Wednesday, 2 May 2012

How should cyclists pedal the electoral cycle?

There is a short stretch on one of my regular cycle routes – from central London down to the Canary Wharf financial district – that always reminds me of Boris Johnson, London’s mayor. I found myself riding there one morning three years ago with the mayor, who’s up for re-election this Thursday. He had spotted me overtaking him on my bike as we both cycled away from Canary Wharf after an early morning press event. Having become snarled in unpleasant, heavy traffic on the way to Canary Wharf, he asked if I knew a better route back. Given both human sympathy and the opportunity to bore my city’s leader with my views on his cycling policies, I naturally agreed.

Canary Wharf: start of my historic bike ride
But, as we cycled through Limehouse near the Rotherhithe Tunnel entrance, the mayor became agitated. The route I was following – part of the London Cycle Network initiated under Ken Livingstone, his predecessor - started to bend round to face back towards Canary Wharf. “We’re doubling back on ourselves!” the mayor exclaimed. Sure enough, when the route we were following was subsequently revamped as part of the mayor’s Cycle Superhighways programme, the brief double-back was eliminated, to be replaced with an awkward contraflow cycle path down the wrong side of a one-way street. I always wonder whether our ride produced it.

The incumbent London mayor’s very public identification as a cyclist has become one of the focuses of this year’s mayoral election campaign. The mayor has claimed to be championing cycling both with the introduction of “Cycle Superhighways” sweeping along some of London’s busiest roads and of an on-street cycle hire scheme based on Paris’s Velib. A growing cycling lobby has suggested that, despite his regular perch on a saddle, the mayor has done nothing like enough to produce the cycling revolution he claims to be instigating.

But Ken Livingtone, who’s standing again and is likely to be the mayor’s closest opponent, sometimes seems to feel positively hostile towards cyclists, even if his administration benefitted those of us on two wheels. I’ve recounted in a previous post how I once asked him, while mayor, what he would do to combat anti-cylist hostility. I told him how, a few days before, I’d had a young man aim a punch at me while cycling, in the hope of making  me fall off. “I’ve often felt like punching a journalist myself,” he droned back. He went on to recount the obviously sad but clearly unrepresentative of a young man in Brent who had seriously hurt an old woman while cycling.

The question consequently is whether a cycling London voter should vote for either of the two unpalatable leading candidates or veer off to support one of the myriad of other candidates available. There are options ranging the whole way from fascism (the BNP) and Euroscepticism (the UK Independence Party) to Jenny Jones’s Greens.

The question raises issues that go well beyond London’s narrow confines. Should cyclists decide their voting preferences based purely on candidates’ policies towards cycling? If they should, which policies are most worthy of support?

London cyclists gather for the Big Ride: aspirational figures
They were all questions I pondered last Saturday as I fixed the Invisible Visible Boy’s Burley Piccolo trailer bike onto my Surly Long Haul Trucker and headed into central London for a rare piece of cycling activism. In steady, cold rain, around 10,000 people (according to the organisers) or 5,000 people (according to the police) arrived by bike on Park Lane in central London to press the mayoral candidates to act on the principles of the London Cycle Campaign’s Love London, Go Dutch campaign for safer cycling conditions. I’m sceptical on many levels about the precise details of LCC’s campaign. I don’t think segregated lanes are the only realistic option for cyclists and I’m far from sure it’s sensible to hold up another, very different country as a model.

Nevertheless, the Invisible Visible Boy, four, and myself were keen to show there are large numbers of cyclists in London who want cycling to become a safer and more consistently pleasant experience. It did no harm that we got the chance to cycle down some normally forbiddingly busy central London streets unmolested by cars.

Yet the event swarmed with political activists who thought cyclists would be easy recruits to their wider causes. The Green Party was very clearly in evidence, suggesting their candidates were the only true friends of cycling. I even, depressingly, saw a high-vi vest advertising the Morning Star, “Daily Paper of the Left”. I prayed a silent prayer that cycling wasn’t as doomed as the Morning Star’s Communism. It’s just a blessing the event was too bourgeois for the Socialist Worker contingent customary around any progressive London protest – albeit their placards might have been entertaining. “Ped and bike, unite and fight!” might have been a suitable adaptation of their traditional, “Black and white – unite and fight!” slogan.

