Even after all this time, I still find it so bizarre that in any mainstream media discussion of cycling and related policy, somebody inevitably tries to de-rail the discussion by shouting about how cyclists are all selfish lawless hooligans who cycle on the pavement.
As a pedestrian, I’m obviously no fan of other road users invading our space.
But, to the sort of person who doesn’t get out much and doesn’t think that they’ve ever even met somebody who rides a bicycle, it’s difficult to communicate the fact that “cyclists” and “cycling” describes an extremely diverse set of people and activities that can not be generalised. One type of “cyclist” might be unable to identify with another type of “cyclist”, and there’s no reason why we should expect them to — they are strangers from different cultures and demographics, united only by their ownership some sort of a bicycle.
Indeed, what are the chances that the lawless hooligan on the pavement is riding a bicycle whose cruel loss some other cyclist is still mourning?
So perhaps the closest analogous scenario that the complainant might understand is to berate motorists for all these ugly burnt-out cars that they leave lying around, spoiling the footpaths on the hills. You motorists…
(Similarly, I hate all you bloody bus passengers: if you want to listen to some awful pseudo-R&B pop crap, get some bloody headphones. And you assholes who use trains, yes, you, all of you: get your dirty shoes off the seats. You disgust me, every last one of you.)
The sky lightening, I head for a bridge with a scene that would suit a subtle sunrise photograph, as Big Ben rang for four fifteen. Bored policemen loiter beside their van, parked in the Westminster Bridge bike lane. Tired taxi drivers inch across advance stop lines and cautiously through red lights. A refrigerated truck of fresh Dutch imports — tulips, one must assume — obediently follows the satnav’s directions onto the Embankment. On the pavement before the entrance to Portcullis House is a man in City of Westminster hi-vis vest, bent on hands and knees with a brush and a big barrel of hot soapy water. Yesterday’s dirt must not be allowed to stick to the soles of our dear leaders. And three late-teenaged blokes on BSOs head home from the night shifts, back to their mums’ flats on the housing estates of south London, weaving around the tourist-free zone that is the Westminster Bridge footway. (And why not? The pigeons can’t call You and Yours or have their say in the Daily Mail letters pages.)
Waterloo Bridge is delightfully empty still, thanks to yesterday’s fire. Somehow, London’s roads seem to have been coping with the reduced capacity.
Most of the traffic is simply diverting to the next bridge — Blackfriars — where, as St Paul’s announces five, they have a sufficiently uninhibited run to hit forty or more before they make it to the red lights and temporary twenty limit at the now infamous north junction. Dawdling past them on an average hybrid bike without lights (but that’s hardly needed by now anyway), a man in an old helmet and orange hi-viz bib heads north on the pavement. I stop him briefly to ask him where he’s going and what he knows about pavement cycling. He can’t talk for long — he’s come from Lewisham and has to hurry on to a zone 1 tube station, I won’t say which, for an early customer services shift.
It shouldn’t surprise anybody that the reason this railwayman was cycling on the pavement is because he is terrified of mixing with vans and minicabs that are autopiloted through a cycle of rapid acceleration, flagrant speeding, and sudden stops as they tour the traffic lights of central London. He was vaguely aware that he wasn’t actually allowed to cycle on the pavement, but since he only dared cycle in these quiet early hours, with just a sparse scattering of tired night-shifters and early-rising joggers to negotiate, he had a reasonable argument for it being a victimless crime. He’s only cycling because the trains don’t start early enough. He would never attempt to cycle anywhere when heading home through the bustling streets of lunchtime, road or pavement. He isn’t crazy.
You’ll recognise these sunrise pavement cyclists from the work of Dave Horton: they are the people, often poor and marginalised, who cycle despite all of the barriers, just because there really is no alternative.
So when somebody high-up in TfL tells you that speed of motor-vehicles doesn’t matter outside of the rush hour, spare a thought not just for those who want to use their bicycle for things other than a commute, and not just for the schoolchildren whose day does not align with the normal rush, but also for the tens of thousands of Londoners who work non-standard hours, scrubbing the front steps of the powerful and making sure that everybody else’s morning trains run.
TfL directors, it turns out, are failing in their duties to their own staff on the ground. Who would have believed it possible?
Beijing has some lovely wide avenues. It’s not like London, where the streets are only wide enough for cars, and are too narrow for bicycles. The boulevards that cross the grid-patterned city at half-km intervals are not only wide enough for three or four lanes of traffic each way and a generous pavement for the pedestrians, they can also comfortably accommodate spacious segregated cycle paths between the two. Indeed, the pavements and cycle paths are so wastefully over-endowed that each can just about fit three motor-vehicles across their width: one parked on each side, and one carefully crawling between them looking for a space. The Chinese have brilliantly invented a road design that gets eight parking places per car’s length of road, and the Motorist doesn’t even have to get in anybody’s way: all eight lanes of through traffic can remain clear and free flowing. The best that London can manage is four parallel parking places — and the pavements are never wide enough to accommodate more than one of those each. Once again, China demonstrate why they are the future and we are the past.
Beijing has five million cars already. Just over twice as many as London, for a population three times the size. The number of cars on the streets grows by 10% per year. With each new morning, there are 1,500 more cars idling in the jams on the five ring-roads; 1,500 more freshly graduated drivers, free to roam, safe with the knowledge of what to do with the exposed intestines of the pedestrians and cyclists they drive over. Every new day 1,500 more cars than yesterday need to be parked somewhere convenient in the central business districts of Beijing.
Every week another ugly multi-storey car park opens; each new office block and shopping mall comes with several floors of underground parking. But the city clearly isn’t keeping up. The poor Motorist has to park somewhere. The city has even considered waging war on the poor Motorist by raising the municipal car parking charge from the current 25 pence per half-hour. But worst of all, in some places — such as here at the Yonghegong Lama Temple, they have now installed hard physical barriers separating pavement from road:
The problem with walking around Beijing, though, is that for some reason people kept thinking that their bicycles (and tricycles) belonged on the pavement. Even worse, on sections where the pavements are narrower and are therefore only wide enough to accommodate a single car parked perpendicular to the road, pedestrians must of course walk on the cycle path, being careful not to scratch the paintwork of any car that is driving down it in search of that elusive available space. And yet, rather than recognising that the cycle path simply isn’t wide enough for bicycles, cyclists continue to try to push their way down them, ringing their bells intimidatingly at pedestrians and Motorists. These are the sorts of selfish and anti-social behaviours that the city’s authorities need to crack down on if they are to complete their transition to a pleasant, modern, developed city.