starting pistol

England is mysterious country, so far North that Summer daylight lasts past bedtime, yet warmed by ocean currents to avoid any prolonged Winter, suspended between Europe and America, balanced between Germanic and Latin Europe, with a rich language that fuses both traditions.

“And Norseman and Negro and Gaul and Greek Drank with the Britons in Barking Creek”

Rudyard Kipling

The London 2012 Olympics™ were a magic time.

England is mysterious country, so far North that Summer daylight lasts past bedtime, yet warmed by ocean currents to avoid any prolonged Winter, suspended between Europe and America, balanced between Germanic and Latin Europe, with a rich language that fuses both traditions.

Imperial history adds more layers of richness. Great Britain is a Scottish concept, London an Irish city, we’re all Jamaicans now and right across South Asia schoolboys, who may never visit Yorkshire, do impressions of ‘Sir’ Geoffrey Boycott.

Stuart Hall – Anglo-Jamaican sociologist – said: “In the modern World, if you ask someone where they come from expect a long story.” The people of this archipelago have a head-start on modernity, the Romano-British were hyphenated even before the Anglo-Saxons blew in.

Invite an elite selection of the one-track-minded to come and show off in the World crucible of London, revise the budget upwards as often as necessary and the resulting magic will shine through even the grey haze of McDonalds, mondialisation and militarism.

There’s appetite for change in British Society. Tony ‘mad-bomber’ Blair becomes prime minister and it’s hailed as a bright new morning. Diana Spencer is slaughtered in a car-wreck and the temper of the nation is supposed to have changed forever. Men are finally jailed for killing Stephen Lawrence and nothing will ever be the same. Expect the current, sorely belated revision of the Hillsborough Stadium crush narrative (what an emborisment) to generate the same kind of waffle and Ferry Lane, Tottenham Hale to be renamed Mark Duggan Boulevard amid a blizzard of insincere apologies around 2035?

The great festival of running and jumping is the latest candidate for ‘nothing-will-ever-be-the-same’ status. Let’s not get carried away.

The golden trio of Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis and Mohammed ‘Mo’ Farrah inspired a joke that’s funny and progressive…

“A ginger, a mixed-race woman and a Somali refugee walk into a pub…

…and everyone cheers.”

…while in other news the UK border agency are spitefully terminating the courses of a load of people – who’ve spent thousands on studying in this country – only because they happen to come from outside the European Economic Community.

I enjoyed the Olympics – an all day roadside drinking session in the Mole Valley, hearing a prolonged chant of “One, Two, Tree.”   boom joyfully down the street on the night of the men’s 200 metres final, a trip to the Paralympic athletics with my Grandsons – but it’s now a relief not to hear the propaganda, about Olympopolis being ex-wasteland, repeated almost every day by Sebastian Coe, Tessa Jowell or some other land-grabbing liar who doesn’t give a fuck about grassroots sport or the prosperity and quiet enjoyment of the people of the Lower Lea Valley. Folks were working, living and recreating there before the bulldozers rolled in. The promised velo-park is not a gift. If secured it will be reparation.

The prolific web-log ‘Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest’ – said by some to be the work of Ron Binns, an old comrade from the glory days of the NO M11 Link Road Campaign and former editor of ‘Walk’ magazine – usefully highlights the first promised deadline of the ‘morning-after’ era.  I’d have asked for permission to reproduce the images and copy but CrapWalthamForest doesn’t take comments. So here they are pirated. If you are Ron Binns or any other brain behind CWF feel free to endorse or object.

15th October 2012

By this date these temporary and highly controversial structures built for the Olympics on green open space in the Lea Valley (including, naturally, a tarmac car park), will have been demolished and the entire site will have been returned to green, grassy space where local residents are free to wander. Nothing can possibly go wrong and there is no reason to believe that this deadline will not be met. Trust them – they’re Waltham Forest Council.

 

Let the ‘Legacy Wars’ begin.

mixed messages (part 1)

I’ve moved, five kilometres and two villages north-northwest; from West Hackney, London, E8 to West Green, London, N17.

West Hackney is a centre of bicycle paradise, where – in certain demographics – cycling is the default non-walking mode. As a former coordinator of the London Cycling Campaign in Hackney I naturally like to assume most of the credit for this.

Inner London is the easiest place in Britain to travel by bike. Bicycling makes sense, distances are short and nobody is surprised to find cycle-traffic on the road. There’s a convincing case that Outer London is the worst place in Britain to travel by bike.

