What causes avelopia?

If you ride a bike – and most sensible people do – you must have pondered ‘how do people without bikes manage?’ I can imagine the details of avelopes’ daily agendas – waiting for buses or trains, paying for taxis, enmeshed in the troublesome uncertainties of motor-dependence – but their emotional lives are a mystery; so much patience so little imagination.

If you ride a bike – and most sensible people do – you must have pondered ‘how do people without bikes manage?’
I can imagine the details of avelopes‘ daily agendas – waiting for buses or trains, paying for taxis, enmeshed in the troublesome uncertainties of motor-dependence – but their emotional lives are a mystery; so much patience so little imagination.

The parallel question – why don’t they ride bikes?  – generates a lot of heat in the toyland world of bicycle politics. Some ideologues like to imagine a general reason why more people don’t cycle, overlooking the fact that most English people don’t need a reason not to travel by bike, any more than they need a reason not to eat horse meat. They don’t do it because they’re normal and normal people don’t do it.

There are certainly English people who’d like to travel by bike but are unable to because of the prevailing motorcentric conditions. Children and young teenagers in particular have their autonomous movement restricted by a system that allows reckless behaviour in public space by the motor-dependent. It’s tempting to over-estimate this suppressed demand. The theory that a large section of the non-cycling public are in a precipitous pre-cycling state – only waiting for conditions to change so they can emerge like butterflies from chrysalides – is attractive because it suggests that flicking some national policy switch will release a popular wave of cycle-travel. A wave that will resolve the persistent political conflict around who owns the road and what streets are for, conflict that’s likely to intensify as we grope toward an exit strategy for motor-dependence.

Meeting thousands of people on the point of taking up cycling has taught me the limits of generalisation. Some introduce themselves by saying:- “Of course I’m never going to ride on the road – I just want to go round the park with my daughter for exercise”, others with:- “I need to learn to ride a two-wheeler because I want to get a motor-scooter.” And everyone knows motorcycles are really dangerous.

BSOs definitely provide a barrier to many at the decisive moment of taking up cycling. I’ve run road-side clinics in some parts of East London where all you see are unserviceable, hardly rideable  bicycle shaped objects. Products that weren’t designed to put people off cycling, but might as well have been.

I would never be bold enough to rank –  “I’d like to cycle but I bought a bike and it fell to bits in two weeks” – against other stated causes of avelopia but it certainly exists as a significant practical barrier, a reason from somebody who tried, not a justification from someone who wouldn’t dream of it.

Many (most?) English people never think about riding a bike. If they were to say:- ‘Oh my God I’ll never ride a bike!” That would be progress, at least they’d entertained the possibility. When others are passive on subjects that we care about there’s a temptation to project our feelings onto them. The fact that – in all the hot air generated, all the green ink spilled – on the mysterious subject of why more English people don’t ride bikes for travel, the BSO question receives exactly zero consideration, may confirm a suspicion that most theorising on the subject results from this projection.

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.

Cyclists Live Longer

The Times’ ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ campaign, was launched last Thursday with the front page headline ‘Save Our Cyclists’. That’s good news. There is – for example – some moving testimony from Cynthia Barlow, in the clip on this page. She talks, not just about her daughter, who was killed while cycling, but about the generalised and usually unmentionable cost of motor-dependence.  ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ is inspired by the sorry fate of Mary Bowers – who works for The Times – and suffered near-fatal injuries, when run-down by someone operating a truck. It’s interesting, and progressive, that motor-slaughter is now on the  national agenda, but an awkward difficulty with naming the problem remains.

