Safer space for cycling (scooting): what’s going onwith (some of) us?

A recent piece on the sudden scuttling of a flagship London project for safer cycling, and local e-scooter hoo-ha, sparked a few thoughts about local opposition to infrastructure for safer cycling – and e-scooting.


The Guardian’s Peter Walker wrote this thought-provoking piece, called “The depressing lesson of west London’s lost cycle route”

It’s reproduced below, with our thoughts in [italics and square brackets].


More or less every time a city orders a report into how expanding populations can be moved around in efficient ways that also improve liveability and sustainability, the same answer comes back: active travel – that is, more walking and cycling.

And yet in many of those same cities, when specific plans are introduced to make walking and cycling safer and more pleasant, they face a fierce backlash, which can be sufficiently noisy and disruptive to scupper the schemes.

Such wrecking tactics are, it appears, increasingly common even as the need to move away from vehicle-based cities becomes ever more urgent.

Are the NIMBYs winning? A particularly alarming example has just been seen in London, where the grandly-named [council] Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) in effect pulled the plug on a flagship plan from Transport for London to improve walking and cycling on a particularly feral stretch of west London roads between Notting Hill and Wood Lane.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s another example from London, but please do bear with me. The events from last week are illustrative of the ways safer, cleaner transport is being undermined in towns and cities, largely through myths.

So here’s some selected thoughts and lessons from the ongoing battle. Feel free to add your own below.

Opponents claim to support cycling in principle. Really?

RBKC’s decision to block safer cycling and walking on a route that has seen 275 collisions in three years came, amid loud applause, at a meeting of opponents on Thursday night. Beforehand the council’s cabinet member for transport reportedly said he was “hugely supportive” of cycling, but did not support this particular scheme.

This seems deeply peculiar. If he does support cycling, then why not work with TfL on improving the scheme, rather than blocking the entire thing, without warning and before a consultation was finished (more on that later), with no plans for a replacement?

There is something of a pattern to this. The wise and indefatigable New York blogger and podcaster Doug Gordon once compiled a long list of people who insist they simply love cycling, but have a unique, unfixable problem with one particular bike lane, namely the one in their city or neighbourhood. See also: “I’m a cyclist”; “I own a bicycle”.

[Much heard in Island Bay, including from the Residents’ Association (one of the fiercest opponents even going so far as to agree to this super awkward posed photo “No really, look I’m a cyclist too, honest”)]

Many of the arguments against bike lanes are misleading or false

One of the most depressing elements of events in west London has been the spread of the myth that protected bike lanes cause more pollution (© Professor Robert Winston). This has now reached the mainstream, with elected politicians repeating it as fact.

It is a complex issue, one often reduced to an asinine series of assertions (“less space for motor traffic must equal worse congestion, which must equal more pollution”), one blithely repeated by RBKC.

While the TfL modelling does indicate some journeys in one direction of travel could take longer after the work, a series of other factors need to be considered, not least the primary cause of congestion – too many motor vehicles – and the aim of eventual modal shift to other means of transport.

Then there’s also the fact that when similar routes have already been built in London, actual measured pollutions levels have stubbornly not risen.

Opponents also cited worries from shops and companies along the route. Again, these are common with other plans, but invariably ill-founded. For a variety of reasons, cycle infrastructure is almost always good for business.

[More importantly, and something we can say about all retail and hospitality businesses: there are lots of variables determining your success. Cycleways are many people’s Scapegoat Of Choice for small business failure, despite (in Island Bay’s case) strong competition and the teensy issue of their buildings being earthquake-stickered.]

A more easily-comprehensible objection was the fate of up to two dozen trees of various sizes that would have been felled to make way for bike routes. It’s worth remembering that trees can be replanted, and also that the route could have been adjusted to save the trees – instead of taking more space from cars.