My new locale – on the ragged coastline where Inner and Outer London bleed into each other – is an ideal place to savour the current era of mixed messages. A time when people who choose to travel by bike may be treated as heroic role-models for a sustainable future; or as vermin.

Here’s a junction on St. Ann’s Road in South Tottenham. One arm of the mini-roundabout crossroads is obstructed by a galvanised fence. You can get through walking but it’s awkward. On a bike you may dismount and walk or creep awheel, across the pinched foot-way as a guest. If you go for this riding option there’s no obvious way to rejoin the highway.

almost a closed road

A banner is currently hanging beside the barrier.

Leave my what?

‘Turn over a new leaf, leave your car at home.’ Nearly half the households in Haringey – my new home borough – do not own a car so this dopey message ignores the majority of the local population. Do it’s authors want me to buy a car so I can leave it at home, or would they be satisfied if I just joined a car club?

Meanwhile, down on Southgate Road, London N1, where Northchurch road crosses from the LB Hackney into LB Islington there’s a crossroads with a similar layout except instead of a galvanised fence there’s a modal filter. And no banner pleading lamely for behavioural change.

modal filter

who is killing who?

Reader – and black-belt bollard farmer – Richard Lewis asks this pertinent question… “In a recent post you asked whether Wiggins’ victory would make more people cycle. Now, the question is, could he be the agent to undo progress with cycling as a transport mode in this country, if the risk-averse and anti-cycling lobby hear what he says and make helmet-wearing compulsory? Shouldn’t he just stick to his day job?”

Reader – and black-belt bollard farmer – Richard Lewis asks this pertinent question…

“In a recent post you asked whether Wiggins’ victory would make more people cycle. Now, the question is, could he be the agent to undo progress with cycling as a transport mode in this country, if the risk-averse and anti-cycling lobby hear what he says and make helmet-wearing compulsory? Shouldn’t he just stick to his day job?”

It is indeed unfortunate that Wiggins was drawn into commenting on the tragic slaughter of Dan Harris. Interpret Wiggins remarks as misplaced professionalism. He was asked a question and gave an answer. Talking to the press is part of his day job. The fact that Wiggins’ remarks are widely reported as if he were an expert on public health is another manifestation of ‘you-cyclists-are-all-the-same’ foolishness which treats people who ride bikes as a homogeneous out-group.

Wiggins is not an expert on public heath. Indeed his chosen métier takes him into the elevated area of performance where health and fitness – which normally complement each other well – diverge drastically.

People get unnecessarily aerated about crash-hats for utility cycle riders because they don’t want to talk about more important stuff. The main thing about helmets for cycling is that they’re a marginal issue, not that important. It’s usually best to avoid getting drawn into arguments about them and move onto something more significant.

We need to be vigilant against creeping normalisation of helmets – for anything other than antagonistic sports riding – and to challenge the exaggerated value some people assign them, despite the very modest claims made by their manufacturers and testers. As this belief is often quasi-spiritual the challenge needs to be made gently to avoid putting
people on the defensive.

It’s a mistake to encourage or discourage an adult to wear – or not wear – a helmet. For adults personal risk assessment is best left to the individual.

Lot’s of people wear bicycle crash-hats on the back of their heads – where they can’t protect their brows and cheek bones in a forward fall – or with the straps so loose the helmet would be useless in an impact. Their helmet is a lucky charm, some kind of bulky and awkward St. Christopher or Ganesh. I once heard a youth worker – with ambitions to become a cycling instructor – say:- “So long as I’m wearing my helmet I feel safe.”

You can find everything – and probably more – than you need to know clearly and calmly expressed here. This page – in particular – is a useful corrective for people who imagine a helmet will protect them in anything beyond a relatively minor impact. It also stresses the importance of correct adjustment. If a helmet is worn it needs to fit, and be held firmly in the right place otherwise it’s value is only symbolic, which is at best no value, and may increase your risk of injury.

It’s true that in Spain national outrage following the running down and death of Ricardo and maiming of Javier, Otxoa led eventually to – lightly enforced – helmet compulsion. In Britain – where bicycle madness has bitten deeper – we who take a professional or amateur interest in public health can use any hysteria over crash hats to rehearse the important truths about who is killing whom.

