The wasteland?

Sunday afternoon in the Olympic Velodrome, Lord  Coe makes a short speech in which he praises the glamorous new wooden ‘O’ and recalls how seven years ago, on the same spot, he was ‘struggling with rotting fridges’. When politicians – who all champion grassroots sport – talk about the Olympic Park in the Lower Lea Valley, it’s customary to infer – even to state explicitly – that it was built on waste land.

“The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Milan Kundera

Now

Sunday afternoon in the Olympic Velodrome, Lord  Coe makes a short speech in which he praises the glamorous new wooden ‘O’ and recalls how seven years ago, on the same spot, he was ‘struggling with rotting fridges’. When politicians – who all champion grassroots sport – talk about the Olympic Park in the Lower Lea Valley, it’s customary to infer – even to state explicitly – that it was built on waste land.

 then

When you lost skin racing dirt-bikes over the scrub hills of Eastway grazes took time to heal because the land was composed of rubbish. Where tyres eroded the earth, fragments of brick and glass emerged. Despite this cruelty the environs of the cycle racing circuit, the adjacent nature reserve and allotments were a green haven.

The cycle racing at Eastway covered all disciplines – except track racing – at all standards. The Tuesday time-trials would regularly feature riders capable of covering the undulating, one mile circuit, ten times in 23 minutes, while other competitors took a quarter hour longer. All were welcome and all valued.

pedalpower at Eastway

Post-games plans for the Olympic lands include a velo-park around the new indoor track, which stands where the Eastway home straight once ran. During the tortuous and bitter negotiations over this legacy those who now control the land have often overlooked the fact that this new facility will not be a gift. The velo-park is repayment for what was lost in 2006 when the old circuit – on land dedicated for the quiet enjoyment of the people of East London forever – went under the bulldozers.

One analysis of the Olympic bid  is as a massive land-grab. Once this Summer’s party is over it will be time to deliver all the promises made in the frantic run-up, time to take down the temporary buildings and tear up the temporary coach-parks. We can look forward optimistically to the Eastway diaspora’s glorious home-coming, to racing on land from which all toxic waste has been diligently removed. The new park is due to open in 2013, but the useful outdoor cycle-sport elements won’t be reinstated or sustained because that’s what the land-grabbers want. They prefer the wasteland myth. Vigilance is necessary.

This land belongs to you and me

If God had meant us to walk why would she have given us bicycles? Pushing on into Angel Lane, over the bridge, which is much higher than it used to be – see the Olympics does have fitness benefits for the general population – in search of rolling access, the first turning toward the great new ‘Croydon’ was unambiguously marked ‘NO CYCLES’. People in cars or on motor-cycles were welcome. I wasn’t. Through Leyton and out along Ruckholt Road. At Eastway the same story. A signpost to Westfield but – again – no access for unmotorised people. The how-to-get-here > cycling, on the mall’s website boasts of 800 parking stands but doesn’t tell you how to get to them.

 get a car or go away

I’m pretty sure you can’t get to Westfield Stratford City, the shopping complex that abuts the Olympic Park, by bike. Riding round the site’s perimeter the pedestrian access from Stratford Station is up two flights of stairs followed by a long walk. If God had meant us to walk why would she have given us bicycles? Pushing on into Angel Lane, over the bridge, which is much higher than it used to be – see the Olympics does have fitness benefits for the general population – in search of rolling access, the first turning toward the great new ‘Croydon’ was unambiguously marked ‘NO CYCLES’. People in cars or on motor-cycles were welcome. I wasn’t. Through Leyton and out along Ruckholt Road. At Eastway the same story. A signpost to Westfield but – again – no access for unmotorised people. The how-to-get-here > cycling, on the mall’s website boasts of 800 parking stands but doesn’t tell you how to get to them.

Apparently the first London Westfield in Shepherds Bush had hurt the trade of posh streets in West London and I was interested in the dissonant idea that big city people might visit shopping malls. I’d always thought of Brent Cross, Bluewater, Lakeside Thurrock as places where suburban types went to trudge and gawp. My enthusiasm for the visit dented by Californian infrastructure, I rode home leaving the new tills unsullied by my coin.

