Boris Johnson: the cycle lobby messes it up

There’s something about cycling which seems to bring out passions greater than it warrants – on both sides of the argument – and I say this as a convinced, indeed passionate cyclist myself.

From the anti side, we saw a dramatically bad example of lobbying recently by John Griffin, head of Addison Lee, who ordered his minicabs (illegally) into bus and cycle lanes and told the lucky readers of his in-cab magazine: “It is time for us to say to cyclists: you want to join our gang, get trained and pay up.” We do, of course, pay for the roads – we all pay our taxes (except Ken Livingstone, of course). Mr Griffin’s gang has now rather satisfyingly shrunk as many of his customers have departed in objection to his attitude.

I’ve never understood why some motorists hate cyclists so much, given how relatively little road space we use and how relatively small a threat we pose to them (if only the reverse could be said!) Equally, though, I cannot understand why so many in the London cycle lobby are so utterly, fanatically determined to claim that everything is terrible and it’s all Boris Johnson’s fault.

Not quite in the John Griffin league, but still pretty awful lobbying, has been the open partisanship of a major cycling organisation in this election. Carl Pittam, London director of Sustrans, proclaimed that “Boris is intent on bringing the capital to a standstill… Ken Livingstone sees that Londoners want a choice in how they get around and is committed to providing transport for all – unlike Boris Johnson whose focus leaves out the millions of Londoners who don’t own a car.”

This statement is surprising for a number of reasons. First, Sustrans is a registered charity and is prevented by law from endorsing political parties or candidates. Second is its stridency. Is Boris really intent on bringing London to a halt, Carl? Are you sure?

Most importantly, it is demonstrably wrong. As a simple matter of fact, Johnson has invested massively more in cycling than Livingstone ever did – at least £70 million on the bike hire scheme and £30 million on the superhighways alone. We may dispute the effectiveness of the latter – I certainly have – but it cannot be described as a failure of intention or a focus on the car. Johnson pays more than £1 billion in subsidy every year to the public transport network and is presiding over the biggest investment programme in its recent history (remember Crossrail, Carl?) He has, in fact, probably done less for motorists than for any other group of transport users.

Johnson’s cycling policies have been rewarded with vast increases in the numbers of people cycling. On the measure used by the Livingstone City Hall, bike trips on TfL-controlled main roads, cycling increased by 15 per cent last year alone (p19 of this PDF). Cycling on the TfL main roads was 83% above 2000 levels when Livingstone left office; by last year it was 150% above 2000 levels. On my maths the rate of growth under Boris is double what it was under Ken; this at a time when bike use in England as a whole is falling. The cycle hire scheme, meanwhile, has introduced entire new groups of people to the bicycle.

You won’t hear a single word about this from Sustrans, or from the other London cycling group, the London Cycling Campaign, which has chosen to rate the mayoral candidates only on their manifesto promises rather than on their respective records. Promises are cheap – as Ken shows us afresh every day – but when you compare deeds, rather than words, Boris is at least Ken’s equal if not his superior in this area.

The stubborn denial of all these realities was evident at a hustings organised by Sustrans and The Times newspaper today. Members of the audience shouted their disagreement when Johnson stated that the rate of cyclists killed and seriously injured on London’s roads had gone down. But it has gone down in his four years, and here are the figures to show it.  (Nobody’s saying it’s anything like good enough, by the way, but it is better than it was – again unlike the rest of England.)

There was vocal disagreement, too, when he said that air pollution had fallen. But it has fallen, and here are the figures (from that well-known pillar of the Tory lie machine, the BBC) to show it.

Someone complained about congestion in Chiswick, and then demanded that half the Hammersmith Flyover be given over to cyclists. That would really ease congestion in Chiswick, I’m sure. One shouty questioner even averred: “It is somewhat glib to say that cyclists have to obey the laws of the road.” A mirror image of Addison Lee’s John Griffin.

What the cycling lobby always gets wrong is that it overestimates cycling’s political salience. Cycling gets a lot of media attention, but that’s because so many media folk cycle. Bikes are the transport of a small, disproportionately wealthy and privileged minority.

Cycle lobbyists need to put themselves in the heads of a non-cyclist or politician most of whose voters aren’t cyclists, asking why we should arrange the streets for the 2 per cent who cycle rather than the 98 per cent who drive or take the bus. (I’m not saying I agree with this view, by the way, but that is the political reality we have to consider.) The way to win arguments is to stress what better cycle facilities can do for London as a whole – reducing crowding on the Tube, for example – rather than just for cyclists, who are not the world’s most popular people.

Instead, today, we got the usual expressions of indignant entitlement and what Boris bravely called “moral superiority” over other road users that help explain why we are not very popular.

Boris cocked up several of his answers today – he was stupid to say the typical cyclist went through red lights. His mind was clearly not entirely on the proceedings at various points – he was probably shellshocked after his latest four-letter outburst was broadcast on TV. But it was fairly clear that a lot of people in the room believe that cycling is the left’s property, as London should be – and the only thing Boris could have done to satisfy them would be to develop a nasal south London accent and start avoiding his taxes. I would remind them that according to the polls Londoners as a whole do not share their view – in a recent ComRes poll, his lead over Livingstone on “making cycling safer” was 29 points, 48-19, bigger than his lead on any other issue.

I met Carl Pittam after the event and put some of these points to him. He struck me as a decent guy and I think that he, like me, believes passionately that London can be a great cycling city on a par with at least Berlin, if not Amsterdam. But that’s why I’m so depressed about the bog-up the cycling lobby is making of its case. If Boris is re-elected, as all the polls suggest, he might reasonably think what’s the point of trying to please these people if all they do is ignore, or misrepresent, my record?


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