Cyclingballs #3: The London Cycling Campaign of Fear?

Every cloud has a silver lining: the current Tube strikes, although irritating, are at least inspiring many more Londoners to cycle to work.

This is true despite a recent press release I received from the London Cycling Campaign. The message came with a headline that included a peculiar phrase:

‘Londoners should have genuine choice to cycle on Tube strike days (and every other day)’

This surprised me. I thought that one of the major objectives of the London Cycling Campaign is to inspire more people to discover the many benefits of cycling – health, happiness, fitness, free travel, and so on. But the headline suggests that cycling is not a ‘genuine choice’ for Londoners. So what’s stopping them?

The press release begins by ‘calling on local councils to redesign our streets so all Londoners have a genuine choice to cycle on Tube strike days’. The theme continues: we need to ‘redesign our streets so they're safe and inviting for everyone to cycle’.

So the implication is that until the streets are redesigned people do not have a ‘genuine choice’ to cycle: as things stand the streets are not ‘safe and inviting’.

The LCC blunders home the point by quoting from ‘Human Resources Manager Lisa Wyett, 31, who lives in Kingsbury NW London’, and says, "I would cycle to work during the Tube strike if I could, but I’m scared of cycling on busy roads. I'd definitely consider it if the streets were safer for cycling".

What a thoroughly depressing and misleading press release!

It certainly makes you wonder: are the streets safe for cycling? Well, it depends on the streets, and on how safe you want to be.

The LCC’s Space for Cycling Campaign is calling for the capital’s major motor arteries to be ripped up and redesigned with special ‘segregated’ lanes for cyclists. At the moment, those main roads, where buses and trucks hurtle past in high numbers, are naturally pretty inhospitable places for cyclists.

The statistics suggest that it is a bit of an exaggeration to call those roads ‘unsafe’ for cyclists (by that logic, they’re unsafe for pedestrians, motorcyclists and drivers too), but certainly it is safer and more pleasant to cycle somewhere other than on the main roads.

But there’s the rub. Even if, when it comes to cycling on main roads, would-be cyclists are put off by safety issues and fears about safety (and even if you unhelpfully blur that distinction as the LCC does), Londoners still have a ‘genuine choice’ to cycle: they can cycle on alternative streets. It doesn’t take very long to plan a quieter bike route, taking in London’s lovely backstreets, parks and canals.

By obsessing about main roads, the LCC achieves only two things, the second often (but remarkably not always) following from the first: insinuating that there is no choice for new cyclists but to take the main roads, and scaring off new cyclists. Both outcomes are unhelpful – to put it mildly – to the cycling cause in the capital (as well as beyond).

There will never be a network of segregated cycle routes on London’s main roads: and there doesn’t need to be. As well as countless unprovisioned quiet roads which are perfectly suitable for cycling on, the capital already has a designated network of thousands of kilometers of reasonably well-developed cycle routes encompassing backstreets, parks and canals.

The most effective thing the authorities could do is sign and map this network properly with long, straight coloured routes, so that people can plan and follow a cycle route with the same ease as catching the Tube. People already have a ‘genuine choice’ to cycle in London, but a Tube-style London Cycle Map and network would make cycling a simpler choice.

Will this proposal make the headlines? Unlikely. Most people are terrified of cycling, and therefore not interested in sensible commentary. That's why the LCC achieves mainstream publicity through pandering to the climate of fear that is reflected, and stoked, by the media. And that’s why the LCC’s blurs the distinction between safety and the perception of safety: to recognize that there is a difference would be to challenge the media’s fearmongering agenda, and risk being ignored. 

No wonder cycling levels have not increased in the last year, as new statistics show. (Note that Sustrans, in reporting these statistics, couldn’t resist the customary lament about safety, and also blurred the distinction between safety and perceptions of safety: ‘Some areas aren’t as safe as others, preventing many people from cycling regularly for everyday journeys to work, school or the shops… We need safer streets and more dedicated cycling routes so that everyone can feel safe on a bike’.)

Of course, new dedicated cycling routes are always welcome. But fearmongering will get cyclists nowhere.

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