Use the following simile with care –  it’s inflammatory – but nonetheless instructive. When a person who doesn’t travel by bike tells somebody that does travel by bike that they ought to wear a crash-hat it’s not at the same level of infamy as people who aren’t Jews telling Jews to wear yellow stars but there is a clear equivalence.

as easy as riding a bike

While people who used bicycles for travel were a vanishing tribe – stubbornly refusing to vanish – practical cycling was an unusual subject for mainstream media. On the rare occasions that it featured on a TV magazine show, a common convention was to give a naive reporter a bike and ask them to use it for commuting. When they ran into threshold problems the conclusion drawn was not, that the poor neophyte was in need of help, but rather that travelling by bike is impossibly difficult.

While people who used bicycles for travel were a vanishing tribe – stubbornly refusing to vanish – practical cycling was an unusual subject for mainstream media. On the rare occasions that it featured on a TV magazine show, a common convention was to give a naive reporter a bike and ask them to use it for commuting. When they ran into threshold problems the conclusion drawn was not, that the poor neophyte was in need of help, but rather that travelling by bike is impossibly difficult.

The exercise was analogous to putting a person who’s never skied on a lift up a mountainside, giving them a pair of Herman Munster boots clipped to a pair of two metre laminated planks, asking them to slide back to the valley and concluding from the embarrassing results that alpine skiing is not a bracing recreation but really, really difficult and somewhat perilous.

My own contribution to this clichéd sub-genre was in 1995 when hired to appear in an item about urban cycling by the production company of ‘Ride-On’ – a motoring show for Channel 4. The film crew had me riding round the Elephant and Castle, a busy double roundabout that forms the hub of South London’s road network. They shot me from various locations on the kerb, from the roof of a shopping centre, they clamped a clockwork camera the size of a brick – miniature for those times – on the handlebars and framed my face from below, they clamped it on the forks and shot forward into the moving traffic.

Keen to set a good example to the viewers and taking professional care of my temporary employer’s equipment I rode purposefully but with deliberate care, using the lane markings on the roadway, the patterns made by the files of motor-traffic and a bike rider’s ability to demand the attention of others, to hold an empty zone around my machine.

After each run the director and senior colleagues retired to their mobile home to view the latest sequence and confer in hushed voices. They did their best to seem optimistic – making moving pictures is a bit like going to war, morale is very important – but clearly weren’t happy with what had been recorded.

They were running out of options. It began to seem that darkness might fall without them capturing the pictures they wanted. Finally the director took me aside and in a conspiratorial tone asked:- “Can’t you make it look more difficult?”

In the end the segment – which mostly showed cycling to be a sensible way to get around London – went out with a staged coda in which the show’s presenter – an aristocratic ex-race driver – decided to try cycling; rode away and was knocked to the floor by a carelessly swung car door. It was meant to be funny.

In those days the seemingly contradictory notions…

  • Cycling is an infantile accomplishment unworthy of study.
  • Cycling is so difficult, dangerous and demanding that no sane person can contemplate it.

…reinforced each other by taking cycle-travel out of the realm of possible adult behaviour. Cycling was for children or for super-heroes, not for normal folk.

 

There’s a segment in the latest ‘Sunday Politics’ a show on BBC 1, on the feasibility of London ‘Going Dutch’. Featuring a discussion between the urbane and articulate Mustafa Arif – a Director of the London Cycling Campaign – a couple of politicians and – bizarrely – Sir Stirling Moss – the Lewis Hamilton of the 1950’s – who retired while I was still in the infants*.

Sir Stirling doesn’t have much to contribute beyond his legendary presence and a lame plea for helmet compulsion, which Mustafa flicks to the boundary with a finely judged mix of deference and contempt.

The interesting part for me is the film which introduces the discussion , and contrasts traffic conditions in Groningen, in the Netherlands, with those in London. It doesn’t dwell on the problems of cycling in our motor-centric capital. Now that most young and thrusting media-types travel by bike this line is no longer really tenable.

Here the metaphorical non-skier up the mountain is boy reporter Andrew Cryan trying to drive a car around central Groningen and finding it more than somewhat problematic.

The message is still that cycling can’t happen but the sensational premise is no longer…

‘Cycling to work? Are you mad?’

…but rather…

‘Where streets are cycle-friendly motoring is close to impossible.’

The young fellow does his best to make it look dangerous, talking to camera, with both hands off the wheel, while the vehicle is moving, but his flustered attempts tell us nothing about the practicality of moving a car in and out of the filtered permeability of Groningen’s centre, just that little Andrew was only there for six hours.

