Saturday, 31 December 2016

A tandem ride in a field, a sad discovery - and why we all ride in past enthusiasts' slipstreams

I can’t remember much about it except that it was the mid-1970s somewhere near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. But I remember that my relative - my father’s cousin’s husband, whom we called my uncle - asked if I’d like a ride on his tandem. For a minute or two, I lurched around a field on the stoker seat at the back, before being deposited back with my father. It was the kind of brief, new experience that children from fortunate backgrounds are lucky enough to enjoy many times while growing up.

This experience had a far more profound effect on me than most other bits of childhood excitement, however. The ride was the first time I’d ever made a journey on two wheels, part of a process of learning about bicycles that has helped to shape both how I get about and, to some extent, who I am. My uncle and aunt were critical role models for me, much the keenest cyclists in the wider family and thoroughly steeped in the small-scale, self-contained British bicycling culture of their era. For a long time, I nurtured the intention of getting back in touch with them to tell them how much their example had meant to me. I wanted to share with them the many simple joys that riding a bike had brought into my life.
Bikes at London's pre-Christmas Kidical Mass ride -
a reminder that families continue to be critical to propagating
the habit of cycling

Yet a chance twitter exchange on December 21 led me to do a Google search on their names and come up against a surprising, sad discovery. Without my hearing about it, both died within the past two years - my uncle in February 2015 and my aunt this past November. I won’t be able to share a last conversation about cycling. Nor will I be able, as I’d long planned, to get to their funerals by bike, as a quiet tribute to how they inspired me.

The recognition of their having gone has, nevertheless, prompted me to reflect again on how the habit of cycling is propagated. In countries like the UK and the US, where cycling is a minority activity, many of us who ride bikes do so at least in part because some relative initiated us into cycling’s mysteries. My father taught me how to ride a bike and how to handle myself on the roads. But my uncle and aunt were examples of how a bike could be central to one’s daily transport and leisure time. They showed me that the self-reliance and communion with the world around that come with transport cycling could shape much of one’s life experience.

News of their passing has also led me to reflect on how people such as my uncle and aunt kept cycling going in less cycling-friendly countries during the mode’s leanest years. It must have felt hard, sometimes, to maintain enthusiasm as roads were gradually redesigned to encourage private motor car use and to disadvantage cyclists. Yet sheer, naive enthusiasm kept them going.

The ride in Northumberland stood out in part because it was a relative rarity. My aunt and uncle lived in Newcastle, a fair distance from where I grew up in Glasgow. We saw each other mainly on short visits during school holidays, spent largely with my aunt and uncle’s son, six months older than I.

A tandem with special cranks for a child to pedal -
an image that would baffle my mother.

But there was greater intimacy than the relationship might suggest. My father, an only child, grew up partly with my aunt, who with her brother stayed with my grandparents during their holidays from boarding school. Their own parents were abroad with their father’s work in the diplomatic service. There was a sibling-like fondness between my dad and my aunt and their family formed part of my family’s emotional furniture.

I should admit that it was part of that emotional furniture that my mother, who never learned to ride a bike, found my aunt and uncle vaguely baffling. She used regularly to tell people, in amused disbelief, how they’d turned a whole room of their end-of-terrace house in Jesmond, Newcastle, into a space for storing and working on bikes. She was similarly horrified they’d wallpapered one wall of their front room with Ordnance Survey maps of areas 100 or so miles either side of Newcastle, to facilitate planning of touring trips. She scoffed over how my uncle had modified a tandem so that his son could help out with pedalling.

I quietly thought their way of doing things rather cool, though. I recall their once visiting us in Glasgow with their touring bikes, watching them heading off down the road afterwards, turning smoothly onto the main road and aspiring to their calm poise and control on their laden machines. It is no accident that I’ve ridden a touring bike almost exclusively since 2007.

But the point that influenced me most, I think, was not a specific technical point or some notion about how one got to work each day. It was that they enjoyed getting about by bike more than they cared what other people thought. This was, I think, the point that ultimately my mum both admired and found baffling - their indifference to convention. It’s because I feel something similar that I’m prepared to cycle to distant meetings without much concern about how I’ll look when I arrive.
My Long Haul Trucker, loaded up: not the coolest type
of bicycle, but aspirational for me.

While there are ways of looking cool on a bicycle - riding a minimalist fixie or cruising along on a retro-looking Dutch bike - both my aunt and uncle and I belong to a rather different, what-matters-is-what-works school of thinking. In contemporary, English-speaking societies, even as it’s become more socially acceptable to cycle, one still needs a bit of that spirit to make a bicycle one's main mode of transport.

The defiance of convention wasn’t, I think, a principled stand. They seemed simply to feel such youthful enthusiasm for the experience of being on bicycles that it seemed silly to do anything else. My uncle was a member of the Rough Stuff Fellowship, an off-road cycling group that was a precursor of much of what would now be called mountain biking. They both participated in a group called the Tandem Club. After I discovered they’d died, I found an old club newsletter to which my uncle had written, sending in a picture of his son on the tandem with him in 1973 in Jesmond. Sure enough, it has raised rear cranks to let him pedal. But there’s a lightness of spirit to the picture that’s a counterpoint to my mother’s bafflement. My uncle writes that he sent the picture because of his son’s smile, which he says is saying, “Ain’t tandeming grand?”

Cyclists on the 2009 London SkyRide: a reminder that,
even as cycling grows cooler, a certain readiness to be
uncool remains vital.

