This’ll be the last cycling post I ever write on this site but just to let you know that the new “official” City Hall cycling blog in my other life as London cycling commissioner is now up and running.
It started today with an announcement of the launch date for Boris’s new cycling policy document – this Thursday, if anyone’s interested. The blog’s here.
One over-eager London Assembly member, Darren Johnson, has jumped the gun tonight and is claiming that we have published our plan already in the minutes of some obscure Transport for London committee. (Which is, of course, exactly how we do all our major policy launches!) This alleged plan then forms the basis for a searing attack on our alleged lack of ambition. Just to make clear, the document Darren’s seen is not the plan, and is nothing like the plan. I’d have been happy to tell him that, if he’d asked…
Come Thursday, I have a feeling Darren might wish he’d waited before jumping in to comment.
The latest figures for cycling levels on the Transport for London Route Network (TLRN), London’s TfL-controlled main roads, are given in the depths of a paper to the TfL board (page 9 of this PDF). They show that the previously stellar growth of cycling in London under both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson has ended, maybe even gone into reverse. Cycling on TLRN roads is actually forecast to fall this financial year for the first time since 2001/2.
It’s a big change from the enormous growth rates achieved in Boris’s first term – an average of just under 11 per cent a year, and more than 15 per cent in the single year 2010/11 alone, for instance. More new cycle journeys were made on the TLRN in 2011 than in any other year. By the end of 2011, more people were cycling in London than at any previous time since the beginning of mass car ownership. The Boris bikes have introduced hundreds of thousands of new people to cycling.
Not that Johnson is ever given any credit for this, of course: during the election campaign, as I mentioned at the time, the London cycle lobby chose to ignore the figures in favour of claiming that everything was terrible and it was all the mayor’s fault. I predict, however, that various opponents of Boris will be only too quick to blame him now the numbers have turned the wrong way.
That would not be entirely fair, because the quarterly breakdown for 2012 makes clear that the principal culprit was almost certainly the weather. In the first quarter of this calendar year, January to March 2012, TLRN cycling continued to grow, by 6.1 per cent over the same period the previous year . The weather in January to March was OK, or at least not much worse than usual.
Growth then resumed in the third quarter, July-September. TLRN cycling rose by 3.7 per cent on the previous summer, though this growth rate was well below TfL’s target.
Figures from the last quarter of 2012 are still awaited – but based on the spring and summer, when the majority of journeys are made, TfL is now projecting a 1.1 per cent drop in TLRN cycling for the financial year (April 2012- March 2013) as a whole.
In a funny way, the summer quarter’s figure is the most worrying. Yes, growth returned: but at a much slower rate than in previous years. True, July was pretty wet, too. Then there were the special events – the Jubilee, the Olympics – which disrupted normal travel patterns. But according to a Standard story before Christmas, the two-week period of the Olympics actually saw dramatic rises in the number of people cycling. That must mean that performance in the rest of the summer was even poorer than the overall figure says.
Cycling is a signature policy area of the mayor’s – according to Victory in London, the recent book written by Alex Crowley, political director of his successful 2012 re-election campaign, voter focus groups done during the election identified (again perhaps rather unfairly) the Boris bikes as Johnson’s principal achievement. But the figures underline that in cycling, as in anything else, you have to innovate to keep growing. The numbers show that the two big boosts to London cycling came in 2003, with the congestion charge, and 2010, with the Boris bikes. Apart from an extension of the Boris bikes to Tower Hamlets, there were no significant new developments in London cycling in 2012. TfL needs to deliver the same consistently high levels of innovation and improvement in cycling as it has managed in heavy-metal transport with the congestion charge, the Oyster card, the Overground, the new Routemaster, Crossrail, et al.
I’d say only one other thing. I can’t help wondering if last year’s almost all-consuming political and media emphasis on safety has helped suppress cycling. Most of what Londoners read in the paper or saw on TV about bikes in 2012 was variations, with different degrees of subtlety, on the theme that by mounting a bicycle you took your life in your hands.
Cycling in London is clearly not as safe as it should be. It is not as safe as it could be. But it is, in fact, far safer than it was. Between 2002 and 2010, per journey, the rate of London cyclists killed or seriously injured – the standard measurement –fell by more than a quarter. That was another little fact that tended to get overlooked in the excitement of the election campaign.
In the last twelve months sensible people, like Simon Hughes MP, have used words like “carnage” to describe the cycling death rate. But in 2011, the year Mr Hughes refers to, there were 180 million cycle journeys in London. Of these, 16 ended in death: that is, one journey in every 11.25 million. That is not carnage. I have seen quite enough real carnage in my day job, and I promise you can tell the difference.