Other groups, meanwhile, prodded us towards identity politics. Londoners on Bikes distributed copious numbers of leaflets demanding we vote with our bikes. The Invisible Visible Girl, 10, expressed particular bemusement about how that might be accomplished.

The choices seemed clear. Cyclists were either political animals who just happened to arrive at the leftish party meetings on two wheels. Or we were apolitical animals picking and choosing candidates according to the number of bike hire stations they’d put in or the speed they’d let cars drive.

Open platform danger: the new bus
Yet it doesn’t take too much probing before the “Vote With Your Bike” thinking crumbles. How far, for example, does one regard cycling policy as stretching? Most cyclists would probably like to see more deliberately dangerous motorists losing their licences or going to jail. But what about policy on buses? One of Boris Johnson’s flagship transport policies has been to reintroduce buses with open rear platforms – a clear invitation for passengers to jump out into traffic without looking round for bikes. Is that a fit subject for a cyclist to consider when voting? The last decade’s big jump in cycling really started, meanwhile, with Ken Livingstone’s introduction of the Central London Congestion charge, which discouraged motor vehicles from coming into the city centre. Can we consider that? If so, can cyclists also take into account that Boris Johnson removed congestion charging from western central London, significantly worsening conditions there?

There are even subjects outside transport policy. One of the more sobering bike rides I’ve undertaken in the past year was a ride home from central London in the early evening of August 8 last year, the worst night of the rioting that erupted all over the city as a result of a whole range of issues, ranging from anger at the police’s behaviour to straightforward greed. Antipathy towards rioters might lead one to support Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat candidate, an ex-policeman who has campaigned as a crime-fighter. Is someone voting with their bike allowed to consider how a candidate’s propensity or otherwise to incite riots might affect cycling conditions? And are we allowed to consider how most fellow policemen probably regarded Commander Paddick a dangerous liberal for his tolerance of soft drugs in his area? Are we allowed to consider how Ken Livingstone’s sympathetic statements about some islamist radicals might relate to the threat of terrorism?

These Big Riders' children can grow up eccentric - but not dumb
The truth, of course, is that nearly all cyclists, save a fanatical few, rightly vote on a far broader range of issues than a narrow “vote bike” position. The mostly middle-class parents present at the Big Ride didn’t, for example, seem to want their children to grow up stupid thanks to lacklustre education. Nor are many of them likely to have felt comfortable either with a mayor – like Ken Livingstone – who sounds increasingly cranky or the foppish incumbent who describes the £250,000 he earns annually for his newspaper column as “chickenfeed”. There ought surely to be space for someone like me who can marvel at the free market’s ability to deliver marvellous bicycle products but still feel lefty bleeding-heart concern over nearly everything.

Very few of us cycle as part of an overall, hard-left political position. Many cyclists may be woolly liberal muesli-munchers. But we can surely comfort ourselves that we’re not single-mindedly obssessed woolly-minded liberal muesli-munchers.

The Invisible Visible Man Votes - with clothespeg
Which brings us to how I actually cast my postal vote (since I’m currently in Leipzig and can’t vote in person). Ken Livingstone’s bold introduction of the congestion charge, his willingness to listen to advice and his eagerness to switch priorities away from smoothing traffic flow to people and cyclists all certainly recommended him. But the former mayor’s persistent bitterness and embrace of Hugo Chavez, some Islamists and other darlings of the radical left drove me away from endorsing him even with a clothespeg on my nose (the tactic that allowed me to support him in 2008).

Instead, I held my nose at the more nutty elements of Green Party policy and gave my first preference to Jenny Jones, with Ken Livingstone second. I was swayed by her apparent personal decency – and her willingness to pledge a crackdown on lawbreaking motorists.