The Times’ ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ campaign, was launched last Thursday with the front page headline ‘Save Our Cyclists‘. That’s good news. There is – for example – some moving testimony from Cynthia Barlow, in the clip on this page. She talks, not just about her daughter, who was killed while cycling, but about the generalised and usually unmentionable cost of motor-dependence.  ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ is inspired by the sorry fate of Mary Bowers – who works for The Times – and suffered near-fatal injuries, when run-down by someone operating a truck. It’s interesting, and progressive, that motor-slaughter is now on the  national agenda, but an awkward difficulty with naming the problem remains.
Motor-traffic in general, the haulage business in particular, kills people. They kill people at a rate that would be a national scandal if any other source – bad food hygiene? enemy action? unmanned level-crossings? – were responsible. A more sensible headline could have been ‘Tame Our Trucks’. The story is of death and life-changing injury consequent on hyper-mobility of goods and people. Focusing only on the hazards of cycle-travel distracts from this.

How dangerous is it to ride a bike? Epidemiological statistics are slippery. Every day I see people riding down the road. They see a bus parked at the kerb. I guess their unconscious thought process is something like – ‘I can see that bus. Anyone behind can see me and that bus. Everybody knows what I’m going to do next’. Then they pull-out and overtake the bus, relying on others to take care of them. Such behaviour isn’t the monopoly of the stereotypically reckless or foolish, some people who act that way are middle-aged, probably in salaried employment and riding well-worn bikes of investment quality. Their strategy clearly works. These people will almost all live long, healthy lives and die – in due course – in their beds. But it wouldn’t cost them anything to glance over their shoulders when they see that bus.

In bald statistical terms riding a bike is a safe activity. A typical individual has to cover millions of kilometres before being involved in a serious crash. These figures include teenage boys and also those who’ve been riding their Claud Butlers round North London since 1981, without once looking over their shoulder. If you take the trouble to ride in a considered and conscious style you are – in Inner London at least – super safe. The difficulty is how do we campaign to make travelling by bike even less hazardous, even more pleasurable, without reinforcing the widespread misconception that it’s somehow lethal.

In the 1970’s and 80’s if you ever mentioned cycling for practical travel to a politician, a planner or a highway engineer it was a sure-fire, certainty that the first sentence of their reply would contain a word from this short menu…

  • safety
  • risk
  • danger

During those comparatively lean years – in a pathetic personal quest for balance and logic – I refused to discuss bicycle travel in the context of ‘road-safety’. The vow lapsed with the publication, in 1992, of Mayer Hillman’s game-changing work ‘Cycling: Towards Health and Safety’, which put the cycling-is-much-too-dangerous-to-encourage argument underground with a stake through its heart. Cycles might bring some risks but not nearly as many as sofas and fried potatoes. What’s really deadly is not cycling.

There’s a counter-position, that cycling might really be very dangerous, and the figures for death and serious injury are suppressed because people don’t do it. Establishing causality in the reflexive fluidity of human motivation can only be a theoretical approximation. Is cycling in England considered dangerous because people don’t do it? Do English people not cycle because they think it’s dangerous?  Why does anyone ride a motor-cycle? That’s really dangerous.

The risks of travelling by bike in London are not massively greater than the risks of walking the same streets. They may even be less. They are certainly of the same order of magnitude. Why does The Times choose to focus only on dead pedallers and ignore those slaughtered while walking?

In Inner London – in certain demographics – cycle travel has become normal. Here in West Hackney it’s getting close to compulsory.

While the typical pedestrian victim of the metal plague is poor, a school-kid or a pensioner, those culled while riding bikes are much more likely to be young adults in high status employment. In evolutionary terms individuals of peak reproductive age are much more valuable, but let’s aspire to rise above such crude atavistic bias. And also to remind anyone drawn into this renewed debate, that – although very occasionally cyclists die while travelling – they’re not being killed by bikes.

A good start, can do better

‘Cities fit for cycling’ campaign some suggestions… 1. Trucks entering a city centre should be required by law to fit sensors, audible truck-turning alarms, extra mirrors and safety bars to stop cyclists being thrown under the wheels.

‘Cities fit for cycling’ campaign some suggestions…

1. Trucks entering a city centre should be required by law to fit sensors, audible truck-turning alarms, extra mirrors and safety bars to stop cyclists being thrown under the wheels.

