Are BIDs bad for bicycles?

There has been much discussion online of a recent article in London’s Evening Standard; “Street rangers to crack down on rogue cyclists”. The rangers in question are private security guards employed by the Holborn and St Giles “inmidtown” Business Improvement District (BID) and will be enforcing a cyclist’s ‘code of conduct’ put together by the BID which includes spurious advice such as ‘use back streets to avoid traffic.’ According to inmidtown’s press release on the cyclist’s code of conduct “The code will also detail where and how visitors to the area can report cyclists who aren’t following the rules. Bad cyclist behaviour can be reported to a Midtown Ranger, or uploaded at a dedicated forum on the inmidtown website.” The inmidtown BID is not the only business group with a bee in its bonnet about cyclists. Another BID, ‘Better Bankside’, is pushing for an enforced ban of cycling on London’s South Bank at the behest of its primary tenant. So what are BIDs and are they bad for bicycles?

Business Improvement Districts, or BIDS, are an idea imported from America under the previous Government with much enthusiasm. Essentially, a group of businesses in a local area pay a levy or fee on top of their usual rates, to fund an organisation who’s primary focus is to improve the trading environment of a local area, that is to say to increase footfall in local businesses to improve their profitability. These improvements are usually pursued with a mixed policy of beautifying areas, increased CCTV and surveillance, local identity promotion (‘inmidtown’, ‘Better Bankside’) and private street rangers employed directly by the BID. These ‘clean and safe-style’ initiatives seek to take the fear of undesirable elements out of the BID’s landscape, thus making the area more attractive to the highest spenders. According to Anna Minton, author of “Ground Control; fear and happiness in the 21st Century City”; “A key feature of the new ‘private-public’ developments are the rules governing behaviour which ensure that only certain types of activities and certain types of people will be allowed to enjoy the spaces created. Typically, in ‘private-public’ space beggars and homeless are ‘moved on’ by private security, whilst behaviours ranging from skateboarding to rollerblading are banned.” Much of this thinking comes from New York, where BIDS were pioneered under former Mayor Rudolph Giulianni’s ‘zero tolerance strategy; “...he identified the homeless, beggars, squeegee cleaners, squatters, graffiti artists, reckless cyclists and unruly youths as elements whose presence would not be tolerated.”

The inmidtown rangers, at their Holborn station kiosk

Of course, as cyclists most of us do not desire to see ourselves linked with the groups named above. Neither, if we are law abiding riders, should there be any reason for us to be moved on or targeted by any private security firms under the guise of acting as ‘street rangers’. However, inmidtown’s decision to launch a ‘considerate cycling’ guide without any statistical consideration as to the actual primary sources of danger in the area highlights a worrying trend in which cyclists can be singled out as being somehow other or un-ordinary. It will not be to the benefit of the cause of cycling if business groups begin to brand us as a source of nuisance and danger in order to appease a commercial agenda. Especially if that commercial agenda includes ideas like this: “inmidtown is also looking into... .. implementing a Cyclist Therapy programme where cyclists identified as having broken the Code are sent out with the driver of a large vehicle to observe how dangerous it is for cyclists to not follow the rules of the road.” Therapy? For cyclists? Really?! And I always thought that we already had an adequate set of rules for dealing with the consequences of all road users who break the law... More worrying still is that the BID is able to pick and choose which laws they wish to see applied by their street rangers. Under the Police Reform Act 2002 which sought to extend the ‘wider Police family’, these rangers - working with their local dedicated PCSO - have the power to apply fixed penalty notices, as well as form part of the wider surveillance network of the BID area and can collect information in support of an Anti Social Behavioural Order against an individual banning them from the BID area. Again, if you are a law-abiding cyclist you should have nothing to worry about, however when these same people are issuing spurious cycling advice such as ‘Use back roads’ there is obvious grounds for conclusion as to what will be the consequence if you don’t follow their advice. Inmidtown’s ‘Cycling Code’ makes no mention of how the area’s rangers will also be targeting poor or dangerous driving of automobiles or anti-social parking.

