Jill Rutter describes herself as a “very ex-civil servant” who now works at the Institute for Government. You might have seen on her the telly lately, helping us to understand what on Earth is going on with Brexit. She is also a Londoner who cycles. Last week Rutter wrote an important piece for the Reaction website, headlined: “London could be a bike friendly city, but macho cyclists need to tone it down”. In it, she says:
“Compared to almost any other cyclist I have a dream commute – across the network of bike lanes in the Royal Parks, down a stretch of the new cycle superhighway to Buckingham Palace and then along the top side of the Mall. Unfortunately, that also makes it a race track for men (this really is a guy thing) on their overpriced road bikes who unleash their inner Bradley Wiggins on their daily trip to work.”
This is significant at two levels: one, it raises an important issue about the capital’s cycling culture that deserves wider exposure (hence this article); two, it raises questions about the widespread assumption that building dedicated cycling infrastructure would, of itself, lead to the evolution of a cycling culture in London resembling those in Amsterdam or Copenhagen (hence the London Cycling Campaign’s “Go Dutch” campaign and the branding of funds for cycling infrastructure in Outer London boroughs “mini-Hollands”).
Rutter cites a “North Sea sized gulf” between how cyclists behave in those two cities and how too many of them carry on in London. Her article describes twice being knocked off her bike by men travelling at high speeds, and she attributes such attitudes to “the time trial mentality” and aggressive habits carried over from before dedicated cycle lanes existed. She argues that cycling will not become more widespread in London until more people to her – “cautious, slightly scared” – and others who don’t currently regard it as an option, including parents with children, take it up in bigger numbers. This, she concludes, won’t happen while people like her are being knocked over by other cyclists.
Perspectives such as Rutter’s need to become part of a much wider discussion about cycling in the capital. She argues in her piece (and also on Twitter), that some adjustments to current infrastructure should be made, but stresses that the most important thing is for cyclists to recognise that “not everyone is a mad racer”. Among the many claims made around the time Boris Johnson and his somewhat insistent cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan launched their cycling vision back in 2013 was that protected lanes would encourage more women to take to two wheels because they would feel safer. However, evidence gathered for Transport for London hasn’t yet borne this out.
There is a broader issue here as well. It’s about the London cycling mentality. Those gentler, more civil cycling cultures to which London should aspire have grown out of cycling histories peculiar to their cities. As Professor Ruth Oldenziel of Eindhoven University and co-authors have shown, Amsterdam’s arose in an accidental kind of way, not, as many cycling activists seem to assume, as a result of segregated lanes being introduced. Any suggestion that dedicated infrastructure might not be the one and only answer to enlarging and diversifying London’s cycling demographic drives some of the lane worshippers wild with rage. Maybe they are part of the problem.
Read the whole of Jill Rutter’s article for Reaction here. Photograph by Max Curwen-Bingley.
Update 19 August 2019: Jill Rutter will be speaking at an event on 3 September exploring how to broaden and enlarge London’s cycling demographic. It is jointly organised by On London and the London Society. Tickets here.
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