For others, a few, such appeals might work, for a while: for a month or two, or a few years. Enough for them to replace for a while the generation of cyclists who started in the almost car-free 1950s, and who are now dying or becoming incapable of cycling. Enough for them to replace the middle-aged cyclists who finally throw in the towel and decide it is all too stressful. So we have what is known as "churn". The overall number of people cycling regularly doesn't change very much. The increase that we have seen in cycling in London in recent years in terms of miles cycled is largely accounted for by regular cyclists cycling more. And that increase has been much smaller than is often claimed: it's been about 50% in the last two decades (DfT data quoted on p31 of BMA Healthy transport study), not, as people keep claiming, a "doubling" or "tripling"of cycling in London. Other surveys show us that amongst some significant communities in London, 90% say they never cycle.

The Olympics, and in particular, Team GB's success on the cycle track and in the road races, inspires a lot of people to a counter-experiential faith in how normal, everyday cycling on our roads might change as a result afterwards. For myself, I don't see much of a connection between the condition of the sport and conditions on the roads and paths for utility cycling. The success of Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France never did anything for utility cycling in the USA, so far as I can see. The same goes for all the French cycle racers who ever did well; utility cycling is at almost as absymal a level in France as it is in the UK. The driving out of traffic of central London by the Olympics has has a good effect on cycling, but I am sure it will be temporary. We will be back to normal soon. Conditions will be back to where they were, unless they are deliberately changed through decisions by politicians, and cycling levels, which are a consequence of those conditions, as well as of "push" factors, such as the cost of public transport, will return to what they were.

One thing that I am so totally certain of, I would bet everything I have on it, is that we will never see "mass cycling" in London, or other major UK cities, unless the streets start to look completely different to how they do now. This is how a main road in Brent (the A5, Edgware Road, at Colindale) looks now:

And this is how a typical suburban main through-road in the Netherlands looks:

It's the difference between cycling hell and cycling heaven.

This is how a typical wide residential road of mid-20th century design in North Brent (Mollison Way) looks now:

And this is how a typical Dutch mid-20th century residential road of similar width looks:

Again, cycling hell versus cycling heaven.

This is how a typical narrow residential road of 19th century design in South Brent (Chapter Road, on the London Cycle Network, no less) looks now:

And this is how a typical Dutch 19th century residential road of similar width looks now:

Again, it's making the cycling environment delightful as against making it nasty and stressful. I bet my bottom dollar that will never get cycling in Brent, and similar urban areas in the UK, beyond the two or three percent modal share unless these street scenes that you see here are transformed in the direction that the Dutch show us. And only decisions taken by politicians can achieve that, not anything any athlete can do, not anything any business can do, not anything any social movement or trend can do, on its own.

A street scene that further illustrates this point I take directly from the Department for Transport's own website. I grabbed this one from their "roads" page, so presumably it's something that they think is good, and representitive of UK's roads:

I'm not sure where this is – it could be London somewhere. There's a bike shop, a branch of Evans, on this street. There's a widened pavement with benches (that nobody is using), and there is fancy new paving, and there are new street trees, and there is heavy traffic, and there is no space for cycling. This is a type of picture you cannot take in the Netherlands. Streets there simply do not look like this any more. After at least 40 years of planning to make it so, Dutch roads now are either "roads for movement" (as in my picture of the "suburban main road" with the cycle track, above), or "streets", meaning, roads that are focussed around activities: commerce, learning, living. Such streets never now function to transmit large volumes of motor traffic. The combined commercial-living-walking-parking-cycling-bus-heavy-motor-through-route idea of a road, exemplified in the photo of Edgware Road, and the DfT's own photo, is gone in the Netherlands. And that's why its much better both to cycle and to drive in the Netherlands.

So I'm certain that the physical characteristics of our streets have to change if we are ever to see a true cycling revolution in the UK. It's a planning matter. And who does planning in the UK? Largely, it's the councils, like the London Borough of Brent.