Eventually, at some point in the 1980s, my aunt quit her job as an architect and they started their own bike shop in Low Fell, Gateshead, near Newcastle. They resisted, I recall, selling Raleigh Grifters, cheap imitation mountain bikes popular with kids, but had to give in. The shop was never, I sense, a huge financial success. The area near the shop houses a big - and not especially well-off - Orthodox Jewish community. My uncle would grumble about his struggle to persuade the community’s boys that maybe it was time for a new bike instead of repairing this one yet again. Fortune seldom seemed to smile on the enterprise. My aunt spent one Christmas cleaning up the flat above the shop after the tenant killed himself. Another Christmas was marred by a costly break-in.

But there remained around them an unmistakable sense that a bicycle was a tool for exploring the world, in a far fuller sense than was possible in a car. The one time we took a foreign family holiday - to Normandy, in 1986 - we quite by chance came upon my aunt, participating in a Cyclists’ Touring Club tour of the area. She used to gripe around then - she was nearly 60 - about being classed a “veteran” when participating in competitive events. When I lived briefly in Newcastle during my newspaper training and I told them of our plans to honeymoon in the Czech Republic, they warmly recommended we visit Český Krumlov, which they’d visited on another touring holiday.
A worried cyclist watches as the driver loads his bike
at the end of his French touring holiday: I might not
have been there but for my relatives' example.

Without their example, I doubt I’d have spent much of one summer of my university holidays cycling around central and southern Scotland. I might not have felt bold enough to drag my own family on cycling-based holidays in western France and on Cape Cod. While they were far from worldly people, they had a clear sense of the boundless possibilities of the outdoors world and a continuous excitement about the the possibilities of using a bicycle to explore it. I had an enjoyable dinner with them while I was training in 1994 and recall my uncle’s explaining that the big risk with riding a tandem was the sheer speed they could gather on downhills.

“If you don’t look out, before you know it you’re doing 50mph,” he told me.

Such youthfulness is, of course, no substitute for eternal youth. When I last saw my uncle, in 2002 at my father’s funeral, he was suffering from emphysema, thanks to a life of pipe-smoking. My aunt eventually needed full-time residential care. But my mother passed on for far longer than one might expect stories of their soldiering on with their tandem, each in their 70s but making up for the other’s shortcomings. I got the sense that they were clinging tenaciously to the activity that had shaped their sense of themselves.

Bikes hang in my hall: not as convention-
defying as a whole room, but a reminder of my
relatives' influence.

While many of my choices have been very different from theirs, I understand some of that instinct. I live, after all, in a house whose hall is hung with the family bikes. I’ve yearned for a child on a trailer bike to put in at least some pedalling effort. I’ve turned up mud-spattered for an important event because I insisted on making the journey by bike and the trip went less smoothly than I’d imagined. I’ve been determined to keep cycling to work even in weather in which others thought I was mad to try.

It’s partly because of that fellow feeling that I wish I’d found out earlier about my aunt’s death and been able to attend the funeral. I would have liked to represent my father and to reflect some of that warmth among my father’s family towards my aunt. But I’d also have valued the opportunity to pay tribute to what they represented. They kept cycling even as planners drove urban motorways through Newcastle and peppered the city with mini-roundabouts intended to smooth the traffic flow. They continued riding bikes even as once-quiet rural roads became clogged with traffic. They made do with far less sophisticated machines than we now enjoy, braving mountain paths and high-speed roads alike with minimal gears, heavy bikes and rudimentary brakes.

Such die-hard enthusiasts were the founders of many of the organisations that have been at the forefront of improving cycling across the industrialised world - the London Cycling Campaign, Transportation Alternatives in New York and many others. I see wizened, older cyclists at many activist events and respect the way they kept things going through far harder times. It is easy to get caught up in the present generation’s battles. It is easy to sneer at a previous generation’s focus on riding on roads and neglect of infrastructure. But the memory of my aunt and uncle has reminded me that we all still in a sense ride in their slipstream.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

A peeved pedestrian, a rider's broken shoulder and why it's time to stop designing for conflict

It’s the kind of incident that a London cyclist experiences pretty regularly and that I’d normally put straight out of my mind. As I rode home from work a few weeks ago, down Lambeth Road past the Imperial War Museum, a pedestrian yelled at me as I rode through a zebra crossing: “You’re supposed to stop!” Since I’d ridden through as he was on the other side of a central pedestrian refuge from me, on a wide, four-lane road, I found the shout irritating, rather than guilt-inducing. He wanted to make a point, I sensed, rather than to express any plausible serious concern. At the closest point, we were at least four or five metres apart.

The incident has stayed with me because the Peeved Pedestrian of Lambeth Road seems to represent a significant current tendency in anti-cycling thinking. Again and again recently, people have responded to my writing about the dangers facing cyclists by complaining about cyclists’ behaviour in pedestrian areas. “A cyclist whizzed right past me on the pavement the other day,” the rejoinder to some tale of death-narrowly-escaped often runs. “What do you say about that?” People often use cyclists’ alleged misdeeds towards pedestrians as grounds to withhold their sympathy for people trying to improve conditions for cyclists to make riding safer.
"Shared space" near Clapham Common,
South London: evidence, I think, of how
many cyclist-pedestrian conflicts arise.

This train of thought describes a world entirely at odds with the one I inhabit, where I feel vulnerable in encounters with pedestrians - far more than I conceivably would as a driver. It’s far from uncommon for people to rush into the road to try to knock cyclists off. I’m frequently forced when riding perfectly properly to swerve round pedestrians who see me but insist on not breaking their stride, apparently to express some irritation or anger. While I certainly bring more kinetic energy to most foreseeable collisions than a pedestrian would, the mismatch in power is very different from that between me and someone encased in a steel cage equipped with a powerful engine.

