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berlin cycling

The other night I rode along the newly opened purpose-built segregated bike lane which runs along the route of Cycle Superhighway 5, from Pimlico to Oval.Vauxhall Bridge Bike Lane pic by Charlie Holland

The only possible criticism of the new lane is that it isn’t very long – by which I mean that out of my journey, from Marble Arch to East Dulwich, for the majority of which I followed the main roads, including Park Lane, Hyde Park Corner & Camberwell New Road, I was only in the new lane for a couple of miles out of the seven or so.  Otherwise, it’s wide enough, it’s smooth enough, it’s direct enough, it’s fast enough and it’s safe enough.

But it wasn’t made for me.   I have been riding a bike in London all my life.  I rode to school sometimes when I was a teen-ager.  Like Ben Plowden, the director of Transport for London’s Strategy & Planning (Surface Planning), who was interviewed in a recent edition of London Cyclist, I can remember when there were hardly any other cyclists around in London, to the point where, in winter, when even less people cycled, I knew virtually every other cyclist by sight.

I can’t remember ever being intimidated by the dangers of cycling – when I was a kid cycling to school, I was probably too young to be frightened, and, later, when I became a bicycle courier, I embraced the thrill of physical jeopardy, and the pure joy of riding a bike as fast as I could.

On my ride back from Marble Arch, as I mentioned, I negotiated two of the larger road junctions, and rode along a few of the busiest and widest roads in central London, heavy with large, fast vehicles, including coaches, buses, lorries, vans, taxis and the normal quotient of idiotic men using the speed of their over-engineered cars to display their notional virility.

I chose the most direct route, rather than the more pleasant, and probably safer, back street route through Belgravia, because I just wanted to get home quickly and not spend an extra 15 minutes messing about around the back of Eaton Square, dodging the Chelsea tractors and armoured limousines of the ostentatious super-rich.

It was fun – even though the whole route to Camberwell is incredibly familiar to me, it is some years since I have ridden down Park Lane, and there was a certain novelty, because, even though most of the roads haven’t changed much, apart from the new bike lane, I was riding a Brompton, instead of a ‘proper’ bike, and the unique handling characteristics of a small-wheeled, short wheel-base bike moving at around 25 – 30 kph (twitchy!) meant that I had to pay more attention to what was going on than I normally would.

There were a couple of moments where I wondered at the person that I used to be, that person that would have torn down Park Lane as fast as possible, under-taking fast moving traffic around corners, and seeking to run the lights at every opportunity, always looking for a way through, around, and over, any potential obstacle between myself and the destination.  If you want to know why bicycle couriers run lights so frequently, the reason is straightforward economics mixed with large dash of youthful bravado.  The more deliveries a courier can accomplish, the more money a courier gets.  The chances of being stopped by the police are very slight – it is a very unlucky courier that gets stopped more than once a year – and the dangers of ignoring the laws of the road are part of the appeal of the job.

I don’t believe that staying within the law, or following the Highway Code, will keep me safe from injury or death; I have read far too many analyses of collision data to entertain that thought for more than a split-second.  I also don’t believe that I have a duty to respect the rules of the road in order to prevent other people being killed or injured whilst cycling, or that I should obey the law in order to secure increased public funding for cycling.  Both of these latter two logical fallacies have been systematically dismantled elsewhere but, briefly, imagine if either of these propositions were applied to the users of motor-vehicles: no more new motorways until all motorists obey the speed limits everywhere, or that any injury or fatality of a motor-vehicle occupant is entirely deserved because plenty of motor-vehicle drivers routinely break the law – just think of how many people you see driving with mobile phones in their hands.

These days I almost always obey every regulation; if I can’t be bothered to wait for a green light, for instance at the toucan light on Cannon Street, where CS7 crosses it, I dismount and push my bike. Although technically, this is as illegal as riding across it, in practice not only have I never heard of an instance where the police have reprimanded someone pushing their bike through a red light, I can’t imagine it ever happening.  I joke that I can’t be bothered to break the law these days, as no-one is paying me to do so.