I was therefore interested to see that Brent's "Highways Committee" (which looks after both its roads and streets – how antiquated the name they use for themselves seems in the context of this discussion) has recently discussed cycling. On 17 July they had an agenda item entitled Recent success and future direction of cycling in Brent. It's on the web.

This document starts:
1.1 Brent Council is a robust supporter of cycling as a healthy, cheap and environmentally sustainable form of transport. The sustainable transport team, based in the Council’s Highway & Transport Delivery Service, facilitates and manages the delivery of a broad range of measures which make it safer, easier and more attractive to cycle in the Borough.

1.2 Brent’s statutory transport plan – the Mayoral/Council approved “Local Implementation Plan” (LIP) 2011-2014 includes ambitious targets of almost doubling the number of trips made by bicycle over the next eight years.

1.3 This Report presents what the Council has recently achieved in relation to cycling, what it is doing now, and what it proposes to do in the future. It also presents the steps Brent is taking to support the London-wide and local targets and provides information as to recent successes in reducing the level of cycling-related casualties on the borough's highways network.
And goes on to give "four overarching principles", as follows:
- INFRASTRUCTURE: To continue to maintain - and where funding allows – develop the existing cycling infrastructure, making it more attractive to both existing and potential cyclists, for example, delivering hundreds of additional cycle parking spaces across the borough over the next few years;

- ENVIRONMENT: To promote cycling as a responsible choice, being a carbon-zero - environmentally friendly form of transport which also helps reduce road traffic congestion and reduce localised air pollution in Brent;

- HEALTH: To work alongside colleagues in sports and health departments, including the Brent NHS, to promote cycling as a “lifestyle choice” which can greatly improve personal health and help combat obesity;

- SAFETY: To ensure that cycle training and supporting cycling safety programmes such as “Bike It” are promoted and continue to be offered – for free – to anyone who lives, works or studies in Brent, so both new and experienced cyclists can cycle with more confidence.
Read those four paragraphs, and see if you agree with me that they should be correctly titled:
And the infrastructure strand doesn't sound very hopeful, if the prime example they can think of is parking. Parking is not infrastructure. Infrastructure is what you get around on. So it looks like the strategy to increase cycling from 1.3% mode share to 2.5% by 2020 (para 3.4) is at least 75% promotion and training. It doesn't sound hopeful. Well, maybe that 25% infrastructure will be very good, good enough to make a difference.

The key paragraph in the report I think is para. 3.32:
3.32 Creating safer streets remains the borough's utmost priority. However, we remain conscious that outer-London is a very different place to inner-London. This is no traffic-free "South Bank". Brent has a population of over 260,000 people and some very busy - and hugely congested - roads spanning the borough. For example, the A5 and the A404 are part of the Transport for London Strategic Road Network, and very busy bus routes.
This paragraph demonstrates, I think, that Brent's planners have given up on the idea of safe cycle infrastructure before they have started. Brent is "not inner London". Well, well, well, who would have thought it. Sorry, shouldn't that make it easier to create quality cycling infrastructure, not more difficult??

There is a lot more space available in outer than in inner London. The population density is lower. I have shown in my photos above how there is clearly enough space on the streets of Brent to create a "heaven" for cycling, if those streets were re-designed along Dutch lines. I don't know if they know what they are talking about, with their "traffic-free South Bank". Most of the South Bank is not a practical cycle route, cycling is banned there in critical places, and in other places it tends to be too crowded with pedestrians. There is a major problem with much of the land on the South Bank being private (e.g. outside County Hall), meaning that a continuous, legally-enforceable route cannot be created. The South Bank is in no way a good or relevant comparison for Brent. More relevant might be the Royal Parks of central London, where, at least in places, popular and decent cycle routes have been provided which do kind of link to the roads (well, in only one really, Hyde Park), while cycling on all paths in Brent parks remains banned by a bye-law dating from 1906.