It makes far more sense, it seems to me, to see the undoubted friction between cyclists and pedestrians as a symptom of how poorly many streets have been designed to work for both groups. Cyclists and pedestrians are tussling like two hungry vultures over the scraps of public space left over after the lion-kings of the space - the motor vehicles - have eaten their fill. The two groups would be far better off cooperating to seize some juicy prime cuts. The challenge is to recast people’s thinking to make that obvious.

I am not, I must make it clear, condoning or encouraging the types of behaviour that help to fuel the mistrust. I can understand that people find it irritating when a fast-moving cyclist swishes past at speed in an area that’s meant to be devoted to pedestrians. I’m never impressed on the rare occasions that I see cyclists riding through red lights and causing genuine inconvenience to people trying to cross the road safely. I think all classes of London road user leave too little room for error around others, including cyclists around pedestrians.
The City of London Corporation blocks a new bike path
over the theoretical risk it might pose to a pedestrian crossing:
astonishing given the tiny risk.

But it’s important to put the risk in context. Only two of the 408 pedestrians killed on the UK’s roads last year died after collisions with cyclists. Only 89 of the 4,584 pedestrians seriously injured on the roads received their injuries in collisions with people riding bikes. While it would clearly be preferable for all these figures to be zero, cyclists account for 1.8 per cent of traffic on the UK’s urban roads and far more in the busy, inner-urban locations where most conflict between cyclists and pedestrians takes place. Since collisions with cyclists accounted for only 0.5 per cent of pedestrian fatalities and 1.9 per cent of serious injuries, it’s clear that being around people riding bicycles is markedly safer for people walking than being around people driving. Some 99.9 per cent of Great Britain’s 1,730 road deaths in 2015 were in incidents involving at least one motor vehicle.

I nevertheless regularly hear rationalisations arguing that these statistics obscure the nature of the risk, rather than illuminating it. People have told me that drivers are somehow more predictable than people on bikes - and that drivers at least don’t endanger pedestrians in their space - the pavement (or sidewalk, American readers). Yet around 6 per cent of pedestrian fatalities in London are people who were on a footway when struck. Overall, last year in the UK, there were more reported collisions on pavements between motor vehicles and people on foot than between cyclists and people walking.
Drivers speed past the spot where Joanna Reyes died:
a reminder of the real source of danger.

The illusion that drivers are safe and predictable only adds to the danger. The death last month of Joanna Reyes, an actress, on Commercial Road, East London, demonstrates the risks. Huge numbers of drivers drive at excessive speed down the stretch of Commercial Road, which I know well because we stayed there in July and August immediately after returning to London from New York. Reyes appears to have been hit while standing on a pedestrian refuge in the middle of the road, an area most people would assume themselves to be safe. A driver was arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving. Even as he shouted at me, the greatest danger facing the Peeved Pedestrian of Lambeth Road was that a motor vehicle would come speeding along the road and hit him.

Yet I suspect that pedestrians’ fears about people cycling aren’t much related to rationality. People who are habituated to regarding the only risk on the road as being large, noisy motorised machines are apt to be scared when they suddenly - and often too late - notice an approaching small, silent machine. The instinctive, angry reaction is so deep that I sometimes imagine it stems from some of humans’ oldest impulses. People seem instinctively to grow more alarmed at suddenly noticing something moving fast but silently in their peripheral vision than by something large, obvious and noisy that announced itself far further off.

It’s also far easier for a pedestrian to experience a run-in with a cyclist as an interaction with another human being. Drivers in cars are not necessarily visible and the vehicles can seem like a faceless force, a fact of street life. Because cyclists are very visibly people, it’s easier, I think, for people to feel rage at them.
A shared-use path across Clapham Common: designed to
produce confrontation

On top of all that, a confrontation between a cyclist and a pedestrian is far more evenly-matched than many people’s complaints would allow. There was considerable controversy in September over a video that showed a cyclist on Millbank in Westminster passing uncomfortably close behind a pedestrian on a zebra crossing. While I thought that the cyclist left too little margin for error, the striking point for me was that the pedestrian deliberately reversed course to obstruct the cyclist’s path in retribution. Most people on foot know, I think, instinctively that they can do a fair amount of harm to a person riding a bike if they want, judging by the number of times I’ve had pedestrians deliberately block my path or try to knock me off my bike. If people truly lived in the mortal terror of people on bikes that some critics contend, such deliberate actions by pedestrians against cyclists would be as rare as attacks of that kind on people driving cars..

Much of the road design I encounter, meanwhile, only serves to ratchet up the risks of such cyclist-pedestrian confrontations, rather than to dissipate it. The standard response of many local councils in the UK - and the US, where I lived for four years - is to regard cyclists’ demands as part of an amorphous “active travel” agenda and to force the two different groups into a redesigned but no larger space, which both sides are meant to share. The obvious dangers of such an approach are mitigated by erecting multiple signs telling cyclists to slow down. It is hardly surprising that many people on foot find themselves feeling irritated at being buzzed by fast-moving cyclists in such circumstances, while it’s entirely predictable that people on bikes - which people use to get fast to places they need to go - find themselves frustrated by designs that envisage their going at a walking pace.
Congratulations, you've built an interurban
bike path that's well-suited for high speeds.
What finishing touch does it require?

Even illegal on-pavement cycling - a regular bugbear of many pedestrians - reflects far more than many people appreciate the muddled design of many roads. I most often see fellow cycle commuters mounting the pavement near junctions when the lanes meant to be filtering them to the more visible, safe head of the traffic queue are blocked by motor vehicles. While I am sure that such behaviour infuriates people walking, I also know there’s a powerful impetus not to let oneself get stuck in a stream of motor vehicles - especially when the road designer has signalled it would be safer to be at the front.

