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 clich├ęs 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.