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I was delighted, overjoyed to see what seemed like immediate action after the publication of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s report, ‘Get Britain Cycling’.  In the wake of the report’s publication, the Roads Minister appeared to signal national government’s willingness to tackle the HGV problem saying that the government could not let lorries continue to run over cyclists.

The action was a sweep of HGVs by the Met Police’s lorry unit, checking for vehicle defects and illegal driving, as reported by the Standard, which also published an editorial calling for more action to protect cyclist from lorries.

Keen students of the HGV / cyclist issue will remember that Jenny Jones MLA and Boris Johnson, Mayor of London had the following exchange in October 2009:

Jenny Jones: Could you confirm the number of HGVs stopped by police in London for each year since 2000, the proportion that were found to be driving illegally, any breakdown of offences and the proportion that were stopped by specialist traffic police?

Answer from the Mayor: The MPS did not, until 2008, keep a record of the number of HGVs that were stopped. In 2008/09 3,000 vehicles were stopped (all types including lightweight vans). Of these 1329 were ‘trucks’ over 7.5 tonnes [note: vehicles over 7.5 tonnes are defined as HGVs]. Proportion found to be driving illegally: Offences were found in an average 80% of these vehicles.

At the time Boris suggested that the high proportion of offences found was down to diligent police-work, but however you dice the numbers, that is a lot of illegal lorries.  As was pointed out by nearly everyone with access to the numbers, lorries are 5% of traffic, and yet are responsible for over 50% of cycle fatalities in London, and in some years, closer to 100%.  Lorry drivers that have run over cyclists have been driving vehicles subsequently  found to have illegal defects, such as the Hanson HGV driver than ran over Lisa Pontecorvo, who had removed the mirror that might have, had he been looking in it, allowed him to see her.

And, by the way, despite the EU directive requiring that all HGVs / lorries registered since 2000 retro-fit the so-called ‘blind-spot’ mirror, there are still a lot of tipper trucks driving around without the mirrors fitted.  Whether this is because they were registered before 2000 or because they are simply breaching the law, I don’t know, but I saw 6 out of 8 tippers without the other morning.  I know that isn’t a sufficiently rigorous study, but they were all around Old Street and Clerkenwell Road in the morning, i.e. likely to be using one of London’s busiest cycling streets in the morning peak.  If the Mayor brings in a modified lorry ban, these vehicles would no longer be permitted.

I say all this to demonstrate how important it is that the law is enforced on the roads.  Manifest failures to enforce the law on the roads lead to public outrage, such as in the case of Stephen Perrin.  As has been widely reported all over the cycling web, the CPS and police failed to take any action after being presented with Mr Perrin’s video, which clearly shows an unprovoked and violent assault by a driver.

Almost every cyclist I know has either been subject to an identical or worse assault, or has witnessed one.  It is this wide-spread experience of violent behaviour on the roads, and the total failure to use legal remedies on this driver,  that lead to the hounding of the driver and his family.  I have to say that I have little sympathy for the driver, even if resorting to illegal and violent threats is inexcusable.   He should have been subject to exemplary punishment for his behaviour, precisely because it is so common, so that all road users were reminded that being on the road does not mean that the normal rules of common decency and behaviour are not totally abrogated, as many people appear to believe.

As I said elsewhere, the current penalty for running over a cyclist, either killing or inflicting what the police chillingly call ‘life-changing injuries’, is currently very slight.  Even where the police are able to prove negligence by the driver, the driver often receives a trivial administrative penalty and small fine.  The police are often hampered in these cases because the key witness is frequently deceased.  Generally the only person who sees what happens is the cyclist.  The driver wasn’t looking, (not didn’t see didn’t look) and by-standers only turn to look after the noise of the collision draws their attention.  But even so, the sentences seem extremely light.

To me, and to most cyclists, the sentences, often contextualised by the magistrate with the words ‘momentary inattention’ or some similar formulation, are a manifest failure of justice.