I am still, let’s say, not perfectly happy, but entirely prepared to take my chances on big roads with lots of fast-moving, heavy traffic.  I’m not stupid.  I have been riding a bike for pleasure, utility and money for a long time, and I, and many of my friends and acquaintances have suffered injury and death on the roads.  But I know that cycling isn’t inherently dangerous, and the risks are far outweighed by the benefits, and the, well, FUN!

What I am trying to say here is that I came to cycling through its utility to me: I rode a bike & made money doing it.  All the leisure and sports stuff came later, which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy cycling, but it was secondary to making a living from using a bike to deliver things.  And also that, as far as I was concerned, the more dangerous that my job seemed to outsiders, the better – a higher barrier to entry meant that I would have less competition.  I am, therefore, what is sometimes called a ‘vehicular cyclist’, often shortened to the somewhat pejorative VC, i.e. on the road I behave as if I was a motor-vehicle, mixing it with the motor-traffic, and expecting to be treated as if I was operating a ‘proper’ vehicle.

I wouldn’t say that I accepted that my friends, colleagues & I would get injured whilst cycling – but it was always something that I expected, and certainly amongst the courier community, it is seen as an occupational hazard, and, when at play, it can even be something to be embraced.

Of course there is a big difference between laughing at a friend who, as Michael Smiley did many years ago, has ridden into a stationary object whilst drunk and made a mess of his or her face – a frequent enough occurrence that I dubbed the resulting mutilations ‘Friday Night Nose’ – there’s a big difference between smashing yourself up as the result of your own stupidity, and those friends & colleagues who were injured, maimed or killed as the result of something that happened during their working day, when they were stone-cold sober, as the result of the actions of another road-user.

But none of these considerations have ever prevented me from cycling.  The only circumstance that I could imagine not cycling in London, is if I lost the use of both of my legs, and then I would probably, if I was capable, use a hand-cycle or something similar.

chelsea bridge bike laneMy entry-point into ‘proper’ cycle-campaigning was prompted by my experiences after the death of Edward Newstead, who was killed whilst working as a cycle courier.  The driver of the lorry that killed him had made an illegal left turn off Oxford Street.  I can’t remember exactly what sentence was imposed after he was convicted for careless driving, but it was a few penalty points and a small fine.  I do remember standing outside the magistrates court trying to explain to Ed’s teenage children why it was that the man whose negligence had killed their father would be able to walk out of court and continue his life without very much let or hindrance, whereas their lives had been torn apart.

Paul Gasson & Roger Geffen of the London Cycling Campaign participated in an official capacity in the memorial ride that followed Ed’s death, and I wrote some stuff in a bicycle courier fanzine about the politics and effects of road planning on bicycle couriers.  This led to other activities, including the early stirrings of Reclaim The Streets, Cyclist Have A Right to Move, other stuff, and eventually, as chair of the London Bicycle Messenger Association, in 2004, I wrote to all of the then candidates for Mayor of London asking them to consider banning lorries from London day-time.

lambeth bridge bike laneI can’t really remember when I became aware of bicycle lanes.  I was looking up the history of the GLC in the course of writing something for the Relatively Good Radio Show (3pm every Sunday on Resonance FM), and I read that the GLC had done some work promoting cycling in the late 70s & 80s, but I can’t say that I was aware of it of it at the time, and I certainly don’t recall any special provisions for cyclists, apart from maybe being able to use bus lanes, until the opening of the two segregated bike lanes in Camden, work on which only started in the late 90s, after sustained pressure from Camden Cyclists.

