Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Monday 11 August 2014

Fifty Thousand Bicycles in London

No... This isn’t a cue for a song. It’s been done better than I could do it in any case.

We were in London, on Saturday, the husband and I. We were meeting a very lovely, engaged, energetic man who had flown in from Shanghai, not a million miles away from Beijing, and coincidentally, there were a lot of bicycles in the city.

I can’t talk about the lovely man from Shanghai or the business meeting we had over high tea, although I can tell you that the high tea we indulged in at Browns Restaurant in St Martin’s Lane was extremely good. But I can tell you about the bicycles.

I don’t do tube trains. I used to commute to London, back in the day, so I’ve spent my fair share of time on the London Underground. I choose not to do it now, so, when we visit London, the husband and I take cabs. Yes, I suppose it’s more expensive, but we rarely have far to travel, so, if the weather’s good and it’s not too far, we walk. Otherwise we jump in a black cab and ride in style.

Yesterday, we jumped in a taxi at Victoria station with the intention of being dropped off at St Martin’s Lane. Except, what we didn’t know at the time was that there were fifty thousand bicycles in London. That’s a lot of bums on bikes. We took the cab as far as Whitehall. The roads were closed. It was a glorious day, so the walk wasn’t onerous, but there really were a very great many bikes.

Ride London is the flagship event in Boris Johnson’s transport for London cycling program.

There are times when I see bits of madness posted on FaceBook and Twitter and I simply answer with this:

The words you are looking for are, “Oh good grief!”

Ten miles of central London streets were cut off over an August weekend in order to accommodate fifty thousand cyclists. All of those people will be able to say that they rode the London streets on their bicycles. Good for them. I don’t know how many more miles of streets were inaccessible simply as a result of those closures.

The taxi driver we rode with had effectively lost a weekend’s trade. One of my favourite independent shops, somewhere I buy things regularly, was empty. The owner couldn’t have been more delighted to see us, because she had lost a weekend’s trade. The buses weren’t running. International tourists didn’t have a clue what the hell was happening.

Add to this the fact that the entire event had cost money. Someone had to put up all those barriers, employ all those stewards, and pay for the police presence.

Ride London caused massive disruption both actually, on the ground, and financially to the city, which of course means the tax payer, and to businesses.

In the rest of London, those cyclists who regularly ride the streets of our capital city were going about their regular business, as they always do. We saw them. They didn’t seem to be taking part in Ride London. 

Pleasure cyclists appeared to be taking part in Ride London. It isn’t a very great pleasure to ride a bike in any city, never-mind London. It takes skill and confidence, and it takes a will, and often necessity. It is not for the faint of heart, and it is not for the pleasure cyclist.

If any of the fifty-thousand cyclists who visited the capital for Ride London returns with his or her bike for another foray, I doubt it will end well, or with a regular city cycling habit.

I like bikes. I think riding a bike is a wonderful, healthy, sensible habit. I don’t do it, but I do walk everywhere, and I do use public transport (OK, except for the tube), and, as it happens, I don’t drive... I don’t even know how to drive.

As far as I’m concerned anything that promotes an active life, and anything that promotes responsible bike ownership and sensible cycling is a damned good thing. I just don’t think that this event was the way to do that.

People who aren’t terribly keen on cyclists, and that includes a lot of motorists wouldn’t be persuaded to change their opinions on them by having the whole of central London cut off so that fifty thousand cyclists could ride through it unmolested by traffic. People who are on the fence about cyclists, and even some cyclists and some people who are pro-cycling might well be put off the whole idea of having bikes in the city after seeing what I saw yesterday.

A lot of visitors to the capital, a lot of shoppers, tourists, theatre-goers, diners and all those traders, cabbies, drivers and people put out by the event might blame the cyclists.

It’s not their fault.

The Prudential Ride London Free Cycle Event
They were offered the opportunity to cycle around the sites of London, to do what they might not otherwise have the chance to do. Of course they wanted to bring their bikes into the city, and their kids, their fancy bottles of water and squash and their packed lunches and snazzy helmets, and they wanted to ride around Buck House and the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament and St Paul’s... Who can blame them?

They had a wonderfully sunny day for their event, and I hope they did enjoy themselves.

I just think putting on the event at all was utterly ill-advised.

I don’t think the general public was thrilled to see all those bikes in the otherwise empty streets of central London, and I don’t think it will make cycling in London more popular... or cyclists either for that matter.

I blame Boris Johnson.

If he wants to promote cycling in London: Great. Why doesn’t he do something real? Why doesn’t he spend some real money and build some real cycle lanes and make some real decisions about the volume of traffic that still fills London’s streets?

He doesn’t do it because he can’t. He doesn’t do it because, actually commerce is more important and so is tourism, and he knows it.

Just by the by, today I am celebrating 600 blog posts. Crikey!

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