So, today’s the day that Boris Johnson, with his ‘Cycling Czar’ (or Tsar) Andrew Gilligan, launched The Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London. This has already resulted in a great deal of very positive blogging and comment from many who have been fighting for years for such an ambitious vision for cycling in the capital as that which the document sets out. There has also, understandably, been a certain amount of wariness along the lines of “fine words are all very well”.
Mark Ames of the ibikelondon blog has written that “cyclists, bike bloggers and campaigners will be keeping a very close eye on developments to ensure that Boris Johnson’s cycling reality matches his colourful rhetoric”. We’re cyclists, we blog a bit, and we even campaign. But we’re also practitioners who love to get stuff actually designed and built – not just talked about or ‘studied’. So the transition from vision to reality is something we need to do much more than just keep an eye on.
Another bike blogger, Danny Williams (aka Cyclists in the City), tweeted today that “Boris created political space for cycling. TfL on steep learning curve, heading right direction. Delivery is what matters now.” Using the same medium, the GB Cycling Embassy reported that, at the launch of the Vision, Gilligan said that he was tired of endless CRISP assessments that “line the pockets of consultants”, and added their own assent to that sentiment, saying “Just need to get on with it”.
Despite being consultants ourselves, we genuinely agree with this statement; and not just because we’ve never undertaken a CRISP assessment in our lives! There is quite enough knowledge and expertise, some of it within TfL, some of it within the Boroughs, and some of it elsewhere (like here), to get cracking with implementing the vision – tomorrow, if the money’s there. From our perspective, however, the note of caution we would sound is that the matter of if and when the various aspects of the Mayor’s Vision become reality may well depend less on our collective ability to deliver, but on our freedom to do so.
Our take is that the ‘steep learning curve’ that Danny says TfL is on relates just as much to its corporate practice as to the skills of specific designers. And the same can be said for almost every authority we have worked for. There are two principal facets to corporate practice that may cause frustration. One is the obvious one of that old chestnut, ‘Traffic Model Says’, continuing to be used to water down cycle infrastructure schemes that take highway capacity away from motor traffic; even though such schemes offer the genuine potential for that capacity no longer to be needed. There were some very encouraging words from Gilligan on this topic at the launch; I trust he was talking from knowledge, not just aspiration.
The other facet of our concern relates to the kind of mistakes that are made, for example, when bus lanes are ‘boshed’ into busy streets at the expense of almost all other considerations. Our job is ultimately to help make great towns and cities, and these are often extraordinarily complex places where no action can be taken without a number of possible reactions.
Some of the most striking words in the Vision document are from Boris when he talks about “my flagship route” – a “Crossrail for the bicycle” from the western suburbs through the centre to Barking in the east:
“The Westway, the ultimate symbol of how the urban motorway tore up our cities, will become the ultimate symbol of how we are claiming central London for the bike”.
The proposals the cycling vision contains will not, of course, tear up London – very far from it. Yet what Mark calls the Mayor’s “colourful rhetoric” is a timely reminder of the unintended consequences that can arise if the focus of urban transport planning effort is too narrow. The fact that proposals for ‘floating bus stops’ (bus stop cycle bypasses, on which we will blog shortly) have drawn adverse reaction from pedestrian activists is one indication of the challenges we face. Our concern is not that such challenges can’t be met; it’s that they must be clearly recognised so that they’re met well.
Like many others, we think that the launch of this Vision for Cycling is a red-letter day for cycling, not just in London but also (as we believe time will show) for the UK as a whole. The very fact that the Mayor’s vision sees cycling as “normal, a part of everyday life” is at the same time both wonderfully ordinary and potentially transformative. As for our concern that radically improving the attractiveness of cycling for all must embrace the complexity of urban streets, and especially the needs of those on foot, we’re optimists at heart. So we’re greatly encouraged by the following excerpts from Boris’s Foreword, with which we close:
“Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal, or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network”.
“At the very heart of this strategy is my belief that helping cycling will not just help cyclists. It will create better places for everyone”.