[“No, I’m not just rabidly anti-cycleway! Look, I’m totally, like, green – I’m actually about protecting the trees.” A common claim in New Zealand. Of course we need more urban trees and they’re cut down too readily, but all too often it’s an excuse. Or a council makes us pit trees against space for scooting and cycling because – like the London example – they’re unwilling to take a foot from space for cars. Example: “No carparks were harmed in this upgrade” – one reason for the randomness of Wellington’s Victoria St.]

A computer-generated image of the planned layout at Wood Lane.
 A computer-generated image of the planned layout at Wood Lane. Photograph: Transport for London

Opponents don’t have any plans of their own

Chris Boardman, the saintly walking and cycling guru for Greater Manchester, has an inevitable response to those who oppose schemes for safer, more human-friendly streets: OK, so now what? Without proper cycling infrastructure, how will you ease gridlock, reduce pollution, lower the road casualty toll?

In my experience what usually follows is silence or platitudes. In the case of RBKC, I’m afraid, they’re offering both. The council has, as far as I can see, no scheme on the table to improve the main roads on which the ditched scheme was due to run.

It does have another planned bike scheme, one that was intended to be an addition, not an alternative – a convoluted quietway-type route via back roads, roughly twice as long, and with few planned safety interventions beyond some speed bumps and tweaks to junctions. It’s not what you’d call ambitious.

“Consultation” too often means “vetoes from NIMBYs”

Perhaps the oddest part of the RBKC debacle is the fact that the council said it was acting on behalf of local residents, but blocked the scheme before a consultation run by TfL even closed, long before it had any results.

[This is pretty egregious and a real smoking gun for that council’s abrogation of its responsibilities.]

I repeatedly asked the council’s press team how they could know the scheme was opposed by residents without a formal method of assessing local views. They were unable to tell me.

The council did receive, I was told, 450 emails opposing the scheme – which amounts to 0.28% of the borough’s population. The press team angrily insisted there had been “hundreds” more residents getting in touch via other means. Even if you give a generous final total of 1,000, that’s 0.6% of the population. It’s almost the dictionary definition of nimbyism.

[It’s one of the great challenges of democracy. Who are The People? How can you hear them? How can you be sure you’re hearing from a representative sample? It’s tough, but anyone claiming “THE PEOPLE ARE UNITED IN SUPPORT” or “EVERYONE IS AGAINST IT” or even “OVERWHELMINGLY…” needs to front up with some robust stats. Or don’t make such sweeping statements.

A second challenge of democracy is people understanding the process. Consultations are not votes.

Let’s say it again for the lazy part of our brains: it’s not a vote, and it’s certainly not a referendum.

Councillors will take our views into account, as their voters and the origin of their mandate to govern, but they’re gonna govern. The judge on the Island Bay R.A. vs Wellington City Council application for judicial review of the cycleway had to say explicitly: It’s not a referendum, folks.

“The Local Government Act does not impose on the Council an obligation to accede to the views of a majority of a community or the majority of any part of a community.

“The case advanced for the Association was permeated with the idea that there was an express or implied obligation on the Council to comply with the preferences of the majority of the Island Bay community.”

(This following a long traverse of whether the Residents’ Association’s surveys (which they claimed showed overwhelming opposition) trumped the public consultation process. Spoiler: nope. But even if someone had been able to show true overwhelming local opposition, it’s still not a vote.]

Two other things are worth noting on consultations. Firstly, even when they are strongly in favour of new bike schemes, the opponents often do not back down.

[Or, in the Island Bay case, when there’s been more consultation on the cycle lane than on the ASB Stadium – they’ll still go to court (and come back from losing there) still swearing there’s not been enough.]

Secondly, there is a strong argument that safer walking and cycling isn’t something people should have a veto over anyway.

To paraphrase the argument of another tireless New York cycling advocate, Paul Steely White, when the Victorians were building London’s sewage system they didn’t endlessly consult on whether separating drinking water and human waste was OK with local people. It saved lives and so it was the right thing to do, so they did it.

[See below on the rationale for making it safer to cycle and scoot (spoiler: people don’t have to be dying every other week for it to be legitimate.)]

