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moving target

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.

I finally, reluctantly watched ‘War on Britain’s Roads’, which is a documentary recently aired on BBC 1.  I had heard about the documentary some months ago, having been contacted by a researcher acting for the makers.  He told me that they were making a film about the conflict on Britain’s roads, and the role that video footage was playing in it, and were interviewing protaganists in some of the more notorious incidents.

I realised before he went on what was coming next.  No, I wasn’t willing to help the film-makers identify the riders in ‘London Calling’, Lucas Brunelle’s now notorious film.  Not in a million years.  The researcher tried to persuade me that the footage and interviews would be a valuable contribution to a balanced view of the problems on Britain’s roads.  I snorted.

When he told me that Cynthia Barlow was participating, my heart sunk, and I told him that I would die of shame if ‘London Calling’ was shown as part of a programme featuring Cynthia.  Well, despite my best efforts, the footage was shown, and although I haven’t died, I do feel absolutely mortified.

I have been proud of the messenger community for its part in helping, in some small way, to repopularise cycling, by showing that it is a practical, economical alternative to motor transport.  I also like to think that bicycle messengers have had some impact in other, less tangible ways on cycle culture.  I was also proud of having helped to highlight the danger of lorries, when I was chair of the London Bicycle Messenger Association.

Now I feel sick that our actions in ‘London Calling’ have been used to undermine the cycling community, and the work of good people like Cynthia Barlow on national television.

And the worst part is that I knew this day was coming.  I feared it, and did as much as I could to prevent it.  I made it pretty clear in this post ‘The Revolutions Will Not Be Televised’ why I thought it was a really bad idea to allow any film-maker near an alleycat.

But once Lucas posted ‘London Calling’ on You Tube, it was only a matter of time before it was picked up by someone, somewhere.

There’s been a lot of talk about the footage, which features some pretty stupid riding by some people I know really well.  The race that features in it was called ‘Lost In The Crowd’, and Walshy, who organised, wrote a report of how the race came to be on Moving Target.  If you read the report, you will notice two things: first, Lucas put up £300 cash prizes; second, he had a very clear idea of what footage he wanted from the race.

In his report, Walshy says:

Brendt Barbur called me a few days later and explained that his friend Lucas Brunelle had a few guidelines for the race. A basic set of criteria was established in the hope of maximising the transfer of excitement, and dare I say danger, from real life onto the big screen.

further on he also says:

We selected lots of short checkpoints so that there would only be one ideal route between them and maybe 1 or 2 alternatives. We were hoping that the riders would bunch up for most of the race so that Lucas could tailgate large numbers kinda like the ‘Running of the Bulls’ where Lucas represents the bull and everyone else represents the heartless and inhumane crowd. Ideally, by the end of the race, every rider would have ridden exactly the same route and Lucas would have sat behind, and among, the main pack catching all the action.

In other words, the idea was to create a race with maximum chaos on the road, and that this was what Lucas was looking for.  To encourage the riders to go as fast as possible, and take as many risks as possible, Lucas also had put up £300 in cash prizes.  At the time, the first prize of £125 would be equivalent to nearly half a week’s wages for most couriers (average earnings have shrunk considerably, and this would now be more than half a week’s wages for most London cycle couriers).

Previously, I have deliberately avoided criticising Lucas Brunelle directly, because there seemed little point in starting a fight over something I couldn’t change.  It was pretty clear to me early on in his career as ‘film-maker’ that he seemed intent on building a reputation as a ‘bad-ass’ who could hang with the ‘craziest bike racers in the world’, and was unlikely to listen to anything I had to say, or read anything I might write.

I was confirmed in this view when I saw ‘Line of Sight’ (it’s on You Tube, and you can find it yourselves – I’m not going to link it) at the cinema.  After an interminable opening 10 minutes of ‘race footage’, the film cuts to a panaromic view of New York’s skyline, and then Lucas appears in the fore-ground (hence my ironic titling of him as the ‘the King of New York’), and then he gives an entirely fatuous monologue on alleycat racing, intercut with more race footage.  It’s notable that Lucas’ choice of sound-track for his movies is similar to the choice of Leopard Films for ‘War On Britain Roads’ – wailing guitars, thrashing drums and portentous, thumping bass.

