“What do we want?
When do we want them?
It’s Plough Monday, 18:30, Kings Cross, an irregular parade – maybe 150 people with bikes, 100 without – have obstinately stopped on the intersection of Pentonville Road and York Way. They’re chanting in unison, making motor-traffic, from all directions wait longer than usual, while the dumb semaphore of the traffic signals repeat amber, red, red’n’amber, green.
I’m not here by accident – a volunteer – but ambivalent about the event, which might reinforce three erroneous, negative stereotypes…
- people on bikes are outsiders
- people on bikes are a nuisance
- people on bikes are victims.
Creating motor-traffic jams in Central London is not much of an ambition, nor much of an achievement. They happen on their own.
I turned out anyway. There’s trouble brewing over the assumptions underlying the way London’s streets are laid-out and actions like this one – called by bikesalive, a group of whom I know nothing – keep the pressure on. I calculate that the success of this action is more important than quibbling over tactics or aims.
Arriving at 18:00, the appointed roll-out time, rather than join the crowd waiting on the footway outside Kings Cross Station and risk getting cold or kettled. I ride reconnaissance circuits around the area’s one-way streets. The antiquated 20th Century system – engineered to give the impression that heavy traffic is moving freely – makes it easier to ride round and round than actually go anywhere.
The theatre of the street rarely disappoints. The railway terminus is disgorging Leeds United supporters bound for a cup-tie with The Arsenal. Police reinforcements lurking in a side street may be for the angry activists or the optimistic visitors.
Outside the ‘Du a Ri’ Bar in the Caledonian Road a clump of raucous men with white, blue, yellow scarfs are swilling beer and singing “We’re Leeds an’ we’ll fook you oop. We’re Leeds an’ we’ll fook you oop.” Ironically – as it turns out – to the melody ‘One-nil to the Arsenal’; trying to be scary, delighting in their own idiocy. Displays of folk-culture, now that’s what streets are for.
Meanwhile pedestrians among the activist are warned by police that walking on the road will not be tolerated. Some peds with mobility impairments express reluctance to even cross the street.
They’re here because Transport for London is currently carrying out a programme of pedestrian crossing removal, under the Mayor’s commitment to ‘smoothing traffic flow’. The Mayor has also shortened some pedestrian crossing times across London, despite evidence that this compromises older people’s safety.
All the while heavy flows of riders stooge past. These days any Inner London, rush-hour, bicycle action needs a healthy turnout just to differentiate itself from normal traffic.
The flyer for the event demands…
“Major changes at busy, dangerous junctions are essential. There must be cycle lanes and cycle priority at places like Kings Cross,… Traffic lights must be re-phased to have longer gaps between conflicting green phases, so that slow-moving traffic such as bikes, and pedestrians, are well clear of the junction before the next vehicles get a green light.”
For all its radical rhetoric it reads like a programme to accommodate current conditions not a fresh start from humane principles.
View Larger Map
The first step to civilising the the Kings Cross streetscape – and something to build a popular campaign on – is getting rid of the one-way systems, returning local streets to their default setting. This benefits everyone. The roads will be easier to cross on foot, bus passengers will know where their stops are, cyclists can go direct without involuntary detours and unnecessary turning manoeuvres. It even helps local motor traffic.
Any modification of the layout that doesn’t begin by scrapping the one-way systems entrenches them and their only purpose, which is to give the impression that motor-traffic is moving faster than horses pulling carts.
What do we want? Considerate people. How do we get that? Design the streets for everyone not just the motorised minority.
As a chant? It needs work.
The action ended at 19:00 with shouts of “see you next week” which sounded a bit over-ambitious, a ‘war’ of attrition? Repetition is easily dealt with by power, novelty and imagination can be more effective. But you never know, fashion is mysterious, maybe 2,500 will mobilise next time?
Role-models of distinction, update.
That’s not to criticise brilliant specialists. The cycle chic craze is delightful, not least because it’s vindicated a million middle-aged men who wouldn’t know ‘chic’ if it gave them a full body wax. They can now call looking at dynamic pictures of well-groomed, long-legged young women…
… ‘research on urban planning’.
Just to prove that almost all the good ideas have been had already and originality is a Twentieth Century perversion, Claire Petersky sent me this.
It’s also been suggested that last weeks pictures were somehow set-up, even that it was me under the headscarf. If the pictures had been staged then I would have definitely demanded a more obviously horsey model.
Even the authenticity of the pigeon has been questioned: “If it was really Sloane Square how come it was eating a bun not a brioche?”