The answer to many of the frustrations is for road planners to start recognising a point that should be self-evident: that motor vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians all have distinct and different needs and that far more clarity is needed to help all to share public spaces. It’s far less common for me to find texting pedestrians wandering heedlessly into my path when I’m using the clearly-demarcated north-south cycle superhighway on Blackfriars Road than when I’m riding on the short, confusing shared-use section of Sumner St, behind the Tate Modern. It’s also clear that cyclists using the new superhighways are far less prone to running red lights through pedestrian crossings than when on main roads and seeking to escape the road-wide charge of accelerating motor vehicles that a change of lights produces. In interfaces between people on bikes and those on foot, as in many other areas of life, it strikes me that strong fences have a tendency to create good neighbours.
Cyclists wait patiently for the light on
the north-south Cycle Superhighway:
a striking sign of design's effect on behaviour.

I recognise, nevertheless, that until such designs are widespread, I will find myself interacting with people on foot in spaces that are poorly designed for the purpose. I will seek, as I was doing even on the night of my run-in on Lambeth Road, to ride cautiously and respectfully around people on foot. I think it’s important that all road users try to avoid, where possible, causing other people on the road unnecessary stress.

I hope, however, that people on foot will return the favour a little too. While we both face the common enemy of the motor car, after all, I know that we both face some dangers if we collide and I’m knocked off my bike.

When pondering that point, I remember an incident from the summer of 2013 as I rode home down the Hudson River Greenway on the west side of Manhattan. Near a narrow section where runners and pedestrians were forced together, I came upon a middle-aged Dutch man slumped on the ground and grasping at his shoulder. He had hurt himself, I later discovered, after a runner had stepped off the walkway and into his path, knocking him off.

There could scarcely have been a starker illustration of the real, albeit small, risk that cyclists face in such situations. I waited for 20 minutes with the man until an ambulance arrived to take him for treatment for what seemed to be a badly-broken shoulder. A few miles after I restarted my ride home, I came upon the runner again. She had not only been able to continue her run uninjured but was apparently untroubled by the damage her actions had caused.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Obstructive pedestrians, a crass video - and why your city's cyclists are the kind you don't like

If I’d gone out looking for evidence of how differently people regard cyclists from how I regard myself, I could scarcely have done better than my experience this Saturday. In the afternoon, as I rode with my wife and my son along the Embankment in Central London, we encountered a crowd of pedestrians crossing the cycle track against the signal. “Watch out in the cycle track, please!” I shouted.

The East-West Cycle Superhighway near Parliament Square:
site of the Invisible Visible Man's contretemps with
a group of pedestrians
Then, in the evening, I came across a trailer for Trigger Happy, a new series of Channel 4 comedy shorts. The first - Angry Cyclist - features helmet camera footage of the eponymous cyclist riding around streets. “Cycle lane!” he shouts at pedestrians, in imitation of precisely the tone I’d taken than afternoon. He then rides onto a section of pavement that is not, in fact, a cycle lane.

The video was only the latest evidence I’ve seen in recent weeks of how cyclists continue to be regarded in the UK - and possibly even more in the US - as a strange, fringe out-group whose behaviour is baffling and infuriating to others. Earlier in the week, I’d felt a similar sinking feeling when I saw Tweets by Mark Dennison, a presenter on BBC Nottingham, a local radio station, encouraging people to call his show. “Cyclists… what do they do that winds you up?” he asked. He later defended the transparently tendentious tweet as merely a way of encouraging a “balanced” debate.

The comedy short and Mark Dennison’s tweet both came across as belittling a group of people who, at least when sharing the roads with motor vehicles, are vulnerable and relatively powerless. They showed the depth of the chasm of misunderstanding between cyclists and others. While my request to the pedestrians on the Embankment would have seemed self-righteous or priggish to the makers of Trigger Happy, it was in fact motivated by fear. I was worried that, unless they got out of the way, my nine-year-old would be marooned in the roadway when motor vehicles restarted.
The Invisible Visible Boy on his bike
in central London: a reason for concern I hope
even the haters can understand

The incidents have led me to query why so many people continue to find me and other cyclists so bafflingly alienating. It strikes me as an especially important question given that many cyclists, like me, believe their countries’ transport systems would work better if more people joined them by starting cycling. Current attitudes appear to be both a symptom and a cause of cycling’s remaining a niche activity, practised by a relatively small group of people.

I should say, first of all, that I understand at least a little bit of why Trigger Happy finds some cyclist behaviour funny. There is an underlying similarity to a lot of helmet camera video footage that cyclists post on YouTube. The cyclist is riding along a road - often at some speed - when a motorist does something stupid, dangerous and possibly malevolent. The driver’s behaviour is then held up for general condemnation in a tone that generally suggests the poster is standing, hands-on-hips shaking his head in shocked but unsurprised disbelief. I am sure that, while I don’t use a camera, my complaints about bad driver behaviour have a similar, rather priggish tone. I can see how someone might find it so predictable that it starts to seem a little ridiculous.

But the jokes become far less funny, it seems to me, the moment one starts to think about what shapes the culture that Trigger Happy and others hold up to ridicule. I’m surrounded by fast, aggressive cyclists on my morning commute down Clapham Road not because Londoners are by nature fast and aggressive when cycling but because the conditions have selected both who rides and how they do it. People who don’t feel capable of maintaining a steady 20mph are unlikely to feel comfortable riding down a wide, straight road in close proximity to drivers driving at 30mph and faster.