An otherwise admirable report by the London Assembly made the headline-grabbing statement that cycle casualties had “increased by 50 per cent” between 2006 and 2010 without making any allowance for the growth in cycling over the period, and without making any distinction between slight casualties (where the rate per journey rose) and serious casualties (where the rate per journey fell).
But a sprained wrist should not count the same as a fractured skull. And indeed, the seriousness of casualties declined over that period. In 2006, 86.7 per cent of London cycle casualties were slight. By 2010, 88.3 per cent were.
There was, I know, a worrying increase in deaths and serious injuries in 2011, both in absolute terms and in rate per journey terms. And the emphasis on safety might end up being beneficial if it creates the political space for radical improvements to the cycling experience in London.
So we should never stop talking about safety. It is and always has been the biggest reason why people do not take up cycling. But perhaps we should think a bit more about how we talk about it.
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?
I was interested in the reactions to my post, last week, challenging the urban myth that there is growing cyclist “carnage” on the streets of London. Cycling in London is, of course, less safe than most of the alternatives. It is less safe than it should be. But as the figures show, it is still pretty safe – and getting safer.
Perhaps the key reason why London cycling has become less risky is that there are so many more cyclists on its roads. Motorists have become more conditioned to us. At danger junctions, the very presence of large numbers of cyclists gives us collective, protective physical bulk. We are easier to spot, harder to clip past.
The data strongly supports this view. Between 2002 and 2010, the latest available year, the number of cycle trips in London rose by 63 per cent. But the number of cyclists killed and seriously injured rose by only 12.8 per cent.
Contrast this with the miserable situation in Britain as a whole. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of cycle trips fell by 10 per cent. Yet the number of cyclists killed and seriously injured rose by 14 per cent. The trend gap between London and the country as a whole, already substantial, has become a chasm.
There are other factors behind this remarkable contrast – the congestion charge, for instance, which reduced traffic in London, albeit only in a small part of the city. But I bet I’m right about the main cause.
That’s why I’ve got such mixed feelings about The Times’ recent campaign to “save our cyclists.” Of course I agree with most of its aims – better segregation, improvements to junctions and the rest. I’ve been banging on about them myself for years. I love the verve the paper has brought to the issue. But its fondness for gruesome tales of death, injury or near-mishap is mistaken.
It’s still not clear whether The Times’ coverage will bring about many, if any, of the improvements it seeks. What it certainly will do, however, is make several hundred thousand Times readers think twice before they get on a bicycle. And if fewer people cycle, or take up cycling, the casualty rates will suffer.
Five years ago my old paper, the Standard, did a “safer cycling” campaign of its own. I didn’t choose the slogan – I wanted “easier cycling” – but I did a lot of the pieces. In them I actually tried to avoid writing too much about safety, frightening potential cyclists off, or dwelling on what are still very rare tragedies.
In the end, though, we stopped the campaign – partly because I was worried that we were indeed doing more harm than good, and partly also because we got absolutely zero support for our efforts from the cycling establishment and the Ken Livingstone City Hall.
In those days, the main lobby groups, the CTC and the London Cycling Campaign, were firmly against one of our and The Times’ key aims, a network of Dutch-style segregated cycle routes. Good to see they’re finally catching up! Ken’s Transport for London was ideologically in favour of communal, rather than individual, forms of transport. Apart from the congestion charge, in which greater cycling was an incidental, Ken did little for bikes – which is why it makes me smile to see him hitching a ride on the crossbar now.
Responding to my last post on this subject, one cycling blogger claimed that the 27,000 cyclists killed or seriously injured in Britain over the last ten years (1,270 of whom were killed) did, indeed, constitute “carnage.” If 1,270 violent deaths occur in, say, a day, perhaps even a week or a month, in a single place, it’s carnage. If they occur over the course of an entire decade across an entire country of 60 million people it’s, well, not. I see real carnage sometimes in my day job, and I promise you can tell the difference.
Another blogger accused me of “missing the point” when I said that some people were using the issue of cyclist safety to attack Boris Johnson. That wasn’t my point, as it happens – it was one line at the end of the piece – but I couldn’t help noticing that that same cycling blogger’s previous three posts had consisted of… er… attacks on Boris Johnson. The pre-election period has also seen a new pop-up lobby group called “Londoners on Bikes” which, alas, blew its cover a little too early, issuing its first recommendation to vote for Ken before he’d actually unveiled any cycling policies!