My only previous encounter with bike lanes had been in Berlin in the 90s, and I regarded them, like the Camden bike lanes, as inconvenient, as they weren’t in the part of the road that I preferred to ride on, that is to say, more or less down the middle of the road, and also slightly dangerous, as I always felt that they restricted my ability to avoid poor turning manoeuvres by drivers, and restricted my view and space on the road.  This was reinforced when I went to Copenhagen, and was completely disoriented by the bike lane network there.  I didn’t know where to look or where to ride and found myself being chastised by other people using the bike lanes for not following the signalling and riding conventions.  This experience was shared by other bicycle couriers from the UK and US who were there at the same time (we had all gone to CPH for the 2002 Cycle Messenger World Championships).  “I just want to ride in the road, like normal”, I remember thinking and other people saying.

I was also slightly shocked to find myself being overtaken by ‘ordinary’ cyclists, often riding much heavier bikes than mine, frequently laden with shopping.  Me, a professional cyclist!  And I kept ending up boxed in by other cyclists at the lights – it was all bit too much.

Back at home, the authorities in London were beginning to consider the benefits of having more people on bikes, and at the same time, the noughties bike boom was starting.  I think that the two phenomena were not particularly related.  I suspect very strongly that the increase in cycling had more to do with the increased awareness of cycle-sport, and the health benefits thereof, than of the utility of cycling.  Awareness of cycling’s utility, I reckon, came afterwards to most people who started cycling in the noughties.

As evidence, I would cite the type of clothing and bikes that most London cyclists wear and use, and the demographics, i.e. the sex, age and socio-economic class of the adopters – mostly young, male & above average income – most of the people cycling in London are the aggressively athletically affluent, if you will, riding bikes that look like what the pros on the Tour de France ride, and wearing clothes that look like what the pros wear in the Tour de France, not bikes like the one at the top of the page, with mudguards and two racks – this type of bike is still uncommon in London.  It is arguable that the UK bike retail trade has failed bike commuters, and society generally, by failing to supply suitable bikes for everyday use.  There’s a chapter in Grant Petersen’s excellent collection of essays ‘Just Ride’ covering exactly this topic called ‘Racers Ruin The Breed’.

There is no doubt that simply saying loudly and often to the public, as TfL and Boris have, as well as various London borough councils have, that cycling is good, and we want more people to do it – here, look, we are going to paint lots of pictures of bicycles on the roads to show that bicycles belong on London’s roads to prove it – also had an effect.  I am also sure that the fact that London’s roads are probably less dangerous than at any time in history also helps (I am certain that horse-powered traffic was every bit as dangerous as motor-powered is now, and that there were hundreds of deaths every year in London from time immemorial caused by runaway horses, whether singly or in teams).

There were other factors at play too, obviously.  The bicycle courier community had helped to popularise a certain type of bike culture, that of the fixie, which is pretty distinct from the lycra & 18 gears thing, and the growth in cycling in Hackney cannot, and is not, explained by loads of ‘hipsters’ moving into the borough, and using the London Fields bike lane for skid comps, which is the usual explanation of the anti-Hackneyise camp.  Camden & Islington did more than just paint not-so-pretty pictures of bikes on the road, and, like Hackney, saw a rise in cycle journeys.

(Causation? Correlation?  It is not possible to conduct scientifically sound experiments in city planning – unequivocal evidence of the efficacy of a particular measure does not, can not exist.)

I, on the other hand, was focused on the problem of lorries running over cyclists at junctions, and spent what time I had spare for campaigning activity on the HGV problem.  I don’t want to recap the whole HGV – cyclist KSI thing in this post, as I covered it here and on Moving Target, but large percentage of fatalities of people cycling in London were the result of a collision with lorries.  A significant minority of these collisions resulted from the lorry turning left over the path of the cyclist either proceeding straight on or also turning left.  In all of these collisions, the driver said that he (almost all lorry drivers are male) had not seen the cyclist before the collision, and that the cyclist must have been in the so-called blind-spot, the area to the front and left of the cab into which direct vision is not possible.

