He came out of nowhere, hurtling through the autumn morning half-gloom, a man in too much of a hurry to be bothered with basic street civility or the rules of London’s roads. I was walking home from my local corner shop, pondering the day ahead. I had to move fast to get out of his way: a young, male, classically lycra-clad, who bumped up on to the pavement and shot past me, eyes fixed on the prize of by-passing the red light he was supposed to stop at in order to save a few seconds of his time.
For me, the incident was annoying. For others, it could have been frightening and even have resulted in injury – perhaps a serious one, given the speed at which the guy was travelling. Another day, another piece of dangerous and selfish behaviour by a cyclist in London, and another example of why those who campaign to encourage more travel by bicycle in the city need to ask themselves if their strategies are working.
Here I repeat my standard mantra: it is obviously desirable for more people in London to choose to make journeys by bicycle in preference to doing so by car; it is obviously so because road space is used more efficiently, air quality improves, climate change is mitigated and personal health benefits; encouraging switching to cycling is therefore obviously a good thing to campaign for and a sound principle for guiding transport policy. But have the current approaches proved effective?
Even to raise the question is to attract a torrent of criticism from cycling campaigners. These often serve the useful purpose of underlining why a re-think on their part might be wise. Typical responses include pointing to bad motorists as being much, much worse and accusations of being “anti-cycling”. But both the whataboutery and the allegations of prejudice are evasions of a problem that is impeding the cause of nurturing a bigger London cycling population.
In recent years I have become increasingly watchful when using London’s pavements, something I do every day. I am now routinely in a state of alert for cyclists racing past me or towards me, often expecting me to get out of their way. When approaching the corner at the end of my street I become cautious, ready to step back hurriedly in case someone on a bike appears, cutting across my path or coming the other way.
It is the same with crossing roads. When doing so at pelican crossings, I crane my neck around high-sided vehicles in case a two-wheeled red light-jumper I can’t see is on collision course. I’ve given up expecting cyclists to give way to me at zebra crossings. In short, cyclists – now joined, of course, by e-scooterists – have become an everyday nuisance to London’s pedestrians and, at worst, a source of stress and even a physical danger.
It is no good cycling advocates objecting that dangerous and selfish drivers are worse. Yes, dangerous and selfish motorists are unacceptable and, yes, it has dawned on me that being hit by a car is more likely to kill or injure me than being hit by a bike. But you don’t often see cars speeding along pavements. And protesting that only a minority of cyclists treat the city’s streets as a kind of extreme sport slalom challenge doesn’t cut much ice when the casual infractions are so commonplace.
It seems to me that much cycling advocacy in London has become counter-productive: policy has been preoccupied with re-designing roads to the exclusion of just about anything else, while campaigners’ self-righteousness has reached that alienating pitch where any challenge to its certainties is met with scorn, condescension or denial.
That really isn’t very good. If cycling is to become the mass transport choice of Londoners that numerous local authorities in the city want and which London Mayors have been aspiring to since 2013, the time has surely come for asking if the results of their endeavours have justified the effort and expense – and if not, if it is time for a re-think.
It is probably still too soon to tell if the plethora of short-order cycling and other “active travel” schemes pushed from both national government and Transport for London levels during the pandemic have brought about much, if any, long-term increase in the number of people choosing to cycle in preference to other ways of getting around (though early hopes of a huge transformative change do seem to have been optimistic).
Yet the reality remains that there are lots of reasons why Londoners don’t want to ride bicycles that no amount of segregated lanes seems likely to change. For example, for many people, car ownership and use is not only a preference but an aspiration and an exercise of responsibility – a way of taking good care of family members, for example. Another issue is that the cycling demographic is accurately perceived as being dominated by a particular sort of person, which confers on it a somewhat exclusive quality that others can find off-putting.
Cycling campaigning often resembles a form of identity politics – Twitter profile photos and biographies exemplify this – where being a cyclist is bound up with a whole set of lifestyle choices and, yes, privileges less available to others. London’s cycling demographic is dominated by affluent white males. That doesn’t mean they are bad people or that cycling is a bad thing – of course it doesn’t – but it does contribute to cycling’s wider image problem in the eyes of many.
Transport for London, City Hall and plenty of London politicians have long known about the full range of barriers to cycling participation, and even campaigners will occasionally acknowledge that some people on bicycles let the side down by the way they behave on the city’s streets. Yet such matters are addressed only at the margins if at all, sidelined in the clamour for “protected space” and drowned out by the slogan “built it and they will come”.
But infrastructure alone will not construct the broad consensus London cycling now requires if it is to move up from being a (highly effective) minority interest protest movement to something that enjoys wider and deeper public support. Culture change is hard to effect, especially in a field like transport, where old habits die hard and competing interests can be intense. But that is the task promotors of cycling in London need to confront. They have an argument to win, and it is not a job for narrow thinkers or highway engineers.
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