Cyclists at the Oval on my route to work:
some clichés about London cyclists persist
because they're partly true.
The cyclists I see around me have been as surely shaped by their environment as giraffes have been by conditions on the savanna or the American bison by the high plains. People wear bright clothing and helmets because they hope they’ll help to prevent or ameliorate collisions with fast-moving motor vehicles. It takes both the skills of racing cycling and a road-racer’s appetite for risk truly to embrace this style of commuting. That point came home to me forcibly on Friday when a fellow cyclist, to my astonishment, slipped through the gap - of barely a metre - that I’d allowed myself when overtaking a bus. One especially stressful recent morning, I witnessed a blazing row between two fellow cyclists over an apparent near-collision caused, as far as I could tell, by excessive risk-taking by one of them. The argument continued over a considerable distance, being resumed as both stopped at successive junctions.

This environment explains one of the most frequently remarked upon issues about the demographics of London cycling - that cyclists disproportionately tend to be better off, whiter and more male than the city as a whole. In a car-centric city where people feel skill, knowledge and equipment are necessary to cycle commuting, it's hardly surprising that cycle commuters often come from the class of people who have the leisure and finance to develop the requisite cycling skills recreationally.

A fairly typical bike path in London's
Docklands: experts can't work out why
cycling hasn't taken off here.
I’ve been struck recently by how even I, someone who’s cycled an average of nearly 4,000 miles a year for the last 13 years, feel a little spooked by conditions on much of my commute. I’ve had so many close passes from drivers after pulling out round stopped buses that I find myself increasingly stopping to let buses pull away. On Friday morning, a beautiful morning with nearly ideal conditions, I remembered well over half-way into my commute that I’d forgotten my security pass. I felt a frisson of fear as well as excitement when I realised I’d have to turn around and head home for it, even though I’d normally welcome the excuse to put in some extra miles.

There have, undoubtedly, been efforts to widen cycling’s appeal, both in London and New York, where I lived for four years until July. But Trigger Happy’s scoffing at cyclists’ tendency to shout at other road users about their rights highlights the big problem with many of them. Inadequate on-road cycle lanes, areas where cyclists and pedestrians share space and some quiet routes down parking-clogged back streets build in a significant level of conflict between cyclists and others. It might seem irritating to pedestrians to be asked please not to walk in a bike lane. But it is profoundly frustrating regularly to have to use spaces whose use is so unclear that other users obstruct cyclists unless specifically asked not to do so.

It should certainly surprise no-one that, in existing conditions, some cyclists are apt to break the road rules. If one knows, after all, that the traffic lights on a certain road are timed to suit drivers, not cyclists, and that a phalanx of drivers will chase after one the moment the lights change, the temptation to ride off through a red light and get away in peace can be very strong.

Helmetless, relaxed tourists on the east-west cycle
superhighway: evidence of how conditions dictate who rides.
The way to shape this culture is not, it seems to me, to berate existing cyclists for being as they are but to create conditions that will encourage a different kind of cycling. I certainly feel very different during the brief period each day when I cycle on the protected north-south cycle superhighway from when I’m in a 20mph pack racing down a bus lane. Even small changes can have a big effect. While I still jostle drivers for most of my commute, there are now segregated bike lanes through Stockwell Cross and past Kennington Park, previously the riskiest parts of the route I take. It’s no coincidence, I think, that, since those improvements, I see the occasional couple cycling to work and holding hands at traffic lights. While lycra-clad men still predominate, I find my heart lifting over such normal, human moments.

Better conditions are even, I think, starting to generate different types of cyclists. For four weeks in July and August, when we first returned from New York, I rode each day from our temporary apartment down the Cable Street protected bike path in the East End and onto the east-west cycle superhighway. I couldn’t help noticing that, in a deprived area with such good facilities, I’d see some families of eastern European immigrants out getting about by bike. On Prudential Ride London weekend, when many streets in the capital were closed to motor vehicles, I vividly recall the sight that most raised my hopes for the future. Near Blackfriars Bridge, a Bangladeshi woman in Salwar Kameez clothes paused on her hire bike as she waited for her son to make his way up the hill from the Blackfriars underpass.

The East-West Cycle Superhighway in
Parliament Square: politicians will be slow
to build more such facilities while
cyclists remain alien
Yet the challenge remains that, for the moment, many existing cyclists fit into the kind of stereotypical pattern that can prompt others to label us as “them”. That makes politicians reluctant to provide the kinds of facilities that would produce more obviously non-alien cyclists. It is certainly not surprising that London’s new, left-wing mayor is back-pedalling on his predecessor’s plans to encourage cycling. It is easy to understand his concern that his natural constituency of poorer voters will find themselves stuck on the bus while middle-class cyclists such as I zip by on new facilities and vote for his rivals.

Until that impasse is broken, however, London and other big cities will find that most of its cyclists are people prepared to face down sometimes naked aggression from motorists and even, sometimes, from frustrated pedestrians.

The challenge was made brutally clear to me as I completed my lengthy commute on Friday. As I neared Elephant & Castle, a van driver deliberately pulled into my path. Then, apparently eager to ensure he cleared the junction before the traffic light changed, he tried, despite my clear signals to him, to turn across my path and force me to stop. It was hard not to be reminded of the most succinct answer to Mark Dennison’s question about what cyclists did that wound people up. “Breathe” was one of the very first responses.

Monday, 7 November 2016

A rainy weather puncture, a wave of negativity - and how the haters aren't sweating cycling's details

As conditions for a cycle commute go, the steady rain this past Friday - which supplanted the recent foggy weather - was unattractive even before I started hearing a strange clicking sound from my bike’s front wheel. An inspection revealed the sound was coming from a drawing pin - or tack - stuck in the tyre. I was, briefly, hopeful that the robust puncture proofing of my Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres might have protected my inner tube. When I pulled the tack free, however, I heard a steady hissing that told me I was going to be undertaking a roadside repair.
A chance tack in a cycle lane or a symbol
of the anti-cycling backlash? The mystery
remains unsolved

Then, after I’d discarded the tack, I started to ponder the antipathy towards cycling and cyclists that I’ve spent considerable time recently discussing in person and via social media. The UK is in the midst of one of its periodic anti-cycling backlashes and I suddenly wondered if the tack had ended up in the new cycle path by Kennington Park by happenstance or malice. I scoured the wet pavement for the tack, photographed it then posted a query on twitter to ask if anyone else had suffered similar problems in the same area.