Of course, most of the people writing about cyclist safety, The Times included, aren’t doing it for party political reasons. But I’d make this broader point to anyone hoping that the bike will play a key part in the mayoral election: don’t overestimate cycling’s political salience. Cycling may get 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.
When I planned our cycling campaign at the Standard, I tried to put myself in the head of a non-cyclist or politician, most of whose voters aren’t cyclists, asking why we should arrange road junctions 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; I just tried to put myself in their position.) That was why I tried to stress what better cycle facilities could 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.
If we are to get the improvements we need, we need to avoid coming across as shrill or entitled. Not all cycle safety campaigners manage this, frankly. And if cycling is to become a genuinely mass means of travel, as it is in Germany or the Netherlands, with the mass political clout that entails, we mustn’t needlessly scare off the parents and the grannies and all those people you see cycling over there, but never over here.
There’s been growing heat in recent months about London’s alleged cyclist “carnage” and calls for radical action by the authorities. It’s certainly hard to think of any policy area where official interventions have been so inept.
The vast majority of British cycle lanes are either totally pointless or actively dangerous. There also appears to be a rule that new cycle stands can only be erected in places where no-one wants to use them. TfL, custodian of Britain’s biggest cycling budget, somehow managed to blow £23 million of it on just the first two “cycle superhighways.” Blue paint is only £5 a can at B&Q, guys!
As a 100-mile a week London cyclist myself, I travel every day through places where TfL should do more. But “carnage” there is not. Here are the figures for cycling in London:
Cycling in London has risen by at least 63 per cent since 2002, or by 150 per cent if you only count cycling flows on the main roads (the measure the Ken Livingstone regime used to use). In practice it will have risen by more than 63 per cent: it kept on growing strongly in 2011, but that figure hasn’t been reported yet. The number of deaths, however, is 20 per cent less than it was in 2002.
So I suppose that if I wanted to, I could claim that cycling is about 80 per cent safer than it was ten years ago. I wouldn’t, of course. It is statistically dodgy to compare two years in isolation. And the number of deaths, on which so much attention has been focused in recent months, is simply far too small to tell us anything about anything. Changes on such a low base are unreliable indicators of trends, because they are disproportionately influenced by random variables.
So to say that the deaths “went up by 60 per cent” last year, as various bloggers and journalists keep doing, is narrowly right – but broadly misleading.
The serious injury figure, however, is big enough to take trends from. Allowing for the rising number of trips, the trend is, as you can see, clearly down. I’m sorry if that doesn’t help the people trying to diss Boris Johnson, but there it is.
They were still building Boris Johnson’s “Cycle Superhighway 7” from Southwark to Colliers Wood when I took a test drive last night, not much more than 12 hours before this first scheme opened to the public. Opposite Stockwell station, the men in hi-vis were spraying the blue covering onto the road – but happily the most important part of the exercise, the tents and PR banners for the launch event at Clapham Common, was already in place.
The point about almost all “cycle infrastructure” in London is that it is not designed for cyclists. It is designed so that politicians can say that something is being done for us. Perhaps 10 per cent of cycling schemes are worth having. The rest range from pointless, to ludicrously bad, to actively dangerous. At various points along its length, Cycle Superhighway 7 hits all four categories.
The segregated path across Southwark Bridge, and the diversion around Elephant and Castle, are worth having (though both existed already.) Most of the rest of the route is pointless, verging at some places on the dangerous.
In two places, it steers you into the middle of the traffic flow, across conflicting traffic. The greater danger, perhaps, is that novice cyclists will be attracted on to a route which offers very unpleasant cycling and very little protection. They could be put off for life – and the duration of that life might not be very long, either.
As many have stated, for most of its length the new superhighway amounts to little more than a blue surface on the road. This is almost never separated from the rest of the carriageway by a solid line (meaning that cars are not supposed to cross it.) Occasionally, it is separated by an “advisory” broken line – much more often by no line at all. Cars can, and do, drive and park quite lawfully in the cycle lane, forcing cyclists out into the main traffic flow; even on a Sunday, I counted 106 parked cars in the southbound lane between Southwark Bridge and Colliers Wood. At times it was scarcely possible to see the blue surface.
The superhighway thus offers in practice no protection against what is a very busy, and in places very narrow and congested, main road. Many junctions are cramped and hazardous, full of revving traffic. Cars often cut across the cycle lane, and are allowed to.
