Sunday, 21 August 2011

Back to Boff

We've got to make it easier for people to say, 'We're going to choose the bike.' And it's in the interest of motorists for people to choose to use the bike. As I always say to fairly uncompromising pro-car users, 'It's worth you putting your hand in your pocket to pay for more cycling facilities, because every single person in front of you in the queue, every single person in front of you who decides, 'Actually, next morning I'm going to cycle into work,' makes it an easier journey for you, because there are going to be fewer people on the roads, and you can drive. Because there's some people who will never cycle. You know that. We're fooling ourselves if we think everyone is going to cycle. They're not. Some people like that womb-like security of their car and we're never going to change it. But we've got to make it easier for the people who are on the cusp of that decision. Safety is the primary reason ...

I am very interested to know, firstly, what these uncompromising pro-car users think is so brilliant about driving in built-up areas, and secondly, whether the people who like the womb-like security of their car would actually deny cyclists the wind-in-your-hair-sunshine-on-your-face-like security of a segregated cycle lane.

But anyway, I agree with Mr Boff when he says that not everyone is going to cycle, and on a number of other issues as well:

1. He thinks it is the complexity of the junctions north and south of Blackfriars Bridge that makes it so dangerous. His particular concern is that it is very difficult for cyclists  to know where to position themselves, especially on those right turns.

2. He regards the debate over the 20mph speed limit as something of a distraction, although he personally thinks 20mph is best. However, he's cycled on roads that are 30mph and he hasn't had a problem. And if you look at a city like Copenhagen, where there is lots of segregated cycling, the speed limit there is 50km/h (just over 30mph). So it can be done, and people shouldn't just be saying that the only contribution that can be made to improve the safety of cycling is to reduce the speed limit down to 20mph.

3. Regarding TfL, he agrees that they are a law unto themselves, and thinks they need to be accountable to a body that can say no. He says that they need to be more open and less opaque. He also says that they are too big, that they try to do too much, and that they duplicate a lot of the work that is going on in the boroughs.

4. He says that since cyclists and pedestrians are so vulnerable, particular attention should be paid to their safety.  

5. He cycles into work because it's the 'easiest way' for him to make the journey. An increasing number of Londoners also recognise this, as Mr Boff acknowledges.

6. He says the Cycle Superhighways are not perfect, but they are an incremental step forward.

7. He points out that the problems affecting cyclists in London are not simply restricted to the central area: the suburbs have to be made more cycle-friendly as well.

Having listened to this interview maybe six or seven times now, the only criticism I have is that since both Charlie Lloyd and Mark Ames had indicated at the start of the programme that if you make it easier for cars, then all you get is more cars, that this would have been a good point to put to Andrew Boff, because whether or not you regard this as a problem seems to me to be at the heart of the debate.

I have already commented on Mr Boff's thoughts about the economy, and the way that he conflated the extremely extreme view that all cars should be banned with the more mainstream demand to 'Copenhagenise' or 'Go Dutch'. I have nothing more that I would wish to add about this.

So that just leaves what, exactly? Well, I too am really surprised that Andrew Boff wasn't hung, drawn and quartered at the LCC meeting, when he told them, 'You do realise that the changes that the Mayor is doing with regard to cycling have nothing to do with you at all? They're nothing to do with the people who are already cycling, apart from making it safer. They're about building a constituency of people [...] who realise that this is the best way to get into work. I think that's the sales pitch that you've got to [put] to people'

Firstly, 'the people who are already cycling' are the only ones who are being killed on their bikes, and if you make it safer for them, then the new cyclists will follow. Indeed, apart from making it safer, what else is there to do really? Nothing so difficult, surely. Secondly, why is it down to other people to do the sales pitch? What do the politicians have to do then?

Which leads me on to this:

AB: I live in Hackney. You know, virtually everybody cycles in Hackney. I mean, there's very few car-users. [The real problems with regard to cycling in London are] out there in the suburbs, where there isn't a constituency of cyclists who are lobbying for better facilities. In order for the suburbs to become more cycle-friendly, you need this lobbying constituency of people out there saying, I want to be able to cycle from, you know, Romford to Upminster, I want to make it easier to cycle there. I want to be able to cycle from Croydon to Sutton and the facilities aren't there at the moment - putting pressure on their local authorities to do that. At the moment local authorities out in Outer London don't have that weight of people saying, We need these facilities. And that's some of the changes that Boris is really contributing to, especially with the cycle hire scheme, 'cause more and more people are realising - who have never been - haven't since they were a kid got on a bike - are now getting on the bike for the cycle hire scheme.