To tie red-light jumping by cyclists to lorries running over cyclists compounds that sense of injustice. This is what a policeman did at an operation to catch RLJing cyclists on City Road last week.  I totally accept that some members of the public view RLJing as a major problem requiring the urgent attention of the police.  I also totally accept that if you break the law, you should be prepared for the consequences.  I am not seeking to excuse cyclists that jump red lights, or argue that they should be shown leniency.  But I am saying that issuing a fixed penalty notice to a cyclist for jumping a red light with the words “we’re doing this because a cyclist got run over by a lorry last week” is grossly stupid and displays a near total ignorance of the reality of collisions between cyclists and lorries.

In numerous cases, too many to list (if you’re looking for examples, surf the contents page of Moving Target, and click on the ‘HGV’ section), the collision happened as both vehicles pulled away from a green light, i.e. the cyclist had waited for a red light to turn green, as required by law.  Reports suggest that this is exactly what Dr Giles did, to quote the most recent example.  Sebastian Lukomski definitely did.  They rarely, so rarely that it has happened perhaps once or twice in the last 20 years in London, are the result of the cyclist having run a light.

And don’t think that this ignorant policeman is an isolated example.  Policemen and women have often said something like ‘we have to scrape you off the road’ to me when chastising me for running a light, or riding the wrong way up a one way. (I used to be a bicycle messenger.  I got paid to get there quickly; obeying the law was discouraged by economic imperative).  I have the greatest respect for traffic police, who really do know what they are talking about, but no traffic cop has ever said this to me. It was always the police equivalent of white van man.

This ignorant behaviour extends to the higher reaches of the police force, as evidenced by the incredibly stupid use of Sebastian Lukomski’s crushed bicycle by the City Police in ‘education’ lectures given to RLJing cyclists instead of a fixed penalty.

I support the police.  I wrote to the Mayor when he tried to cut funding for lorry police. I support their initiatives to educate road users.  But when police make statements like this, they undermine respect for the badge, respect for the law and confound our already low expectations that justice will be done on the roads.

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This was Jorge Luis Borges analogy of the Falklands War.  It sprang to mind when I read a blog post on As Easy As Riding A Bike, entitled ‘No surrender’ – the damaging, enduring legacy of the 1930s in British cycle campaigning.  The writer, who normally offers well-informed, if somewhat over-lengthy, critique of current UK cycling policy, takes aim at the so-called ‘vehicular cyclists’, and seeks to apportion some considerable part of blame for the current pitiful state of cycling provision in this country on the CTC.  The thrust is more or less that the CTC has incompetent policy formulation written into its DNA, and draws on CTC policy documents from the 1930s to make a case.  The post flirts with the reductio ad Hitlerum logical fallacy popular with many amateur debaters,  saying: the Cyclists’ Touring Club was strongly in favour of motorway building; they sent a member on a delegation to Hitler’s Germany to look at autobahns.


It is a several thousand word treatise on what is wrong with the CTC, and how the CTC’s tactics, historically and currently, are undermining the efforts to get more people cycling.  

The proposition that because the CTC once espoused ‘bad’ policies, that the CTC is irrecoverably ‘broken’ as an organisation long after the main characters responsible for the policy (or policies) are dead is not really sustainable.  For instance, some years ago the London Cycling Campaign endorsed what many people, including myself, thought was a poorly conceived and executed campaign by TfL called ‘Share the Road’.  I was so disillusioned by the campaign that I resigned my membership and wrote a couple of vituperative blogs (which, I am sure, made no impact on the LCC!) about the campaign.  Afterwards I got involved in a disagreement with an LCC employee over their lack of public campaigning or even mention of HGV deaths that ended with the LCC employee using foul and abusive language in an email to me.

However, I have since rejoined the LCC because their campaigning on the HGV issue, piloted by Charlie Lloyd, is excellent and high-profile, and their other campaigns seem to be a lot less apologetic than they were 6 or 7 years ago, when they appeared to be very much the creature of TfL. Which shows that an organisation can change course quite dramatically.

