Boris, Pickles, Gehl; 3 men, 3 different approaches to cycling

This week I’ve had the opportunity to speak with three very different people, with very different approaches as to how we should go about growing cycling rates here in the UK.

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is a very excited man. He believes his localism and decentralisation bill – which will deliver the biggest shake up to planning laws since the 1940s – will bring about a new era of civic responsibility and will deliver planning power to local people. “Cities will be given control of their own destinies” he said, speaking at The Economist’s conference on Urban Planning and Liveable Cities. He is lifting the Labour-imposed restriction on car parking places allowed in new developments, supposedly under the guise of discouraging street parking, which he considers anti-social. What he couldn’t explain was how this would stop an excess of multi-car households coming about, and exactly how many on-street parking spots (a source of revenue) he expects local Councils to remove considering the wide-ranging budget cuts his Government are currently imposing on them. (Hackney, for example, will have to swallow a 25% budget cut over the next 5 years). I asked him; “As Secretary of State for Communities, and given the known effects that over-use of private cars has on local communities in terms of urban blight, noise pollution, obesity etc, how do you reconcile and balance these issues with your declaring the end to the so-called war on the motorist?”
His answer was unequivocally blunt: “Don’t be such a puritan. Not all of us can pedal up and down in rubber knickers you know; we need to find balance. Of course, let’s encourage cycling and walking, and we need to make cycling safer, but let us not treat people in cars like the enemy!”

Cycling in London - no rubber knickers in sight...

Later that day I was at a public transport forum in Greenford listening to the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The civic centre was packed, and passions were running high. But Boris was keen to stress he was doing all he could to promote cycling; “We are going through a neo-Victorian age of investment in transport infrastructure... ..By investing in the long term infrastructure we will pull the city – and indeed the whole of the UK – out of recession.” So far, so positive, and the Mayor explained he’d be keen to expand the Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme to West London if only a certain bank cared to throw in an additional £25million. Boris was adamant in his resolve; “We are creating a safer, greener city where people can feel free to ride their bikes to school, to work, to the shops.” But serious questions came back from the audience; how could the Mayor expect everyday and ordinary people to ride when bike theft is so prevalent, when traffic volumes are so high, when much of the cycle network as it currently stands throws you in to the most dangerous spots and is often incomplete at the most difficult places to navigate? In a poll of the audience approximately 50% were in favour of more pavement riding and more shared pedestrian walkways if it meant completing more cycle routes away from the more dangerous and difficult spots in the road. Boris came back with soundbites about Sheffield stands, hints about introducing a Ciclovia every Sunday here in London, and promises to ‘look into’ facing off a potential ban on bikes on Crossrail, but his ideas as to what to actually do to make cycling accessible for all were vague at best. When questioned how he intended to encourage more children and women to cycle under current road conditions, Boris went into soundbite meltdown; “As Mayor, I want to make all roads safe for cyclists... ..everyone who uses the roads in London should expect to find cyclists there and should take good care of them... ..It is getting safer all the time, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Cycling has gone up 110% - 120% - in 10 years and KSIs have gone down by a fifth. Whenever we have a fatality I personally look in to see what has happened.” It’s great that Boris is pro-cycling and makes the right noises about getting on your bike in the first place – you can’t buy that sort of PR. But, to bring about a cycling revolution (or achieve 5% modal share for bikes, as Boris desires) you need concrete answers and solutions to people’s safety concerns and need to make provision for cyclists the primary priority, especially at difficult and dangerous junctions. Indeed, former Mayor of Bogota Enrique Peñalosa, who we met last week, achieved 5% modal share for bicycles by constructing some 300km of segregated cycleways and by restricting city centre street parking.

“It’s safe, but doesn’t always feel like it” is no foundation on which to build mass cycle rates by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed earlier that day Jenny Jones - Green party London Assembly member - had quizzed the Mayor, claiming his current planned cycling initiatives were going to fall short of the 5% modal share target by 820,000 additional cycle journeys every day. Considering at present only 500,000 cycle journeys (or 2.6% modal share) currently take place across Greater London each day it would seem that the golden 5% is quite some way off. (Read ‘Utter Tripe in the Outer Boroughs’ and weep)

Streets for people?

