|Protesters against CS11 meet its supporters, in Swiss Cottage:|
a very British stand-off
But, however mild-mannered the two demonstrations at Swiss Cottage might have been, there has been no disguising in the past weeks that demonstrators like those opposing CS11 are growing increasingly vocal in many parts of the developed world. From Community Board meetings in Brooklyn to the pages of daily newspapers in the UK, there have been noisy complaints that newly-introduced or planned cycling facilities are a tyrannical imposition by unfeeling authorities out of touch with the feelings of ordinary people.
The UK’s Daily Mail two weeks ago produced the most eye-catching manifestation of the phenomenon, devoting a double-page spread to what it called “cycle lane lunacy,” which it said was “paralysing Britain”. However, there have been plenty of other examples. The Community Board that oversees planning issues in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and surrounding areas is preparing for a meeting where some locals are expected to vent their near-apoplexy over the Citibike bikeshare system’s arrival in their neighbourhood. Local councillors in Ayr, in the West of Scotland, have voted, under pressure from drivers, to remove the town’s only significant protected bike lane.
|A cyclist and motorists in Regent's Park: a powerful|
illustration of the arrangements the anti-CS11 campaigners
are fighting to preserve
Yet the cycling sceptics and supporters seem as incapable of meaningful communication as the two groups shouting at each other last Saturday morning. The motorists’ side complains that bike lanes often look empty. Cyclists argue that just shows cycling’s efficiency. Motorists complain that cyclists don’t pay “road tax,” as they do. Cyclists reply that vehicle excise duty in the UK has not been a hypothecated tax for many decades. Motorists complain that congestion is growing worse. Cyclists retort that the people complaining are themselves the traffic. My mind turned, as I rode home from Swiss Cottage, to whether there is some way to narrow this currently apparently unbridgeable divide.
A couple of incidents have highlighted to me the width of the communication gap. The first was on September 23 when, after I published in my day job a piece about the future of London’s roads, a former colleague wrote to me. He questioned whether it could possibly be true, as I had written in the piece, that some London roads with cycle superhighways were carrying more people per hour in rush hours than they were before the superhighways were put in place. He also asserted that cycling was, in fact, far more dangerous than people admitted and that, anyway, only the young and fit could do it.
|Morning rush-hour traffic on the north-south superhighway:|
no, there's no way this street's carried more people since the
segregated bike path went in
Then, two weeks ago, a fellow guest at a dinner party asked me how I’d found my just-finished four years in New York. Struggling to sum up the wealth of experience, I said that New York drivers weren’t terribly nice to cyclists. “But isn’t that how everyone feels?” he blurted out, before looking mortified as it dawned on him that I was, in fact, a cyclist.
The two incidents reminded me that cyclists, for most people, seem like a strange, alien species, taking unfathomable risks yet somehow eager to suck other, new people into participating in their strange mode of transport. The reminder was all the more stark because it was clear that neither of my interlocutors were people of ill will. They thought their frustration over growing cyclist numbers and efforts to facilitate cycling was simple common sense.
It is unsurprising to me that the many people who hold such views see dedicating road space that was previously mainly used by motor vehicles to cycling as a strange, ideologically extreme act. The Swiss Cottage demonstrators were portraying Transport for London’s determination to put in more facilities to encourage cycling as a bizarre, politically-driven effort to punish ordinary people. For many New Yorkers, the notion that a person might ride a bike to work is entirely crazy. That bikes to allow people to do so are now taking up what used to be their normal parking space must seem like a personal insult.
|Drivers in a traffic jam by an empty bit of superhighway:|
all, I'm sure, would be calmed to learn they're not paying
Yet the response from many cycling advocates could be calculated to heighten the irritation, rather than calming it. For example, cycling activists often retort when drivers complain that cyclists pay no “road tax” that the UK abolished its hypothecated road tax - whose proceeds all went to road building and maintenance - in 1937. While the point is accurate, It is also a prissy, know-it-all one. Like many such responses, it deliberately misses the thrust of what cycling’s critics are trying to say - in this case, that they feel their transport choices are heavily taxed and they cannot see why others should use the same space for free.
