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.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

A British Stand-off, an Unbridged Divide - and Why it's Time for Cycle Campaigners to Change the Conversation

There was something almost endearingly British about the standoff. In a typical autumnal light drizzle last Saturday in Swiss Cottage, North London, a group of other cyclists and I stood listening to speeches in support of the building of Cycle Superhighway 11, a planned segregated bike route from London’s West End, through Regent’s Park and up to the point where we were standing. Then, a demonstration against the plan arrived. Participants in the two demonstrations did some mild chanting at each other. Afterwards, we went our separate ways.
Protesters against CS11 meet its supporters, in Swiss Cottage:
a very British stand-off

But, however mild-mannered the two demonstrations at Swiss Cottage might have been, there has been no disguising in the past weeks that demonstrators like those opposing CS11 are growing increasingly vocal in many parts of the developed world. From Community Board meetings in Brooklyn to the pages of daily newspapers in the UK, there have been noisy complaints that newly-introduced or planned cycling facilities are a tyrannical imposition by unfeeling authorities out of touch with the feelings of ordinary people.

The UK’s Daily Mail two weeks ago produced the most eye-catching manifestation of the phenomenon, devoting a double-page spread to what it called “cycle lane lunacy,” which it said was “paralysing Britain”. However, there have been plenty of other examples. The Community Board that oversees planning issues in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and surrounding areas is preparing for a meeting where some locals are expected to vent their near-apoplexy over the Citibike bikeshare system’s arrival in their neighbourhood. Local councillors in Ayr, in the West of Scotland, have voted, under pressure from drivers, to remove the town’s only significant protected bike lane.
A cyclist and motorists in Regent's Park: a powerful
illustration of the arrangements the anti-CS11 campaigners
are fighting to preserve

Yet the cycling sceptics and supporters seem as incapable of meaningful communication as the two groups shouting at each other last Saturday morning. The motorists’ side complains that bike lanes often look empty. Cyclists argue that just shows cycling’s efficiency. Motorists complain that cyclists don’t pay “road tax,” as they do. Cyclists reply that vehicle excise duty in the UK has not been a hypothecated tax for many decades. Motorists complain that congestion is growing worse. Cyclists retort that the people complaining are themselves the traffic. My mind turned, as I rode home from Swiss Cottage, to whether there is some way to narrow this currently apparently unbridgeable divide.

A couple of incidents have highlighted to me the width of the communication gap. The first was on September 23 when, after I published in my day job a piece about the future of London’s roads, a former colleague wrote to me. He questioned whether it could possibly be true, as I had written in the piece, that some London roads with cycle superhighways were carrying more people per hour in rush hours than they were before the superhighways were put in place. He also asserted that cycling was, in fact, far more dangerous than people admitted and that, anyway, only the young and fit could do it.
Morning rush-hour traffic on the north-south superhighway:
no, there's no way this street's carried more people since the
segregated bike path went in

Then, two weeks ago, a fellow guest at a dinner party asked me how I’d found my just-finished four years in New York. Struggling to sum up the wealth of experience, I said that New York drivers weren’t terribly nice to cyclists. “But isn’t that how everyone feels?” he blurted out, before looking mortified as it dawned on him that I was, in fact, a cyclist.

The two incidents reminded me that cyclists, for most people, seem like a strange, alien species, taking unfathomable risks yet somehow eager to suck other, new people into participating in their strange mode of transport. The reminder was all the more stark because it was clear that neither of my interlocutors were people of ill will. They thought their frustration over growing cyclist numbers and efforts to facilitate cycling was simple common sense.

It is unsurprising to me that the many people who hold such views see dedicating road space that was previously mainly used by motor vehicles to cycling as a strange, ideologically extreme act. The Swiss Cottage demonstrators were portraying Transport for London’s determination to put in more facilities to encourage cycling as a bizarre, politically-driven effort to punish ordinary people. For many New Yorkers, the notion that a person might ride a bike to work is entirely crazy. That bikes to allow people to do so are now taking up what used to be their normal parking space must seem like a personal insult.
Drivers in a traffic jam by an empty bit of superhighway:
all, I'm sure, would be calmed to learn they're not paying
road tax.

Yet the response from many cycling advocates could be calculated to heighten the irritation, rather than calming it. For example, cycling activists often retort when drivers complain that cyclists pay no “road tax” that the UK abolished its hypothecated road tax - whose proceeds all went to road building and maintenance - in 1937. While the point is accurate, It is also a prissy, know-it-all one. Like many such responses, it deliberately misses the thrust of what cycling’s critics are trying to say - in this case, that they feel their transport choices are heavily taxed and they cannot see why others should use the same space for free.