The scheme could be made less pointless by segregating not the cycle lane (that would cause problems for people getting on buses, who would have to cross the lane to board the bus) but by segregating the bus lane, perhaps with a low ridge of the kind often found in France. Where there is not room for a bus lane, a segregated cycle lane with a similar ridge could be created between bus stops.
Alternatively, the bizarre approach of putting these schemes on the busiest and nastiest main roads you can find should be completely re-evaluated. The really stupid thing is that there is an infinintely more pleasant and safer parallel route to Superhighway 7, on back streets and across commons.
I know that cycle-activist ideologues hate segregation, and cleave to the proposition that we must seize the main roads. But despite rises, cycle use in London – about 2-3 per cent of journeys – remains very low. Having cycled in many northern European cities which enjoy cycling rates in the 20s and 30s of percent, I am sure that the key difference from us is the vastly greater number of segregated bike lanes.
Ken Livingstone and I made a tiny bit of history last night. We spoke at the same event – on the same side. It was a debate organised by The Spectator magazine on the motion: “This house believes cyclists are a menace” (yes, we were against.)
As I said in my speech:
“Ken and I have a worse relationship than Gordon Brown and the Taliban. The feud between Mohammed al Fayed and the Royal Family has nothing on ours. Our agreeing with each other seemed about as likely as Imelda Marcos sending her shoes to the mender.
“So to get me and Ken on the same platform shows the size of the emergency we pro-cycling forces face this evening.
“The fact is, we cyclists are on the back foot tonight. You hate us. We jump red lights. We wear terrible clothes. Despite all that, we have that ineffable air of smugness – you too could ‘save the Earth for our children’ if only you were more like us.
“Now all that might be annoying – but but I’m not sure any of it really amounts to being a ‘menace,’ a source of danger. Because being a really effective menace needs a lot more hardware.
“We cyclists have got a flimsy contraption of aluminium tubes, a few kilos in weight, taking up about one square foot of roadspace. Our top speed is three times slower than a Reliant Robin.
“Motorists, well, they’ve got thirteen tonnes of German engineering, bull-bars, 235 brake horse power,140mph, a Jeremy Clarkson loop-tape and serious anger management issues.”
(I’m exaggerating of course. I’m blaming an entire and vastly varied group of people for the characteristics of the worst. We’ll come back to that problem in a minute.)
“The number of people killed per year by cyclists averages less than one. The number of cyclists killed per year by motor vehicles is around 120.
“We are not a menace. We are menaced. And that explains some of the cyclist behaviour that gets up people’s noses….
“You might say that even if we’re not a menace to other vehicles, we’re a menace to pedestrians. But again the figures don’t stand that up. Cyclists make up about 1 per cent of the traffic in London, and they also cause 1 per cent of the traffic injuries to pedestrians – almost exactly in proportion with their numbers. The injuries they cause are also, as you’d expect, disproportionately at the lower end of the scale.
“The fact is that only a minority of cyclists indulge in the arrogant behaviour towards pedestrians which gets us a bad name. I would have no problem with a motion that says some cyclists are a menace. But tarring us all with the brush of a minority would be like supporting a motion that says Muslims are a menace. It would be outrageous. ”
And so on. I wrote it before I got there, but when I reached the venue and saw how many bikes were chained up to the railings, I knew we’d be all right. And indeed, the brethren were out in force. Some of them were even wearing Lycra. (One of my fellow panellists claimed that I turned up in a Lycra top – a shocking slur. All I can say is that while my jacket was certainly of a fibre and a colour not found in nature, no inch of Lycra shall ever touch my body.)
Ken and I sat next to each other and chatted a bit (we’ll be collaborating on a Christmas single next.) We’re always perfectly nice to each other when we meet face to face – it’s just when we get writing about each other (in my case) or giving press conferences and TV interviews (in his) that it all goes wrong.
Steve Pound, David Thomas and Baroness Sharples did a good job for the supporters of the motion, and managed to shift a few votes in their direction during the course of the evening. Ken and my Telegraph colleague Andrew Gimson, the other speakers on my side, were good, too. We won 96-45.
But perhaps the best contribution to the debate came from none of us, but from a guy from Cambridge who pointed out that in that city, cycling is so mainstream and cyclists so accepted that no rider feels the need to behave aggressively.
Just as in Cambridge and in such other mega-cycling cities as Copenhagen and Berlin, the key, I think, is normalising cycling – making it as common as driving, rather than the transport of a minority. You see old people and kids cycling in Berlin, all of them in their normal clothes, not a scrap of Lycra in sight. That’s how we need it to become here.