To get to the Velodrome for the test event last week spectators had to assemble South West of Westfield. We arrived at Stratford in good time, took instruction from a cheery uniformed ‘greeter’ climbed the steps, cyclo-cross style, walked through the Mall then parked on Sheffield stands by a new dual carriageway. We came from Hackney so’d already passed close to the Velodrome and ridden halfway round the estate’s perimeter before starting our march.

The shuttle bus service was quietly efficient, being searched, walking across bleak plazas and queuing, all reminiscent of the indignities of air-travel. The bus took us on a serpentine tour of the Olympic site, under and over the same bridges – like hostages being deliberately disorientated. Eventually we were dropped, another walk away from the target we’d ridden by thirty minutes earlier.

The racing was exciting. The new velodrome elegant and functional even better than Manchester.

Then…

Now

When the bus returned us at the end of the day we mounted our bikes like honest men and – instead of walking in the wrong direction – rode West for home. After a few hundred metres a couple in yellow jackets walked into the road waving their arms. Of course we ignored them dodging through in a slow-motion parody of tricky track sprinters. They followed in a pick-up truck flashing their lights but – since the road was busy with motor-cars – couldn’t stop us without causing big trouble. At the Olympic Park exit fence, back – again – close to the Velodrome, we were finally halted and told-off. The staff had no coherent explanation why we couldn’t ride along a road busy with other traffic. When challenged to explain they had to fall back on the honest explanation. They were only obeying orders.

It was the cycle racks that got me thinking. Why had they been built if you couldn’t ride there? The next day I returned, rode to Stratford climbed the steps walked through the shops back to the parking racks. I knew riding westward would cause trouble ‘not you again?’ so I tried riding East towards Stratford and emerged on Leyton Road from behind a ‘no cycling’ sign.

I suppose this situation is temporary, That – in due course – cycle access will be revealed, but Westfield Stratford City has been open for six months.

In Inner London the bicycle is an obvious form of transport. Everything is near and the roads are mostly too narrow and congested for people to speed in motor-vehicles. In certain places, in some demographics, it’s become the default mode of travel.

In the outer suburbs bicycling is much more awkward and transgressive. Four-car households are not exceptional, the landscape is cut by big roads that often hog the desire-line. Places are further apart. For Inner Londoners who ride bikes the outer suburbs present a doughnut of inaccessibility between their regular haunts and the wide green World beyond the metropolis. Greater London contains the best conditions for cycle-travel in the UK. And the worst.

In most places round the doughnut’s inside edge, Inner and Outer bleed together through a liminal zone where some people look inwards and others outwards. Along the lower Lea Valley – once the peace-line between the Danes and the Saxons, then a boundary between Essex and London – the division is clearer and more abrupt. Westfield is definitely an invading out-post of suburbia, who’s imagined visitors come by car or perhaps via the public-transport hub at Stratford.

One of the many proposed benefits for the 2012 Olympics was jobs for local people, a phenomenon I’ve benefited from in a tiny way. There’s also the concept of the ‘games-train’ where rootless people – Australians, Kiwis, Canadians, etc. – traverse the globe from World Championship, to World Cup, to Olympics, ending one grand project then moving on to another. These people bring expertise. Perhaps their sympathy for the ‘local’ is not so well developed?

The roads of the Olympic Park are being laid out in a low-density, motor-friendly way. The speed limit will be twenty miles per hour. That contradiction is a manifestation of an era – and an area – of mixed messages.

Go Go Go Go Go Dutch

A cyclist was “lucky to be alive” after he was knocked off his bike by a rope stretched across a County Durham woodland trail. Lukasz Sikorski was travelling at 20mph when he hit the cord, which was tied between two trees in Hamsterley Forest. The mountain biking organisation, Descend Hamsterley, said he was lucky not to be seriously or fatally injured.

Reader Jonathan Chandler alerted me to a  potentially life-threatening attack,  presumably undertaken by followers of M. Parris. To call them parrisians risks defamation by association of  the citizens of Île-de-France. The correct term is parrisites.

Rope ‘sabotages’ Hamsterley Forest track

8 February 2012

A cyclist was “lucky to be alive” after he was knocked off his bike by a rope stretched across a County Durham woodland trail.