Even then his hyperbolic…

“Unless you were making a delivery or you’re a taxi[sic] you’d be absolutely mad to try and drive here.”

…has to be balanced with the observation that…

“In the suburbs [motor-]traffic flows incredibly well.”

Making car journeys more awkward also makes travelling by car easier. Who’d have thought it eh?

As we get into the discussion it’s hard to imagine that Sir Stirlingwho once jousted with Juan Manuel Fangio and Mike Hawthorn – was first choice as token apologist for motor-dependence?

They might have preferred Jeremy Clarkson who recently opined that…

“…in Britain, where cars and bikes share the road space. This cannot and does not work. It’s like putting a dog and a cat in a cage and expecting them to get along.”

This simile can’t really bear much analysis.

Q: What kind of dog wakes up in the morning and wonders: – ‘Shall I be a dog or a cat today?’

Q; If a dog and a cat have sexual congress will they produce…

Of course Jeremy Clarkson is a semi-fictional comic character – more Alan Partridge than Alain Prost – and the last thing he would want is to engage in reasoned debate about the baffling, reflexive fluidity of real-life.

  • Q: Who comes out of the skirting board at 220 miles per hour?
  • A: Stirling Mouse.

trouble in toyland

The man Hugo Chavez likened to “a polar bear that’s had an electric shock”  won the election for London Mayor – by a half a wheel or less – which has led to a new coinage(thanks to Max) – what an emborrissment. Last weeks rambling on the different preferences of Boris Johnson and Nicole Cooke, leading to the assertion that the choice between riding on the highway, and using any parallel infrastructure for cycle-traffic, is best left with the individual, attracted name-checks and green-ink denouncements on a site called ‘as easy as riding a bike’.

The man Hugo Chavez likened to “a polar bear that’s had an electric shock”  won the election for London Mayor – by a half a wheel or less – which has led to a new coinage(thanks to Max) – what an emborrissment.
Last weeks rambling on the different preferences of Boris Johnson and Nicole Cooke, leading to the assertion that the choice between riding on the highway, and using any parallel infrastructure for cycle-traffic, is best left with the individual, attracted name-checks and green-ink denouncements on a site called ‘as easy as riding a bike’.

If you fancy seven and a half thousand words (my guess is that ‘aseasyasridingabike’ is a man?) on what ‘Love London Go Dutch’ REALLY means its here, here, here and here.

The thrust of the argument is that progress toward bicycle paradise demands ‘roads for bikes’ and that anyone using a pedal-cycle must be compelled to use them, and barred from any parallel street, which shall be reserved for motor-traffic because anyone who wants to ride on the road is a ‘fast’ cyclist, so leaving the choice with the individual will mean that the new network for cycle-traffic will be designed only for ‘slow’ cyclists.

Perhaps I’m being over-optimistic but I feel strangely confident that an authoritarian political programme relying on the assumption  that I am a ‘fast’ cyclist is doomed to failure.

The other person in the cross-hairs of this ideological purge is professional bollard-farmer Richard Lewis who comes from Hackney, rides a funny bike and has drafted some sample designs for the ‘Go Dutch’ project based on the evident premise that Londoners on bikes behave in diverse, individualistic ways. I’m not that fussed about infrastructure and am confident Richard can deal with the technical criticism. Richard describes his approach thus:- “I (personally) am not after a “Dutch” design! I am after “good” design, which recognises and responds to the opportunities and constraints of the particular locations.” Whatever the fundamentalists say about ‘Dutch principles’ this practical approach ought to convince anyone who likes cycling, who wants to spread bicycle madness, that the ‘Go Dutch’ front is worthy of support.

I am a fat, lazy, granddad who often hauls 100kg of tools; while being described as a ‘fast cyclist’ falls somewhere between laughable flattery and gross misrepresentation there’s one item on the charge-sheet that I’m proud to plead guilty to…

“The first problem I have diagnosed, and which I will discuss in this initial post, is perhaps the most serious. It’s an incipient (or perhaps innate) notion that there are two distinct categories of cyclist; those that are happy cycling on the road, and who would continue to cycle on the road once ‘provision’ has been put in, and another category of cyclist, made up of those who are more nervous, or who don’t currently cycle but who would like to, for whom the infrastructure is being provided. Further, and problematically, this categorisation extends to the notion that these two distinct types of cyclist will require two different approaches to their cycling needs.”