Labour are at fault as well

RBKC is a Conservative-run council, and a famously dysfunctional one, as the appalling tragedy of Grenfell Tower showed. But worryingly, both the local Labour MP, Emma Dent-Coad, and her constituency party, not only failed to support the safer walking and cycling scheme, they – in the case of the party – openly celebrated its demise.

This might seem weird, that a left-leaning party would oppose the most equitable forms of urban transport available and choose instead to favour the needs of drivers. But it shows how far the anti-cycling myths have penetrated.

People die as a direct result of campaigns like these

London’s walking and cycling commissioner, Will Norman, is generally a patient and measured man. But in a furious reaction to what he called a “cynical political stunt” by RBKC he said: “People will die and suffer serious injuries as a direct result of this.”

This is perfectly possible. Among those who have expressed alarm at the council’s decision is Kate Cairns, whose younger sister, Eilidh, a 30-year-old television producer, was run over by a lorry in Notting Hill in 2009. Kate has said she is happy to meet local officials to see if there is a way to build the separated cycle lane, which she says would have saved her sister’s life.

[In Wellington, people are being hurt and killed too. Thorndon Quay is one of the deathliest bits of road, already experiencing heavy bike use (by determined and confident people), and its persistent danger is one of the more shameless examples of council ceding to “but the carparks!”.

Island Bay (at least the southern end) had no deaths prior to the cycle lane initiative, so people said “but it’s so safe!” But it also didn’t have any of this below…

Photos: Island Bay Healthy Streets

When there’s no safe space besides the footpath, people keep themselves and their kids safe by not biking or scooting even when they’d like to. They don’t show up in the death and serious injury stats, but they – and we all – lose out in all those other ways.]

The stakes could hardly be higher. Having cities still dominated by motor vehicles is heavily contributing to a climate emergency; to deadly pollution and endless noise disproportionately caused by richer people and visited on poorer ones; and daily peril for more vulnerable road users.

It’s simply not good enough to say you support walking and cycling in theory, but then block every effort to make it actually happen. People are, and will be, judged by their actions. And they should remember that.


[Tautoko.

In an election year, it pays to show your current and hopeful local body politicians that you, the voter, are onto it. And that you’re not buying the line about “the e-scooter menace!” or “e-scooters must be on the footpath or unprotected on the road!” either.

Safe protected infrastructure for cycling and scooting, rori iti, is the way to go on any city streets where we’re not willing to bring speeds to a “safe mixable” 30km/hr. It’s one or the other.

In an election year, it pays to show your current and hopeful local body politicians that you, the voter, are onto it. And that you’re not buying the line about “the e-scooter menace!” or “e-scooters must be on the footpath or unprotected on the road!” either. Safe protected infrastructure for cycling and scooting, rori iti, is the way to go on any city streets where we’re not willing to bring speeds to a “safe mixable” 30km/hr. It’s one or the other.

Flick them this article and your thoughts!]


Thanks Peter Walker and Guardian! That was a great article, one of many. Support them because good journalism is as important as a good diet.


Banner image credit: Greater Auckland

3 comments on “Safer space for cycling (scooting): what’s going onwith (some of) us?”

  • Celia says:

    Excellent analysis!
    In New Zealand we are generally electing pro-walking and pro-cycling local and central politicians but perhaps not giving them vocal support to overcome this old-fashioned opposition.

  • Chris says:

    Nice overview of how bikelash is winning over cycling infrastructure when there arises – as more often than not it does – a conflict over how contested space gets (re)allocated. For some wider context of how the underlying process works it’s useful to skim this; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/25/opinion/wrestling-explains-alex-jones-and-donald-trump.html
    The key bit, which applies to bikelash and AT and PT projects is that; “It rests on the assumption that feelings are inherently more trustworthy than facts.”
    That’s a problem when cycling infrastructure projects are framed for the public’s consumption by engineers, who necessarily deal in facts. Wrong language.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *