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British Cycling have been annoying me for the last couple of months. First, they invented a new version of the empty phrase cycle-friendly or (apologies to the guys at the Times, who have done great work) cycle-safe. The BC approved version is 'cycle-proofing'. It's supposed to mean making roads safe for cyclists to use.

Using a non-specific suffix such as -friendly or -proofing generally doesn't signify anything apart from good intentions. Sometimes, as in the case of Google Maps beta bicycle thing, it can be seriously misleading, as Gmaps appear to be using the prescence of a marked bike or bus lane as an indication that the road in question is suitable for cyclists, meaning that Upper and Lower Thames Street were designated cycle-friendly. Likewise, I think cycle-proofing sounds like bike-wash, the cycle advocacy equivalent of green-wash. You see? It's so easy to make up meaningless but interesting-sounding labels.

I don't understand why British Cycling doesn't call a spade a spade and say exactly what it means. If BC is in favour of protected bicycle lanes, 2 phase traffic lights at junctions and so forth why not say exactly that? Surely BC doesn't think that Advanced Stop Lines and other painted surfaces are anything except an awkward and unsafe halfway house? Why not use a widely accepted shorthand that encapsulates the whole protected lane, re-engineered junction package like 'Go Dutch' or 'Space For Cycling'? Why reinvent the wheel, thus muddying the advocacy waters? Suspicious and cynical cyclists like myself might be tempted to see this as a turf grab by BC, keen to expand into new areas now that the Olympic tap is no longer spouting money with the same force as before.

Then I read BC's 2 year old report on the cycling economy: 'Gross Cycling Product', trumpeted by BC as the first attempt to quantify the contribution of cycling to the wealth of the nation. Guess what? Deliveries by bicycle (or tricycle) feature absolutely nowhere. It's as if the writers of the report have never been to central London, or, indeed, any major city anywhere in the world. I'm not going to suggest that couriers and other bicycle delivery people are a huge source of income for the national purse, but I would suggest that they are far from insignificant. I shouldn't take this oversight personally, but hey, I used to be a bicycle courier, so I do.

And there's helmets. Here's what British Cycling has to say (taken from the page 'Safety Points' on the BC website):

British Cycling asserts that the wearing of a correctly fitted hard shell helmet conforming to a recognised safety standard is recommended for all of its non-competitive events. British Cycling also strongly recommends the use of such a helmet whilst cycling at all other times, whilst recognising the right of each individual to choose whether or not to accept this recommendation.

Helmets are the subject of much debate, most of which is anecdotal (i.e. highly subjective and virtually impossible to verify – “my helmet saved my life”), and lot of which is emotional (e.g. the recent appeal by the father of Ryan Smith, a teenager left in a coma after a collision). I don't want to get into it too much. I said more or less what I think about helmets over here, and as a recent edition of More Or Less pointed out, not enough research has been done. However, there is good evidence that in jurisdictions where helmet use is compulsory that cycling rates have fallen after compulsion. It is also the case that use or non-use of a helmet is increasingly becoming a modifier used in legal proceedings to determine 'contributory negligence' by the cyclist, even in cases where the cyclist bore no responsibility for the collision that caused the injuries suffered by the cyclists.

We have all enjoyed the interventions of Bradley Wiggins & Laura Trott in this area, but it's worth pointing out that both Wiggins & Trott are very much the creations of British Cycling, have been nurtured and developed by structures put into place by British Cycling and the downside of enjoying the glorification reflected from their respective medals is having to accept responsibility for the stupid things that they say, especially when what they said was only a paraphrase of British Cycling policy.

Lastly, there's Eastway. It's long enough since the Eastway Cycle Circuit was bulldozed that a lot of Londoners will associate Eastway with a miserable road running across Hackney Marshes, through one of the most hostile and confusing road junctions in all of London, scene of the death of a cyclist during the Olympics, run over by an Olympic bus. But for older sporting London cyclists Eastway means a green oasis of cycle sport, built in the 1970s, and used pretty much 7 days a week through the summer for road-racing, mountain-biking (Eastway was the original venue for the Beastway races), time-trialling, BMX and cyclo-cross.

Eastway Cycle Circuit was sacrificed by British Cycling on the Olympic altar, depriving London cycling of its best equipped venue for nearly 10 years. The organisation of the replacement facility, Hog Hill, was less than stream-lined, but hey, it was all worth it because we (London's sporting cyclists) are getting back a world-class sporting facility blah blah blah. I won't be the first to point out that cycling is getting back a lot less land than was taken away. Ok, there's a velodrome there as well, ok, ok. But the size of the site is much, much smaller.

