Saturday’s big ride event has been widely reported as ‘a protest’ but it’s naive to imagine that much notice will be taken off a bunch of happy bike riders, being obedient, on a Saturday? The event was a success, but not because it made governments tremble. Rulers are always more likely to focus on the apathetic millions who didn’t turn out. It was a success mostly because those who took part felt validated, part of something big, powerful, progressive and exciting.
“WE WANT SAFER CYCLING STREETS” is an odd slogan. The event itself was taking place on the streets of London and – despite the odd touch of wheels and some temporary ear damage – was devoid of mortal danger. No serious injuries were reported. “WE WANT SAFER STREETS” would be evasive enough. “WE WANT SAFER CYCLING STREETS” is just confusing. Aren’t all streets for cycling?
Danger doesn’t come from streets it comes from people. The layout of the streets has an important influence on how people behave but worrying only about the streets, ignoring the actual source of the trouble – people – is displacement activity; focusing on something relatively simple, because the actual problem is too complicated, too daunting.
When J.S.Dean – chairman of the Pedestrian’s Association – identified ‘road safety’ as a brutal ideology, formulated by the German National Socialists, and enthusiastically adopted by the British Motor-Lobby, he didn’t feel any need to explain why special tracks for cyclists were evil.
“Here then are some of the Nazis’ “road safety” methods: fines for “careless walking,” collectable on the spot; “endangering traffic” and crossing against the amber made punishable offences; special tracks for cyclists….”
J. S. Dean, Murder Most Foul,
a study of the road road deaths problem
Laying a cycle-track beside a street is an unambiguous statement that the people using the roadway are expected to be brutalised and brutal, to put their need to hurry – or more precisely, in an urban context, to put their desire to feel as though they are in a hurry – above the well-being of others.
Under the crushing cultural and economic inertia of motorisation J.S.Dean became a voice in the wilderness. Questioning the costs of hyper-mobility is only just emerging into the mainstream after half a century during which drawing attention to its toll put one beyond the frontiers of sanity.
In Central and Inner London a critique of motor-dependence now makes obvious sense. As this local consensus grows stronger we need not be as dogmatic as the heroic hold-outs of history. It’s as foolish to reject cycle-tracks because the Nazis liked them as it would be to denounce training for cyclists because self-advertising dinosaur John Griffin thinks it a good idea.
Currently there are plenty of roads, where there are space for cycle-tracks and cycle-tracks would be very useful. You don’t need to ride far out from Central London on any radius to find highways where current conditions demand a very tough-minded attitude, where people on bikes are rare enough that younger motorists, or those who grew up overseas, imagine that cycle-travel on them is actually prohibited.
There’s now a fashion for commentary – accompanied by pictures of everyday cycling in the cities of Northern Continental Europe – that looks eagerly forwards to the day when London ‘will look like this’. Meanwhile in the London Borough of Hackney bicycling is – in certain demographics – becoming the default non-walking mode, and an appetite for practical cycle travel is bleeding into all the other fragments that populate this nascent velo-paradise. There are historical and geographical reasons for this but it’s happening without recourse to Hitlerite infrastructure.
Stevenage has cycle-tracks everywhere and far fewer riders than the London Borough of Hackney or Ferrara in Italy, where thirty per-cent of journeys are made by bike. I’ve been told Ferrara has no cycle-tracks.
Cycle-tracks are an important element in a transitional programme, but not an objective in their own right for anyone but apologists for motor-dependence. Check – for example – sorry advert for sedentary living Adam Rayner…
…and his endorsement of Dutch infrastructure at 3.14. He wants cycle-tracks, doubtless in principle and forever. But is he an aspirational role-model?