JT: And the boroughs, and the outer boroughs, the politicians and the planners out there, they're not enlightened enough to realise this is a good thing without being marched up by a lobby to do it? That's disappointing, isn't it?

AB: No, the way democracies work is that they respond to the needs of their electors. We've got to get away from this idea that we politicians go 'round telling people what to do. I get a bit annoyed with politicians who go around saying, You should be doing this because it's good for you and it saves the planet. Allow people to realise that [for] themselves, and then enable people to be able to change that for Outer London.

JT: But I think it's a bit more of a latent desire, that people don't know they've even got. You know, if you take someone from Sutton out to Holland, and they look at what they've got in Holland, they'd probably get on a bike. But they're not going to think that that is even vaguely possible in Sutton, are they?

AB: No, most people in Sutton are now coming in their jobs during the day, might be commuting into London, are realising going from branch-office to branch-office, it's easier doing it on a cyc--on a Boris Bike. And actually, they suddenly realise, This isn't that bad, I could do with this going down to the shops, in Sutton. I could do with it - well, wherever - I don't want to diss Sutton. You know, I don't want to diss any Outer London borough. But the fact of the matter is, is that there isn't that lobby, and when local councils come to deliver priorities, they are guided by their residents, and if their residents aren't speaking up on behalf of cycling then it's not going to happen. The bare minimum will be done. But if you've got some bolshy people out there saying, 'Hold on, I want to be able to cycle to the shops, rather than having to get in the car, because that's the only safe way to get in.' That's where it happens. As I say, politicians have got to stop going around telling people - we aren't philosophers, for goodness' sake. We're here to deliver what Londoners want us to deliver. And my - as far as I'm concerned, the cyclists who have talked to me want safer cycling in London and that's why we're working on it.

JT: I guess there's a difference there between politicians who lead and politicians who follow, but that's for the political scientists to discuss at greater length.

AB: No, politicians who lead purely on their own set of priorities aren't politicians at all; they're dictators.

I remember attending a seminar on Land Tax a few years ago, and Chris Huhne was one of the speakers. It wasn't a bad presentation by any means, but for some reason the only thing he said which stuck in my mind was something he mentioned right at the beginning: "I know my audience," he said. I presume that Andrew Boff knows his audience as well. So he'll appreciate how fussy we are about things like facts, and probably won't need me to tell him that, during the day, most people in Sutton are not coming into London, and using a Boris Bike to get from branch-office to branch-office. No, during the day, most people in Sutton are in Sutton. But his soundbite, if you like, is that the politicians are there to deliver what Londoners want them to deliver.

Funny, I had always thought that the politicians were there to consider the arguments on both sides, and then to pursue the policy that would best serve the public interest. Turns out that's not the case. So be it.

That being so, the unacceptable fact of the matter is that they have not taken the trouble to find out what Londoners actually want. Indeed, TfL hardly consulted on this matter at all. It was assumed, somehow, that what Londoners most want from TfL is for them to smooth the traffic flow, and without any justification to speak of, save only an unspecific concern to ensure that we don't shoot ourselves in the foot, they have proceeded with their outrageous plans to convert London into a Motorway City.

I don't know about you, but this doesn't seem to me like democracy in its most honourable state. An unelected, unaccountable body deciding what is best for the heart and soul. Hardly compelling, is it?

I'm not happy about it. But it doesn't suit my personality to grumble for too long. I reckon what we need then is an alternative plan for Londoners to consider. For nearly ten years I've been seeking to make the minimum change for the maximum effect, and although the boroughs have mostly been up for it, so far TfL have always found a way to apply the hand-brake.

New Road, Poplar
Like it or not, the only practical way to develop a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network is to do as much as possible at least cost first. I plan to talk about this in another blog, but for the moment, that's how it is. Still, I recognise that we would need to quickly move through the gears, quicker probably than I was contemplating, and so I think we should agree on a vision for what London could look like in five or ten years' time, given a mandate from the electorate.