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moving target

First of all I want to quote some words of Paul Churchill aka ‘Winston’ that I published on Moving Target 14 years ago

You’re riding casually along Oxford Street when one of those idiot parents decides to use their child in a pushchair as a “traffic tester”. There’s an impact, you feel terrible, it’s not your fault and the policeman spots you’ve got no brakes…. Think about the consequences….

I think it was maybe around 2002 that the brakeless thing started to become really fashionable amongst London’s bicycle couriers. Couriers had ridden fixed-wheels in London since bicycle courier year dot (1983 or thereabouts).

Fixed-wheel bicycles remained popular in the UK long after the invention of the free-wheel and variable gears between the wars. I remember John Humphries asking me if people still rode fixed-wheels as he used to in the 50s. But by the 80s, fixies were rare, and if you rode fixed, most people thought you were wierd, and you would get accosted by old men who would reminisce about their own fixed-wheels of yore.

By the 90s, lots of couriers were riding fixed. It is fair to say that we helped to popularise fixed-wheels. But we all, without exception, rode with a front-brake on the road.

The first time I ever saw a no-brake fixie was at the first Cycle Messenger Championships, held in Berlin, 1993. I was one of 5 or 6 guys riding fixed out of the several hundred attendees, and two of the others fixie riders, Eric & Steve both from Washington D.C., were riding no-brakes. I thought it was dangerous and stupid, but I was too polite to say so. They told me that a lot of messengers working in cities in the eastern part of the U.S., rode fixies, and some portion of those rode no brakes

Later on in the 90s some guys from Philly came over & worked in London with their fixies, and the riders at the company that they worked at, Creative Couriers, insisted that they put brakes on their bikes. I mention this to illustrate the point that at that time, not only were all fixie riders riding braked, but they considered that it was the right thing to do. It is also important to point out that at no point have fixie riders, front brakes or not, been in a majority amongst London’s couriers. There were times when almost no-one rode fixed, and other times when quite a few rode fixed, but never time when most rode fixed.

It was only after 2000 that this attitude towards front brakes on fixies changed. I cannot identify the exact cause, but there is no doubt that peer pressure and a desire to be like the coolest kids on the street were a major factor. A lot of European couriers had started to ride no-brake fixies, and when London hosted the 2003 European Cycle Messenger Championships, I am sure that a number of London couriers were influenced by hanging out with their European comrades.

And there is no doubt that couriers, in the same way as they had popularised fixies, also made it fashionable to ride fixed no brakes.

By the time that I published the article that I quoted above, a lot, but by no means a majority of London couriers were riding no brakes. I have no comment to make about what other courier companies were doing, but at the company for which I was by then a controller, we made it clear to our riders that we would not let them work unless their bike was road legal, i.e. had a front brake, and we checked their bikes. Some of the guys & girls were pretty resistant to our instructions.

Tofu, who I knew quite well, and was a good friend, was a loud no-brake advocate. He was an excellent courier and a really, really good urban bike rider (it’s not necessary to be a good urban bike rider to be a good courier, and not all good urban bike riders are good couriers – the skill-set is completely different), so arguments about not being safe and so forth weren’t effective, not least because I did not believe the arguments myself. He had been riding no brakes for years, and was unlikely to get himself into trouble on the road without a brake. So our only recourse was to say that he had to do it because we said so, and send him home when he did not have a front brake.

The day after we had sent him home, he called to say he was on the way in. I asked him if he had a front brake, and he said yes. A little later in the day, one of my co-workers told me that he had seen Tofu, and his bike did not have a front brake. Furious, I called him and started berating him for having lied to me. He said, “but you didn’t ask me if the brake was on my bike, you asked me if I had a front brake – I have – it’s in my bag” – I retell this story to illustrate how strongly people felt about it.

I felt equally strongly that it was stupid and wrong, but I was so sick of the constant rows about it, that I had someone, a very experienced and well-known courier, who had participated in proper bike races, including many seasons on the velodrome riding track bikes, and had in fact organised well-attended races for couriers on the velodrome, to write the piece which I published on Moving Target. Paul pretty much said everything I would have said, and I disagree with nothing at all that he wrote.

I write all of this to illustrate not only did I do everything that I could to discourage people from riding no-brakes fixed on the road, I even foresaw not this exact incident, but something very like it. Of course, I did not foresee the extent of the media coverage (it made national news, and not just for a day, either), but I was worried about the potential for such a case to cause big trouble for the cycling community. So I can say, I told you so, I told you this (or something very like it) would happen.