But how are we going to get to the Velopark, or whatever it's called? This is something that doesn't seem to have been considered very much, or at all, by British Cycling. Maybe they just assumed that people would do what they do when going to bike races elsewhere in the country, that is put their bikes and their kit in or on their car and drive.

We have heard so much about the attention to detail of British Cycling, the 'marginal gains'. BC was apparently consulted about the velodrome at every step of the design and construction. To give one well-reported instance, there had been modifications to the design of the entrances to the velodrome to keep the ambient air temperature inside the building as warm as possible to facilitate quick times. Chris Hoy purred when the velodrome was presented to the public.

I first started using Eastway Cycle Circuit before the M11 link road was built. I rode from Hackney. At that time, Eastway, the road that I used to access the cycle circuit, was pretty busy, and the right turn across 3 lanes of traffic was… well, it was a right turn across 3 lanes of fast moving traffic, albeit at a signalled junction. Not something to look forward to, but not something I couldn't handle, what with being able to ride reasonably quick and also a 'professional' road-user.

Since then, the link road has been built, which has added a motorway intersection into the mix. This ramped up the speeds, and made the westbound turn off Eastway towards Hackney even more fun than it had been before. The Olympic Park has added an extra dimension of confusion to the road layout, which undoubtedly contributed to the death of Dan Harris. If I, an experienced cyclist who has been riding in London since the age of 2, gets confused by the road layout around the Velopark (or whatever it is called), what must it be like for less experienced cyclists?

I don't use the A13 for anything really, so I can't really comment on how dangerous, relatively, the Eastway / A12 (M) / Olympic Park / Westfield interchange is compared to the notorious Barking interchange, or what the KSI numbers are. But I will say that it was pretty inappropriate for cycling before the M11 was built, and has only got worse and worse since. It has always been a road that I rode along as quickly as possible to minimise my exposure to the conditions.

I asked British Cycling if they had any input at all into the roads around the Velopark. This is their reply:

As far as I know, we didn't have any input into the route but we have heard the criticisms. My colleague in the Campaigns team has suggested that you contact the London Cycling Campaign on this. Hope this is helpful.

In other words, they didn't raise the issue of whether people would cycle to the Velodrome, and how safe it might be for them to do that. This doesn't surprise me, as I have always found cycle sport to be a pastime for people with cars.

I don't want to labour the point, but BC is trying to get more kids into cycling. The Velopark is virtually in Hackney. Hackney has very, very low rates of car ownership. It therefore follows that Hackney kids, if they aren't going to get the bus or walk, aren't going to get driven, so are likely to cycle to the Velopark. Honestly, I wouldn't want anyone's kids to have to negotiate the roads around the Velopark.

At the Hackney Cycling Conference Andrew Gilligan said, in reference to the Mayor's (and TfL's) support of sporting cycling events, something like: I view the relationship of events like the Tour de France to everyday cycling as similar to the relationship of the Bluebell Railway to Eurostar. (Apologies to Mr Gilligan if I have mangled his metaphor). British Cycling's flagship facility in London is the Velopark. As it is, the Velopark could not be more isolated from the attempts of other interested parties (councils, TfL, the Mayor's Office, London Cycling Campaign etc etc) to build mass cycling in London. The Velopark is therefore the perfect illustration of the truth of Mr Gilligan's aphorism.

If British Cycling wants a suggestion from a former member, former user of Eastway, London cyclist, I would shut up about 'cycle-proofing', get a grip on your athletes and stop them from blurting out nonsense, and do something to sort out safe routes for cyclists around the Velopark.

 

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As I mentioned in a post on Moving Target, Nelson Vails made me proud to be a bicycle courier (or messenger, if you prefer). Even though I was never even as quarter as good of a bike rider as Nelson, he was what I aspired to be, he was an inspiration. He was part of the mystique of the NYC bicycle messenger scene, along with the comic Messenger 29, and the Independent Courier Association, which beat the evil Mayor Koch and his 1987 mid-town bike ban.

If you don't know, Nelson Vails was a New Yorker who could ride a bike really fast. Really, really fast. He rode the Trexlertown track, winning races, and worked as a bicycle messenger. In 1984 he won the silver medal in the Olympic Match Sprint. He went to be a keirin racer in Japan. (If you don't know what keirin racing is, it's similar to greyhound racing, in that it's a series of circuit races staged for the express purpose of gambling. For more information, see the excellent primer at Keirin, Berlin).