Sblindspoto when the authorities started painting bike lanes and Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs) all over London which encouraged cyclists to take exactly this position – to the left and slightly in front – at junctions, my reaction was one of dismay and alarm, especially when ASLs with feeder lanes were painted on junctions where cyclists had been killed by collisions with left-turning lorries: Camley Street at Goods Way, scene of the death  of Emma Foa, and Upper Thames Street at Queen Street Place, scene of the death of London bicycle courier Sebastian Lukomski.

287tThe fact that the ASL at Camley Street had been painted with the support of Camden Cyclists truly outraged me.  I found it hard to imagine how any cycle campaigner could have supported something so stupid.  If you are wondering why I found it so imbecilic, compare the photo at right, taken at Camley Street a year after Emma Foa was killed, with the photo above.  The top photo was taken at a ‘Changing Places’ demo, which was aimed at showing cyclists the dimensions of the typical lorry blind-spot.  The yellow line indicates roughly the boundaries of the blind-spot.  It looks like an ASL with a feeder lane, not that unlike the one at Camley Street.  At the time (2007) I wrote “we ought to think about taking all the paint and green tarmac off the roads at junctions like these. Because to me, they look dangerously like green traps.”

My mind was pretty much made up – bike lanes were a mad, bad, dangerous idea.  In 2008 I wrote a piece for the Guardian Bike Blog outlining my opposition, finishing with the following:

Clerkenwell Road looking west towards St John Street“If one of the main obstacles to getting more bums on bikes is lack of confidence, then surely it would be better to spend the money on training so that potential cyclists will know how to handle their bikes and to recognise and negotiate hazards. This will instil confidence. And a confident cyclist is a safe cyclist.”

(The incident involving the motor-cyclist and taxi described in the article occured more or less where this photo was taken, travelling east)

I had written to the London Cycling Campaign resigning my membership in protest at their participation in a TfL public relations called “Share The Road” a couple of years before, but now my antipathy towards LCC fell to a new low after an email exchange with a member of LCC staff in which he used foul & abusive language, prompted by me publicly denounced the LCC for failing to do more on the HGV / cyclist issue.

So how did I get from there to here, that is, to the point where I am giving an unequivocal welcome to the Mayor of London’s bicycle lane construction programme, which was inspired, in large part, by the London Cycling Campaign’s Space For Cycling?

Because I now get it.  I get that if I want to see a civilised, cycling city in my lifetime, ordinary people,  people who would otherwise drive to the shops, or to the school with the kids, or get the bus or the train to work, need to feel safe on their bikes on the road, which they do not now.  They need to feel that there is a safe space in which to cycle.  Training alone will not do it.  I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard friends & acquaintances say something like, I’d like to ride, but I just don’t feel safe, or, I used to ride but stopped after I was (nearly) knocked off by a bus / lorry / car.

Under Boris’ leadership, Andrew Gilligan and his team have made a great start.  I know that all of the roadworks have been a pain, although there have been one or two upsides: we all immensely enjoyed Nigel Lawson’s assertion “that [the cycle lane construction program] has done more damage, and is doing more damage, to London than almost anything since the Blitz”.  But it’s only a start.

If we aren’t careful, this summer will mark the high-water mark of cycling advocacy in London.  At TfL the bus is king, and all this cycle-lane stuff has been, in their view, a bit of a distraction, and a bit of a waste of money, but, hey, now the box marked ‘cycling’ has been ticked, they’ll be able to get back to the real world of buses and trains.  Also, cuts to funding are looming, and that will mean it is likely to get a lot harder to get any money spent on cycling, never mind increasing it.

Cycling in London has momentum.  After several years of flat-lining, modal share has started to nose up again in the last couple of years.  The new lanes will surely accelerate the upward trend.  But the job’s only just begun.  And if we don’t carry on pushing, the vocal but statistically small anti-cycling caucus will get the airtime and the audience, and cycling will be pushed back to the margins from where it is now, virtually centre-stage in London politics.