Thursday, 7 July 2011

Meeting London's Conservatives: “I absolutely agree that where there is a safety case made, 20mph zones are a very good idea.”

Kingly St, Westminster. Recently made free from  motor
vehicles. Cycles also banned though. Another example
of how Wesminster actively designs against cycling

'I absolutely agree that where there is a safety case made, 20mph zones are a very good idea.' Guess who made this statement last week? A man whose comments I have pillioried a lot on this blog recently, that's who: Richard Tracey Assembly Member, Conservative.

What's good about this comment - made last week at a Sustrans Question Time event - is to see a Conservative Assembly Member stating publicly his support for 20mph. Much less good is that enormous caveat: "where there is a safety case made". I feel that caveat makes the statement completely meaningless. It's a kind of nod in the right direction to both sides of the debate, pleasing everyone but pleasing no-one all at the same time.

As it happens, a case for 20mph was made very clearly by Transport for London itself on Blackfriars Bridge. And yet, when it designed the new junction at Blackfriars, another arm of TfL chose to ignore that safety case. The London Cycling Campaign this week published a damning critique of how Transport for London's procedures completely failed cyclists at Blackfriars Bridge. Situations like Blackfriars show why it's not good enough for Richard Tracey to sit on the fence about 20mph because Blackfriars is a perfect example where there was a clear safety case made for either 20mph or for a radically slower, safer junction design. But it was completely ignored by TfL. I think our politicians need to start giving TfL a much clearer line on these issues. Statements like Richard Tracey's that contain caveats about road safety only being applicable 'in clear cases' blur that line. And they give Transport for London a free hand to ignore its duty to people's safety and to its obligations to help them get around London whether they are on foot, on a cycle or in a motor vehicle.

Compare Richard Tracey's caution with the absolutely emphatic support of Jenny Jones, Green party:


"I get letters every day from people saying they’re too scared to cycle. We have to remove that fear and that danger, and make the roads safer. 20mph would be one measure."

I couldn't agree more with the general direction of Jenny Jones's statement. Even those of us who cycle daily have moments when we're scared on the roads. By contrast, I've rarely felt scared cycling in a whole host of other cities.

I think the reason for that is that other cities have designed cycling in to their roads. In London, we have a transport authority that seems to simply pay lip service to cycling and then abandons us to just get on with it on London's streets.

So I was extremely curious to meet two Conservative Assembly Members this week, James Cleverly leader of the Conservative Group and Andrew Boff who has been fairly active commenting on this blog in defence of the Conservatives' decision not to back a wider call by the London Assembly to support a road user hierarchy. Both of them, incidentally, cycle to work.

I didn't minute the meeting but I took some clear messages out of it. Yes, the Conservatives are opposed to a road user hierarchy. And I get the feeling they're not hugely keen on 20mph either. But their main thrust was that the Conservatives aren't anti-cycling. In fact, I suspect that they could - just possibly - become very pro-cycling. But I got a real feeling that they don't feel enough Londoners are saying clearly enough that they want to cycle. Yet.

Although people like me and many who read or contribute to this blog agree with Jenny Jones's statement, I felt the Conservatives were saying to me that they feel that not enough people agree with her yet. At least, not enough to start making systemic changes to London's streets.

I think we can take that one of two ways: We could chose to get very glum. Or we could decide we need to make more noise.

I've put a picture of Kingly Street at the top of this article. Kingly Street is a small street parallel to Regent Street. And Westminster council - a Conservative council - has banned cycling along the street for absolutely no obvious reason. Kingly Street ought to provide a neat way for people on cycles to avoid the buses and taxis on Regent Street. But when Westminster pedestrianised this street, they also banned cycling. Even the City of London, which is only just getting its head around cycling, has created a number of new pedestrian areas in the Square Mile in the last couple of years. But unlike equivalent streets in Westminster, these areas are for pedestrians AND for people on cycles.

Kingly Street is just one tiny example of how a Conservative council is actively 'designing out' cycling. One of hundreds of similar examples across London that is designed to be as anti-cycling as possible.

As I stated earlier this week, I think something's changing. The Sunday Times is starting to get it. The Evening Standard is starting to get it too. I'm taking the Conservatives' conservative attitude as a challenge. Over time, I think we need a majority of people to start saying it is unacceptable to 'design out' cycling, not just say it is unacceptable for those of us who already cycle. To achieve that, we either need a revolution or we need to keep filling politicians postbags again and again.

I think we've got to change the discourse and make ALL politicians realise that a large number of us want things to change. All too often, I've noticed that people are happy to write or petition 'friendly' politicians about cycling. By contrast, only a handful of people have ever shown me correspondence with London's Conservatives. Perhaps we need to start engaging seriously with all of London's politicians on an equal footing, not just those who we think already 'get it'.