Peter Walker, of the Guardian, tweeted last night that:

Blog doesn’t even point out the footage is six years old, or that cameraman is not ‘involved in race’ but professionally filming it

Peter, you don’t know the half of it.  Lucas is not a professional film-maker.  He runs, according to this Bicycle Magazine interview, an IT company.  This allows him to fund his hobby of going around the world to participate in, and film, alleycats.  I have no idea whether he manipulates all or any of the other races he films in the way that he manipulated ‘Lost In The Crowd’, by determining course routing, and putting up cash prizes to encourage increased participation.  By the way, in the Bicycling interview, Lucas is quoted thus: I love cars. Fuck bike advocacy.  There’s no way of telling whether Lucas is being serious, but it fits with the whole ‘fuck you, I’m not going to do what you tell me’ attitude.

In no way could his film-making be described as ‘professional’.  The double head-cam set-up is well-designed, the images are pretty high quality, but that’s the extent of his craft – that, and his ability to ride a bike as quickly as some of ‘craziest bike racers in the world’.  The films that he produces have little artistic merit, in my opinion.  Once you get beyond what’s happening on the screen, they are boring, and way, way too long.   The novelty of watching people make ill-advised manouevres wears off pretty quickly.  I always come away from the films thinking: what a bunch of idiots, and what a waste of my time.

I don’t want to get into a discussion of the wisdom or otherwise of alleycats here;  I put down my thoughts in a blog post on Moving Target, after the death of a participant in the Da Tour de Chicago.

However, I will say this:  many people (indeed some of the cyclists watching the ‘London Calling’ footage for the BBC programme) say that the riders shown in Lucas’ film are demonstrating ‘skill’.  I disagree.  There is no skill in cutting through a junction and hoping that the cars crossing your path, who have right of way, will stop for you – it’s just rude, stupid and dangerous.   Skilful riding in traffic is cutting through the flow without making waves, not barging to the front of queue, forcing other people to get out of your way.  As for the incidents involving pedestrians, really, truly shameful.  Criminal, as the police officer says in his comments in the programme.

Charlie Lloyd, on behalf of the London Cycling Campaign, put out a press release in which he described the racers as ‘professionals’.  Charlie was being very, very charitable.  A lot of the guys in that race were couriers, so their profession was using a bike to deliver parcels – they were not professional racers.  If they were that good at racing bikes, they would have gone on to win real races.

The numbers of professional road racers who were couriers is very small.  I only know of one of note, and that is the legendary New Yorker, Nelson Vails.  Maurice Burton was a London courier, but only after his racing career had ended.  Ray Eden, who was a London bicycle courier, and then went on to race, was probably good enough to race with the pros, and if he  had been part of the current British Cycling programme, I think he would have done.  These guys are the exception, not the rule.

I heard from other people that the film-makers had contacted, people that had been in the race.  They had all refused to participate.  The film-makers were persistent.  I know for a fact that a couple of were contacted multiple times, and one was offered £500 to participate.  I spoke to the guy who was offered the money, which was tempting to him, because, like Lucas’ £125 prize, it was a lot of money for someone in a low-paid, dangerous job.  I told him that it would only be worth doing if he received enough money to be able to leave the country and not come back.

I am proud that no-one participated.  However, I am genuinely ashamed that the London messenger community has, however inadvertently, brought shame on itself in this way.  I had nothing to do with the race, did not ride in it, but please accept my apology.

When I spoke to the film-makers, I explained the context, as I have outlined above, in which the film was made. They told me that Lucas had been contacted and had consented to let his footage be used.  This made me angry.  I suggested to the researcher that the person they should be putting in front of the camera was Lucas, so that he could explain why he organised that race, and what role his camera played.

He created the race, he encouraged the riders to go as fast they could, and he filmed it.  Why?

In the original version of this article I stated that the first prize was £300.  This was incorrect.  The total prize fund was £300, with the first prize being £125.