A response by As Easy As Riding A Bike in the comments section of the post, replying to a suggestion that there might be other ways as well as segregation to get people cycling, citing Hackney, really got my goat.  The author dismissed Hackney as not all that significant because the 7% modal share (7% of all journeys by bike) is rather less than the author would expect, given Hackney’s demographics, i.e. lots of poor people and hipsters live in Hackney.  Oh yeah?  It’s still more than 3 times the average for London, so why so quick to dismiss?

At this point, I have to confess to being a ‘vehicular cyclist’.  A ‘vehicular cyclist’, according to the cant, is a cyclist who uses the existing road networks, and is against ‘segregation’, i.e. bike paths that are separated from the main road-way.  I sort of fit into this category, as I was a bicycle messenger for a number of years, and will ride in almost any prevailing road conditions.  I am against rubbish bike lanes , and view the majority of London’s cycling ‘facilities’ with disfavour.  I wrote an article for the Guardian’s bike blog about the bike lane on Clerkenwell Road saying that I thought it had made cycling on Clerkenwell Road more, not less, dangerous, and this on a road which has seen several cyclists killed in the last 20 years.

1992 flier promoting Moving TargetBut let me be clear – I am not against ‘segregation’.  I don’t enjoy sharing the road with motor vehicles.  I would much rather there were a lot less motor vehicles in London, as they are noisy, smelly, dangerous and are always getting in my way, which is why I distributed this poster (younger readers can think of it as a paper meme), calling for ‘universal discarmament’ in 1992.

My residence overlooks the canal in Hackney.  As well as being able to enjoy the antics of the water fowl, I can also observe how popular the tow-path is with cyclists.  Even on a snowy morning, such as many this winter, there are still people riding along it.  The reasons for the tow-path’s popularity are not hard to work out.  The tow-path doesn’t have cars on it, is direct and doesn’t have inconvenient give-ways or traffic lights.

Would I like to see cycling facilities that are like the tow-path, that is, direct & safe?  Yes, of course I would.  Do I want to see more cycling facilities like the one on the right, i.e. non-direct, not safe and not convenient?  No, especially not if they cost money, and allow whichever municipal body to trumpet their commitment to ‘making London a world-class cycling city’.  Do I think we are worse off with cycling facilities like these?  Yes, I do.  Is it fair to blame cycling facilities like this on the CTC’s Hiearchy of Provision, as AEARAB does? I think it’s a little perverse, and probably falls under Jack Thurston’s favourite aphorism ‘everyone hates cyclists – even other cyclists hate cyclists’.

Attacking cycle campaigning organisations is something that Freewheeler, the writer of Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest blog, also goes in for.  Freewheeler goes even further and on various different occasions accuses people like Roger Geffen of fiddling around the margins, and not being confrontational enough in challenging the car culture, and even betraying the cause.

I am not suggesting arson as the route to mass cycling but I do think that cyclists need to consider challenging the status quo in other ways than tea and biscuits at the Town Hall…  Non-violent direct action stunts are long overdue in British cycle campaigning.

That cycle campaigners have been too polite hitherto to be taken seriously is a quite laughable assertion when applied to Roger Geffen.  When I first met Roger, he was still at the London Cycling Campaign.  I had some dealings with him in the aftermath of the death of London cycle courier Edward Newstead.  Edward was killed in March 1992 by a left-turning lorry on the junction of Oxford Street and Holles Street.  He was the 5th bicycle messenger known to have died whilst working in London, but the first whose passing was marked in a meaningful way.

A flier (that’s a hand-bill for my north American readers) was passed amongst the courier community, announcing that a memorial ride would start from Marble Arch and go to the spot where Edward had been killed, i.e. we would all ride down Oxford Street.  The LCC heard of the ride and got in touch.  They wanted to help.