Sensible stuff, but why only the city centre? Surely people in the ‘burbs or the country are just as worthy of protection? Onboard cameras can be deployed, ‘blind spots’ are unacceptable.

2. The 500 most dangerous road junctions must be identified, redesigned or fitted with priority traffic lights for cyclists and Trixi mirrors that allow lorry drivers to see cyclists on their near-side.

This is tricky, maybe the most dangerous junctions are the ones with fewest casualties because people don’t cycle – or walk – there? Make sure you don’t mistake a political issue – who is killing who? – for a technical one. Good design can help but danger comes from people not junctions.

3. A national audit of cycling to find out how many people cycle in Britain and how cyclists are killed or injured should be held to underpin effective cycle safety.

Good. Let’s also include pedestrians and why not motor-cyclists? Motorcycling is really dangerous.

4. Two per cent of the Highways Agency budget should be earmarked for next generation cycle routes, providing £100 million a year towards world-class cycling infrastructure. Each year cities should be graded on the quality of cycling provision.

Good  but – again – safety is about how people behave, where the kerbs and bollards go is important because it signals to people what’s expected of them but it’s not the only factor in effecting cultural change.

5. The training of cyclists and drivers must improve and cycle safety should become a core part of the driving test.

Can’t comment on the training of cyclists (personal financial interest) but lets make it harder to qualify to drive, and give life bans for careless – potentially deadly – driving. Those disqualified will ride bikes and live longer.

6. 20mph should become the default speed limit in residential areas where there are no cycle lanes.

You forgot pedestrians again.

7. Businesses should be invited to sponsor cycleways and cycling super-highways, mirroring the Barclays-backed bicycle hire scheme in London.

Not sure about this? Is it a general principle? Can we start with Vodaphone paying for the upkeep of the M25?

8. Every city, even those without an elected mayor, should appoint a cycling commissioner to push home reforms.

Let’s not piss about here, it’s a ‘Tsar’ or nothing.

Rob Jefferies HERO

The glaring omission in this draft programme is ‘presumed civil liability’ – where in any collision the pilot of the heavier, faster vehicle has to establish it was not their fault – and proper punishment for bad – potentially deadly –  driving.  Presumed liability is a cultural corner-stone of the cycle-friendly environments of Germany, the  low countries and Scandinavia.

It’s not about being vindictive – in some ways those who slaughter are secondary victims of the current insane system – but cases like the  Rob Jefferies killing are not exceptional and send out exactly the wrong message. It’s hard to get juries – who are likely stuffed with the motor-dependent – to convict but if we are to change the culture this is where to start.

The crrimes of Parris

It’s interesting and optimistic that a heavyweight national daily has chosen this subject for a campaign, particularly when four years ago the very same organ ran a notorious suggestion to kill people at random.

It’s interesting and optimistic that a heavyweight national daily has chosen this subject for a campaign, particularly when four years ago the very same organ ran a notorious suggestion to kill people at random.

“A festive custom we could do worse than foster would be stringing piano wire across country lanes to decapitate cyclists.”

Matthew Parris, The Times, 27/12/07.

Perhaps Mr. Parris  should send a copy of his humourous essay to Mary Bowers and her family to cheer them all up?

In his defence poor Parris had a deadline pending, it was holiday time, he had to write something. A community-service order, for incitement to murder plus two years prison – suspended – for being unfunny, might be a fair tarriff? Hateful as this kind of  gormless idiocy  may be, outbreaks are a symptom of progress. If the poor lambs didn’t feel threatened they’d pick some other target.

Just as it was a mistake to get too upset  at the hate-criminal’s sorry little rant, let’s not  feel cynical in not treating ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ as a brave new dawn. A strategy for long-term engagement in street politics is not getting too depressed or too triumphant. Take a long view. Round here at least, things are getting slowly better.