It would make far more sense to point out that, while motoring is indeed heavily taxed in the UK, the taxes still fall short of covering the full external costs of the pollution, congestion, crashes and other side-effects. The argument is still clearer in the United States, where no state’s taxes on motoring cover even the annual cost of road maintenance. A tax-paying cyclist is, consequently, both saving the neighbouring drivers money and, if he or she previously drove a car, reducing the burden on taxpayers.

Cycling campaigners end up deploying plenty of other similar “well, actually” arguments about the terms of the debate, rather than the substance. There was a striking example in the last week when Quentin Wilson, a campaigner to shift even more of the burden for motoring onto ordinary taxpayers, tweeted a picture of the most westerly current section of London’s east-west cycle superhighway, just off Parliament Square. “Great new cycle lane but where are the cyclists?” he wrote above a picture of the empty lane.
A group of tourists refutes Quentin Wilson's contention this
bike lane goes unused - but also my fellow cyclists' claim
it's not open

Many cycling advocates accused Wilson of bad faith, responding with pictures facing in the other direction, showing a barrier that marks the end of the superhighway. I saw several people tweet with an excited, “gotcha” tone that the lane wasn’t (actually) even open yet.

I’d far rather that activists had pointed out the facts about the section of cycle track in question - and addressed the underlying issue. The section is lightly used because it’s short and doesn’t yet link to any other part of the cycle network. While I’ve used it several times myself, I have also bypassed it sometimes as inconvenient. It would, in addition, be worthwhile pointing out that the superhighways are new, incomplete and that people’s travel patterns always take a while to change after changes to infrastructure.

The Wilson case was one of a worrying number where I’ve seen cycling advocates on Twitter and Facebook accusing opponents of something close to false consciousness. Many seem reluctant to accept, for example, that the new cycle superhighways are currently lightly used outside rush hours or that, yes, motor traffic congestion really is growing worse. Yet I ride frequently on the superhighways outside rush hours and encounter few other cyclists. Arguments that accepted these points, explained what was going on and explained why cycling facilities can help to resolve the problems would be far more compelling.
A rider uses the Southwark Bridge bike lane, one of those
singled out in the Daily Mail for paralysing Britain
The problem mirrors developments in the contemporary, polarised political scenes on both sides of the Atlantic. The echo chamber of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages full of like-minded people is gradually alienating many people from the idea that any sincere person could disagree with his or her point of view.

Such echo chambers encourage their inhabitants to feel particularly enraged at my fellow journalists. One Facebook thread I saw recently discussed how users might punish a reporter who had, the thread’s originator claimed, lied through the heinous act of reporting on the anti-cycling views of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Yesterday, I saw two normally sensible Twitter users discussing how a well-regarded reporter who happens to write critically about cycling must be secretly in some sinister anti-cycling group’s pay. This afternoon, I’ve seen on Twitter a suggestion that an anti-cycling editorial in the Sunday Times might be a sign of a “concerted media campaign building”.

Sure, this space in Vauxhall is being very
well used: but how interesting is it to point
that out?
This imagining of sinister, hidden agendas behind newspaper articles betrays a frustrating lack of understanding of how actual journalists work. While I understand the London Taxi Drivers’ Association may have undertaken some lobbying and I know that some business groups oppose new cycling provision, it is naive and silly to imagine that reporters automatically bend to obvious efforts to influence them.

Nearly every reporter I know is driven by a desire to spot developing trends and to paint a picture of the world that will strike his or her readers as true and illuminating. Cycling campaigners should be far more concerned that large numbers of journalists are independently detecting a mood to dismantle or halt progress on cycling and far less concerned with finding a hidden force behind it.The truth, after all, is that progress on both sides of the Atlantic is fragile. There are strong reactionary movements in parts of Europe and North America. 

Many people see provision for cycling as part of a suspect, politically-correct effort to take away their cars. Governments and local authorities have often seemed sheepish about promoting their efforts to support cycling. The arguments for cycling - that it is more space-efficient than motor vehicles, that it causes no pollution, that it costs little to provide for and promotes health - are so obvious as to seem trite. Cycle campaigners would be better, it seems to me, to admit they have a vision for the future that’s different from that of their opponents and argue for their vision’s superiority.
Slow progress in Hyde Park: tangible evidence of the
fragile nature of recent gains
My ride home from Swiss Cottage made clear the costs of failing to get across the case for cycling. Wanting to see progress on the next sections of the east-west superhighway, I took a route through Hyde Park. I at first enjoyed riding down a completed superhighway section down the park’s western end. But then, abruptly, I not only came to the end of the open superhighway but encountered an unannounced closure of the whole southern road through the park.

After my queries about a route for cyclists round the closure drew blank looks from park staff, I instead headed reluctantly out onto the streets of Kensington, one of London’s least cycle-friendly areas. As I did so, the driver of a large Range Rover edged threateningly close to me. When that failed to elicit whatever panicked response the driver was seeking, he leaned long and hard on the vehicle’s horn, issuing a depressing reminder of where real power on the UK’s roads currently lies.