 

…not only will I plead guilty to holding the heresy that there are two categories of cyclist I will go further. I not only hold that notion, I actually believe there are unnumbered categories of cyclist including plenty we are not yet able to imagine. Hell I’m five or six categories on my own.

How many categories of cyclist are there?

Ennio Morricone thinks there are just three but Diana Ross believes there are twelve kinds of cyclist and she loves them all.

free to choose

I admire Nicole Cooke and am embarrassed to say that – on this issue – I have more in common with the fat, middle-aged, scruffy Englishman than the World’s greatest living Welsh person. In my defence I must add that, though I’m entertained, to ride around the Elephant  – even in prevailing sub-optimal conditions – I’m not dumb enough to generalise from my own experience to everyone else’s.

If there’ a fight I’m on her side

“I certainly wouldn’t fancy riding across Vauxhall Cross or Elephant and Castle in rush hour…”

Nicole Cooke

Olympic Champion

Yikes I’ve lost the cyclist vote by riding without mg’s

“…sometimes I just go round Elephant & Castle because it’s fine. If you keep your wits about you, Elephant & Castle is perfectly negotiable.”

Boris Johnson

Mudguard-deficient buffoon

I admire Nicole Cooke and am embarrassed to say that – on this issue – I have more in common with the fat, middle-aged, scruffy Englishman than the World’s greatest living Welsh person. In my defence I must add that, though I’m entertained, to ride around the Elephant  – even in prevailing sub-optimal conditions – I’m not dumb enough to generalise from my own experience to everyone else’s.

For adults personal risk-assessment is best left to the individual.

I’m not that worried about infrastructure. I like travel and if you want to get to anywhere interesting you need to be ready to ride in a range of conditions. Watch our for rabid dogs and sunburn, but the danger almost always comes from people, so it’s best to concentrate on the human element. Having said that when it comes to bollardism I do have a favourite street in Greater London….

Argall Way is an affront to all those Twentieth Century traffic-engineers who used to use the excuse:- “We just don’t know what you cyclists want? The robust types want to ride on the road, while others are crying out for their own tracks.”

Funny how they still managed to cater for motor-traffic even though some sofa-jockeys just wanted to potter to the corner-shop to get fags and a pint of milk, and others blasted from Plymouth to Inverness without even stopping for a Yorkie bar.

Leyton Cycle-chic

Nestled in the Lower Lea, where Inner and Outer London grind like tectonic plates, Argall Way is theoretically perfect because it has cycle-tracks on either side offering respite from any status problems people on bikes might feel about taking space on the carriageway while at the junctions there are – now somewhat faded – advance stop boxes, which signal clearly that cycle traffic is also welcome on the highway.

I took these pictures on Easter Sunday 2012  when a tragic wreck on the highway meant police had closed the Lea Bridge Road to all but walking traffic for the whole day. A boy on a motor-cycle had been hit by a man in a car and then smashed by another. The metal plague has taken so many.

Even then Argall Way was uncongested. Low-density development in its environs mean you never find a traffic jam there. There’s nothing much to visit.

Argall Way is built on ex-railway lands and it isn’t hard to imagine a more civilised use of the area. The space demanded by clumsy vehicles with high maximum speeds ends up increasing the distances people have to travel. Like weapons of death and drugs of addiction, motorised travel creates more demand than it satisfies.

Where motor-traffic is allowed to dominate to the point where – as well as a path for walking – a cycle-track is also necessary, this adds to the land-take. A cycle-track built in reaction to motor-traffic may be helpful as part of an exit strategy from motor-dependence but it’s also more land wasted enabling hyper-mobility. Cutting up space and dedicating each fraction to a particular mode spreads the inefficiency of the land-hungry to those that are otherwise able to share and adapt more easily.

Given access to the whole road, when tidal flow is heavy – for example bicyclists coming out of Hackney towards the City of London around 08:30 on a Wednesday – people on bikes can take a whole traffic lane. If they’re confined to a dedicated track they have to queue in a tighter space.

There are many things in the Netherlands to admire and emulate; but we can improve on their practice in one significant measure. In the Netherlands and Germany it’s illegal to ride on the road where there’s a parallel cycle-track and this is – in my experience – rigorously enforced even where following the side-path may be a less attractive option than riding on the road.