When you read the figures for those who endorse the campaign, remember, some only signed-up to leave a ‘SACK PARRIS NOW’ message.

Once upon a time buying newspapers was normal and riding a bike was odd. Not anymore.

Acceptable behaviour?

If you haven’t seen this, it’s worth a look. A low-resolution CCTV clip of Boris Johnson, plus entourage, on a reconnaissance trip, down ‘cycle-superhighway 2’,  Wapping, May, 2009. A man in a tipper truck makes an unnecessary, pushy, overtaking manoeuvre, his tailgate swings open, hooks a parked car, which is dragged into another, with awesome destructive force. In the incident’s aftermath one of the Mayor’s aides was quoted:- “It was pretty awful. They were shaken up and Boris was shocked. But it makes the case even more for his super highways.”

  • Fry breakfast.
  • Pour coffee.
  • Take little white pills.
  • Play sound.

If you haven’t seen this it’s worth a look. A low-resolution CCTV clip of Boris Johnson, plus entourage, on a reconnaissance trip, down ‘cycle-superhighway 2’,  Wapping, May, 2009.

A man in a tipper truck makes an unnecessary, pushy, overtaking manoeuvre, his tailgate swings open, hooks a parked car, which is dragged into another, with awesome destructive force.

In the incident’s aftermath one of the Mayor’s aides was quoted:- “It was pretty awful. They were shaken up and Boris was shocked. But it makes the case even more for his super highways.”

Really?

How much protection can a stripe of blue paint – or even a kerbed-off sidepath, or galvanised steel railings – offer when a car is dragged sideways at 30 kph?  “This makes the case even more for proper regulation of the haulage business”, is a more sensible answer. The cowboy in the truck is lucky not to have killed a motor-cyclist, a pedestrian or the pilot or passenger of a saloon car, never mind some ambitious Old Etonian on a bike with no mudguards. Truck slaughter is not a bicycle problem, it’s a lorry problem.

Heavy trucks make up such a small proportion of city traffic that you can be very circumspect around them without inconvenience. If you find yourself behind one, don’t overtake unless you’re sure you can get passed and away before it starts moving or speeds up. Never pass on the left, only on the right. (Readers in territories where the clean side of your bikes and sidewalk sides of your highways are mixed-up, please reverse that last instruction.) Keep the driver in view in the truck’s mirrors. That way you can check whether she’s paying attention, arguing with her ex-husband on a hand-held cell-phone or unwrapping a Yorkie bar.

When a truck’s behind you it’s your responsibility to make sure the driver doesn’t try and pass without taking serious, conscious account of your presence. Owning the road is important.

A friend of mine, riding up the Essex Road in N1 last week, was pulled over for running a red light. I blame the parents. Given the choice of a thirty pound ticket or spending fifteen minutes pretending to be a truck driver, he didn’t hesitate – he works in the bike trade where thirty pounds is big money – and was surprised to hear that lots of people choose the fine. I suppose they’re inexperienced, imagine they’ve nothing to learn and have too many status issues to risk a little, finger-wagging humiliation?

It turns out the punishment was painless. The big rig was brand new, with extra mirrors focused downwards by the passenger door and above the windscreen. Once in the driving seat, one officer sat beside him and asked questions while a second, dressed in day-glo, rode up the left side in a now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t style.

If you like shit-kickin’, truck-drivin’, ‘g’-droppin’ country music feel free to refresh the soundtrack.

Informing people how to be safe around heavy vehicles that are being – or are waiting to be – moved, is important but it’s not progressive if passing on the simple information distracts from the source of deadly danger. POV home-movies shot from bikes are ubiquitous, mail-order cycle-retailers sell miniature cameras as bike paraphernalia. I dare say there are neophyte riders – the ones who worry about GPS – who think they need one to ride to work?