I met with Mark Paul Gasson, then the chair, and Roger Geffen, then the campaigns leader, and discussed what we should do.  I had to push back a little because I felt that a memorial ride wasn’t the correct back-drop for an overtly political campaign stunt, which is what Roger originally conceived of doing – banners, slogans etc.

Memorial ride for Edward Newstead, Oxford Street, 1992The memorial itself was not intended to be confrontational; we did, however, block Oxford Street completely for several minutes when we stopped and fixed a bouquet and sign near the spot where Edward was killed.  This prompted a bus driver, stationary and frustrated, to utter the memorable line: “you don’t know the grief you’re causing”.  As I wrote in this post, the action had little impact beyond those who were there, or read about it in Moving Target and the Daily Cyclist, but it felt important, significant, that we hadn’t just let Edward’s death pass unmarked.  Edward’s family afterwards expressed their thanks for our efforts.

At the time I saw it as an overtly political action, and said so.  The action didn’t need banners or slogans.  It was pretty clear to all on-lookers what was going on – cyclists staging a bike-in, because we were pissed off with the status quo.

Later on in the decade I came across Roger again at the M11 protests.  He had moved on from the LCC to real, proper Non Violent Direct Action.  The NVDAs in and around Wanstead, Leyton and Leytonstone were serious.  People got hurt.  At the time, I wasn’t totally au fait with the political philosophy behind NVDA, but it was very obvious that even very small scale NVDAs, routine stuff such as trying to stop lorries delivering supplies or removing spoil, almost always resulted in violent outcomes.

I saw one man, who had crawled underneath a big lorry to try and stop it, get crushed by a wheel.  Another had his arm held against a very hot exhaust manifold by security people to get him to release his grip on the underside of the lorry. Nearly everyone, including me, despite my fairly timid efforts, ended up covered in mud and the thick, cloying grease that covers all heavy machinery, and there was a lot of angry shouting, and considerable physical jeopardy for the protestors.  And this was at a relatively insignificant action, as nothing compared to what happened later at Claremont Road.

It was scary stuff, and, when I saw him, Roger was right at the heart of the action, utterly committed and fearless.  At the time, I remember thinking that Roger was a total head-banger, albeit in a hi-viz  jacket, wearing glasses and a mucky-looking pair of cords.  So I think I can be excused if I find the suggestion, implicit in the phrase tea and biscuits at the Town Hall, that Roger Geffen is a lap-dog who loves nothing better than cuddling up to the petrol-heads in charge of Britain’s roads totally wrong-headed and somewhat risible.  It’s even more laughable when considering that the M11 campaign took place entirely within Freewheeler’s patch, Waltham Forest.

I’m not accusing As Easy As Riding A Bike of being as polemical as Freewheeler, but I wonder why, at a time when the Mayor of London won’t even devote as much as 2% of his transport budget to cycling (surely not too much to expect, given a cycling modal share of 2% in London), and has recently appointed a journalist crony who happens to cycle, Andrew Gilligan, to the very well-paid post of Cycling Commissioner, bloggers are using up thousands of words on denigrating Roger Geffen and the CTC?   I’m not the most prolific blogger in the world, and a thousand words probably takes me a lot longer than Freewheeler and AEARAB, but this is surely hours spent on trashing CTC.

Which brings me back to the title.  I’m not all that familiar with the cycling politics or the politics of cycling in other countries – I guess it is human nature to feud – but for as long as there have been cycling organisations,  there have been feuds, whether we’re talking about the Clarion Clubs and the CTC, the NCU and the BLRC, hell, even the British Cycling Federation (precursor of British Cycling) was in a dreadful state 25 years ago, suffering regular allegations of corruption and incompetence.

But given the still pitiful state of cycling provision in this country, these arguments do make me think of two bald men fighting over a comb.

