Friday, 29 May 2009

What is to be done?

On Monday I wrote:

I would argue that cyclists are treated very badly in London because cycle campaigning is supine and ineffective. Energy is frittered away reporting potholes and lobbying for cycle stands.

Pothole-reporter and cycle-stand campaigner Rob Ainsley retorted

First, I think you're wrong to complain about energy being 'frittered away' by campaigns for cycle parking and potholes…it doesn't help anyone to belittle the efforts of people who actually succeed in making things better. We all want to save the world, but sometimes you have to do it one bike stand at a time.

Second, I think you're right to suggest more direct (but, of course, peaceful and law-abiding) action. There is a lot of anger and it does indeed need channeling.

Let me quickly say I’ve done all the dull stuff. I’ve written letters, met councillors, stood in the street with petitions. I've even done stuff that the London Cycling Campaign was not interested in, like make a submission on the consultation into parking enforcement in London (see this. Because yellow lines and parking enforcement are relevant to flawed cycle design like this, this and this.) But my parochial victories - modest changes to street lay-out and facilities - have been sapped by losing a wider war, which is that of increased car ownership, dependency and use. I successfuly campaigned for cycle stands at one local building used by the public, but cycling there is now worse than it used to be - more on-street car parking, a greater volume of traffic, the same reckless speeding. I very much doubt that those stands have really won anyone round to cycling.

It seems to me that many cycling campaigners are not really campaigners. They organise bike rides and recycle bikes and run repair workshops and hand out maps, which are perfectly worthy activities. They dutifully report potholes and ask for cycle stands. But these activities can become an end in themselves, and evade the two key aspects which deter so many people from cycling: the sheer volume of vehicles on the roads, both parked and driven, and road danger.

I think one reason why cyclists are very badly treated in London, is because cyclists put up with it. As an isolated and vulnerable road user you have no choice but I think the time for a spot of mass direct action is long overdue. And three of the most interesting developments on the London cycling scene – Critical Mass, the Naked Bike Ride, and Ghost Bikes – all seem to have emerged from cyclists working together outside the conventional campaigning organisations.

I did once organise direct action against lawless motorists in a London street (not in Waltham Forest). I carefully selected the street, the time and the issue. I found someone to deal with the media. I spread the word. Lots of people turned up (as did the police). The action was a spectacular success, it annoyed lawless drivers, it flummoxed the cops, it got very wide media coverage (the media love direct action if it's visual). It inspired activists in other parts of the country to imitate it. And it even made the local council subsequently take positive action on that street.

My protest was a great success in every possible way. But I'm afraid that strictly speaking it wasn't a law-abiding action. But then as we know from all those cyclists who go through red lights, ride on pavements and go along one-way streets the 'wrong' way, cyclists aren't necessarily in thrall to the law. Indeed, all those actions represent instances of one-person direct action.

For weeks afterwards I was phoned by reporters begging me to organise a similar stunt, just for them. I had to explain that this sort of event isn't something you can just switch on like a tap. I was only able to do it because at the time I was involved and well-connected with activists who were happy to give me support. That network has evaporated with the passage of time. If I could summon up my army of supporters today I think I'd target New Scotland Yard. A couple of hundred cyclists blocking the road outside, demanding more traffic police, demanding that the same attention be given to stopping Heavy Goods Vehicles to see if they are in a roadworthy condition as is given to stopping people on the grounds that they look a bit dodgy and might be terrorists, enforcement of Advanced Stop Lines, greater action against drivers on mobile phones. Something like that. Then there's the possibility of a protest outside a court when a killer driver is allowed to walk free and a helmetless cyclist is identified as negligent. RoadPeace would probably help with something on those lines. In the digital age, organising mass protests is a lot easier.

And for those who are too timid for direct action, let me mention one idea, not original. I was intrigued by the Bike Show’s idea of No Bike Week. In the event, I ignored it, on the grounds that I was sure everyone else would, and in any case a week is too long, but I like the concept. I suggest a modified version: No Bike Day. On that specific day – and to make an impact it would have to be a weekday, not a Saturday or a Sunday – all cyclists in London who were FED UP with a particular aspect of cycling (road danger, crap cycle parking, bike theft, whatever) would agree not to cycle. Those who owned cars would use them, to help clog up the roads. This protest could be keyed into any aspect of local cycling that angered cyclists.

I think No Bike Day (call it what you will – No Cycling Day?) would be worth a try in gauging how dissatisfied London’s cyclists are, and about what. The day before there could be a mass cycle ride, on the theme of WE’RE NOT CYCLING TOMORROW. And cycle stands in London could have flyers taped to them, advertising it.

I think it would be quite a simple thing to organise and it would hopefully attract the widest support as it is essentially non-confrontational. All it really requires is a suitably authoritative group of cyclists to decide on a date, well in advance, and spread the word to websites and bloggers. It needs a group to promote it rather than a solitary blogger, to give it credibility. It would help to have media savvy people involved who would get newspapers – national and local – and radio and TV involved in reporting it. Someone with design flair could make up a flyer for downloading and printing out.

Cycling in London? On this particular day, for these specific reasons, I would prefer not to. The Bartleby approach.