Saturday, 31 July 2010

The Borisycle cometh...

On Friday, London witnessed the not wholly unsuccessful launch of the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme, our very own version of Paris' Velib programme and the apparent culmination of Mayor Boris Johnson's avowed desire to get us all on two wheels.

Now, I'm no fan of the big-haired blond bombshell - pictured here by yours truly in Sutton last April, campaigning with the loathsome bigot Philippa Stroud - but I have to say I am, in theory, fully on-board with his big plans for cycling, and I believe it to be a genuine enthusiasm.

However, having thought through the London scheme, I'm not at all convinced it's a good thing. Here's why.

1) The bike docking stations are peppered across a comparatively small area of central London, but Boris has said they are meant to get people out of their cars and onto bikes.

The thing is people do not drive into central London in that way; I believe that without extensive, station-based docking points in the suburbs, the scheme is basically a lame duck. It will achieve nothing more than getting people off the Tube and the bus system and reducing fare revenues.

2) As a corollary to 1), it will find favour among tourists, who are unfamiliar with British traffic law - let's not even get started on driving on the left - and are liable to be a danger to themselves and others.

3) It is indubitably dangerous. The bikes are heavy and hard to move. In thick traffic it will be hard to get out of a sticky situation or manoeuvre around fast-moving vehicles (especially moody cabbies). Frankly I am waiting with resignation for news of the first Borisycle death. Also, no helmets or locks. And a £300 fine if the bike is nicked on your watch? F**k that.

4) The scheme conforms to a Tory ideal of cycling, besuited executives with bicycle clips on their pinstripe suits, pretty girls in summer dresses flying through Notting Hill with organic veg in the basket. It has nothing to do with the gritty, often wet and frequently dangerous reality of cycling in London. It is an upper-middle-class perk that I doubt - although I'd love it to be otherwise - will appeal beyond that group, and a reflection of Conservative ideals.

In my view, there are so many other things that need to be done to make cycling in London a safer, viable option for all before spending cash on a flagship scheme.

For instance.... Why did Boris not consider mandating cycle training among taxi and bus drivers? Why no mirrors at junctions to help lorry drivers see us? Why not enforce advanced cycle waiting areas at lights? Why not investigate the possibility of allowing bikes to left-turn on red, a move that could save lives? Why not refresh the substandard, dangerous, counter-intuitive cycle lane infrastructure that we do have?

A coherent cycle-centric transport policy, combined with effective education of both bike users (stay off the f**king pavement, stop at the lights) and car drivers (at least three feet when passing, keep out of the damn ASZ) could get thousands of Londoners out of their cars and create a virtuous cycle - pun intended - of biking.

I believe - and the example of the Netherlands and Copenhagen is pretty compelling evidence - that when more people take to the road on two wheels, creating a critical mass of bike riders, the net result is that usage of dirty, dangerous cars decreases, and the remaining drivers become used to bikes and drive around them safely.

But the London cycle hire scheme is not going to accomplish that. It wrongly assumes that we have reached that point of critical mass, and that those menaces of London roads, the taxi and van drivers, are going to accept a bike-centric status quo right off the bat.

It's a case of cart before horse if I ever saw one. If anything, inexperienced people wobbling around the city on heavy bikes is going to increase frictions.

Now, this said, I could see myself taking advantage of the scheme. For short trips of under 30 minutes it is free; I am a proficient rider and could probably get across Zone 1 in that timeframe. In nice weather, for a short hop from, say, Chinatown to Oxford Street, or along the South Bank, it makes sense. I could even use it for work; I'm often in town for interviews and briefings and the idea of being able to ride to them is appealing.

Yes, I will probably use the scheme eventually, but at the same time I am really not comfortable with it.

At any rate, I've not signed up for the full £45 p/a membership, I'm going to bide my time and wait for it to be made available to casual users and then, if I get any value out of it, I may consider joining.