And for all those of you in the courier community saying Charlie Alliston is nothing to do with us, well, no, you are wrong, our community helped create the social conditions in which Charlie Alliston thought it was ok to ride around London without a front brake. By the way, I do not believe that Charlie Alliston did not know that his bike was not road legal. He bought the thing off the LFGSS forum, so he must have come across posts about the legality or otherwise of not having a front brake on the road.

An old friend (also an exenger) called John Mack and many, many others have sought to defuse the media furore by pointing to other fatal crashes and the lack of reaction to them. This is plain wrong. Tu quoque (sometimes called ‘whataboutery’ or more simply ‘but these other people did something worse at some other time’) is no defence at any time in any place. Seeking to excuse one crime by pointing at others is wrong-headed.

This whole thing is incredibly painful and upsetting, not least because someone has died in an unnecessary crash, which we would not know be talking about if Charlie Alliston’s bike had had a front brake fitted. Why did he not have a front brake? Probably because he thought it was cool not to. Why did he think it was cool? Yeah, right.

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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.

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.

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.

It is a measure of how far we have come that there is a cross party Parliamentary inquiry starting today called ‘Get Britain Cycling’. Even though cycling is still very much the choice of everyday transport of a very small minority, this is a significant improvement from when I first started working as a bicycle messenger in the 80s, when only a vanishingly small minority, a barely noticed few, cycled regularly.  It is no exaggeration to say that I knew everyone that cycled in north and east London by sight.

Cycling, and the concerns of cyclists, is taken much more seriously by everyone, whereas 20 years ago, we were barely even noticed.  Another measure of this is the list of cyclists killed in 2012, published on the Times Cycle Safe campaign page.  Up until relatively recently, the death of a cyclist was not covered by the mainstream media at all, ever.  For instance, the death of Edward Newstead, killed by a left-turning lorry on Oxford Street in 1992, received no attention, despite a press release from the LCC, and a large memorial ride organised by London bicycle messengers

When I started the Moving Target blog in 2005, it was still the case that the majority of cyclists killed passed without comment or even much notice in the media.  This is why I used to receive emails & texts about fatal collisions from witnesses or friends, because it was known that I would publish details, and give some context, particularly if the collision involved a lorry (aka HGV).  Now, if a cyclist is killed, it is reported at the very least in the local media, and often in the national media, as in the case of Dan Harris, killed by a bus near the Olympic Park in the summer.

This is not to suggest that people don’t talk a lot of bollocks about cycling.  I’m thinking of the Times, and its assertion that sensible shoes were important for safe cycling, or the constant chirrupping about whether cyclists should be using MP3 players, or the revolting ‘under the line’ comments that always get posted on media web-sites after the death of a cyclist is reported, sometimes by other cyclists.

Cycling is big news, and big politics, at least in London.  However, even though, depending on how it has been measured, and who measured it, cycling has increased by a factor 2, 3, 4 or 5, we are still only talking about an increase from the barely statistically significant (around 0.5% of all journeys in London in the late 80s) to solidly statistically significant, but cycling rates are still in single figures as a total of all journeys.  So even though there are a lot more people cycling than there were 20 years ago, cycling is still not the choice of the overwhelming majority of the population.

How to get Britain cycling? Well, I wouldn’t start from such a low base, given the choice.  One thing that isn’t often mentioned when we are advised that we need to ‘go Dutch’ or ‘Copenhagenise’, is that both these cities had cycling rates well above of where London is now, probably around 10% of all trips at the time when national & local policy was changed to emphasis and encourage cycling.

To be honest, I get a little fed up with the constant harping on about Copenhagen or Amsterdam.  Both of these cities are much, much smaller than London, and I’m not convinced that you can scale up effectively.  The demographics of Copenhagen in the 60s & 70s, when the push towards cycling started to happen are significantly different to London now.  The topography, geography and distances are different.  Integrated transport, e.g. allowing bikes to be carried on trains, is non-existent in peak times, and, in the case of the train compaines, not likely to change anytime soon.

Whilst there many technical solutions that can be adopted from elsewhere, I am not sure that a simple ‘Go Dutch’ approach is enough.  We need to be looking around for examples from urban areas that more closely match London, where cycling rates are significantly above the current national (or London) rate, but still in a large metropolis.  Fortunately, such a place does exist, and it is in a large metropolis, and hey, they even speak English.  Readers, that place is Hackney, where cycling rates are at around 10%.

If the committee is looking for evidence of how to successfully increase cycling to a significant minority from a statistically insignificant number of journeys, then it could do worse than call for Hackney Cyclists and the London Borough of Hackney.