Sunday, 20 May 2012

Why a cyclist must write London's answer to The Wire


It was as I prepared to turn into a side road near my house that I saw the young man tearing the other way on a mountain bike. His eyes were fixed ahead, his head was hunched over the handlebars and he was pedalling with an intensity that instantly struck me as strange. It was as if he was following Lance Armstrong’s famous advice to Floyd Landis on Stage 17 of the 2004 Tour de France: “Run like you stole something”.

Gentrified Fell's Point, Baltimore:
insulated from the ghetto.
This young man, however, had stolen something – or got involved in some other kind of trouble. As he swung round the corner, I noticed the first pursuing policeman, pedalling just as hard on his mountain bike. A second officer came up another road, also on his bike, radioing frantically for support. Before I could see precisely what had happened, they’d cornered him and started making the arrest.

The cycling police chase is one of many incidents I’ve encountered while cycling that I’ve filed mentally for my great writing project – a TV series telling contemporary London’s story as comprehensively as the epic series The Wire told Baltimore’s. I’m constantly straining as I ride around to pick up the little tell-tale snatches of dialogue that reveal the story of the Londoners around me. I recently added to the stash, for example, the remarks I heard one morning between builders outside our next door neighbours’ house.

"That's all she said to me,” one builder said to another. “She said, if I get arrested again and do jail time, my mum won't have anything more to do with me".

Guildford Road: neo-classical gems on one side,
brutalist social housing on the other - and
a cultural chasm down the middle
Yet one street - Guildford Road, in Stockwell - illustrates perhaps the key thing that makes London - and some other big European cities - different from Baltimore. On the western side of the road – where I sometimes cycle on my way to work – lie the plush houses, most of them worth £1m each, of Landsdowne Gardens. The Landsdowne Gardens estate, centred on a pretty circular garden square, is a celebrated jewel of Victorian neo-classical architecture. On the eastern side lie the brick and sharp angles of the Spurgeon Estate. The Spurgeon, built in the 1960s with undoubtedly good intentions, has become a bleak place, blighted by crime, where few people would freely choose to live.

Four years ago, someone stabbed a young Ghanaian man from the Spurgeon Estate on Guildford Road. Paramedics struggled – ultimately unsuccessfully – to save his life. News accounts quoted residents from the Landsdowne Gardens side who had looked at the scene across the street in horror. Their near-neighbour’s short life was slipping away from him just yards from them physically, but on the other side of a cultural chasm.

The Guildford Road phenomenon is the same one that brings me face-to-face with cycle-borne police chases hard by where I live my respectable, middle-class existence. Inner London has few ghettoes to match Paris’s banlieues or west Baltimore. Instead, we all live, rich and poor, black and white, all but on top of each other. We largely segregate ourselves by using different schools, going to different churches or using different forms of transport. But on the roads we interact with each other, at least a little bit. Cyclists – the only group travelling long distance but not shut off by the shell of a car, a bus or a train – do more of that interacting than most.

A cyclist on Colliers Wood High Street. It shares a postcode
with the all-England lawn tennis club - but this part of SW19
features Tamil curries, not strawberries and cream.
It’s certainly no conventional idyll of peaceful coexistence. There are some roads through rough estates that I no longer use late at night. I’ve had bottles, and some unidentified substance that left a nasty stain on a pannier bag, thrown at me. It wasn’t easy to see the funny side of having a line of aggressive youths, with appropriately mean-looking dogs, block the road, as happened one night on the square in Landsdowne Gardens. Some youths take joy in trying to knock an earnest, middle-class cyclist off his bike by running out into the road, pretending to throw something at him or using some other trick. When hatched, the scheme probably feels like a quick, easy victory over a member of the pompous liberal middle classes. Maybe it even feels like that afterwards.

Cycling plays a role in the lives of some of the rough estates I pass – but it can be very different from the one it plays on my street. One Sunday after stopping on our ride home from church to buy a newspaper, my wife and I watched a young man ride his mountain bike onto the pavement by some run-down social housing. A youngster was waiting on his BMX bike. A package changed hands and both pedalled off fast in different directions. We middle-class cycling activists so seldom play up how cycling can provide a healthy, green means of distributing illegal drugs.

I wonder, too, how many of the perpetual complaints about cyclists riding on the pavement are actually down to the resupply of roadside drug dealers. It’s certainly annoying to have to dodge pedalling drug couriers while browsing in Brixton town centre. But to imagine the pheonomenon says anything about the road-use standards of most cycling commuters is to confuse a social problem with a road-behaviour one. It would serve the complainers right if the resuppliers started doing the drop by car, clogging up the bus stops or mowing down pedestrians.

Mist shrouds south London seen from the City's
St Paul's Cathedral. But the world's leading financial
centre is only a short cycle ride from
some of Europe's worst urban deprivation.
The risk amid this undoubted tension is that one ends up thinking like the colleague I told about a particularly nasty confrontation late one Friday night in Clapham. “Was he black?” he asked me about the car driver who threatened me. He had been – but I said I didn’t think how people drove reflected their race. I don’t think it reflects their religion or social class or membership of any other group either. The incidents I’ve recounted here involved several different races. My colleague thought that Friday night run-in reflected the attitudes of a “certain type” of African-Carribean man. In Paris, no doubt similar theories circulate about north Africans. When I lived in Hungary, there was no shortage of lazy assumptions about gypsies.

It’s hardly incomprehensible. In a city where we know that our neighbours lead very different lives from ours, it’s tempting to jump to conclusions about the people we encounter. There is surely some human instinct when confronted with a potentially menacing driver or roadside group of teenage boys to gather as much information fast as possible. We end up fitting people into easy – and meaningless – categories.

Such stereotyping is hardly the kind of behaviour that cyclists appreciate when they’re on the receiving end. I’ve occasionally had drivers tell me when I’ve complained about their rule-breaking that, for example, they “see cyclists run red lights all the time”. Few seem to grasp that I have as little responsibility for other cyclists as the driver has for, say, other delivery van drivers, motorcyclists or white people.

It is, in other words, the perpetual struggle of life in a city to live beside groups that we may find alienating or strange and remember that each member is as much an individual and precisely as real as we ourselves are. It’s also the city’s joy. I remember my excitement on first coming during a ride that took me past Willesden Junction on a cluster of shops serving London’s Brazilian community. How refreshing to live in a city so rich in different ways of doing things.

Even if it were not The Right Thing to do, moreover, the discipline of treating everyone as an individual can serve as a simple personal protection measure. That’s the lesson of an incident one recent morning as I pedalled away from the Invisible Visible Boy’s nursery school in a plush corner of Clapham. The couple in the car's front seat had looked instantly like the kind of people I like – a couple in their sixties looking outwardly kind and driving a smart but sensible Audi estate. Yet my sitting in front of him on a road over a narrow bridge clearly enraged the man. The moment I was over, on a road section far too narrow for the maneouvre, he squeezed past me, far too fast, leaving inches to spare.

I had pictured the couple as resembling my wife’s parents or the other kindly, country-dwelling grandparents to whom my friends introduce me at church. My stereotyping led me to move over, trusting them to drive safely. For a different-looking couple, I might not have. In truth I knew no more about these people than I do when I look over my shoulder to see what I assume to be a menacing-looking African-Caribbean man. The good fortune is that my trust cost me no more than a nasty scare. I could easily have ended up crushed under the car wheels of a man who, no matter what we might seem to have in common, thought his petty irritation justification enough to risk killing me.

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.