There are few clearer examples of how champions of a progressive cause can become their own worst enemies than a certain type of London cycling campaigner. In recent years, the best of the capital’s pedal power activists have been imaginative, constructive and impressively well-informed. The worst of them, alas, are absurdly aggressive, hopelessly one-eyed and so stuffed with sanctimony that even sympathisers feel an urge to metaphorically let the air out of their tyres. It is a very stupid way to go about securing the wider base of support that cycling badly needs.
It soon became clear during his first appearance before the London Assembly’s transport committee on Wednesday that Will Norman, Sadiq Khan’s recently-appointed commissioner for walking and cycling, is too shrewd to say that sort of thing in public – should he, indeed, hold such a view – and is also keenly aware of the need to replace counter-productive confrontation with partnership and co-operation if cycling is to grow from the minority transport option it currently is into a truly mainstream one, embraced by Londoners of every kind.
Boris Johnson’s ambitious Vision for Cycling in London, published in 2013, which set the laudable goal of getting “hundreds of thousands more people, of all ages, races and backgrounds” using bicycles to get around the city, seemed to assume that this enlarging and broadening of the cycling demographic could be brought about by changes in street design alone.
But obstacles to people taking up cycling are cultural as well as infrastructural, as a fascinating 2011 study, funded by Transport for London (TfL) and NHS Camden with a view to overcoming them, shows. It unearthed an array of reasons why women, the less affluent and ethnic minority groups are so greatly under-represented among London cyclists – reasons that have little to do with installing segregated bike lanes.
Norman seems attuned to such issues in a way that wholly escaped the previous mayoralty. For him, the reality that, as he summarised it, “75% of cyclists in London are men, aged 25 to 44 in social classes AB”, is one that needs to change if cycling is to grow in the way Johnson wanted. He described the need for a more sophisticated persuasion offensive, involving everything from the content of marketing materials to adopting far more searching consultation techniques in order to bring doubters and the downright hostile onside as far as possible.
This is surely right: if small shopkeepers in Enfield are mistaken in believing that the cycle lane programme being implemented there will ruin their trade, they need to be shown why, not dismissed as idiots; if working-class Londoners for whom car ownership is a symbol of social acceptance and success see road closures and cyclist privilege as fostering gentrification at their expense, it isn’t good enough to mock them as “dinosaurs”, as some do. Rather, the task is to talk them into recognising and embracing the benefits.
The contrast between Norman’s mature and flexible approach to changing habits of movement in the capital away from private motoring and towards the more efficient and healthier alternatives of walking, cycling and using public transport, and the somewhat outré belligerence that marked the previous administration is striking and extremely welcome.
It has been asked if Norman is “too nice” to deliver the priorities most prized by infrastructure fundamentalists. At transport committee, he was asked if his preference for consensus would mean results would come too slowly. His answer, perhaps mindful of failings of the recent past, was that avoiding conflict might mean that “things take longer at the beginning” but “will save time later”. It will also mean better results. In this congested, polluted city, a bit of goodwill can carry an awful lot of people a long way.