So it was with some delight that I read earlier on today that someone is making a documentary about Nelson Vails. But it's not fully funded yet. The film-makers are asking for $25000 in additional funding. Never mind watching the DVD of Monstertrack XVII or Line of Sight, why not pony up $5 to help get what should be a spine-tingling film onto the screen. For $25, you get a limited edition signed photo of Nelson Vails himself. That is a real piece of authentic New York City bicycle messenger history.

 

Beanbag photo shoot from Moving Target, 1989

Rob Penn writing in the Observer magazine today about the development of cycle fashion – rearranging the words 1980s Rapha Vulpine lycra lurid MAMIL stylish successful – has the following line: 'the “heroin-chic” cycle messenger sub-culture in the late 80s'.

Not really sure what he means. I thought heroin-chic was invented in 1990s, and that the 1980s was the era of power-dressing and busty super-models. Bicycle couriers or cycle messsengers are generally pretty skinny, although not always. Maybe I'm over-thinking this.

Perhaps he was an assiduous reader of Moving Target back then, and he is referring to occasional fashion shoots that Charlie Bayliss like to put in? Anyway, no further prompting needed – here's a Beanbag shoot from a 1989 issue of Moving Target. Ah, Beanbag.

A more innocent age, dear reader – before anyone had conceived of fakengers, hipsters, before most people had heard of fixies. The usual cliché is 'halcyon days', isn't it?

 

Nhatt is a big miss, in lots of ways.  Emily Chappell draws around the hole that she is leaving.

I’d heard of Nhatt long before I actually met her. Back in the summer of 2008, when I was procrastinating my MA thesis and wishing I was a cycle courier, I listened to her effervescent contribution to BBC Radio 4’s City Messengers, where she managed to distil her job’s peculiar mix of romance, suffering and humour, and started daydreaming even more frantically. A couple of months later I was on the road myself.

It still took me a long time to run into Nhatt in person, and by then I’d built up a formidable picture of her as the de facto princess of the courier scene, organizer of highly creative alleycats, up-and-coming cartoonist, contributor of witty articles to Moving Target, sought-after bike mechanic, and subject of the admiration and adulation of countless couriers, wannabes and civilians. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to meet her. She seemed a little intimidating.

Nevertheless, whenever I spotted a female courier, I wondered whether it might be her. Finally, after several months, I passed an unusually pretty girl on a cargo bike on Goodge Street, and she gave me a massive grin and said hello, and that was Nhatt, and that was that. She was nothing like the standoffish and superior queen bee I’d imagined.

Quite a nice piece about a London bicycle courier (or messenger, if you prefer) avoiding the normal sensationalisation and clichés on BBC news – if you ignore the use of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic’.  Couple of quibbles: 80 – 100 miles a day? Back in the day, maybe some of the Metro riders were clocking this up, but not many.  Average mileage was/is more typically something around the 100k or less, i.e. 60 miles.  This number is not scientific, but is taken from my own measured mileage over a period of months, and compared with other riders measured mileages.  I doubt that the BBC’s numbers are more accurate.

Earnings are quoted at £200 – £600.  Again these are old numbers.  I don’t know where the BBC got them from.  As I said in this post on Moving Target in 2009 (since when earnings have gone down):

The only systematic survey of London bicycle messenger earnings was conducted by Ben Fincham in 2003, and published in the Sociological Review in 2006. The average earnings were given as £65/day, which is £325/week. I was on the road in the early 90s on one of the biggest circuits, Security Despatch, and I can tell you that it was rare that anyone made more than £500/week. Of course, there were a few guys doing a bit more than that at other companies, but there is no way that we ‘expected’ to make £1000. The best single day’s earnings at SD was around £125 in 1993.

Lower down in the article, the chief exec of City Sprint is quoted as saying that they charge £2 for WC1 – EC2. It’s not clear if that is what the rider gets paid, or whether that is what they charge the client. If it’s the latter, then I guess the rider might be taking £1.50 on the docket (which would be generous), which would mean 266 dockets a week to make £400, which hardly seems likely.

Anyway, whichever way you do the numbers, I would be very surprised if most guys in London were making, on average, more than £250/week at the moment. Which is around minimum wage BEFORE paying for equipment.

I reckon a more representative number would be £50 – £500, with the £500 being very much the outlier. £50 is probably more common, as there is a high turnover of novices who try it for a week or two, see what they are making and quit, to be replaced by more novices.

Another inaccuracy is the statement: because of the obvious risks couriers find it impossible to get life insurance.  This is not true.  The Combined Insurance Companies of America have been insuring couriers against injury, illness and death for at least 20 years.  The policies aren’t cheap, but they do exist.