If you don’t get Ian Wingrove’s monthly digest of Cycling Answers from the Mayor of London, then you should.  It is super, super dry, but it is a mine of information.  Ian works for London Assembly Member Jenny Jones, and you can subscribe to the digest by emailing Ian.

In the September digest, in amongst the written answers, I found, whilst looking for something else, this:

Bike thefts (1)
Question No: 2462 / 2012
Darren Johnson
Can you provide a breakdown of bike thefts in London by borough for the calendar years 2007 – 2011?
Written response from the Mayor
 
There are lots of ways to have fun with these numbers.  For example, by giving a daily average: in 2011, on average, 61 bikes were reported stolen every day in London (or giving the number correlated against some other unit of time, as in this BBC ‘report’ from 2007). Another fun thing to do (and this is the stand-by of lazy journalists everywhere) is to re-order the table with the highest number of reported thefts first, i.e. create a top 5 London borough league table of reported bike thefts:
1. City of Westminster, 1764 reported bike thefts in 2011
2. Hackney, 1578 reported bike thefts in 2011
3. Islington, 1471 reported bike thefts in 2011
3. Southwark, 1467 reported bike thefts in 2011
5. Camden, 1413 reported bike thefts in 2011
Thus it could be said that a bike is most at risk of being stolen in Westminster, and least likely to be stolen at Heathrow Airport.
Or you could go with a trend, like this: reported bike thefts up by more than 27% since 2007 (or, if you wanted to make a party political point, you could even say something like ‘bike thefts soar by more than a quarter under Boris’).  In fact, the BBC went one further, and went with London bike thefts rise by a third in five years, leaving out of the headline the word ‘reported’, and also failing to mention that reported bike thefts in 2011 are down from 2009, thus allowing partisans to say that Boris has brought reported bike thefts down.
However, this set of numbers should be treated with extreme caution.  First, the City of London is not included in the set (the reason is that the City of London police are entirely separate to the Met, and thus their numbers are not included).  As the highest numbers are in the inner London boroughs, it is likely that City of London would be in the top half of the league table, if not in the top 5.
Second, the numbers of thefts are also a reflection of the numbers of cyclists, and therefore bikes.  I doubt that many people cycle to, from or through Heathrow, and Hackney has one of the highest modal shares of cycling in the U.K., never mind London.  If you don’t follow what I’m getting at, think about it like this: no bikes would mean no bikes to steal, so more bikes means more opportunity to steal bikes, and also a bigger market for stolen bikes (you all know people who have bought an obviously freshly stolen bike from Sclater Street because ‘my bike got stolen’).
Third, these numbers are for reported thefts of bikes, not the total number of thefts.  Accurate numbers for bike thefts are notoriously hard to come by, because of under-reporting.  Estimates of under-reporting of bike thefts vary widely.
Bikeoff quotes 2 different numbers, one from the International Crime Victims survey, which says that 56% of bike thefts are not reported, and the British Crime Survey, which gives a figure of 75% (these are numbers from 2006/7). The US National Crime Victims Survey 2006 has a similar number to the BCS, but an article in a 1996 edition of Transportation Alternatives magazine gives a number of 90%!
So the upward (or downward) trend could merely be that more victims of bike theft are reporting their loss to the police, or (as someone suggested on Twitter) the upward trend could be a reflection of higher rates of cycling in London.  There are serious doubts as to whether more people were cycling further in London in 2011 than in 2007.  Cycling is reportedly up 81% since 2000, but there are some indications are that the same people are cycling further, not that a lot more people have started cycling.
According to this UK Bike Biz article, sales of new bicycles in the UK actually declined slightly from 2010 to 2011, so it’s perfectly possible that there were less shiny new bikes in London, which could mean all sorts of things, for instance, less shiny new bikes,  less stolen shiny new bikes, more grubby old stolen bikes, lower prices for stolen bikes, therefore more stealing to make up the drop in income.
So, in other words, Boris 0 – Bike Thieves 22547? Not exactly.