The South Bank’s recent proposal to enforce a ban on cycling on the Thames footpath came with the proviso that it was done to ‘protect and benefit’ pedestrians. Regular readers to this blog will know that I often advocate that pedestrians should always have ‘top priority’ when it comes to provision on our streets. However, when that space is also being given over to commercial use such as seating for cafes and restaurants and tenant businesses, I don’t think it is wrong to be highly sceptical of the reasons for such a move. So far as I can see none of the proposed cycle bans have been backed up with any evidence that cyclists or cycling are the source of any more or less danger to the pedestrians in any of these areas than anything else. However, I can categorically say that in each of these areas crime such as mugging and theft, and more potently, danger from automobiles (both on an off the road) are a much stronger source of danger. That BIDs and their rangers are able to use the law to pursue their own populist agenda whilst stigmatising all cyclists and ignoring the real source of danger in their areas is a great personal cause for concern.

The path of Cycle Superhighway 3 is blocked by a security gate at the private East India Dock business estate

As BIDS increase in popularity and number across London they also present another threat to cycling. As we have already seen with Better Bankside many seek to ban cycling out right in large parts of their areas; through BIDS or private-public commercial land ownership cycling is now curtailed in large parts of Broadgate in the City, Canary Wharf, Spitalfields Market and so on. Furthermore, as any London cyclist will tell you, London’s cycling provision suffers greatly from the lack of a unified roads authority. The streets of Westminster are designed very differently to those of say Camden, and the two borough’s attitude to cycle lanes, advanced stop lines or even cycle parking are often very different. On top of this, the Transport for London roads network adds a further layer of diversity to this planning conundrum; the roads which are managed by TfL may pass through a number of boroughs but all are designed to be heavy-use high speed roads. This diversity of planning ideals by different Councils and their approach to cycling is already harmful to cycling as there is no single ‘cycle standard’ for London or single office to which cyclists should apply when campaigning for new facilities (thus why the London Cycle Campaign broke down into borough by borough groups). The imposition of a Business Improvement District’s approach to cycling on top of this planning patch-work will further lead to a dilution in the cohesive planning for cycling. If a BID or private-public area considers cyclist to be undesirable or somehow a threat to their primary customers they are likely to be highly disinclined to make cycling attractive in their private-public areas. This is demonstrated at East India Dock, a large business park on which falls the route of Cycle Superhighway 3. For the rest of the route the way is clearly marked with continuous blue paint on the road and clear signage. At East India Dock, where both the roadway and the ground are controlled by the business park operator, the route almost disappears completely with only small blue tiled squares every 5 metres or so pointing out the route, no street signage, and a manually controlled barrier across the road restricting access to and from the estate. Despite the Cycle Superhighway being a supposed ‘right of way’, it crosses privately owned and operated ‘public’ land and is therefore subject to the whims of the private operators who clearly do not value the contribution that cyclists have to make to the area. Perhaps this same thinking could also explain the shocking lack of cycle parking at Spitalfields Market, despite there being 3 cycle shops there as tenants?

Can you spot the Cycle Superhighway here?

I’m not writing about this relatively new issue for cyclists because I am overly concerned with the erosion of civil liberties in supposedly public space (though of course that is a concern) but because I believe that as BIDs and privately owned and operated ‘public’ spaces become more numerous in London the difficulties that these present to cyclists will also become more numerous. I do not believe that an open and balanced public debate about the effect these areas and organisations will have on our public spaces and roads will have has taken place, and it is something that cycling campaigners should be more aware of.

If a local area is to be re-designed, re-branded and driven by a business improvement agenda, is there a risk that there will be little room for cyclists left? And will the presence of nylon-clad private security who seeks to deter cyclists, deter cycling?

Further Reading:

The Emotional City. Adam Caruso. Caruso St John Architects

Ground Control; fear and happiness in the 21st Century City, Anna Minton


christhebull said...

