Sunday 14 November 2010

What’s wrong with the London Cycling Campaign? (Part Two)

Three decades of LCC campaigning have given us prize-winning cycling infrastructure like this.

Next Wednesday the London Cycling Campaign holds its AGM. I shan’t be there as I resigned my membership a while back, regarding the organisation as a collaborationist outfit which is more of an obstacle to promoting safe and convenient cycling than an enabler. I have explained why here and here.

Let me refine my position on what’s wrong with the LCC. At the very centre of the problem is something which another cycling blog has noted: The fact that after decades of campaigning, the LCC doesn't know what form of cycling it wants, is slightly troubling.

Exactly. The LCC has no coherent philosophy at all as a campaigning organisation. If you look at its five year plan for 2008-2013, entitled One in Five by 2025, all you find there is aspiration. There’s nothing tangible. It’s a collection of platitudes orbiting a dead moon of buoyant optimism.

LCC campaigning has always fizzed with the belief that mass cycling is just around the corner. Listen to this:

Measures which positively discriminate in favour of bikes and pedestrians are ideas whose time has now come. The Department of Transport is beginning to permit new ways to calm traffic and promote cycle mobility, and national attitudes are changing.

Or how about this:

There are signs of hope. Public policy guidance is changing. The Manual for Streets, the recommendations from the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, and the recent National Obesity Strategy and National Institute of Clinical Excellence guidance on physical activity and the environment all recognise the need to put people and planet back at the centre of transport and spatial planning.

There are signs of change. Top managers and Council leaders are starting to understand the significance of cycling to their priorities.

My first quotation comes from the Ealing Cycling Campaign in 1996. Back then cycling’s modal share in this London borough was one per cent. And today in Ealing it’s, er, still one per cent. But not to worry. The local campaigners are still fizzing with optimism. As is the parent body, the London Cycling Campaign; my second quotation comes from One in Five by 2025.

London is a failed cycling city with an atrocious modal share but you’d never know it from anything put out by the LCC. It is in denial about the state of things and in denial about its own role in that historic and catastrophic failure. For more than three decades the LCC has basically functioned as a vehicular cycling organisation with a deeply provincial outlook. Its energies have gone into trying to ameliorate the conditions of vehicular cycling at a local level. It has small local successes to its credit but it has never had a holistic approach to transport, pursuing cycle campaigning in complete isolation from car dependency. Ignorant of what has been achieved to varying degrees across continental Europe, it has remained stuck in Little Englander mode.

The LCC constantly bigs itself up, saying things like we can rightly claim to be one of the most influential environmental organisations in the capital.

OK, in that case why is everything such total crap? Even something like cycle parking, which generally doesn’t impinge on car dependency at all, is laughably inadequate after three decades of campaigning by the LCC. If the LCC is so influential why do we get a campaign like this?

The London Cycling Campaign’s Cycle Parking 4 London campaign is asking for 100,000 new cycle stands across Greater London as a solution to the current massive shortage.

You can use this website to show instantly where you want more cycle parking, perhaps near a shop or café you visit regularly?

Oh, please. I don’t expect to have to plead for cycle parking. I expect it as a right. I shouldn’t have to suggest that a post office or a pub or a library has bike stands installed outside. I find it very revealing that my local LCC branch has for years been holding its monthly meetings in a community building which has cycle parking for, er, 3 bikes.

In every London borough there is a whirlwind of activity and much LCC cycling campaign joy. In Enfield, for example

Our group had a very successful Bike Week with almost 100 people taking part in Enfield's Big Bike Ride, and large numbers of people attending the Enfield Festival of Cycling.

And what’s that? Oh I see, an annual fun cycling event, which this year included

the chance to pick up tips on where to ride in Enfield, and many other attractions like face-painting, hook-a-duck, a bouncy castle, music and other entertainment. "Doctor Bike" will also be there, offering a free check-up for bikes. Visitors can pedal the "Smoothie Bike" to power a blender and make their own smoothie drink.

Anything else to say about cycling in Enfield? Only that its modal share is ZERO PER CENT. That’s right, rates of cycling in Enfield are so low they don’t even register on TfL’s database. (See the most recent recorded cycling modal share figures, for the period 2006/07 to 2008/09, listed on pages 70 and 72 of Travel in London.)