Lukasz Sikorski was travelling at 20mph when he hit the cord, which was tied between two trees in Hamsterley Forest.

The mountain biking organisation, Descend Hamsterley, said he was lucky not to be seriously or fatally injured.

It has offered a reward for help in finding the person responsible. Durham Police are also investigating

Somebody – yes Matthew that does mean you – needs to explain to Durham Police that it’s meant to be a joke and tell Mr. Sikorski to lighten up.

The Times’ turnaround since 2007 was also noted by David Hembrow who I rode with back in the Twentieth Century, and more recently competed against in funny bike racing. Those events are about 36 hours too short for me, but I do prefer a sport where anyone – with a cycle – can ride the World Championships without need to qualify.

I took advantage of our coincidental posts to contact David. There’s a favourite statistic, I’ve been pedalling for at least twenty years, that needs updating and – since it concerns travel in the Netherlands from whence David broadcasts to the World – I hoped he could help.

“One in four bicycle journeys in the Netherlands is made by a female pensioner” is what I’ve told anyone willing to listen since before the internet was open. Turns out it’s bollox. What might be true – and probably explains where my garbled version came from –  is that one in four journeys made by a female pensioner, in the Netherlands, is on a bicycle. Which begs the question how do those indestructible old ladies make the other 75 percent of their trips? Skateboard? Motorcycle, now that’s really dangerous? Or maybe in those crazy flying-squirrel suits. Once again – when it comes to social science –  it turns out that the only reliable figure is that 82.4 percent of statistics are made up on the spot.

David also dismisses my suggestion that presumed liability is a “glaring omission” from the Times’ campaign.

“In the Netherlands it’s an obscure part of the law ( “art. 185 WVW” ) and there is no catchy phrase for it. People don’t realise that liability here is different from elsewhere, and they don’t realise that it’s in any way controversial elsewhere. This was simply a small change to the law which was brought in to ensure that financial responsibility in crashes was directed in the most sensible direction. It has nothing at all to do with laying blame and it mainly acts to protect those aged under 14 years of age.”

I’m inclined to agree that it’s not a glaring omission. There are other important things missing. I also wonder if David under-estimates it’s significance? Dutch people don’t know about the legal context of crashes between pedestrians and vehicles, or between vehicles of different categories. Fish don’t know about water.

Jim Davis, chair of the bombastically-named and interesting ‘Cycling Embassy of Great Britain’, the only national cycle campaign born in the age we live in, testifies to a journey in the Netherlands to visit David.

“Where cycle path and road met, motorists stopped for us, even when we didn’t have priority.”

Infrastructure design and planning in the Netherlands are interesting subjects from which we can take wisdom and local solutions, but finally danger – and therefore safety – only comes from people. Even if David’s correct and the legal context is not relevant to conditions for cycling and walking in the Netherlands it doesn’t mean that campaigning for a change in the UK is not a useful thing to do. Argument over presumed liability once started can – in the current climate – gather it’s own momentum.

Go Go Go Go Go Dutch?

Without consensus a net of rad-weg, joining every address in this country, could still be rendered impassable to the nervous by parrisitic hoons on motor-cycles. Amongst the current enthusiasm for all things Dutch don’t forget that there – as in Germany – sales of new utility bikes have lately collapsed against those of battery machines.

Might a national conversation on childrens’ freedom of movement, exactly who does own the roads and where danger actually comes from, help all the people who currently, perversely, don’t travel by cycle?

We may hypothesise that some of these are timid pre-cyclists just waiting for physical conditions to change so they can fulfill their ambition for motor-free travel, that others are hard-hearted parrrisites itching to slaughter the self-righteous scum who dare ride ought-to-be-humble pedal-cycles on roads meant for cars? Might these notional categories overlap? They’re certainly projected onto the same population. Human motivation is complicated. You can’t change the way people behave without changing the way they think.

What do we want?

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.

“What do we want?
Safer streets.

When do we want  them?

NOW.”

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.

Last week’s post featured street photography. If you imagine owntheroad is going to be some low-wattage addition to that genre please look away now. There’s no dignity in stalker behaviour.

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?”