What para. 3.32 seems to be saying is that Brent Council cannot see how cyclists can be given their own space on its "busy – and hugely congested  roads". With that attitude, their cycling strategy is certain to fail. It took political courage and determination for the Dutch (and the Danes) to change their roads from looking something very like Brent's do now, in the 1970s, to how they appear today. It wasn't very popular at first, 'till people saw the strategy working. That courage and determination, that vision, is completely absent in the UK's town halls. There are stirrings of it in France (a country I have already criticised in this post), where Paris's mayor wants to remove the motorways along both banks of the Seine that have blighted the city since the 1960s, and give those banks over to walkers and cyclists. We could have that on the north bank of the Thames in London, where the land is public (or on the south bank if we had a political system that could take on big commercial interests and compulsorily purchase critical plots of urban land for public environmental benefit), but that seems a million miles from Boris Johnson's agenda.

In their trawl of facts to justify the claim, in its title, of Recent success... of cycling in Brent, the report's authors turn up the fact that over the last two decades-ish, Brent has reduced its cycling KSIs (Killed or Seriously Injured) more than any other London borough. This is put forward as an indication of the success of Brent's road safety policies (or road danger reduction policies, as the authors carefully choose to put it). Here is their graph:

Now this is just a comparison of absolute KSI numbers, independent of cycling rate. So it could mean that Brent has had greater success than any other borough at making the cycling environment safer, or it could mean that cyclists have been completely frightened off the roads of Brent, or, at least, off the dangerous ones. One thing is worth noticing – a consistent pattern in the data: the boroughs that seem to have done well in casualty reduction terms are all the outer London boroughs with extremely low cycling rates: Brent, Enfield, Havering, Redbridge, Hillingdon, Bexley, Harrow, Sutton, etc. Here you can make this comparison with the data for cycling in each borough, from TfL's Travel in London Report 1 (2009) (the most recent such comparative data I can find):

Though there are exceptions, generally, boroughs that have seen the KSI increases are the high-cycling inner ones. It looks to me like there have been, over the period, bigger increases in cycling in the areas that were already relatively high-cycling areas, and hence more casualties, despite, probably, some increase in safety per mile cycled everywhere. In outer London, including Brent, the increases in cycling were so small, or negative, that they could not outweigh the modest safety improvement. It looks like Brent came out top of this KSI analysis because the growth in cycling here was lower than anywhere else in London because of the terrible conditions. So there is really nothing for Brent to claim as success here. The overwhelmingly important fact remains that Brent's citizens are virtually all too scared to cycle on Brent's roads.

And when you consider the fact that you simply cannot cross the central part of the borough from south to north, cycling all the way, and not dismounting, without either doing something illegal, or cycling through this (the intersection of the A4088 and A406 (North Circular Road) in Neasden):

Is it any wonder?

I see in Brent Council's complacent, mis-focused, absurdly optimistic document no recognition of the real, all too brutally physical, nature of the problem, no realisation of the scale of the task, no real strategy for making the changes that would be needed to fulfil even their modest "cycle doubling in eight years" objective, most of all, no recognition of why, in truth, 98.7% of journeys in Brent are NOT made by bike now.

It says in para 4.0, Financial Implications,
There are no significant financial implications arising from this report.
and refers back to para 3.3, where it says:
3.13 Brent Council does not provide funding for promoting and facilitating increased levels of cycling in the borough, unlike highways aspects such as road maintenance. Officers spending time on cycling-related projects “recharge” their time to Transport for London funded projects, meaning even their salaries are essentially ‘subsidised’ for the time they spend on cycling issues and related initiatives. Cycling projects – particularly infrastructure specific projects, are also regularly funded by “Section 106” (local developer) contributions.
Well, this is the bombshell, isn't it? Or at least it would be, to someone unacquainted with the ways of UK local government and sustainable transport. It means there's actually no money to actually change anything for cycling on the streets. There are bids to TfL (in the Local Implementation Plan) for the odd £100,000 here and there, but these are always schemes with multiple purpose, such as bus priority, or "streetscape improvements", "Corridor Bids" as they are called in the current jargon, with bit of cycling, perhaps a logo or two, a sign, some parking, or even a dropped kerb, tacked on. There is no budget for the kinds of changes that are really needed from any source, public or private. If the report was honest and ernest in its objectives, there certainly would be "financial implications arising from" it. Vast ones. To get cyclists safely and conveniently through that road system shown in my last picture would require infrastructure changes costing, almost certainly, several millions of pounds. And this is just one junction out of many junctions and roads that would need massively overhauling to make Brent truly a Biking Borough.