But even as a vehicular cycling campaigning organisation the LCC is fundamentally incoherent. It has no core principles. This void at the centre of the LCC means that individual groups can cheerfully pursue any campaigning strategy they want to, irrespective of how effective this might be. Some branches are lively and vibrant, others lacklustre and exhausted. Anyone who joins LCC is automatically deemed to be a member of their local branch, even if they never attend a single meeting. In reality these branches, ostensibly representing anything from 200-800 cyclists, are usually run by half a dozen activists. Some of them will have been campaigning for over twenty years. They are hardened vehicular cyclists who have long since lost touch with the reasons why most Londoners don’t cycle. Cycle campaigning becomes a way of life, often not much more than a social club. Yes, there is a hurricane of activity, lots of meetings and small local victories. But a broader perspective is lacking, modal share continues to stagnate and no one ever mentions European cycling, least of all what’s going on in Denmark and the Netherlands. Each LCC branch is only as good as the volunteers who staff it and whatever version of vehicular cycling they subscribe to.

In Ealing, for example, the local LCC group is keen on cycle lanes:

A survey of 57 active cyclists, all members of the Ealing LCC, was carried out in October-November 1995 in order to gauge their views.

The greatest need identified was for more cycle lanes, and action on air pollution.

And fourteen years later cycling’s modal share in Ealing remains stuck at one per cent. And what conclusions does the local LCC group draw from this stunning failure? None whatsoever. As far as they are concerned it’s business as usual. Even the lessons of the Ealing Sky Ride are lost on them:

Nothing more was on offer than roads free of motor vehicles, yet people came in their droves, 13,000 of them. The lesson is clear: take away the danger, and people will take to their bikes. For those who don’t want to wait for the next traffic-free ride, the next best thing is to learn how to cycle in traffic.

They just don't get it, do they?

In Hackney, however, the local LCC group abhors cycle lanes:

for years our approach has been to reject tokenistic devices such as "cycle lanes" (have you noticed the absence of grit-strewn dooring lanes in Hackney, as compared to neighbouring boroughs?), in preference to engineering that reduces motor traffic speeds, opens up route choices for cycle traffic through increased permeability, and improves the streetscape in general, especially for pedestrians.

What that approach doesn’t do, of course, is reduce the sheer volume of motor vehicles in Hackney. And the permeability on offer in Hackney is, in my view, crap. It requires the cyclist to defer to the motorist at all times. It’s quite literally lethal permeability. It’s laughably bad.

But who is right about cycle lanes – Ealing or Hackney? Although implicitly on the side of cycle lanes, the LCC parent organisation sits on the fence even about something as basic as this kind of on-road infrastructure. It declines overtly to say whether they are a good thing or a bad thing, or, if they are a good thing, what form they should take. Timidity is a fundamental organising principle at the LCC. Offend no-one is the watchword.

In reality Ealing and Hackney LCC groups are both wrong, because they both adopt a vehicular cycling strategy. Ealing and Hackney are both crap places for cycling.

Interestingly, Hackney’s modal share for cycling has recently spectacularly collapsed, going down from 8 per cent to just 4 per cent (see Table 3.3. here). You’d think somebody would have noticed that remarkable statistic but if they have, they aren’t talking about it. But then cycle campaigning in Britain has always been in denial about its spectacular failure to raise modal share.

In Waltham Forest it’s the same story of stagnation, but then this is hardly surprising when the local LCC group actively and enthusiastically promotes crap infrastructure which is a deterrent to all but the hardcore cyclist.

The sheer arrogance of the worst kind of LCC campaigning zealot is summed up for me by Waltham Forest Cycling Campaign’s pathological insistence that Probably the best single cycle facility in the borough is the underpass under the notorious Billet roundabout on the North Circular Road. The fact that the council’s own cycle counts show that cyclists don’t wish to use it (335 cyclists over 12 hours in 1998, 312 in 2002 and 309 in 2006) is of no interest to this type of LCC campaigner. They simply don’t care about the feelings of either existing cyclists or those who don’t wish to cycle. Although the cycle count figures signify stagnation, these campaigners think they know best and that is the end of the matter. (Bear in mind also that the population of the London Borough of Waltham Forest with a modal share of one per cent is roughly comparable with that of Utrecht.)

Which brings me on to Mark.

He quotes a letter from the LCC magazine:

Separated bike lanes are not even mentioned in the LCC's election manifesto - unless they come under the eighth and last point as 'reallocation of road space'.

In the same issue, LCC campaigns officer Charlie Lloyd says that the "number one reason non-cyclists give for not using a bicycle is that they don't feel safe." I would think that there's nothing safer for cyclists than segregated cycling routes. But where does LCC stand on this?

