Boris Johnson is “doing an awful lot to try to encourage cycling“. He’s doing Skyrides. Did he mention that he’s doing Skyrides? He is, you know. He’s doing Skyrides.
Actually, I usually only find out that he’s doing Skyrides on the day they happen — in the evening, after they’ve happened. Usually when Boris is telling us what jolly good fun everyone has had, and how everybody is now going to cycle everywhere. Or when Freewheeler is making fun of them. The point I’m getting at is that, while the Skyrides may be well advertised, they are not any better advertised than most big events in London. The high turnout at Skyrides can not be explained by fantastic advertising alone: the advertising merely alerts people to the existence of an event for which there is already vast but stifled demand. A day of conspicuously safe, quiet, unintimidating and unpolluted car-free streets almost advertises itself.
On a Skyride, people who would like to be able to cycle without having to interact with double-decker buses and men with ven get to do so. When they go home afterwards and the road-blocks are rolled back, do they feel in any way different about cycling among the chaotic metal missiles? Previous reviews of the evidence suggested that most merely remain unconvinced, no more or less likely to make journeys by bicycle. But one new piece of anecdotal evidence mentioned in an aside at the Embassy meeting (sorry, I noted the idea but now don’t remember who said it) suggests that some would-be everyday bicycle users do think differently after a Skyride than they did before.
Before the Skyride, people would like the opportunity to cycle — they want an easier, quicker, more fun way to make mundane everyday journeys; they’re worried about the amount of the family budget being gobbled by the car or the season tickets; and they want the family to be able to get some relaxing gentle exercise in the fresh air together. Their ears have pricked up at all the talk of The Mayor’s Cycling Revolution™, and they’re thinking of signing up, but aren’t completely decided yet. They hear about a Skyride and want to give it a go — it’s the excuse they’ve been looking for to dust off the bikes and remember how it’s done. And they go out and play in this car-free utopia, and see just how great things could be. And at the same time, they’re shown exactly how that compares to the real world — while being bombarded with helpful messages about how to survive vehicular cycling.
Skyrides don’t merely fail to encourage everyday cycling. By temporarily taking away the cause of the problems with our streets, they highlight just how bad the problems are. The would-be cyclist, on the edge of joining The Mayor’s Cycling Revolution™, can never go back to cycling with the traffic — not after they have seen and experienced Utopia. Just as your fancy gadget ceases to be fun the moment you see the amazing specs on the latest model, riding a bike ceases to be easy and fun when you’ve seen how much better it can be. The air ceases to be fresh and the exercise ceases to be gentle and relaxing. (Some people go as far as emigrating as they seek again that found but lost utopia.)
Skyriders may yearn to see that lost utopia again; yearn for it to exist always. But until it does, they will never be recorded as “cyclists”, never be part of a revolution, never be considered by the politicians, planners, and tabloid hacks who don’t even acknowledge their existence. Until that Utopia is built, what else can normal people do but silently dream of bicycles?
I think the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain wants to be the answer to that question. I think they can be.