That leaves only the question of the fate of my partner in the Historic Bike Ride from Canary Wharf, Boris Johnson. Ever since my ride with him, I have been struck by how the mayor appears to be a cyclist but not of us. He rides a bike but can’t work out why many people dislike Cycle Superhighways that aren’t really for bikes, aren’t super and aren’t highways. His experience of cycling hasn’t taught him that it’s dangerous to have people jump off an open-backed bus in front of one - or that “smoothing traffic flow” might lead to high levels of dangerously fast, frightening traffic. My sense was confirmed on Monday, when the mayor lost his temper at hustings specifically to discuss cycling. He declared, "I may not conform to your stereotypical image of a cyclist. I do not have whippet-thin brown legs or dreadlocks or jump red lights."

The incident reminded me of part of our ride back from Canary Wharf. At a red light on Cable Street, the mayor sailed through, while I stopped. Not knowing where to go, he stopped further up the street, peering back to look for me. I was sitting by the junction, pointing piously up at the red light.

The mayor may, when the votes are counted on Friday evening, have cause to look similarly ruefully back on his campaign - and wonder where all those stereotypical cyclists’ votes have gone.

15 comments:

  1. I even, depressingly saw a high-vi vest advertising the Morning Star, “Daily Paper of the Left"...

    What on earth is depressing about that? You see ads for the Daily Mail and the Murdoch filth all over the place!

    As for Hugo Chavez, what have you got against him? He wins elections certified as free and fair by the EU, the OAS and the Carter Center. He's very popular with the ordinary Venezuelan because he has done a lot to reduce poverty and deliver a national health service, as well as encouraging people to get involved in their communities. Ken's oil swap with Venezuela was good for London (those on benefits got half price bus travel), and good for Caracas (they got expert consultancy advice from London City Hall).

    London cyclist

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    1. I used to live in Hungary, a country ruined by decades under the Communism that the Morning Star has consistently espoused. While leaning towards the left, I detest intolerant extremism of both ends of the political spectrum. When I lived in Hungary, I was costantly at loggerheads with the then right-wing Fidesz government under Viktor Orban. I'd place Chavez in the same kind of camp at the other end of the political spectrum - democratically elected yet intolerant of the good faith of those who disagree with him. The deal with Chavez under Livingstone was preposterous. He supplied oil to fuel London's buses - even though TfL owns virtually none of the buses. It was as good an example as any of the foolishness of Livingstone's previous time in office.

      I thoroughly dislike the Daily Mail and it has fascistic tendencies. However, the Murdoch papers, while I don't like them, aren't advocating ideologies that have failed on anything like the scale of Communism.

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    2. Incidentally, didn't you find something even a little bit creepy about Chavez's decision to spend millions of dollars on subsidising bus fares in wealthy London while millions of Venezuelans remain in poverty? It never made much moral sense to me.

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    3. Venezuela's problem is not lack of cash, but lack of city infrastructure and modern planning. Caracas got consultancy from London, and we got cheap oil, all of which went on halving bus fares for London's poorest residents. London may indeed be fabulously wealthy, but if you can't afford a bus ticket and have no access to any of that wealth, then so what? Chavez and Ken worked together, and as a result hundreds of thousands of poor Londoners benefited in a very moral and practical way.

      London cyclist

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    4. On Hungary: Never visited, but the people who live there seem to disagree with you:

      http://21stcenturysocialism.com/article/most_hungarians_feel_life_was_better_under_communism_01674.html

      London cyclist

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    5. The point is that cyclists need all the allies they can get, whether that's Murdoch's Times or the trade union sponsored Morning Star. In fact, TUs have been great advocates of cycle friendly workplaces, and the Star has been very supportive.

      You also may not be aware that cycling clubs "have their roots in the growth of socialism at the beginning of the last century":

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/bike-blog/2011/sep/20/cycling-clubs

      The most famous were the Clarion Cycling Clubs:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Clarion_Cycling_Club

      Here's an obituary of one of their champion cyclists:

      http://ourhistory-hayes.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/johnny-ralph-socialist-champion-cyclist.html

      The bottom line is that EVERY cyclist should be made to feel welcome at a mass cycle ride, not ridiculed or dismissed because they read a different paper to you. I'm sure if you met me in person, rather than relying on lazy stereotypes, you would be enthused, not "depressed"!

