Friday, 29 July 2011

Ice cream, kids?

In the foreword to the seminal Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities, the then European Commissioner with responsibility for the environment, Ritt Bjeeregaard, explained that the catalyst for the book arose from the idea that 'the worst enemies of the bicycle in urban areas are not cars, but longheld prejudices.'

I imagine that the sort of prejudices that are being spoken of here are not actually those expressed by the "get-out-of-my-way!" taxi drivers, or the "you're-not-allowed-to-cycle-here!" pedants; rather, they are the unspoken kind, commonly understood by all traffic engineers, and routinely glossed over by politicians.

Cycling: the way ahead 'corrects some of the prejudices connected with the use of the bicycle as a regular mode of transport in the urban environment. It also suggests some simple, inexpensive and popular measures which could be implemented immediately. Certainly, the task is ambitious,' Ritt Bjeeregaard points out, 'but the essential thing is to take the first step [my emphasis].'

It is true that various initiatives have been started here, beginning in 1994 with the London Cycle Network. But this network, just like its successor, the LCN+, was never completed. Our steps, then, such as they have been, are like those of a man who is repeatedly shot in the chest. And the guys with the smoking gun in their hands? They would have to be the traffic engineers at TfL, I regret to say. Nobody, it seems to me, has done more to encourage the feckless use of the motor car in London than this lot. What's more, with every step they take, they only reinforce that perception.

I know that TfL have brought us the Cycle Superhighways and the Barclays Bike Hire scheme. Indeed, I am going to give this Mayor some credit, if only for the fact that those schemes which were proposed have been delivered. That, obviously, reflects well on him. Still, he's hardly covered himself in glory with the latest episode at Blackfriars Bridge. That seems to me to be a step very much in the wrong direction.

I confess, I watched the exchange between Jenny Jones and Boris Johnson on this subject with utter astonishment. The Mayor seemed only to be interested in proposals which smooth traffic-flow! It's like nothing else matters. It is traffic engineers, of all people, who are now telling the Mayor that a report produced by TfL in 2008 no longer represents the best advice, and that it would lead to increased congestion, were it to be implemented. However, when the Mayor was asked to explain what was wrong with the 2008 report, why it was no longer thought to be good advice, he wouldn't answer the question.

The Mayor could have considered any number of opinions on this subject, but he chose only to listen to TfL's traffic engineers. A more unrepresentative, blinkered, secretive, self-serving group it would be harder to find. The silent majority, meanwhile, who state their 'expectations of a more balanced mobility policy in an uncompromising manner in surveys of the entire population', is routinely ignored.

It is forces other than reason which are shaping our transport policy! The idea that adding an extra lane for traffic here, or reducing the amount of time available for pedestrians to cross the road there, is going to do anything at all to ease congestion, or smooth the flow of traffic, is, quite frankly, astonishing. In the whole scheme of things, none of these measures amount to anything other than window-dressing.

The proper way to deal with a dripping tap is not to go and find another bucket, because before you know it, that one will be full as well. For exactly the same reason, providing an extra lane for motor traffic on Blackfriars Bridge will not, in the long-run, make any significant difference to the motorists' journey in and out of London.

But what an impact it will have on the rest of us! Where there were two lanes of traffic spewing out their foul, toxic fumes, there are now going to be three! How lucky we are. It will provide us with a whole new meaning for the term 'car sickness'.

Asking traffic engineers what to do about congestion is like asking children what they want for pudding, in the sense that you know what sort of answer you're going to get. But traffic engineers do at least speak as one, and that contrasts very favourably with the babble that I hear from those who are keen to promote alternatives to the car.