Sunday, 9 September 2012

Farewell to London - where cycling's popular, but just on paper

It was the closest I’ve come in the last little while to ending up under the wheels of a car. As I cycled home from work in London on July 20, just by the Oval cricket ground, a car passed me far, far too close. I pulled towards the kerb and jammed on my brakes. But, amid precisely the kind of light drizzle that makes roads treacherous, the slippery surface of one of the London Mayor’s ironically-named Cycle Superhighways nearly did for me. I started to skid alarmingly, swinging side to side in close proximity to the speeding car. It’s the kind of incident I’m sometimes inclined to think may reflect my cowardice rather than the actual danger. But, as I slithered to a stop and my right pedal skinned the back of my calf, a pedestrian came up to me, looking worried. “Did he hit you?” he asked.

Brooklyn Bridge: a new focus for
the Invisible Visible Man's frustrations
Nasty though it was, my sliding stop at the Oval would not have been especially notable – except that it took place on my last commute for the foreseeable future in London. My route-to-work gripes are now about the stupidity of tourists on the Brooklyn Bridge, the traffic snarl of downtown Brooklyn and when precisely the large model rat that protesters have placed in one lane of W54th Street in Manhattan might disappear for good. The London mayor’s superhighways and the Metropolitan Police’s indifference towards anti-cyclist crime are fast becoming a distant memory.

W54th street: rat trouble
But the incident seemed as neat a bookend as any to 11 years of cycling in London – nine years during my most recent stint and two years prior before our four-and-a-half years in Hungary. As I thought about it afterwards, my mind wandered back to a dark January night in 1997 when I swung my leg over my then Raleigh Mercury bicycle and set off for my first-ever bike ride in London. I was at a car rental depot in Catford and had just returned the rented van that had brought my and the Invisible Visible Woman’s belongings down from Edinburgh. I had to find my way across the alternately grim and genteel suburbs of south-east London to my new home.

To hear London’s politicians bragging about their recent achievements in encouraging cycling, one would imagine that my journey 15-odd years ago should have been nearly impossible. In fact, there were already some designated cycle routes to guide me across tracts of non-descript suburbia such as Forest Hill. The journey was about as pleasant as a ride on a cold January evening in a strange area could be.

The Invisible Visible Man's Raleigh Mercury:
gaudy-coloured veteran of his first ride in London.
The memory of cycling all that time ago nevertheless put a question in my mind. Are London and other cities enjoying fast-rising cycling numbers rising because cities are making progress, learning from their past mistakes, in their treatment of cyclists? Or are cycling numbers increasing despite city authorities’ failure to understand what cyclists need?

It would be silly, naturally, to claim London cycling had shown no improvement over my time. The biggest positive change has been the wholesale redesign of many urban London roads. The space at many junctions has been narrowed, to prevent cars swinging round them at high speed. Many streets have been made to look narrower, a step that has brought motorists’ speed down. Parking spaces in many places are now more clearly marked as an area off to the side of the main carriageway. I used, when I first cycled in London, inwardly to ask drivers who’d prevented my swinging round a parked car, “How did you think I’d get round it? Fly?” It’s a line that popped into my head far less often later in my time in London than in the late 1990s. That it’s coming back to me again regularly in New York illustrates how big a lesson the Big Apple’s traffic planners have to learn from London in this area.

Cycle Superhighway 7 at Southwark Bridge.
This part still has a slippery surface -
but is at least protected from poor drivers
There has been some modest improvement in the quality of cyclist-specific infrastructure in London too. The number of bike parking places has increased sharply – albeit not as fast in many areas as the demand to park bicycles. The number of markings telling motorists to leave space for cyclists at junctions has increased. The cycle superhighways have appeared along a number of main roads, although my experience in July illustrates the problems with putting routes with slippery surfaces along busy main roads where nothing is done to prevent cars driving poorly.

But the curious point that my July 20 experience illustrates is not how much has changed since 1997 but how much remains the same, despite 15 years when every senior politician associated with London has expressed devotion to improving the cyclist’s lot.

I’d seen the motorist that buzzed me behind me at traffic lights and, seeing that he was driving a black, souped-up saloon car, guessed that he was likely to overtake me dangerously. Sure enough, instead of waiting for a safe place and space, he barged through as if, essentially, I weren’t there. Looking at it from the motorist’s point of view, perhaps that isn’t surprising. The British Highway Code certainly tells motorists they should give cyclists as much passing space as another car. But who’s reminding motorists of that point? Aside from a half-hearted Transport for London campaign a few years ago urging motorists and cyclists to “share the road,” there’s been almost no effort to educate motorists over ten years when cyclist numbers have doubled.

Copenhagen: other cities want the sense of cool -
but not the messy reality of cyclists
Yet almost none of the politicians or officials I’ve heard talking about encouraging cycling has seemed to have cyclists and cycling as their focus. Cycling was meant to cut road congestion, or reduce pollution or increase people’s physical activity rates. With some politicians, it’s tempting to conclude that they want mass cycling almost as a sign of their city’s coolness – look, our people cycle just like people in Amsterdam! Look, you could barely tell us apart from Copenhagen! A few years ago, there was a similar craze in Europe for planning light rail systems. Bikes seem, in more straitened times, to have taken over.

The result is that the people who make decisions in big cities seem ill-prepared for cycling’s messy reality. Since 1997, tens of thousands more Londoners have started pedalling into central London every morning. Most of them are in a hurry; many are no more considerate of their fellow road users than the motorists alongside them and all of them take up at least some space on the roads. The picture of cycling in many politicians’ heads seems to be drawn from the architectural drawings they show off when boasting about a planned riverside park or other “green” amenity. The cyclists in those never look like they’re in a hurry or like they’re shouting at some idiot that’s stepped into the cycle lane without looking. Many policymakers – and plenty of motorists – seem affronted when cyclists diverge from this unrealistic ideal. Nobody wants to spell out to motorists that, in a given road space, more cyclists means less space for cars. We’re  meant to take as little effort to pass as the paper-thin, pencil-drawn cyclists in the politicians’ drawings. People are happy if their neighbours free up a parking space by taking up cycling – and furious if they ever get in their way on the road.

It’s certainly not a London-only problem. Ten days after my permanent move to New York, I was bowling fast down a marked cycle lane in Brooklyn, reflecting that the lane was far too close to the parked cars. A car door suddenly opened, I jammed on my brakes and, just as I had in London, lost traction and skidded – once again fairly safely – to a halt. New York cycle lanes’ placing reflects the same, apparently widespread delusions as policy in London – that cyclists should take up no space, have no momentum and always be ready to give way to pretty much any other road user.

It’s not inevitable, however, that every politician will always prefer to let motorists set the agenda. The change that has done most since 1997 in London to boost cycling numbers was introduction in 2003 of a charge for driving into central London during weekday peak hours. The decision, by making clear the costs of road use, instantly removed large numbers of vehicles from central London's roads. Cyclists took up some of the freed space. Advisers to Ken Livingstone, London’s then mayor, advised strongly against introduction of the congestion charge, on the grounds that no battle with London’s motorists could ever be won. In recent mayoral elections, while candidates have proposed modifications, no serious candidate has suggested ending the charge altogether.

It’s hard to foresee the circumstances that would prompt a future London leader – or a mayor of New York or any other similar world city – to take firm action finally to prioritise bicycles properly over cars. Until it happens, there may be further, incremental rises in cyclist numbers of the kind London has experienced since 2003. But proper progress will require real boldness.