As Easy As Riding A Bike

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Updated: 10 min 23 sec ago

Selective concern

9 December, 2020 - 01:23

Between the end of September and the end of November this year, Horsham briefly had a pop-up cycle lane, created in the space of less than a day by the addition of some bolt-down plastic wands and painted markings, converting one lane of our four/five lane wide inner ring road into a cycle lane.

The Albion Way pop-up lane. Note that, thanks to a watering down of the original scheme, it only went in one direction, and was therefore unlikely to attract people who weren’t already inclined to cycle here before the protection was added.

The reaction to this scheme (and the others across the major towns and cities of West Sussex) was predictably vitriolic and the County Council, whose commitment to active travel is as shallow as a film of diesel on a puddle, rapidly announced they were removing every single one of them – even the one that didn’t reduce capacity for motoring.

The opposition to this lane from people driving in the town centre – whose journeys were now taking longer than before – involved a great deal of what can only be described as selective concern. ‘Concern’ for the safety of people cycling at junctions like the one pictured in the photograph above – concern for safe cycling that has evaporated now that the scheme has been removed. ‘Concern’ that the cycle lane was ‘causing’ pollution (spoiler alert – none of the pop-up cycle lane schemes in West Sussex actually made any difference to air quality) – a concern that manifested itself only in a demand the road should revert to being entirely dominated by private motor vehicles in order to ‘solve’ the problem, and not in anything as meaningful as actually reducing the amount of driving, or stopping altogether. As with the ‘concern’ for the safety of people cycling, don’t bank on these same people raising the issue of air pollution any time soon, unless another opportunity arises from them to shamelessly use it as an argument for prioritising their driving at the expense of modes of transport that don’t pollute.

But the most obviously superficial ‘concern’ was for the emergency services, who were apparently going to get stuck in the congestion ’caused’ by the cycle lane. In turn this would lead, inevitably, to houses burning down, criminals escaping, and people dying in the back of ambulances unable to get to hospital in time.

This was all complete nonsense, of course, because the new arrangement was an obvious and objective improvement for the emergency services. It replaced two potentially clogged lanes of motor traffic (with no way through for an emergency vehicle) with a coned-off open lane that people cycling could easily move out of, if required. Far from being a potential disaster, the new lane provided an easy route for the emergency services to zoom past any stationary motor traffic, getting their patients to hospital, or to the scene of a crime or a fire, far faster than they would do without it.

It is immediately obvious that the cycle lane is exactly the same width as the previous general traffic lane, and consequently an easy way for the emergency services to bypass any static motor traffic.

Shamefully, these bogus ‘concerns’ were reported as apparent fact, without any kind of correction or clarification, in an editorial by the local newspaper celebrating the decision to remove the lane –

“the traffic piled up in the halved capacity for motorists – leading to jams, congestion, pollution and a fear that emergency vehicles would be unable to make headway in a hurry”

Quite why a newspaper which claims to be reputable and trustworthy chose to regurgitate this easily-disprovable silliness about delay to the emergency services even after the decision to remove the lane had already been taken is, frankly, a mystery – not least because the benefits to the emergency services of this lane being in place had already been pointed out to their reporters, several times. (And the newspaper’s offices are actually located on this road – the building next to the giant multi storey car park in the video below – so it wouldn’t have been at all difficult for them to conduct some on-the-ground research).

Needless to say, a few days after this was printed, the pop-up lane was gone, and with the November lockdown ending, the road is once again stacked with two parallel queues of motor vehicles at every traffic light – two queues that will be very difficult for the emergency services to negotiate.

When this road had a pop-up bike lane, people complained it would delay the emergency services, even though the emergency services could use the lane to bypass queues. Now the lane has gone, ambulances *are* going to be delayed, and yet there’s complete silence. Funny that.

— Mark Treasure (@AsEasyAsRiding) December 4, 2020

Naturally, you might expect that those people who were genuinely concerned about delay to the emergency services would be even more concerned now, given that the lane that allowed the emergency services to bypass queues has gone, replaced, all too frequently, with static motor vehicles. But just as the road has reverted to being entirely dominated by cars, so we seem to have reverted to not caring at all about delays to the emergency services, or indeed to not caring about air quality, or about the safety of the children attempting to cycle around a town that remains unremittingly hostile to their mode of transport – children who, for the first time ever, I saw choosing to cycle on this road.