The act of posting the picture turned my mind back to thoughts about the roots of the recent rage in some newspapers and by some politicians against the growth of cycling. After I recently wrote about the gulf in understanding between cyclists and cycling sceptics, I was bombarded with complaints that I was ignoring some vast conspiracy by the media and politicians to do down cycling. Commenters accused me of varying levels of complacency or complicity in this plot.

I've been assured that I was naive to believe there was no generalised campaign against cycling because it was naive to think automakers had changed tack since their 1920s campaign in the US to have jaywalking outlawed. I've been told that Volvo engineers' designing of a cycle helmet shows there's a plot - use of cycling helmets, after all, correlates with lower cycling levels. I have been repeatedly told that the recent spate of newspaper anti-cycling stories can't be coincidence and even seen it posited that a particular national newspaper reporter "must be in somebody's pay".

The truth is less exciting but no less worrying, I’m convinced. Having spent most of the last 13 years writing at least partly about transport, I simply don’t think most opponents of cycling - either in the UK or the US, where I lived for four years - care enough about the mode to mount such a conspiracy. It seems to me that, instead, many of the media attacks draw on unspoken paradigms about the nature of government. The sprouting of cycle lanes is taken to be an example of the work of politically correct (or possibly “bungling”) bureaucrats, who wrongly think they know better than the average, car-driving newspaper reader what the transport system needs. Cyclists are regarded as some sort of strange out-group like vegans or hardline environmentalists seeking to destroy the lifestyles that ordinary, common-sense people regard as entirely unproblematic.

The best way to combat this narrative, it seems to me, is to seek to change the terms of the debate. I believe there’s a sound, common-sense case for promoting cycling that, in the UK at least, is getting drowned out by complaints about the alleged anti-cycling conspiracy and bitter rows on twitter. It’s all the more urgent to get progress re-started because present conditions continue to prove deadly. Lucia Ciccioli, a 32-year-old Italian woman, was killed on October 24 cycling to work in Lavender Hill, not far from my house in Brixton. A week later, another Italian, Filippo Corsini, 21, was crushed by a lorry in Knightsbridge. I hope that a new venture, Humanstreets, modelled on the admirable, New York-based Streetsblog, will play an important role in making that case.
London's North-South Cycle Superhighway,
at Southwark St: yes, the Daily Mail's
written angry stories about this facility's
existence; no, I don't think they're angry
for the reasons many others suppose

But, as I stood by the side of Kennington Park Road wrestling with my hard-to-remove tyres, I wasn’t feeling optimistic.

I started to think about the nature of anti-cycling anger after seeing a post on Twitter querying why the Daily Mail - which recently ran several pieces claiming that new cycling lanes were “paralysing Britain” - had run a piece touting cycling’s health benefits. The tweet’s tone was to query the Mail’s consistency. But, to anyone who’s worked in a newspaper, the idea that different sections of a paper would need to agree on such a matter is, frankly, ludicrous. British newspaper reporters are, in my experience, mostly uninterested in the content of the policy issues that they cover and far more interested in framing it into what they regard as a compelling narrative. The Daily Mail has a powerful bias in favour of thinking civil servants and council officials are engaged in some plot to impose bad ideas on ordinary Britons. The recent attacks follow that narrative, it seems to me, rather than being based on any strong idea about cycling.

The Daily Mail’s sinister genius is its ability to seize on almost any policy development as evidence that the world does indeed work the odd way its news editors believe it does. Like many people with an interest in road safety, I’m sure, I felt my heart lift this week when I saw that the Mail had run a front page story on distracted driving - only to feel it sink again when I saw that it was defining the problem as being one of foreign drivers. The story was a reminder of how different worldviews compete within many media organisations to shape how issues are reported. The story about cycling’s health benefits reflected the paper’s conviction that its readers want to find out ways to better their health. For that section, that narrative trumped the notion that cycling promotion was the work of nanny-ish bureaucrats.

The Mail’s tendency to report the world according to a set of preconceived notions is unusually pronounced but it has its less sinister counterparts in other places. The Guardian, for example, tends to report public-sector activity favourably and to report on business’ behaviour unfavourably. Some financially-orientated publications are apt to identify strongly with private businesses’ perceived interests. Most politicians I’ve met have a similar tendency to believe in a few core principles and then, in George Orwell’s telling phrase, to buy the rest of their opinions in “matching pairs”.
The East-West Cycle Superhighway by
the Palace of Westminster: inhabited by
owners of opinions bought in matching pairs

Some of the reporting, meanwhile, reflects the one circumstance when cycling policy does get people's attention - when it threatensomething important to them, such as the free parking space they regard as a right. This explains, for example, the regular rows in New York when the Citibike bike-share scheme arrives in a new neighbourhood. People have seen that Citibike is coming but take little interest until suddenly a parking space disappears. The same phenomenon explains the perennial popularity of bad and dangerous on-road cycling facilities. Many politicians are eager to enjoy the chic, green-tinged halo of introducing a bike-share scheme or theoretically encouraging cycling. Yet few are prepared to weather the political storm of introducing facilities, like London’s new segregated cycle superhighways, that truly reallocate space away from motor vehicles and give it to cyclists. Unsatisfactory compromises - bike routes down hard-to-access old railway lines, for example - proliferate.