There’s no practical problem with a full-hearted endorsement of the important principle that the choice between riding on the highway, and using any parallel cycle-infrastructure, is best left with the individual? An unequivocal endorsement of this principle – as a caveat to advocacy for ‘three network’ street design – defuses simple-minded, knee-jerk, ideological criticism and enables the widest possible support for a ‘Go Dutch’ agenda. Sectarianism is a gift to our enemies. The principle also provides a passive quality-control mechanism. If facilities are good enough everyone will use them anyway.

In the medium-term the answer is not struggling to fit a third network into the Elephant and Castle so Nicole can pass without fear, or insisting on toughness and vigilance from bike riders so they can circulate with Boris and the motor-traffic. The priority is explaining gently and firmly – at every opportunity – to  John Griffin and his fossilised followers that people on bicycles own the road and the motor-dependent must be grateful that we’re willing to graciously share it with them. Note for John:- Don’t pretend you’re in hurry. Everyone knows that if you were really in a hurry you’d be on a push bike.

Infrastructure changes that make – for example – the Elephant and Castle look more like an Inner-City hub and less like a suburban gyratory will reinforce this simple idea and release land for…

  • shops
  • bars
  • restaurants
  • offices
  • workshops
  • factories
  • studios
  • homes
  • hotels
  • clinics
  • nurseries
  • schools
  • colleges
  • playgrounds
  • nature reserves
  • gardens
  • theatres
  • cinemas
  • opera houses
  • skating rinks
  • gymnasia
  • swimming pools
  • fountains
  • parks

…you get the idea?

cruisin’ and playin’ the radio

On Saturday 10,000 – give or take – rode from Park Lane up Piccadilly down to Trafalgar Square, along Whitehall and out along the Embankment. I used the event to debut my new 24 volt sound system which performed faultlessly, with a four hour run time and at least one complaint that it was just too fffortissimo.

On Saturday 10,000 – give or take – rode from Park Lane up Piccadilly down to Trafalgar Square, along Whitehall and out along the Embankment. I used the event to debut my new 24 volt sound system which performed faultlessly, with a four hour run time and at least one complaint that it was just too fffortissimo.

Having started on cycle-mounted remote sound in the era of cassette-tapes and progressed through CD’s and mini-discs it’s great to enjoy the solid-state stability of a digital player the size of a matchbox. The new outfit fits on a Burrows 8Freight and two wheels are a lot less stress than my last system which ran on a big old Brox.

now loud light and nimble (picture from funnycyclist)

I like music on bike rides.  It mocks the cult of banging music in cars, gives the most mundane spin a cinematic quality and signals to anyone watching that this is not angry it’s FUN.

If you’re planning a rolling event, skates, boards, space-hoppers even pedal bikes, that might benefit from a sound-system that leaves nothing but silence between the notes, or are thinking of a party somewhere conveniently off-grid and don’t want a generator hum, drop me a line and we can talk.

Wanna be in my gang, my gang, my gang?

Should a motorist fail to observe a granny wobbling to avoid a pothole or a rain drain, then he is guilty of failing to anticipate that this was somebody on her maiden voyage into the abyss. The fact is he just didn’t see her and however cautious, caring or alert he is, the influx of beginner cyclists is going to lead to an overall increase in accidents involving cyclists.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Mahatma Gandhi

John Griffin, self-made millionaire, minicab baron must be smart, dynamic and hardworking, but he’s not keeping up.

His company – Addison-Lee – is pretentious enough to have an in-cab magazine, in which Griffin is vain enough to have his own column.

Here’s his latest effort. The emphasis is mine but the strange capitalisation in the opening sentence  comes from the original…

“Green party candidates and others are up in arms about what they see as the murder of Cyclists on London Roads.

There has, as we all know, been a tremendous upsurge in cycling and cycling shops. This summer the roads will be thick with bicycles. These cyclists are throwing themselves onto some of the most congested spaces in the world. They leap onto a vehicle which offers them no protection except a padded plastic hat.

Should a motorist fail to observe a granny wobbling to avoid a pothole or a rain drain, then he is guilty of failing to anticipate that this was somebody on her maiden voyage into the abyss. The fact is he just didn’t see her and however cautious, caring or alert he is, the influx of beginner cyclists is going to lead to an overall increase in accidents involving cyclists.

The rest of us occupying this roadspace have had to undergo extensive training. We are sitting inside a protected space with impact bars and air bags and paying extortionate amounts of taxes on our vehicle purchase, parking, servicing, insurance and road tax.

It is time for us to say to cyclists ‘You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up’.”