      London cyclist

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    6. At a red light on Cable Street, the mayor sailed through, while I stopped.

      Hopefully you had a few moments to recall how the East End, led by Jewish communists, showed a red light to Mosley and his blackshirts in the famous Battle of Cable Street:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AQDOjQGZuA

      London cyclist

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  2. I wouldn't vote for any of the candidates in your post or the comments. None of them are REGULAR Americans. Though Hugo is at least in the right Hemisphere. Technically, so are you Limeys west of Greenwich, but let's not get too technical here. Everybody knows the best govt is run either by the IVM or myself, on an alternating basis so we both get lots of saddle time. ;-)

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  3. This might help...

    What do the candidates have to say on cycling?
    http://www.londonersonbikes.org.uk/candidates

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  4. I thought the Met eventually confirmed 10,000 at the Big Ride. Great article though.

    I wish someone would write blogs or newspaper articles on cycling outside of London though. I just cast my vote in local elections. It took several hours of emailing and visits from both candidates with a chance of winning here to see through the leaflets and understand true positions.

    In my area, the Lib Dem candidate is more focused on community safety, cycle paths and traffic management. Like Boris, the Conservative guy is into maintaining smooth traffic flow and only has pie-in-the-sky words about a bypass in relation to a local road that he accepts is "dangerous for cycling".

    I hope that helps someone in England still undecided about their preferred councillor candidate - if you are otherwise undecided between Conservative or LibDem then cycling/road safety issues should steer your X into the LibDem box.

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  5. Whatever you do - DON'T vote Green
    Their election material contained deliberate lies, and they are insane enough to want to abolish The Corporation.

    Be careful with the Lem-o-Crats, too.
    I have voted for Caroline Pidgeon as "London-Wide", but their local candisates (in my area) are religious entryists in the mould of Derek Hatton.
    Not nice.
    Pity that one has to vote Boris, just to keep Ken out, as I actually think Paddick would make a better, indeed a very good, mayor.

    Meantime, what I want to know is why everyone is rolling over and playing dead to the fascists of LOCOG/IOC and banning use of really good cycleways in East London (specifically the Lea Canal)

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    1. Well, G. Tingey, as you'll have gathered from the post, I tend to think one has to vote for candidates who'll keep Boris out. I don't think his administration has been at all good for London. The whole affair has been pretty dispiriting, I feel.

      But do feel free to explain to Anonymous up above why Communism didn't work and Hugo Chavez is not necessarily the saintly figure he imagines.

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    2. You said it - "saintly"
      Communism is a classic religion.
      Down to persecuting all the other religions, having sects, heresies and internecine wars, and (of course) killing millions of innocent victims, PLUS haveing "infallible" holy books & prophecies that are proven WRONG - but it does not stop their brainwashed believers from carrying on - just like the RC church, in fact - oops!

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  6. im quite sure you wouldnt pass the bus on the left, anyway..

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    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for your comment. I'm not quite sure I get what you're saying but I think it might be a dig that it's the cyclist's fault if he/she gets hit by a passenger jumping off the new routemaster because he/she shouldn't be passing inside the bus.

      Clearly one shouldn't squeeze inside on the kerb side of vehicles. It's dangerous and rude. But there are circumstances - where, say, there's a cycle lane taking one to an advance stop area or a bus is turning right and one's in a left-turning or straight ahead lane - where one finds oneself entirely legitimately inside a bus. With open platform buses in those circumstances, it's sadly common to see passengers jumping off the rear platform and making a break for the pavement thinking that the traffic (ie the motor vehicles) is stopped, while the bikes are still moving.

      Such accidents used to cause a fair number of deaths and injuries when Routemasters were in widespread use. Look out, I fear, for their return.

      Invisible.

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