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 CanaryWharf, 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.
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.
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 London’s busiest roads
and of an on-street cycle hire scheme based on ’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
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
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. London
The question raises issues that go well beyond
’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
|London cyclists gather for the Big Ride: aspirational figures|
Nevertheless, the Invisible Visible Boy, four, and myself were keen to show there are large numbers of cyclists in
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. London
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
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. London
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|
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?
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.
Which brings us to how I actually cast my postal vote (since I’m currently in
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). Leipzig
|The Invisible Visible Man Votes - with clothespeg|
That leaves only the question of the fate of my partner in the Historic Bike Ride from
, 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." Canary
The incident reminded me of part of our ride back from
At a red light on Canary Wharf 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.