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Freedom, Easy, Fun, Family Time – A Fair Description of Cycling in London?

Today, this leaflet landed on my doormat:

Front cover of TfL cycling leaflet, "Freedom"

“Catch up with the bicycle” while the taxis and lorries speed past

I’d already seen posters with the same image dotted around the motor-dominated roads around here and had planned on whinging about them, but the leaflet means I don’t have to take the camera outside, and it provides more food for thought. There are four images of bikes throughout, with the frames arranged to read “Freedom” (on the cover), “Easy”, “Fun” and “Family Time”. Do those words come to mind when you’re riding a bike in London?

On the first page is a message from our Dear Leader, Boris, which gives me some hope that he’s slowly coming around to my way of thinking:

“More and more people are choosing to cycle to work or to the shops. It saves money, and can be quicker than driving or taking public transport. Cycling, though, is more than a great means of getting from A to B with a bit of a work-out en route. There’s no better way to explore your local area and the rest of this fantastic city of ours and, best of all, cycling can be fun, for everyone.”

He gets it! He finally understands that cycling should be for everyone, and for every-day tasks! So surely it follows that he wants to install Dutch-style infrastructure, which makes it safe, fast and convenient for kids to ride to school, or for granny to pop to the shops?

Unfortunately, he seems to think that things are fine as they are – despite riding a bike in the UK being 30 times more dangerous than driving a car – and instead of getting the job done properly he seems to believe that yet another poster campaign and a few words of encouragement will turn London into a great cycling city.

“London is a great place to ride a bike. If you already cycle in London, you don’t need me to tell you that. If you’ve yet to start, there’s never been a better time to give it a go.”

Seriously, Boris? I already cycle in London, and “great” certainly isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Sure, occasionally it really is great – around 3am when the back-streets are mine alone, it often feels great – but I don’t think that’s what anyone has in mind when we talk about building mass cycling.

“This leaflet is packed full with useful information to get you on your wheels.”

So, let’s have a look at this useful information which will convert London into a New New Amsterdam. Its five pages of content can be summed up:

  • Use the TfL online cycle journey planner. But fingers crossed there isn’t an arbitrary closure with no diversion, or a van parked in the cycle lane!
  • Use the cycle hire. A good idea, as long as you’re not one of those poor bastards who lives outside the cycle hire area, i.e. the vast majority of Londoners.
  • Use the Cycle Superhighways! The less said about these the better.
  • “Be prepared” Training and maintenance sessions are cheaper than roadworks…
  • Use the back streets. Because we know the main direct routes are hellish to ride a bike along.
  • Use a map. You’ll need one, because the route will be badly-signed with lots of turns through back-streets.

The whole leaflet-and-poster campaign idea is such a half-arsed effort. I don’t doubt the good intentions behind it, but it’s really an admission of failure and defeat. If the conditions were right, there would be no need for leaflets and posters encouraging cycling – people would do it anyway, they would want to do it, because it would be the cheapest, fastest, easiest way to get around.

And it really could be the best way to get around. Even on a clunky hire bike I can ride from Waterloo to Kings Cross in about 20 minutes – and that’s taking a complex (but fairly quiet) route of back streets. That’s faster than the tube or bus, and about £10 cheaper than a taxi.

So if riding a bike is so great, why do so few Londoners do it? Are they all blind to the wonderful world of cycling for transport? Why will this leaflet and poster campaign fail to increase cycling rates by any measurable amount? Is it because people are stupid, or haven’t seen the light?

Or, maybe it’s because while it can sometimes be okay (and even “great” under very special conditions) riding a bike in London contains too many hazards and worries, too many nasty moments, and too many unwelcome surprises from vehicles and the authorities alike.

“There are lots of things to think about when you first get into cycling…”

Damn right TfL – there are lots of things for you to think about if you really want people to take up cycling. We can’t ignore the elephant in the room and pretend that all we need is a can-do attitude, or maybe the real cycle-resistant just need to go on a heart-shaped bike ride (no, really, I’m not making this up). So this whole campaign seems to me like TfL is saying “we’ve failed, we’re out of ideas, we know our infrastructure is substandard and hostile but these leaflets are cheaper than tarmac and concrete, and it’ll have to do.”

Why are there no leaflets or posters recommending people take their car? (“Catch up with the car: Freedom, Easy, Fun, Family Time” – I can see it now!) The reason is because when people look at the streets around them, it’s obvious that the car is the most important mode of transport. It’s obvious that the country has been built around the car. It’s obvious that the car comes before all else in the UK, and therefore a car is the obvious choice for transport.

To turn that around we need a sea change in the way roads are designed in this country, and until we have it, all the posters and leaflets in the world aren’t going to make any difference.

I know this post is just a rant, but I’ll get around to making some positive suggestions soon!

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