During my 25 years in the newspaper industry, I have been far more dismayed by other reporters’ cynicism, willingness to go along with news editors’ ill-informed instincts and incuriosity about policy detail than I have by any willingness to cave to outside lobbying. Much the same goes for politicians. When he first became mayor, for example, Boris Johnson - now practically sainted among active travel lobbyists as father of the segregated superhighways - took a series of harmful steps to further what he saw as a pro-business, anti-bureaucrat agenda. He removed space-efficient articulated buses, replacing them with a far worse alternative, scrapped the successful western extension of the congestion charging zone and undertook other measures aimed at “smoothing traffic flow”. Among the traffic-smoothing measures were the admission of motorbikes to bus lanes and a tinkering with traffic-light timing that reduced the time for pedestrians to cross at many busy junctions. All of these measures have contributed to London’s continuing problem with congested, unsafe roads.
The new bus for London: one of Boris
Johnson's early contributions to making
London's roads less efficient

I see this intellectual laziness and policy cowardice as far bigger barriers to the advance of cycling than alleged campaigns - always described as “well-funded” - by sceptical cycling opponents. I recognise that the main incident that fuelled these fears - the circulation by Canary Wharf Group of a screed complaining about plans for cycle superhighways - occurred while I was in New York and away from London policy issues. I also know that London business lobby groups continue to agitate about congestion in London and to blame it disproportionately on the cycle superhighways, which are only one of a series of factors contributing to the current worsening of motor vehicle congestion in central London despite falls in traffic levels. The London Taxi Drivers’ Association continues to fight sensible cycling schemes such as the Tavistock Place cycle tracks in Bloomsbury.

Yet it seems clear to me that the basic instincts of the media organisations concerned and reporters’ tendency to copy stories that they feel have touched a nerve with readers are more than sufficient to explain the current rash of stories. The cowardice of the worst kind of local politician in the face of what he or she perceives to be the public mood is more than adequate to explain the backtracking in many parts of the UK on cycling plans and the actual ripping out of an already-built facility in the Scottish town of Ayr.

Congestion on Southwark Bridge: campaigners need to
get better at combatting fears about such conditions
if progress is to resume
The good news is that fights against prejudice and cowardice are winnable. It was once held as axiomatic on both sides of the Atlantic, for example, that the struggle against drink-driving was driven by politically-correct nannyism. The practice’s dangers are now universally accepted. There was shock last week when part of the Daily Mail’s criticism of a judge involved in the Article 50 Brexit case was that he was “openly gay”. Until the 1990s, it might have been regarded as a legitimate scoop to expose his sexual orientation.

The bad news is that such battles tend to be protracted, painful and to require considerable guile. Cycling advocates need, it seems to me, to do a far better job of addressing people’s fears about what allocation of space - and time at traffic signals - to cycling means. Will it hold up bus passengers? Can a lower-capacity road really handle all the deliveries businesses along the route expect? I’ve said before that campaigners’ arguments should be far less nit-picking and far more addressed towards a mainstream audience.
After the repair: my bike as I prepared to ride off, feeling
down at heart

It’s not only because of Friday’s experience that I feel pessimistic about prospects, however. Battle lines on both the pro and anti-cycling side seem very clearly drawn. Few people are airing novel arguments.

The worst and most bitter people, meanwhile, are resorting to more direct measures. While I don’t know how the tack I picked up came to be on the cycle path, another twitter user told me he recalled hearing of a tack’s being left around the same place recently. Multiple cyclists riding on the Bearsway cycle path north of Glasgow on Sunday picked up tacks, suggesting a co-ordinated effort at sabotage. That follows a recent, similar incident in Regent’s Park, in London.

Whether my incident was part of that pattern or not, I rode off after 20 minutes’ repair work damp and cold, with skinned knuckles, feeling decidedly downbeat. I will feel more optimistic only when the UK's debate about cycling policy breaks free of its current, unproductive impasse.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

A clichéd advert, cycling in the mist - and what a foggy London reveals about the city's identity

When La Défense, Paris’ equivalent of London’s Canary Wharf, launched a campaign to woo financial services firms from London earlier this month, they used a slogan to make long-term London residents sigh. “Tired of the fog?” it asked. “Try the frogs!” It was an irritating illustration of how comprehensively people’s ideas of London continue to be shaped by Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. Especially since the advent of clean air legislation, it’s really not a typical London experience to find a man in a deerstalker emerge into view from only a few feet away, by the light of a conveniently-placed gaslamp.

Foggy London might be as much of a cliché as 
parliament's clock tower. But, as this picture
taken in this week's misty weather shows,
both still exist. 
Yet clichés survive when there’s a little bit of truth in them. The last few days in London have been a powerful reminder for me, after four years in New York’s very different climate, about the distinctiveness of London’s weather. Day after day has dawned with anything ranging from a slight mist to a definite fog. As I’ve cycled to work or to meetings, the air’s felt an odd mixture of warm from the enveloping blanket of mist and cold from the pervasive dampness. Each day has felt slightly different, in a way that’s obvious only to someone travelling about by bike. The experience has stood in sharp contrast to the switchback ride between hot high summer and chilly late fall that my friends still in New York seem to have been experiencing.

The relative mildness of London’s climate fits with a general atmosphere that’s more subdued than in some other metropolises. More intense, denser, in-your-face New York bakes its residents - and especially cyclists - in summer, only to freeze them in winter. Even its fog is more intense. While the city’s less prone to the generalised, damp mist that’s settled over London the last few days, such dense, impenetrable fog sometimes settles over the East River that I sometimes rode to work over the Manhattan Bridge unable to see the water below.

