Boris cycling woes are part of larger failure to change London’s streets

The London mayor’s surface transport and “public realm” strategies have shown a poor judgement of priorities

As anger over recent cyclist deaths quite has rightly raged, Londonist, also rightly, has widened the debate by asking a very good question: won’t somebody think of the pedestrians? The answer pointed out that pedestrians accounted for more than half of all those killed on the capital’s streets in 2012 – 69 out of 134. As Londonist also reported, three died on the same day only last week.

The 2012 stats also show that 27 of those killed were riding a “powered two-wheeler” (motorbikes, mopeds etc), 19 were in cars and 14 were cyclists, while the remaining five were in a taxi, bus, coach or goods vehicle. These numbers on their own don’t reveal different risk levels for different ways of getting around – a complicated subject, by the way – but they do show that safety on London’s roads is a concern for an array of people who negotiate the capital’s streets in different ways.

They also serve to underline that the issue of road safety is enmeshed in a wider one – an issue about the management of London’s road space, the design of its public spaces and the city’s environmental and economic health. Boris Johnson has been accused of complacency, victim-blaming and dodging responsibility over cyclists, but more focus should now be directed towards his surface transport and “public realm” strategies as a whole.

For all his “cycling mayor” persona, a big priority for Johnson has been keeping the private motorist sweet. Launching his 2012 election campaign, he rubbished his opponents as “car-hating.” Cars, lorries and taxis will always be a necessary and in many ways desirable part of London life but, for Johnson, “smoothing traffic flow” has primarily meant pleasing an important part of his electoral client base when he should have been doing more to calm, regulate and reduce road traffic.

In other areas of transport policy, Johnson has rightly continued where Ken Livingstone left off, but at street level he’s mostly slammed into reverse, halving the congestion charging zone (a decision even he seemed to regret), dumping or fighting shy of bold pedestrianisation schemes and coming up with precious little to expand or give greater priority to the bus service – the most used public transport mode of all, and the most efficient on the roads in terms of moving people round the city.

This is the context in which Johnson’s cycle hire scheme and his belated efforts to improve cycling infrastructure and “street safety” should be judged. His appointment of one of his most loyal media allies, Andrew Gilligan, as “cycling commissioner” to push a “cycling vision” through hints at a pressing need to claim that substantial progress has been made in a key “Brand Boris” policy area before the second Johnson term is through. Needless to say, the Evening Standard has been well onside.

Gilligan’s plans have received widespread praise, including from within Transport for London – an organisation he attacked in an assortment of imaginative ways through news outlets he worked for when Livingstone was mayor – but it remains to be seen how far the mayor’s “cycling vision” helps London transform its streets for the better for the majority using them, whether for travel, business or pleasure. Making streets more liveable is not only about cycling, but also about walking, relaxing, socialising, running businesses and shopping – objectives that sometimes conflict and so demand rather more than headline-grabbing examples of “going Dutch.”

In the run up to last year’s mayoral election Gilligan took to using the word “groupie” to denigrate those who argued that Livingstone would be a better choice for mayor than his friend Johnson. His use of such a term says quite a lot about Gilligan and rather less about we who based our views on the records in office of the two men and the policies they proposed.

Even though he’d decided against restoring the western extension of the congestion charging zone, Livingstone was clearly the better candidate on all aspects of transport. Reviewing his past achievements, Professor David Begg, the publisher of Transport Times, has written:

Congestion charging cut traffic by 20% and initially reduced congestion by 30%. It led to a dramatic increase in bus patronage and reliability and a big increase in the numbers walking and cycling. Air quality also improved…

Livingstone presided over a modal shift from car to public transport, walking and cycling which was unrivalled worldwide. He believed in a roads hierarchy which prioritised pedestrians, cyclists and buses in that order.

Under Johnson, much of that momentum has stalled. I doubt he has the will to restore it. Let’s hope his eventual successor does.

Update, 15:06. Another cyclist died on London’s roads earlier today – the sixth in less than a fortnight. Guardian report here. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Link to article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.