Somebody should tell Mr. Griffin it’s too late for this kind of tub-thumping. The London congestion charge is significant, not because it affects many people. The number who want to drive a motor-vehicle into Central London, for whom ten pounds is a lot of money, is pretty small, maybe less than five figures. The congestion charge is important because its inauguration signalled clearly that the concepts ‘citizen’ and ‘motorist’ are no longer interchangeable.

During the last third of the Twentieth Century there was a general assumption that everyone was – wanted to be – or thought like a motorist. Now there’s a small – but highly significant – area where people without cars are welcome on the streets, while the motor-dependent minority have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to use them. We own the road, they have to rent it by the day.

John may be finding that his ‘us’ and ‘we’ are more fluid than they used to be, that some of his clients may be sufficiently annoyed by his gormless, victim-blaming that they might be moving their accounts to companies whose chairmen stick to deploying chauffeurs, and leave pontification on public health to those with a better grip on the data. As they say in California:- ‘cycling is the new golf’.

Wobblygrannygate isn’t Griffin’s only current intervention in the great who-actually-does-own-the-road debate. He recently sent out 3500 letters urging drivers who hire his cabs – they’re not employees but rent John’s limos on the rickshaw model – to break the law by using bus lanes.

London has many ‘bus lanes’, strips of road-way from which general traffic is excluded for some or all of the time. Most bus lanes are currently open only to pedal cycles, local buses and licensed black-cabs. Griffin backs this call for politically-motivated law-breaking by offering to pay any fines his sub-contractors accrue.

Some bike riders get very defensive about bus lanes. I own the road and am happy to share it with anyone. For me care, courtesy and consideration are more important  than compliance. I don’t mind sharing a bus lane with someone driving a people-carrier, even a motor-cyclist, so long as they have a convivial attitude and understand that, other people getting in your way, is a definition of city-life.

Taxis of all classes have a part to play in an exit strategy from motor-dependence. In today’s conditions car ownership is quite like a bar where the drink is very cheap but you have to pay a lot to get in. How ever much the motor-dependent kvetch about the price of fuel, the marginal cost of travel in your own car remains pretty low. It’s the fixed costs – insurance, depreciation, vehicle excise duty* that impoverish the motor-dependent.

Those who imagine they can’t live without an automobile, and are running on a limited budget, really don’t have much choice once they’ve got a car. They’ve got to use it to get their money’s worth and probably don’t have a lot of funds left-over for buses, trains, taxis or nice push bikes.

Cabs aren’t public transport, they’re vehicles available for private hire, but easy access to reliable taxis – first, second or third class –  is another wedge in the widening crack between ‘people’ and ‘motorists’.

John thinks we’re his enemies when really we are – or used to be – his customers.

*(note to John Griffin:- ‘road tax‘ went out – in 1937 – with the wing-collar and the cut-throat razor)

unity = strength

John Griffin’s call for civil-disobedience among his sub-contractors has annoyed some bike riders but the real turf-war is between categories of taxi-driver. Black-cab drivers, the aristocrats of the trade, have to spend years of ritual humiliation as ‘knowledge boys’, pottering around on low-powered motor-cycles – riding them is really dangerous –  with bar-mounted map-clips, memorising the streets, hoping  to pass ‘The Knowledge’, a Driving Standards Agency exam.

John Griffin’s call for civil – disobedience among his sub-contractors has annoyed some bike riders but the real turf-war is between categories of taxi-driver. Black-cab drivers, the aristocrats of the trade, have to spend years of ritual humiliation as ‘knowledge boys’, pottering around on low-powered motor-cycles – riding them is really dangerous –  with bar-mounted map-clips, memorising the streets, hoping  to pass ‘The Knowledge’, a Driving Standards Agency exam.
Black-cab drivers can navigate from Paddington Church Street to Wimbledon Church Street without reference to books, electronic aids or phoning a friend.  Licensed taxi-drivers in black-cabs can pick up passengers who hail them on the street while minicab-drivers can only take bookings by phone, internet or via an office. Minicab-drivers are free to negotiate fares, black-cabs carry a meter that only offers a fixed tariff.

The advent of satellite navigation has diluted the mystical status of ‘The Knowledge’. John Griffin, chairman of the Private Hire Car Association, clearly wants to move the image of the minicab – traditionally a smelly car with square wheels, whose dodgy looking driver doesn’t know Camden Town from Canning Town – up-market.

The bitterest arguments are usually between groups who – viewed from a distance – appear to be almost identical. Supporters of Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United don’t get along even though both come from the Steel City and have an unhealthy interest in association football.

does danger come from ‘streets’ or is that a euphemism for the followers of John Griffin?

Saturday(28-04-12) is the date of ‘The Big Ride‘ a show of strength organised by the London Cycling Campaign to coincide with the forthcoming mayoral election.

Think long and hard before voting for anyone who makes our city a global embarrassment by being too dumb to put mudguards on a bike they plan to ride in office clothes.

The Big Ride rolls out from Marble Arch at mid-day and there are feeder rides starting all over.

You may be a follower of Mikael Colville-Andersen to whom a bike is no more interesting than a vacuum cleaner and who does most of his miles in a jet airliner? You may be the kind of person who  if their head were cut off – in some brutal Matthew Parris inspired atrocity – it would reveal the image of a bicycle through their neck like the writing in a stick of seaside rock?

Either way if you’re in the London area on Saturday, with nothing better to do, why not join in? You might make new friends or – even better – history?

subjective safety special

“In its raw state the reflexive fluidity of the World overwhelms our limited powers of comprehension. We resort to simplification and abstraction in an attempt to cope.”

“In its raw state the reflexive fluidity of the World overwhelms our limited powers of comprehension. We resort to simplification and abstraction in an attempt to cope.”

John Adams

Obsession with anniversaries make this an auspicious week to consider ‘subjective safety’. A concept which has lately gained some traction in the zany World of bicycle politics.

passengers comfortable, ship unsinkable, shipwreck unthinkable

Traditional estimates of risk and safety relate to actuarial statistics, data about what’s happened before. Subjective safety is a psychological concept about how people feel.

Subjective safety fits into a theory that a mass of pre-cyclists are standing-by, waiting for ‘subjective safety’ to pass a critical threshold so they can hit the radweg. Advocates describe the theory as ‘simple’ but human motivation, human comfort, are slippery fish.

Do the people who ride motor-cycles, for short journeys, maybe to the gym, do it because bicycling is too safe? Everyone knows motor-cycles are really dangerous.

There are other ways to describe subjective safety. A misplaced feeling of safety is complacency. Over-estimate of threats is paranoia. An informed risk-assessment makes the concept redundant, ‘subjective safety’ and safety can then be treated as the same.

Risk-assessment is a key skill in enjoying cycle-travel. Successful risk-assessment is a life-enhancing faculty. Over-estimate hazards and you miss out on fun and excitement, under-estimate dangers and you may come a cropper. Learning to ride a bike is learning to live.

September 3, 1967, was a significant date in Sweden. Road traffic switched from travelling on the left in the English pattern to moving on the right in the German style. The significant drop in crashes in the period after the change has led John Adams to suggest that the best way to make road traffic safe would be to change the rules about which side of the road to travel on every six weeks, or better still to have no rules at all.

The simple formalities of traffic circulation allow people operating vehicles on the highway to concentrate their vigilance and therefore go much faster than would otherwise be safe. The system that regulates social interactions on our highways is called ‘road safety’ when really it’s the opposite, a social code that routinely enables highly dangerous behaviour, while keeping carnage and destruction at an acceptable level. When the very name of the system obscures its real purpose, it’s not surprising that some people have trouble assessing the risks of travel.

Its customary to describe threats from motor-traffic, threats from the current system of hyper-mobility, in euphemistic terms. People talk about the ‘dangers of busy roads’, ask bicycle users if they aren’t ‘frightened of the cars?’ Systems failures that happen every day are always ‘accidents’ never ‘crashes’.

This picture – “The Cars That Ate Paris”  aims to make it’s audience subjectively endangered – a jolly Australian horror that prefigures the successful ‘Mad Max’ series deserves wider distribution, a reissue, maybe even a remake? If you haven’t seen it take any chance you get.

A road is only dangerous if liable to flash floods, avalanche or some other natural disaster. Cars are dangerous if they catch on fire or are left parked on inclines with hand-brakes disengaged. The routine danger comes from people. Nice people like you and me.

The person who thinks it’s safe, normal and sane to negotiate a junction in a heavy vehicle, too fast for full control, with one hand holding a phone into which they are talking, is just as deluded as the person who can’t consider riding a bike. The latter doesn’t need a reason but if pressed may offer ‘I’d be too frightened’.

Neither are bad people. Neither deserve to be indulged. They need help, but trying to re-engineer the World to accommodate a warped analysis won’t help either of them.

They might even be the same person?