Even its fog is more intense: cyclists head into dense,
East River fog on the Manhattan Bridge bike lane.

My feelings about the weather have made me realise how puzzlingly rural much of London continues to feel. Generation after generation has sought to erect a very English calm facade for a metropolis of nearly 9m people. I’m always a little surprised here when I encounter the same dense crowds of people I’d expect to see at every corner in Manhattan. In Manhattan, by contrast, if workmen were digging a hole and I saw soil underneath, I always felt a little incredulous. The city felt like a mass made solely of concrete and steel that should properly be bolted straight into the bedrock.

The issue has serious implications. In dense New York, far more people live within what should, theoretically, be easy cycling distance of their places of work and education. London’s lower density makes many trips longer and the rationale for getting about by motor vehicle stronger.
The Wimbledon Common windmill: a bucolic scene
a short bike ride from a town centre wrecked by excess traffic

But it’s also striking how London’s current dependence on cars is strangling much of what’s worth preserving. London is formed of a collection of villages that happened to be swallowed by a city. Yet town centres, such as Wimbledon’s, that could be the hearts of communities are instead noisy, polluted and divided rather than held together by roads that should be their main public spaces.

My main insight from the last few days, nevertheless, is simply that fog simply sits well on London, like a comfortable sweater on a middle-aged man. It is almost by definition a form of mild, still, temperate weather. In the streets around where I live in genteel Brixton Hill, that’s of a piece with the rows upon rows of Victorian houses. Instead of being built to impress with their opulence, these represent an ideal of restraint, moderation and good taste. The fog heightens that sense still further because it obscures a skyline cluttered with the towers that are increasingly making the City and the banks of the Thames resemble Dubai.
A City of London back alley in last week's mist:
an oasis thanks to two millennia of haphazard

The effect is thanks partly to fog’s muting effect on the city’s sounds. It may be partly because it so disrupts flights into Heathrow Airport but there has been an eerie calm around my area today thanks to the fog. It’s a very different feeling from our Brooklyn apartment, where we were treated nearly 24 hours a day to a cacophony of emergency vehicles, squealing subway trains and building work. The effect has been all the more striking because I can, if I want, ride down urban streets that feel, in the fog’s limited visibility, as deserted as a country lane. London’s haphazard growth has left it with a wealth of such meandering back streets. The metronomic grid of a more planned metropolis tends to distribute cars more evenly.

I find my horizons closing in metaphorically as well as literally. A foggy day prods one to feel one’s way gently to the local shops, rather than to venture farther afield. Where one’s local town centre is feels mostly like a better-defined question in London than in many other cities. When an improvised bomb exploded at W23rd Street & 6th Avenue in Manhattan in September, for example, there was considerable confusion about how to describe the area (Chelsea? Flatiron?). In London, where some streets were laid out as long ago as the Roman occupation, the delineations mostly seem clearer.

Fog-induced myopia could on such a day trick one into sentimentality about London’s clear, organic links with its past. As I rode my bike back from church in this morning’s fog, I even passed an older spinster lady I know heading by bike towards a later service. She was a living embodiment of one of George Orwell’s archetypal pictures of England - “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning”.

An unfinished part of the east-west cycle superhighway
in Hyde Park: vested interest at work
Yet one of the most striking factors behind the city’s current atmosphere is the prevalence of vested interests among those who control its territory. I was able to cycle across Clapham Common, for example, because the ancient right of Clapham’s people to graze their livestock on a patch of land by the village. Such commons are dotted all across London, often taking up several square miles of empty space. The influence of royalty is still more pervasive. St James’ Park, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park and others occupy vast swathes of Central London thanks to their ownership by the crown. The City of London Corporation, the unelected government of the square mile where the financial industry is concentrated, also owns some big tracts of land, including Hampstead Heath.

These big, conservative landowners are often fixated on their narrow ideas of how their open spaces should be used and hard to pressure to change. Foot-dragging by Royal Parks currently appears to be holding up further development at the west end of London’s east-west cycle superhighway, yet the body’s very unaccountability makes it impossible to force it to obey the will of the people who ultimately fund it.
London's new towers might be as unloveable as Dubai's,
but a denser, more urban London is probably necessary.

The generally suburban feeling in even large parts of Central London, meanwhile, represents a tendency that’s no less insidious. The UK has for centuries nurtured a cultural bias towards the idea that the countryside is more wholesome and honest than the city. Much of London was built with houses surrounded by gardens big enough to persuade their inhabitants that they were not really in an urban setting. Its housing shortages, congestion and car dependency could all be more easily resolved if the city had embraced the need for density far earlier, as constrained New York has all along been forced to do. While London’s distinctive atmosphere will suffer if more high-rise housing is built, the underground, surface trains, buses and cycling will all gain.

Yet it’s easy on a foggy morning to let those big worries go, at least for a while. Instead, this morning I slipped out of the house with my son and headed off along the deserted, early morning streets towards church. The dampness in the air hung so heavy that we felt big droplets kissing our cheeks as our breath filled the air in front of us. Only the leaves stood out, as if they’d painted themselves red and gold expressly to stand out against the fuzzy-white background.
Fog on Clapham Common: scene for an Orwellian idyll.

The mystery only increased as we rode out onto the common. Trees looked like grease stains on a bag from a bakery, the mist rolling more densely round the bases of their trunks than round their branches. Other cyclists and runners emerged from the mist then faded back into it.

The most remarkable point, however, was that this scene was unfolding not in some old, idealised landscape painting but a mere five miles from central London. I was, once again, reminded of the remarkable privileges I can enjoy by simply riding a bicycle to get around this big, infuriating but ultimately endlessly beguiling city.