Six Londoners died in a short period of time recently and this has been followed by protests including a "Die In".
Neither London's Mayor, Boris Johnson nor the Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, appear to be aware of their role in what has happened. Both have made remarks on the lines of that there is nothing they could do by changing infrastructure which would reduce the incidence of deaths. They are deliberately misleading people and the people they are misleading most are those who voted them.
|Cycle-paths are one of the forms of|
infrastructure which keep Dutch
Yesterday evening I watched a news programme from the UK in which Andrew Gilligan blamed cycling campaigners for making cycling look dangerous. He suggested that cyclists making cycling sound dangerous this was the reason why a BBC survey revealed that a fifth of London's cycle commuters have stopped cycling. Yes, he actually laid blame on the people who promote cycling. This is a disgraceful distortion of what is actually happening under his watch.
Back in March, just after Boris Johnson appointed his friend as cycling commissioner, I was skeptical of their motives and suggested that this was a time when campaigners would need to become more busy than before. It was clear then that London would rely on hype, exaggeration and marketing rather than actually building the infrastructure that was required to make change happen. I gave he post the tag "broken promises" because even as they made their promises, it was obvious that they would be broken. Nothing that has happened in London since that time reduces my skepticism.
It's possible to ride for six years without incident
A few days back I realised that while up to six years ago I had quite regular unpleasant experiences when cycling, I'd now had six years of having no unpleasant experiences at all, not having been cut up even once, until that run of six years was broken just one month ago. What is special about six years ? Six years ago we emigrated from the UK and we've lived in the Netherlands since that time. Why one month ? One month ago I rode a bike for just a few hours in London and it reminded me what it is like to ride a bike in the UK.
Why isn't it like this for everyone ?
In order to encourage people to ride bicycles, the choice of doing so has to be made easy. Routes taken by bicycle need to be direct, they need to be as free as possible of stops, and the conditions need to be and to feel very safe. Unless cycling is subjectively safe, most of the population will never cycle.
The best way of improving both actual safety and subjective safety is to do one simple thing: remove motor vehicles from the spaces where cyclists ride.
The BBC's survey revealed a fifth of cyclists had been involved in a collision. This is not just a problem with subjective safety, but of whether people are injured or die when cycling. It's not a marketing problem which can be solved by not talking about dying, it's a problem with the experience that people have if they get on a bicycle, which in London is always tense.
Two-thirds of London cyclists admit they sometimes ride on pavements to avoid busy junctions. They do this not because it's convenient (it's not) but because it feels safer than continuing their journey on the road. To solve problems like this we first have to understand them.
|London cyclists don't dress like this|
because it's fashionable but because
they are scared
London's cyclists still look very much like the pit canaries of the road and there are good reasons why. If you cycle in London then you have to be concerned about your own safety. The BBC survey included several questions about subjective safety. For instance, one question asked whether people thought their family and friends were safe when cycling. Nearly 70% said no. The low subjective safety is why people wear bright colours, helmets and face masks. These are not fashion accessories, they're tools for survival. They're not worn because someone said it was unsafe, they're worn because people feel unsafe when cycling.
Until London gets to grips with why people feel unsafe when cycling and until the city starts to do something about the reasons why people feel unsafe by building infrastructure makes cycling attractive to everyone, the city will not see a rise in cycling to levels comparable with the Netherlands.
Cycling in London doesn't need marketing, it needs infrastructure !
The same principles apply everywhere
Any place which has given inadequate attention to making cycling safe, convenient and enjoyable will see stagnation at a low percentage of journeys by bike as only people who particularly like cycling will ride bikes.
Journeys by bike in London never broke through even 5% of the total. Sadly, this decline has occurred before the city has even done one percent of what it needed to do to make mass cycling happen in the first place. However, declines can happen anywhere and examples of it happening should be a warning to us all.
It's not only London which has seen cyclists give up. Once mighty Denmark has unfortunately also seen the equivalent of one in eight cyclists give up. This decline came about for the same reasons as the decline in London. They ignored the importance of building good enough infrastructure and tried to use marketing to fill in the gaps. Voluminous international publicity turned out not to be enough to make people feel safe when they experienced problems on a daily basis such as junction designs which cause conflict and have killed seven Copenhageners already this year. While it may still seem a step beyond what many nations have, to copy Denmark's "success" actually means to copy what doesn't work in Denmark. That's why I suggest that the Netherlands remains easily the best country to try to emulate.
While the Netherlands is currently on top that doesn't mean that this country is any more immune to these issues than any other. Plenty of Dutch people take what they have for granted and simply don't know why it is that they cycle. Denmark should especially serve as a warning to the Netherlands as policies and practices from there and marketed to this country could reasonably be expected to end with the same result here as they did where they came from.
The Dutch don't cycle because it's "in their blood" but for the same reasons as anyone else would cycle given conditions which made cycling into an easy option to choose. When cycling is convenient, offers direct and uninterrupted journeys and both feels and is safe then people choose to cycle. When conditions are merely adequate and when incidents happen often enough that people remember them and become concerned about their safety, cycling will stagnate or drop.
Not all Dutch cities grow cycling at the same rate. Here, just like everywhere else, people cycle in response to infrastructure and not in response to marketing.
Hope for the future
Cycling needs actions, not words. A million volumes of marketing material do not have the same value as one metre of good quality cycle-path, and that's universally true. To a first approximation, cycling modal share is proportional to expenditure. Politicians control the funds and they need to release them in order that cycling can grow, not make excuses for inaction or blame cyclists for their own misfortune.
The Netherlands achieved its cycling success by building a remarkable country-wide network of world class infrastructure and not by marketing. Other countries could achieve the same results in the same way. There is no proven alternative method which leads to true mass cycling.
Update 6 December 2013
Usage of London's bike share system is also falling. This is also being blamed on cyclists. When I was in London a few weeks ago I tried the system and found it to work well enough as a civil amenity. However, I also cautioned that it's not cycling infrastructure.
For four and a half years I've been writing about the limits of London's bike share system and how it can never lead to a real cycling "revolution" in the city. Bike share answers the wrong question. London's problem was never a shortage of bicycles, but was always a shortage of pleasant conditions for cycling.
London's aim should be to become a city of ten million cyclists. This will never happen while instead of fixing the infrastructure, London's politicians seek to pass the blame for the majority of the population being scared to cycle onto the few people brave enough to do it.