We won’t be seeing this again any time soon – nor will be seeing any concern for the safety of this boy, now that the lane has gone

The case of the equally short-lived pop-up lane on Kensington High Street presents remarkable parallels. Notably, the space occupied by the pop-up lane, now removed amid claims that it apparently ’caused’ congestion, despite carrying thousands of people a day, has been replaced by intermittently parked-up motor vehicles.

So you take away a safe cycle lane used by thousands a day so a few ‘entitled’ SUVs can park restricting the entire lane anyway. Great decision making @RBKC @jthalassites @betterstreetskc @London_Cycling. Kensington High Street today.

— Rafela FitzHugh (@RafelaFitz) December 5, 2020

Just as with the ‘concerns’ in Horsham, the ‘concern’ about congestion, so urgent that the council had to act immediately in the face of alleged local uproar, is now entirely absent when it comes to the equivalent loss of road space represented by these static vehicles. Because cars parked up at the side of the road, taking up valuable road capacity, never ever feature as a cause of congestion.

In all these instances, and doubtless in dozens of others up and down the country, it should be quite clear that the ‘concerns’ were never actually about air quality, or about safety, or about delay to the emergency services, or about the loss of road space – they were at root nothing more than a convenient fig leaf to disguise altogether more selfish demands.

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1 December, 2020 - 14:13

I’ve long held the suspicion that the use of ‘encouragement’ in relation to cycling is a classic example of a weasel word. It’s a word that sounds positive (after all, who could possibly object to cycling being encouraged?) – but that, when it comes to its use in practice, amounts to an abdication of responsibility. ‘Encouragement’ involves persuading people to do something, and… that’s about it. We want you to cycle, but we’re going to do very little to help you. In fact, we might even ‘encourage’ you to cycle while we are actively making things worse.

‘Encouraging people to cycle’ has become the stock phrase of councils and authorities that want to sound like they’re in favour of cycling, but don’t want to actually enable it. Councils who might like the idea of more people spontaneously choosing to cycle on their roads, but aren’t at all keen on having to do anything to all to help them to do so – hard, uncomfortable political decisions like reallocating road space away from motor traffic, or filtering residential streets to make them safe enough to cycle on.

So it’s not at all surprising that two prominent Conservative politicians who have been campaigning to remove an objectively successful protected cycle lane on Kensington High Street are, of course, in favour of ‘encouragement’.

From this letter

At first glance, you might think that politicians who were genuinely ‘strongly in favour of encouraging active travel’ wouldn’t be writing letters urging a council to remove a protected cycle lane that has seen a near three-fold increase in cycling levels, and that greatly reduces crash risk on a road with an appalling collision record. You certainly wouldn’t expect them to be stating how strongly in favour of encouraging active travel they are, in the very same letter calling for the removal of that protected cycle lane – which it should be stressed is (while it lasts) the only one in the entire borough. How can that possibly make sense?

Of course, there is no contradiction here. ‘Encouragement’ sounds nice, but when politicians say they are ‘strongly in favour of encouraging active travel’, it’s quite clear that the phrase doesn’t commit them to do anything at all that will actually make a difference. They say ‘strongly in favour of encouraging active travel’, but what they actually mean is ‘strongly in favour of persuading you to cycle, but without doing anything to help you.’

In much the same way, politicians can say they are ‘strongly in favour of encouraging children to eat healthily’, while voting against free school meals. With a moment’s scrutiny, ‘encouragement’ quickly becomes meaningless.

As if to remove any doubt about how keen they are on ‘encouraging’ cycling, here are the same two politicians celebrating the decision to remove the lane, while simultaneously urging the council to find ‘other ways encourage cycling’.

Thank you to @RBKC & @jthalassites for listening to residents & residents associations & acting to remove a cycle lane that wasn't working for most local people & businesses. @FelicityBuchan is right to urge the Council to find other ways to encourage cycling & active walking.

— Tony Devenish (@Tony_Devenish) November 30, 2020

Naturally, these ‘other ways to encourage cycling’ aren’t spelt out. And why would they be? That’s not the job of an encourager. The limit of their ambition is to be in favour of you cycling if that’s something that you want to do, and to attempt to persuade you to do it if you don’t want to. Cycling is your choice.

That’s what ‘encouragement’ amounts to. It means nothing, and that’s why it gets used so often in relation to cycling. You’re on your own.

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