Bill Saltmarsh, SE27

The LCC responds:

When speeds and volumes of vehicles are high, LCC says separate bicycles and cars. However, removing through traffic from residential areas and reducing speed limits can also work towards creating a cycle-friendly city.

The LCC’s perfunctory reply is fundamentally dishonest because it has never once campaigned as a parent organisation for segregation. Nor, to my knowledge, have any of the local LCC branches. The LCC has never shown any significant interest in what has been achieved in the Netherlands and Denmark. Modal share is a dirty word in most cycle campaign circles.

Take a look at the LCC’s impoverished notion of how the roads must be made more cycle-friendly. The organisation even lacks a sense of irony, because if you are showing infrastructure which is supposed to encourage cycling you might at least prove it by showing some cyclists using it. LCC can’t even manage something as rudimentary as that. This is a measure both of its complacency and its arrogance. Failure means nothing. The LCC just keeps rolling along, irrespective of results. All that is required is a smiley-smiley optimism, unrelated to anything so unpleasant as the statistics for modal share.

The LCC is quite clear where it stands: It believes the city’s roads should be made safer and shared by motorists and cyclists. Vehicular cycling, in other words. Yes, the LCC is a cult, as in

a small, yet vocal, group that is male-dominated, testosterone-driven and that lacks basic understanding of human nature.

[Actually to call the LCC ‘vocal’ would be untrue. But it's true that the LCC is a male-dominated organisation at the top.]

They expect that everyone should be just like them - classic sub-cultural point of view - and that everyone should embrace cycling in traffic and pretending they are cars. They are apparently uninterested in seeing grandmothers, mothers or fathers with children or anyone who doesn't resemble then contributing to re-creating the foundations of liveable cities by reestablishing the bicycle as transport.

As Mark observes:

I thought I'd apply a little litmus test to the London Cycling Campaign's words... do LCC really push to separate bicycles and cars when speeds and volumes of traffic are high? Do they really speak up for segregated infrastructure? Flicking through the last 4 issues of their 'London Cyclist' magazine you wouldn't think so. There have been...
3 features on bike theft,
2 on cycle parking,
2 on the cycle hire scheme,
2 on HGV safety as well as features on the Skyrides,
bike week,
the Tweed Run,
cycle touring,
the general election,
a road danger map
...and one interview with the former Mayor of Copenhagen in which she clearly states that segregation is key to cycling numbers and subjective as well as physical safety.
The benefits and potential for Dutch-style cycling infrastructure here in London barely get a mention.

And that’s the problem. Vehicular cycling campaigners have a long list of reasons why the Dutch or Danish model would never work here. Even though all those reasons have long since been exploded they cling to them with the fanaticism of the true believer.

The LCC, having disregarded the Dutch template for decades, sticks to business as usual. It believes that traditional campaign strategies are resulting in increased numbers of cycling and that by sticking to the old ways cycling is snowballing and this will result in a critical momentum being built up that will magically result in what Koy Thomson was pleased to call ‘the Copenhagen effect’.

I can only say that to me as a cyclist in the London Borough of Waltham Forest I don’t see this. All I see is a bad situation becoming worse, with cycle lanes being converted into parking bays, the cost of parking being slashed by the council, more and more one-way streets being introduced even when they involve strategic cycling routes marked on TfL cycle maps, more and more car ownership achieved by pavements being turned into parking areas, cycle lanes lined with legally parked cars, and congested streets where the cyclist is repeatedly slowed down and forced into conflict with huge volumes of motor vehicles. The notion that the LCC is having success with opinion makers behind the scenes strikes me as unrelated to the real world of London streets.

So, what is to be done?

The first necessary thing, it seems to me, is for the LCC to establish a set of principles of what it stands for. If it is at all serious about turning London into a mass cycling city it needs to embrace segregation and all the subsidiary infrastructure that goes with it, unequivocally. That should be its number one core aim. It doesn't mean you have to stop doing all the other stuff, but it does mean you have to have a sense of what is most important. The LCC needs to stop sitting on the fence. It needs to abandon thirty years of failed vehicular cycling campaigning. It needs to get rid of people at the top of the LCC who whine that London’s streets are ‘too narrow’ for segregation, because campaigners like that are obstacles to cycling. It needs to stop pussyfooting around and acknowledge the atrocious state that cycling in London is in, and stop pretending that mass cycling is just around the corner. It needs to stop collaborating with TfL and acknowledge it as a poisonous, car-centric obstacle to mass cycling. The LCC needs to get off its knees and start daring to criticise. But above all it needs to acknowledge that the Dutch template is the ONLY way forwards and everything else will just involve perpetuating and extending thirty miserable years of campaigning failure.