If anyone and their auntie can produce dull mini-odysseys complete with wind noise and heavy breathing, how is it acceptable for state-of-the-art freightliners to give their operators ‘blind spots’? Expecting the driver of a heavy machine to move it through the randomness of city streets unable to see where they’re going is brutal exploitation that turns the freedom lovin’ followers of Dave Dudley and Hank Snow into secondary victims. If human society persists for another couple of centuries, people will reflect on our acceptance of deadly hazard in public space, in the same way we look back at the routine cruelties of industrial slavery.

If drivers end up with too many screens and mirrors to monitor, let them move slower, or carry a co-driver who can scan half of them, or transfer freight into less cumbersome vehicles for urban drops. Any of these solutions will make haulage more expensive, which will increase the cost of goods, but that won’t be a blanket rise. Local production will benefit at the expense of long-haul.

Remember the ‘foot and mouth’ epidemic of 2001, how it spread across the whole country and led to the slaughter of around 7 million beasts? There was an outbreak in 1967 that was ended by killing 442,000. One difference between the two was the cost of haulage. By 2001 sheep were scorching round the country like hyper-active photo-copier salesmen. Making the movement of goods more awkward will encourage the development of systems more resistant to the man-made disasters of industrialised monocultures. Rich people eat local food. Civilising the movement of goods will make it cheaper.

One more anthem to put you in the mood for a ride?

Kings Cross update

The second ‘bikes alive’ action at Kings Cross on Monday 23rd January was less lively thanthe first. There may have been as many bike riders but the politically-motivated pedestrian element were fewer, and transient football fans were missing completely. The first version featured plenty of low-rent still and movie photographers, the second, one or two heavier-duty paparazzi, I assume they were hoping for a ruck? The pro-photographers were very conspicuous in camouflage jackets,  ‘Hi-Viz’ tabards would’ve been more discrete.

The second ‘bikes alive’ action at Kings Cross on Monday 23rd January was less lively than the first. There may have been as many bike riders but the politically-motivated pedestrian element were fewer, and transient football fans were missing completely. The first version featured plenty of low-rent still and movie photographers, the second, one or two heavier-duty paparazzi, I assume they were hoping for a ruck? The pro-photographers were very conspicuous in camouflage jackets,  ‘Hi-Viz’ tabards would’ve been more discrete.

A group of one or two hundred riders rotated through the one-way system at a steady walking pace for around forty minutes. I’m pretty sure this kind of behaviour – though it may delay individuals for a few seconds – helps clear the evening rush hour. When one block of motors are held for a minute or two the road ahead is empty, allowing traffic on the adjacent network to flow. I like to ride in the evening and it’s nice to ease the pain of the victims of motor-dependence, but the event felt like a geographically constrained version of ‘Critical Mass’. The attendant Police were calm and unobstructive. They understand that causing trouble will only publicise the event.

Imagine you’re waiting to turn into a main road from a side street. If the traffic on the big road has a maximum speed of 20 kph you can turn into a much smaller gap  than if it’s passing at 60 kph. The bars on this graph represent real space. Reducing the maximum speed of traffic increases the capacity of the network.

See how efficiently space is used in Tehran. Without the need for traffic signals, everyone moves slowly but never really stops. Pedestrians cross without haste, panic or delay. It may seem dangerously chaotic to someone used to regimented patterns but everyone has to be vigilant, considerate and empathetic.

To be safe and comfortable riding a bike on roads shared with other traffic you need to take space to create a buffer-zone around you. Sometimes people in vehicles with a potentially higher maximum speed get upset by this. It’s good to be popular –  for pragmatic and humane reasons –  but if you have to choose between being safe or popular, which one comes first?

Other people on the roads may imagine that you’re their enemy. You don’t have to stop and explain the relationship between the maximum speed of traffic on the network and the network’s capacity to all of them. It’s quite a subtle concept and some of them are not all that clever; but you don’t need to get involved in their delusion that you’re a problem.

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.

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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?”