On the same day as my encounters with Mr Pickles and Mr Johnson and their questionable future for cycling, I also had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Professor Jan Gehl wherein he described his life’s work in Copenhagen and some of his ideas for London. His message was clear and concise; if a city is sweet to it’s people, the people will be sweet to the city. Gehl is an urban architect who concentrates on the space between buildings – the public realm – and has built his career around creating city spaces for people. He believes that by prioritising pedestrians and cyclists you make a lively, safe, sustainable and pleasant city. In his native Copenhagen, they have resolved that “in this city, everything will be done to invite people to walk and bicycle as much as possible in the course of their daily lives.” I think the emphasis on inviting cyclists as oppose to expecting them to endure current conditions is a very striking point. In Copenhagen some 37% of commuters choose to get to work by bike. A brave new world? On that Gehl is clear; “We do not have to think like 1960s traffic engineers for ever – times are changing.” Gehl believes that building bike lanes is not about bikes per se, but about providing a cheap, clean, economical, sustainable and safe new transport network for the city. It’s integrated, too. You can take bikes on trains and the metro in Copenhagen and all city taxis are fitted with bicycle racks – all part and parcel of spoiling your walkers and cyclists and inviting people to ride. The benefits are clear on many levels, not least in terms of economy. Danish research has found that for every KM cycled, society saves 30 cents. For every KM driven, society looses 20 cents. Biking is not just about having fun and being ‘green’; it pays, too.

Why then, are the likes of Boris Johnson and Eric Pickles so far behind the times here? Where is their definitive vision for bringing about mass cycling here in London? The previous Mayor commissioned Gehl to write a hefty report on London some 7 years ago back in 2004 (PDF). Key recommendations included finding a better balance between traffic and other city users, and improving conditions for walkers and cyclists in the city. These state clearly that the Mayor, as a visionary torch bearer for cycling, should:

Create a cycling policy for London, setting out goals to be achieved.
(Done, see TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”)

Establish good and convenient bicycle parking facilities.
(In fairness, Boris is overseeing the instalment of some 60,000 Sheffield stands)

Run campaigns to encourage cycling and to create greater awareness about cyclists in traffic.
(Done and done; there was TfL’s snazzy ‘Catch up with the bicycle’ campaign (ongoing) and those weird safety adverts with the enormous bikes rolling around a bank robbery)

Provide clear marking at intersections.
(On the cycle superhighways, yes, elsewhere less so)

Create a safe, coherent network of good connected routes.
(Hmm. Less successful here. Boris withdrew funding from the London Cycle Network + which was, to be frank, not great to start with either)


Create safe, raised cycle lanes, separated from traffic by kerbs.
(Ah. Yes. Of course... That explains everything...)

The more I research this subject the stronger my feelings are that there is an inherent appetite to cycle amongst Londonders if only they perceived it to be safe (subjectively and actual). Never more urgent has the mantra “Build it and they will come” been, and yet this seems to be the one thing which is ignored by politicians at all levels. It’s all well and good having a fancy plan, and snazzy adverts, but unless people – ALL people – feel happy on a bike in London then all endeavours to attempt to bring about mass cycling in London are bound to fail.

I’ll leave you with Professor Gehl’s speech from the Liveable Cities conference in the hope that by spreading his good advice and common sense approach to provisions for cyclists, someone at a higher level might actually start to listen and do something about this all.... View the video on The Economist conference website, here.

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ndru said...

Great post Mark. It's great to hear that someone is finally asking the right questions. It's also sad how misguided some people (Pickles) are. I thin the PR problem of bicycle in UK must be addressed so that politicians see it as a valid alternative not as a leisure activity for the fit.
Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

"Not all of us can pedal up and down in rubber knickers you know..."

That says far more about Eric Pickles than he probably realises.

I was also thinking a bit about cycling's image this morning - brought about by the location of the Guardian's 'bike blog' in their environment section. I don't cycle to save the world, I cycle because I bloody love it.

I also avoid lycra and I wish more cyclists would - it makes it look like it's a kit-heavy gym alternative rather than an enjoyable way of getting from A to B.

ibikelondon said...

Thanks guys - @jonsmalldon that's exactly my philosophy too, I think the fitness, fun and green credentials of cycling are all 'plus' points, but primarily it should be marketed as the most economical and simple and convenient way to get around town. Sadly, it would seem we have a long way to go yet....