And as a first, practical step it needs to start insisting on segregated cycling infrastructure on major routes into and around London. A cycling North Circular. A cycling M25. A cycling A1 and a cycling A3. Because you start with the fundamental routes and then build out from them. And if you aren’t prepared to do that you might as well shut up shop and stop pretending your campaigning is doing anything for anyone else but yourself and your own vested interests. And there an awful lot of vested interests in the British cycling campaign establishment.

And when the LCC has undergone a reformation and has a coherent set of campaigning goals, we need direct action and stunts. Change rarely comes from petitions and polite letters to MPs. We need cycling activists who will seal off a carriageway on one of London’s car-sick superhighways (the Euston Road is the kind of street I have in mind) and invite commuter cyclists to use a cyclists-only lane. We need a couple of hundred cyclists outside the offices of TfL loudly demanding the re-allocation of road space for cycling.

Recently someone in the Guardian remarked:

How about closing a road to motorised vehicles that goes all the way through the West End?

That would be a small start. Too small, really. Better would be to

Create a network of real cycling superhighways into and through London — direct wide joined-up and pleasant motor-free routes; about twelve of them, say, radiating from a partially de-motorised zone 1 — and you will not merely provide a nicer path for the people who already cycle. You will unleash the latent demand for cycling and cyclist numbers will swell to ten times their current number.

Because that's the absurd thing, the time it can take to travel relatively short distances on a bicycle in car-centric London. I live 6.7 miles from Charing Cross but that takes me an hour to cycle, not because I am a slow cyclist - I could do it in 30 minutes - but because there is no cycling infrastructure to speed me on my way. It's a choice of motor-vehicle crammed roads or convoluted 'quiet routes' on which the cyclist always has to defer to motor vehicles at junctions.

Here in Waltham Forest the easiest road to convert to segregated cycling would be the A503 (Forest Road), which cuts right across the borough from Redbridge to Tottenham. It’s a strategic cycling commuter route but it carries huge volumes of motor vehicles, including lorries and buses. Yet along most of its length car parking is not permitted, and width is not an issue. This is precisely the kind of road (and roads like it across Greater London) which should be at the centre of LCC campaigning, the absolute number one priority. At present no one but the hardcore cyclist will use the A503. Provide a safe, convenient segregated cycle path with priority at all side junctions and dedicated cycle lights at major junctions, strictly on the Dutch template, and you will get the masses cycling. Once you have these spines of mass cycle traffic you can then build outwards, reducing car dependency and civilising London’s car-sick neighbourhoods.

Yet what is happening to the A503? In 2007 the council’s car-centric transport planners slipped in some parking bays on the A503 between Gaywood Road and Jewel Road. The design was lethal for cyclists. Parking is free. Needless to say there is not one cycle stand at this location.

Having got away with this the council’s transport planners have since come up with the recent A503 corridor scheme which involves creating car parking bays in the old cycle lane, and pushing the cycle lane out closer to overtaking motor vehicles. This immediately creates the danger of ‘dooring’ while simultaneously bringing lorries closer to cyclists. It is utter madness. The cost of creating this free parking for 20 cars comes to £222,357, i.e. over £10,000 for each parking space. You would think that the LCC’s local branch would be screaming its head off about this. In fact its website doesn’t even mention it. But it gets worse.

The latest traffic orders published by Waltham Forest council reveal that there is more of this imminent, with free parking bays to be provided across the cycle lane on the A503 near Blackhorse Road station, and again across the cycle lane near the lethal Bell corner. This is not suppressing cycling – this is strangling at birth even the tiniest chance of a cycling renaissance in a low-modal share outer London borough like Waltham Forest.

And the role of the London Cycling Campaign in all this?

Silence. Apathy. Inertia. Indifference. Tacit complicity.

As things are at present, the LCC is part of the problem, not part of the solution. But I wonder how many ordinary LCC members realise this?

(Below) The first two photographs show a section of the A503 in August 2010, before the TfL/Waltham Forest ‘improvements’ were implemented. Note how far away from the cycle lane the traffic is. Then look at the last two photographs taken last week which show the new pinch point and the cycle lane moved closer to the centre of the carriageway. These ‘improvements’ make cycling both subjectively and objectively more unattractive and dangerous.