Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Commissioner Gilligan

The big news last week was that the journalist Andrew Gilligan will shortly be appointed Cycling Commissioner for London.

Various people within the cyclosphere and political circles have criticised the appointment, accusing Boris Johnson of cronyism, and questioning Gilligan's qualifications, experience and credentials. Others have been more supportive.

As far as qualifications are concerned, there must be very few people in the UK with an actual track record of designing and delivering quality cycle infrastructure in the UK - for the simple reason that there isn't any. And let's face it, the people we've had hitherto in charge of cycling, appointed by all parties including those critical of Gilligan's appointment, haven't exactly covered themselves in glory.

I don't think this job is an engineering post. It's not as if you have to design or dig up the roads yourself. It doesn't require deep transport expertise either. In fact being historically responsible for the state of the UK's highways could be a stain on your credibility. The job is, or should be, about getting the actual transport and highway experts doing the right things - being able to put together and sell a vision, and being able to understand what is needed to make cycling mainstream. And it helps if you actually ride a bike for daily transport in all conditions (as opposed to driving to a trail at the weekend with a bike on your car, or posing by a bike for a photo opportunity). That is the only way to understand the problems that cyclists face.  And by this measure, very few people charged with delivering cycle infrastructure in the UK are qualified, which could be a clue as to why it is so uniformly woeful.

Cycalogical is independent and not affiliated to any corporations, campaigning organisations or political parties. We do not get free holidays at anyone's villa in Tuscany, and no-one buys us dinner at The Ivy. So we're free to criticize and upset anyone.

We've been critical on this blog of Gilligan in the past for his weak grasp of safety statistics, but we're prepared to give him the benefit of any doubt. He seems to say the right things: The Times quotes him thus:

"I believe that the way to win arguments is to stress what better cycle facilities can do for London as a whole – reducing air pollution and crowding on the Tube, for example – rather than just for cyclists." 

and in 2010 he wrote:

"Twenty years ago, Berlin's cycling rate was not much more than London's now. The city authorities raised it five-fold with a concerted programme of building segregated bike lanes, bike stands and special traffic lights to get cyclists across difficult junctions. By the standards of a rail scheme, it cost virtually nothing. Safety is would-be cyclists' number one fear, a mostly undeserved one since the number of accidents has fallen even as the number of cyclists has soared. The segregation gave Berliners confidence to overcome that fear."

So Gilligan should get our full backing, provided he makes as much noise as possible in support of mass cycling, thumps the table at recalcitrant politicians, civil servants, local officers and car-centric highways engineers, confronts the anti-cycling lobby, and shows up the hypocrisy of those who claim to support cycling but do nothing about it while Britain slides into an epidemic of ill-health caused by our sedentary lifestyle. It's a shame the post is only part-time.

Let's not forget that while Labour are happy to criticise this appointment, and to talk up cycling while in opposition, the party's record while in power has been underwhelming. While they cannot be held entirely responsible for the current situation where there is a presumption against cycling built into the roads and justice systems, they failed to do anything meaningful about it during 13 years, and in some respects made it worse. The Traffic Management Act 2004 - which introduced the 'network management duty' used by TfL to justify the Blackfriars Bridge anti-cycling scheme - was Labour Government legislation. They messed around with the Road Traffic Act, but failed to tackle the loopholes that continue to allow killer drivers to escape with a small fine and a hard stare from the judge. On infrastructure, Labour spent a lot of money with little return in terms of enabling ordinary people to cycle.

However, any cycling commissioner has dark forces ranged against him (or her). Anyone who takes any notice of local politics will know the tsunami of opposition that greets any attempt to restrict parking or driving no matter how marginal the actual effect. That aside, there are still many barriers that make it very difficult, time-consuming and expensive for even well-intentioned and motivated local authorities to put in place decent infrastructure, such as the need to obtain a Traffic Order (a veritable orgy of bureaucracy) just to put a mandatory cycle lane in place. And then there's the problem that no-one's in overall charge. No one body or individual is either required or empowered to make decent cycle routes a reality. Responsibility for roads is split between different authorities: central government, TfL, the 30-odd London boroughs, and there are also organizations like Sustrans in the mix, so the buck tends to just get passed around. Hopefully the all-party inquiry which gets under way tomorrow will throw all that into focus and trigger action,  legislation and funding. All parties need to get behind cycling, because it will be just too easy for cynical politicians to take advantage of nimbyism on issues like parking to derail progress, and condemn us to another 20 years of car dependency, traffic congestion, obesity and transport poverty. We live, as ever, in hope of infrastructure rather than inquiries, and of cycling rather than commissioners...

1 comment:

  1. The best outcome of this appointment would be lots of new segregated cycle infrastructure, including those neat 'bus-stop bypasses' where the cycle track goes behind the bus stop -- as proposed for the eastern extension of CS2.

    But there's a second benefit which I haven't seen any discussion of, even though it's nearly as obvious: we get to call those bypassed bus-stops "Gilligan's Islands" ;)