Anonymous said...

For example - I can't walk to my local station it's either 3 odd miles by car or by bike. Going by bike saves me £32.50 in parking charges and cycling at the other end saves me £17.50 a week in the difference between my ticket and a zones 1-6 travelcard. That's £50 saved each and every week which means the bike I bought two weeks ago will have paid for itself by March.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what's more disturbing - Johnson's vacuity or Pickles' blatant stereotyping and double-standards.

It beggars belief that a person in public office, in a public forum, could be so offensive. His logic is idiotic; where is the balance in encouraging yet more car use?

I despair that we have such a man in such a powerful position. Do we have to let the country grind to a congested halt before anything constructive is done? Astounding..


WestfieldWanderer said...

I suppose I ought to be shocked and dismayed at Pickles' response to your question.

What is really shocking is that people of such obvious low intellect continually find themselves in high office.

I think it was George Bernard Shaw (sounds like something he might have said, even if it wasn't him) who said that "those who aspire to high office are be definition unworthy of it." Pickles, by his own words and attitude illustrates those words perfectly.

It's difficult to work out whether to laugh or cry.

Anonymous said...

Given how certain petrolheads love to bleat about how "not everyone can cycle" (hardly the first time I've heard such comments from those in power), perhaps there's a new angle for those of us who'd like to see fewer cars and more bikes on the roads - namely: driving when you /could/ bike is in fact doubly selfish, 'cause you're making the roads more congested for all those poor people who can't bike. Instead of cycling being only for the fit, portray driving as being the best option for those not healthy enough to bike - draw analogies between driving when you could ride, and selfish able bodied nitwits who hog the elderly/disabled seats on the Tube. Just a random thought... anon321.

Decani said...

I began cycling to work last summer between Harold Wood (Romford)and Ilford and stopped in November. Since then cycling has been put on the back burner, my reason for this is:

I had a close encounter with a white van in November on the roundabout at Winston Way, Ilford. I carried out the usual observations and gave a obvious hand signal to indicate my intended direction of travel. Suddenly, the van driver over took me and came within about 3 inches of hitting me. Luckily, I survived and caught him up at the traffic lights, only to receive a load of abuse. This incident has made me think twice about cycling to work.

If London had better cycle lanes and protected routes, I am sure more people like myself would get back on their bikes and cycle to work.

Karl McCracken (twitter: @KarlOnSea) said...

What's sad about this (apart from Pickles' ill-informed position. And Boris' soundbites rather than substance and pitifully low aspirations - 5% is hardly reaching for the stars) is that what needs to be done is actually well understood.

What's lacking here is political will to set a properly ambitious target, and then take the actions to achieve it. Without our politicians showing some leadership on this, understanding a future that can be created, and communicating the benefits it'll deliver, we will be stuck pretty much where we are. Cycling will remain a marginal activity of fetishists in rubber knickers.

So if I were getting involved at the start of a new cycling campaign (for example), the one thing that I'd say we need is to do whatever it takes to get real support & commitment from within government for the vision that we're trying to realise. Whether that's achieved by lobbying, PR campaigns, infiltration, or armed revolution is I guess, to be discussed!

inconvenient_truth said...

Great post. As Mr. Pickles is a northerner, he maybe doesn't realise that there are cyclists who don't use "rubber knickers". I think we should invite him to Darlington to meet some of our Beauty and the Bike girls. I'm sure they'll tell him where to stick his own knickers.

Anonymous said...

I've just read the latest piece on Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club, about this very conversation. Whilst I'm still unimpressed with his comments, it does seem that Eric Pickles had a bit more to say. In particular:

"And I think we need to find better ways for making it safer for cyclists. Even I might venture out eventually if we make it just a little bit safer."

It sounds like Eric might actually be open to persuasion. Maybe with a bit of encouragement and support he'd even come out for a spin? He might even enjoy it!


ibikelondon said...

@KarlOnSea You've hit the nail on the head, it comes down to political will - soundbites over substance. I'll be there on Saturday too and am looking forward to lots of ideas flying around as to how to carry the GB Cycling Embassy forwards.

@InconvenientTruth Sod Mr Pickles, I think you should invite me to come and meet your girls from Beauty and the Bike - I still find that such an inspiring project!

