World Bike Day: The battle for London’s streets

By Simon Gentry

Today is World Bike Day. It’s also Bike Week in the UK. It is perhaps unfortunate then that in the past few days, the argument over how we use the streets in London has turned violent.  Specifically on the night of 31 May, 20 traffic counting meters located in Chiswick, west London, were destroyed.  A Conservative Councillor speculated that the damage may have been caused by “playful foxes”, other suggestions includes seals.  Others suspect darker forces.  The police are investigating.

The meters had been installed to measure the impact of a Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme, an attempt by the local Labour-run Council to address rat-running and congestion that has been worsened by the closure of Hammersmith Bridge.  The bust up in west London is but one example amongst many of disagreements over how we use our cities, but also in addressing the obesity epidemic and our national climate change commitments.  They also spell trouble for the Prime Minister.

The two contrasting visions being fought over on quiet suburbia are, a) a car-centric approach where there are minimal restrictions, local and national government allow people to decide how they wish to move about with as little intervention as possible.  The volume of traffic would probably go up, but when most cars are electric, pollution would not be such a problem, and as all roads, rather than just a few urban trunk roads, would be used, traffic jams would probably not be worse than they currently are as the cars would be spread of many more roads.

The alternative vision is one where cars are very rarely used for journeys of under 5 miles or so, traffic is concentrated on a few major arteries and suburban streets are more tree-filled and become places where children can play with some degree of safety.  This is strongly opposed by Conservative Councilors in a handful of London boroughs who seem to be content with the way the roads worked (or didn’t, depending on your perspective) before 2020. 

Fifty years ago, we’re told, 86% of British children cycled or walked to school.  Today that figure is around 25%.  This is either a good thing, because children are safer and spend more time with parents being driven to and from school, or it is a bad thing which contributes to obesity and causes the very traffic that snarls up the roads and that so many are complaining about.

About 35% of the UK’s carbon emissions are cause by road transport. A significant proportion of that is going to be commercial vehicles, but the use of private cars rose by 29% between 1990 and 2018.  When you remember that we have a little less than 30 years to be net zero, you see the scale of the challenge, with or without internal combustion engines.

But emissions and obesity are not what is really driving conflict on our streets.  The conflict is fundamentally because there has been a huge increase in the number of people choosing to drive and, more recently, an even greater increase in the number of people using bicycles to get around.  Many cyclists are afraid of cars and many drivers find the behavior of cyclists on the roads unpredictable and often illegal.  They are also often unused to looking out for cyclists.  Cars are bigger and so you don’t have to work quite so hard to see one.  Some car drivers find cyclists inconvenient, slow and just irritating.

In order to reduce tension and the risks to both cyclists and drivers, large bi-directional cycle lanes have begun to be built across the city … but to build them space, often a lane previously devoted to cars, has been re-allocated to cyclists.  Many car drivers are incensed by this ‘theft’ of limited road space.  ‘Bike lanes delay ambulances’, ‘it’s only Lycra-clad maniacs that need special lanes’, ‘I pay road tax which gives me priority, cyclists pay nothing, the road should be mine’, and on it goes ignoring the fact that the number of cars on British roads has been increasing every year for decades.

In last week’s latest bail-out plan for pandemic-stricken TfL, the Government earmarked £100 million to provide more resources for the introduction of calmer streets, more cycling infrastructure and to encourage ‘active travel’ i.e. walking and cycling.  This has gone down very badly amongst some of the Capital’s Conservative Associations.

The way local Conservative Associations in London have become entrenched in a pro-car position creates some challenges for the Prime Minister, Minister for London and the Secretary of State for Transport.  In one London borough, Conservative Councillors are raising huge sums of money to sue a Council that is only implementing what it’s been asked to implement by the Conservative government. As a consequence, the Association is split with some activists pulling back from participating in campaigns, and with Council elections in May next year looming, the Tory’s shrinking foothold in London will grow yet smaller.

As a cyclist and a driver, I know that cycling has made me a better driver and vice versa. I too have been alarmed when a cyclist shoots a red light forcing me to jam the brakes on.  Similarly, I’ve been menaced by drivers annoyed by my mere presence and suffered a near miss from a vast SUV ‘driven’ by a tiny woman taking an even tinier child to a school less than a mile away from where they lived.

In the end we need recognise some plain facts:  There are a lot of us living on a small island; we can’t all drive wherever we want and for most journeys the car is not the best option; drivers need to accept that London and our other major cities are now cycling cities and learn to drive accordingly; cyclists need to obey the rules of the road, face social pressure from other cyclists when they don’t and ultimately be fined if they are caught performing dangerous manoeuvres.  Foreign friends of mine often remark how easy it is to drive in the UK, how predictable and considerate other drivers are.  I think in the main that’s true, now we just need to develop that culture to include other road users, like cyclists.