The project just isn't serious, and anybody reading this Highways committee report, and then looking at the realities on the ground, that I have shown in a few representative pictures, and comparing them with the quality of infrastructure that has been shown to be necessary to achieve a mass cycling culture in other European countries, is able to see that. I'm sorry to be a pessimistic messenger again, and a none too diplomatic one, as I know the report must have been written by people with whom I have contact, and some of whom I know are good people who believe in the potential of cycling and try hard to put a case for it, within the resources available to them, but I think someone has to tell it like it is. Brent's cycling strategy, on its present conceptual and funding basis, will certainly fail.

A last word (or two) on money. We seem to have got it into our collective heads in the UK that cycling infrastructure is "expensive", and promotion is "affordable". Hence the focus on promotion. But I argue all the money spent on promotion, without parallel infrastructure change, is money down the drain. It just sustains the cycling "churn". Quality infrastructure is expensive compared to PR initiatives, in the short term, "Nice things cost money" as Jim Davis puts it, but on a long long term analysis it would look different. David Hembrow tells us, from the Dutch perspective, that even the best cycling infrastructure in the world is not really expensive on the scale of other government expenditures. A level of expenditure of 30 euros per person per year, the Dutch level, about £20, equates to around one billion pounds for the UK. The UK's transport budget is £22 billion. For Brent's population, that level of expenditure would be £5.2 million per year.

A new building is currently rising in Wembley. This is Brent's new Civic Centre, to replace the Town Hall and other council offices, scheduled for completion towards the end of this year. Brent is making a lot of the environmental credentials of this building – it will be the greenest in the UK, they claim. I have also heard Brent officers, ever optimistic, expressing hopes that lots of people working at, and visiting, the building will cycle there. I expect they will provide lots of cycle parking, consistent with their infrastructure strategy.

I predict that will not work. It cannot, without a major transformative plan for cycle and walking connections for the whole area around Wembley, of which there is no sign (the 2007 Sustrans GOAL plan having gone nowhere). I expect the cycle parking to be little used. For Wembley is situated at an almost uniquely inaccessible choke point on London's road network, closely surrounded by railway lines whose only cycleable crossing points are a few very major, crowded, polluted, nasty roads, full of HGVs: Bridge Road, Forty Avenue, East Lane, Wembley Hill Road, Great Central Way, Park Lane, and Wembley High Road. If this were not enough, the whole area is cut off from the south of the borough, where most of the population lives, by the North Circular Road, only crossable at Neasden (at the junction pictured above) or the slightly safer, but still deeply unpleasant, Harrow Road intersection.

The Civic Centre will cost £100 million on current estimates. Brent is borrowing this money, to be repaid (with normal interest of course) by Council Tax payers over the coming years. It seems they can choose to borrow this sum of money to create a new working environment for the council, but not to create a cycle network. £100 million equates to nearly 20 years of expenditure on cycle infrastructure at the Dutch rate, long enough to totally transform the cycling (and walking) environment of this part of London, getting a large slice of the population choosing active and healthy travel options, and massively reducing motor vehicle use, with all the congestion, pollution and business benefits that would bring (for Brent currently has the worst air quality in London).

The Civic Centre shows Brent Council can choose to spend serious money. Is it choosing the right things to spend on? I know what I would prefer them to do.

Sunset view taken from the current Brent Town Hall, looking across Forty Lane towards Wembley Stadium, with the new Civic Centre under construction just to the right of it