The problem is that these business types do not see cyclists as being potential sources of revenue that need parking etc, but as either BMX riding hoodlems or Lycra louts; which is about as accurate as Tesco deciding that drivers were unwelcome because they were "all" driving chavved up Corsas or were dealers with a Range Rover; rather then being, y'know, average people. As for the advice to stick to back streets, the writer clearly last touched a bicycle at Centre Parcs at the age of 12 - it is often difficult to do so because of road blocks and one way in-permeablilty. Will the BID rangers waste time harrassing cyclists on main roads then?

Jez said...

Great post, and a worrying trend. Regardless of whether pavement cycling RLJers are spoiling it for the law abiding majority or not, what worries me the most is private security firms becoming an extension of the police force.

Surely this flies in the face of Boris's vision for a cycling revolution in London. What next BID's refusing to host cycle hire points?

Steph said...

I just keep seeing 'intimidation rangers' when I look at the picture caption, which despite the orange I'm sure that's what they're going for.

I get a slightly uncomfortable feeling when the businesses begin to assert ownership of the public spaces around them, always get the creeps when I'm on canary wharf, it feels slightly like a mall with no roof.

ibikelondon said...

Thanks everyone for your comments; I was a bit concerned that maybe I was just being a bit paranoid with this post, but clearly I'm not alone in having these concerns.

Steph; your feeling of a 'mall with no roof' is not unintentional. 'Malls without walls' are a cornerstone concept in BID designs. If you are interested in the history of Canary Wharf and how it came about being and was essentially handed to private developers on a plate I can't recommend Anna Minton's book enough.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

Tim Lennon said...

The whole idea of having these privately run pieces of public land is anathema. It's madness we're sequestering more and more of our small island in these bizarre enclaves - the BIDs just seem an even worse version of gated communities ... Eugh.

Steph said...

Thanks for the tip, I was meaning to read that after seeing it in the guardian (cough, liberal scum) ages ago.

I think the BID thing is a slight perversion of what used to be called civil pride. That businesses now will only chip in to help improve public space if they also get that given to them as a pseudo-asset.

It's just mildly/pretty creepy in itself, but thin edge of the wedge and all that.

I don't know if the situation is different up in Scotland as we have 'universal access to land' enshrined in law here.

Anonymous said...

Several Dutch cities are considering comprehensive cycle bans in city centres. The main target seems to be the bikes themselves, rather than the people who ride them. The bikes are seen as nuisance, either ridden or parked. Cyclists would have to leave them at cycle parking on the edge of the centre, and continue their journey on foot. Or not use a bike at all.

Nothing has been decided yet, but if Dutch cities can get away with this, then cities in other countries certainly would.

Lady Vélo said...

As you might know Mark, I know that bit of the Cycle Super-Highway kinda well (it's rather local to me!) - I hate that barrier so much - and the few blue suqares that are the "highway" - argh!!!!

Mark said...

As a youth worker, it strikes me as lot like how these business partners treat young people. Sure, they say "unruly youth" but in reality that's any group of young people larger than three of four, or speaking louder than an older person would. So when they say "unruly cyclists" I can't help but feel in reality unruly will be quite broadly defined. It's frustrating. It also somehow (as with youth) makes cyclists less of citizens and equals to cars. If everyone, including cyclists, kept to the rules of the road and used some commonsense, we'd all be a lot happier.

jamesup said...

Very topical issue.

The trouble with BIDs is that they assume that only businesses have interests in the area, and ignore other groups.

Businesses like BIDs because they don't feel included in local government (your cafe tables is a good example) the solution is, as ever, good local government. I'd be interested by how other countries handle this.

Unknown said...

I work at East India and while there is *some* good cycling parking there (like literally meters in front of the designated smoking area which means your bike gets watched by security and by interested office workers all day long) and security is good it is very disheartening that what is such an open site anyway has to disrupt a busy cycle superhighway with their pointless barrier!

It is a bit ironic that the site is home to Tower Hamlets council!! With all that space they could have put in a cycle hire point with directions on how to get on the CS3 which would have been a big boon to the tourists who regularly stay at the Travel Lodge round the corner. Sigh.

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