It would make far more sense to point out that, while motoring is indeed heavily taxed in the UK, the taxes still fall short of covering the full external costs of the pollution, congestion, crashes and other side-effects. The argument is still clearer in the United States, where no state’s taxes on motoring cover even the annual cost of road maintenance. A tax-paying cyclist is, consequently, both saving the neighbouring drivers money and, if he or she previously drove a car, reducing the burden on taxpayers.
Cycling campaigners end up deploying plenty of other similar “well, actually” arguments about the terms of the debate, rather than the substance. There was a striking example in the last week when Quentin Wilson, a campaigner to shift even more of the burden for motoring onto ordinary taxpayers, tweeted a picture of the most westerly current section of London’s east-west cycle superhighway, just off Parliament Square. “Great new cycle lane but where are the cyclists?” he wrote above a picture of the empty lane.
|A group of tourists refutes Quentin Wilson's contention this|
bike lane goes unused - but also my fellow cyclists' claim
it's not open
Many cycling advocates accused Wilson of bad faith, responding with pictures facing in the other direction, showing a barrier that marks the end of the superhighway. I saw several people tweet with an excited, “gotcha” tone that the lane wasn’t (actually) even open yet.
I’d far rather that activists had pointed out the facts about the section of cycle track in question - and addressed the underlying issue. The section is lightly used because it’s short and doesn’t yet link to any other part of the cycle network. While I’ve used it several times myself, I have also bypassed it sometimes as inconvenient. It would, in addition, be worthwhile pointing out that the superhighways are new, incomplete and that people’s travel patterns always take a while to change after changes to infrastructure.
The Wilson case was one of a worrying number where I’ve seen cycling advocates on Twitter and Facebook accusing opponents of something close to false consciousness. Many seem reluctant to accept, for example, that the new cycle superhighways are currently lightly used outside rush hours or that, yes, motor traffic congestion really is growing worse. Yet I ride frequently on the superhighways outside rush hours and encounter few other cyclists. Arguments that accepted these points, explained what was going on and explained why cycling facilities can help to resolve the problems would be far more compelling.
|A rider uses the Southwark Bridge bike lane, one of those|
singled out in the Daily Mail for paralysing Britain
Such echo chambers encourage their inhabitants to feel particularly enraged at my fellow journalists. One Facebook thread I saw recently discussed how users might punish a reporter who had, the thread’s originator claimed, lied through the heinous act of reporting on the anti-cycling views of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Yesterday, I saw two normally sensible Twitter users discussing how a well-regarded reporter who happens to write critically about cycling must be secretly in some sinister anti-cycling group’s pay. This afternoon, I’ve seen on Twitter a suggestion that an anti-cycling editorial in the Sunday Times might be a sign of a “concerted media campaign building”.
|Sure, this space in Vauxhall is being very|
well used: but how interesting is it to point
Nearly every reporter I know is driven by a desire to spot developing trends and to paint a picture of the world that will strike his or her readers as true and illuminating. Cycling campaigners should be far more concerned that large numbers of journalists are independently detecting a mood to dismantle or halt progress on cycling and far less concerned with finding a hidden force behind it.The truth, after all, is that progress on both sides of the Atlantic is fragile. There are strong reactionary movements in parts of Europe and North America.
|Slow progress in Hyde Park: tangible evidence of the|
fragile nature of recent gains
After my queries about a route for cyclists round the closure drew blank looks from park staff, I instead headed reluctantly out onto the streets of Kensington, one of London’s least cycle-friendly areas. As I did so, the driver of a large Range Rover edged threateningly close to me. When that failed to elicit whatever panicked response the driver was seeking, he leaned long and hard on the vehicle’s horn, issuing a depressing reminder of where real power on the UK’s roads currently lies.