@don_don You're quite right, there was slightly more to the conversation that is relayed here. As the videos weren't available at the time and my shorthand skills aren't up to much I wasn't able to scribble it all down at the time, but for the sake of fairness, here's the full conversation for all:


Mark Ames:
We’re here today to talk about sustainability and liveable cities, and as a cyclist the end product of these kinds of discussions for me and for my fellow cyclists and pedestrians are the actual conditions on the streets.

So, as Secretary of State for Communities and given the known effect that overuse of private car transport has on local communities in terms of urban blight and noise, pollution, obesity and all the rest, how do you reconcile and balance those problems that face communities with your and Philip Hammonds ending of the so called war on the motorist?

Eric Pickle:
Well I mean, I’m a fat guy and me on a bicycle is not a pretty sight, as to this…

It works for Boris…

Boris is more svelte than me, I mean… Common, don’t be such a p… don’t be such a puritan! We can find a reason… Well, not everybody can pedal in rubber knickers up and down the place to go to work. It’s a question of finding a proper balance, that’s what we’re trying to do, is a proper balance. Boris’s bicycles work really well, I want to see that extended around the country. And I think we need to find better ways for making it safer for cyclists. Even I might venture out eventually if we make it just a little bit safer. And I think we’ve got to look for intelligent ways of helping people _pool_cars_, work together. Also we’re going to be introducing more points for _electric_cars_. I want to see public transport being made better, that’s why we’re, I think, paying that more attention towards high-speed rail underlines.

Everything has got to be a kind of a balance. You see, the problem with the old system was, we artificially restricted the number of parking places for new developments, and all that simply happened is people parked on the roads. Now without getting too emotional about it, I lost to constituency (?) young people precisely because of this ridiculous policy because people parked on the side and fire engines couldn’t get through to the appropriate place. So it’s just a kind of an example of _how_targets_don’t_match_ reality. We think ‘Job done’ because we got this kind of target. And I think that the motor vehicle has a perfectly respectable place in society and people who use them aren’t the enemy. So let’s encourage bikes, lets encourage walking, let’s encourage obese people like me to lose a bit of weight by doing all this kind of things, but let’s not regard of people who travel by car as the enemy.

Anonymous said...

Mark - Thanks for this post and all your blogging - it's appreciated, even up here in Manchester.

You and Jon should look at and if you haven't already.

I'm amazed that Eric Pickles is allowed to keep his job - if he was a sports presenter speaking about women he'd have been hung out to dry by now.
His stereotyping "Rubber Knickers" phrase, live on air, suggests that treating all cyclists as an 'out group' is acceptable. As the Secretary of State for Communities he may have just officially started 'The war on cyclists'.
I propose that in future he is referred to as Eric "Rubber Knickers" Pickles. Not a pretty sight, but my favourite way of dealing with this remark.

He then tried to play an emotional card but surely he lost the hand...
"Now without getting too emotional about it, I lost two constituency young people precisely because of this ridiculous policy, because people parked on the side (of the carriageway) and fire engines couldn't get through to the appropriate place"
Nothing too emotional there then!
And obviously it's the policy's fault - it couldn't be because we have too many cars or because people parked their cars irresponsibly - that would be 'war on motorists' talk.

I will only accept an apology from Mr Pickles if he delivers it whilst cycling around Parliament Square wearing a pair of "Rubber Knickers".


The Musing Urbanist said...

Great review Mark. I've also jotted down some thoughts on the event

The lessons from Copenhagen were truly inspriational but will tough with London's tight roads. if only someone was radical enough to knock out a whole car lane for bikes!


Anonymous said...

Great post and well done for skewering Pickles like a hog roast.

Excellent post overall, but saying that 5/6 of the Gehl recommendations have been made, and only 1 (cycle paths) ignores the fact that cycle use is growing spectacularly in London without cycle paths.

I would like to see cycle paths everywhere too, but they must be up to standard. A flaw with the Camden segregated paths (e.g. Tavistock Place) is that these are way too narrow and do not receive proper priority. Better designs will come as numbers grow. Don't underestimate the huge costs of sub-standard existing roads - any step to change them that provides a substandard solutions

The current 10% annual growth in cycling levels is phenomenal - similar to the best figures achieved in many other European cities over the last few years.

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