So, why do we need space4cycling?

Demanding space4cycling outside the Houses of Parliament

Demanding space4cycling outside the Houses of Parliament

“Don’t get me wrong, I mean, best of luck to you all, but London wasn’t built for bikes – it was built for cars.”

The policeman on duty outside the Houses of Parliament that Monday evening seemed a little bemused by the sight of so many cyclists massing on Parliament Square. Compared to the many other protests that have passed his way – anti-war, anti-student fees, anti-capitalism – I got the feeling he thought our concerns were a little, well, trivial. Irrelevant, even.

Irrelevant? Trivial? Clearly the 5,000 or so cyclists – myself included – who were taking part in that evening’s space4cycling protest, organised by the London Cycling Campaign, didn’t think so. We’d set off (somewhat later than the scheduled 6.30pm start time) from Jubilee Gardens, and snaked in a mile-long chain over Westminster Bridge, through Parliament Square and past the House of Parliament just as the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group was debating the recommendations of the Get Britain Cycling report.

The message from the protest was clear – space4cycling on the streets of London.

It’s a simple enough demand. When I’m a pedestrian, I have my space: the pavement. If I were a driver, I’d have my space: the road. Yet when I’m on my bike, I have to squeeze into someone else’s space – occasionally on the pavement, but mostly on the road – that wasn’t designed for my needs.

I have to share that space with drivers who don’t always look out for me, who don’t always give me the space I need and who sometimes don’t even think I deserve any space. I have to watch out for the driver who hasn’t seen me, the driver who’s about to turn without indicating, and the driver who thinks I’m in his way. I have to make snap decisions about what’s safe, while also knowing that the wrong decision could see me over my handlebars or under somebody’s wheels.

To me, the need for a safe space for cycling, separate from the rest of the traffic, is blindingly obvious. Not only would it make cycling around London a much more pleasant and safer experience for me, I have visions of it encouraging many more people to get on their bikes. With so many potential benefits – a fitter, healthier and happier population, and a less congested and polluted city being but a few that spring to mind – it’s a wonder politicians aren’t falling over themselves to meet our demands.

space4cycling

Just me and around 5,000 other cyclists crossing over Westminster Bridge

Hmmm…but they’re not, are they?

You could argue, as many have, that the political will just isn’t there yet. That it takes time for change to happen. That to give us the space we’re asking for would mean taking it away from someone else, and whoever that ‘someone else’ is, they won’t be happy. That the pro-car lobby is incredibly powerful, and has significantly more money behind it than we do.

No. The problem is that, while the need for space4cycling is a no-brainer for many of us who already cycle, for the majority – people like that policeman outside the Houses of Parliament – well, it’s not.

I mean, I even sometimes struggle to persuade my non-cycling friends that there’s a need for it. In response to my stories of near misses and close calls, they simply point out that it’s not as if I have to cycle. I could just get the Tube instead. And, when I’m trying to sell space4cycling to them, if the best I can offer them is that they might want to take up cycling as a result…well, it’s hardly surprising they’re not interested.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. If we’re going to succeed in our call for space4cycling, we need the support of people who don’t already cycle. The trouble, we’re not very good at articulating just why they should support us. Too many arguments have been focused on the benefits for people who already cycle – but what are the benefits for someone who doesn’t cycle? Just about everyone I know has a story of a bloody cyclist running a red light, barrelling across a pedestrian crossing or otherwise behaving in a reckless manner. Given that many of these people would probably prefer it if there were fewer, rather than more of us, how do we persuade them to support our cause?

I don’t have the answer to that. Any suggestions?

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11 thoughts on “So, why do we need space4cycling?

  1. Very good post. I think Gilligan also has a similat view. I don’t have the answer, but this morning on my way to work there was a parevement cyclist rounding a blind corner at speed, and then having to swerve out of the way of a pedestrian, who then looked back at the cyclist, probably think ‘bloody cyclist, nearly ran me over’.

    • Exactly. I had a similar experience this morning. A cyclist ploughed straight through the red light and through the crowd of people crossing the road, expecting them to jump out of the way. I don’t have a problem with running red lights per se, but if you’re doing it and you know someone else has right of way then give way to them. We’re never going to get other people on our side if they think we have no respect for them.

    • Haha! So true. I did actually think about challenging him on that point – that it was built for carts, horses, horse-drawn carts and people on foot long before it was built for cars. But the point is that London has been built and rebuilt so many times that even if the current layout was built for cars, it can be rebuilt again to accommodate bikes.

    • I’d like to think that. I had a hopeful moment in the supermarket on my way home from the protest; both the person in front of and the person behind me in the queue had obviously cycled there, and I just thought, cycling is becoming more and more the norm. With so many people cycling, one day it’ll be as normal as, say, catching the bus.

  2. Perhaps some of the answer lies in painting a picture of a world where cycling is a much larger proportion of journeys. The world would be quieter, less smelly, safer and more pleasant. And it would be possible, attractive even, for everyone to cycle whenever they wanted.

    • I’ve tried that. Unfortunately some people aren’t very good at picturing what they can’t see in front of them. And then there are the people who dismiss the idea before it’s even been tried. A good friend of mine – the very same friend who came to Copenhagen with me, and therefore knows what might be possible – believes it’ll never happen in London. She drives, and can never see herself cycling in London. Her view is that money spent on improving cycle infrastructure will only benefit a few people, whereas money spent on, say, improving public transport will benefit a lot more people, so that’s where she thinks the focus should be. I would imagine she’s not the only one who thinks that.

  3. I do wish Plod would stick to what they are best at: Telling the time, and giving directions to tourists.
    The streets of London were designed for horse-drawn carriages, and John Loudon McAdam invented Tarmacadam for the velocipede more than half a century before Karl Benz patented his first infernal combustion engine.

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