Back to the Future

Last week was a crucial step for me.

It heralded the arrival of the Annual All Party Parliamentary Bike Ride where MP’s, Peers and Campaigners ride from a particular point in Central London to the Houses of Parliament to start Bike Week. This year and for the second year in a row, the starting point was the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Kensington.

It was a crucial step for me because it marked my return to official duties on behalf of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain after having to step back for a year after everything else in my life decided to disintegrate quicker than plans for this years Sky Cycling Team Christmas Party.

In years gone by, the ride started from Regents Park, the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden and the London Eye, when Norman Baker was the Minister for Cycling. That particular ride, 4 years ago, took in Blackfriars Bridge, a battleground with all the associated death and injury that threw into sharp focus London’s misguided Machiavellian strategy of prioritising motorised vehicle flow above everything else.

On a glorious Wednesday morning, I found myself pedalling from Victoria Station through Hyde Park to the Dutch Embassy. As usual, the Metropolitan Police were providing the bicycle escort and were in the front yard of the Embassy carrying out bike marking when I rolled up. They looked ready to melt in their black uniforms under already warm early morning sunshine. I enquired whether they should be issued with fans amongst all the other stuff they had to carry around by bicycle. ‘Not with the cuts we’ve been experiencing Sir’, replied a constable with typically gruff and commendable frankness.

A peleton of police personnel at the Dutch Embassy.

A peleton of police personnel at the Dutch Embassy.

We traipsed into the Embassy where the always likeable Philip Darnton, former head of Cycling England and current Director of the Bicycle Association of Great Britain did his usual Golf Club Dinner Compere bit and words were spoken by the current Minister for Cycling, Robert Goodwill and the Ambassador for the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UK who would be joining us for the ride, Her Excellency, Laetitia van den Assum.

UK cycling legend Chris Boardman trying to look nonchalent

UK cycling legend Chris Boardman trying to look nonchalant

I was extremely pleased that the starting point for the event was the Dutch Embassy for the second year running. I had to wonder where the starting point would have been had the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain never came into being as a continuous aide memoire to Dutch [and Danish] superiority in bicycle infrastructure and culture. Also as a general Thorn in the Side of British cycle campaigning at the beginning of course. I guess it needed an overweight, boorish, mildly alcoholic,  occasional comedian to clear the initial space for a more measured and professional Chair and Board to carry the flame.

For the majority of the journey to the Houses of Parliament, I found myself side by side chatting with the Ambassador. She spoke with characteristic Dutch modesty about cycling in the Netherlands, probably because to them it ranks alongside breathing as a specialist activity. It was a bit like someone from Yorkshire, if asked how they rate their county of origin, stating ‘well it’s, you know, alright, but Lancashire’s probably just as nice really‘. Obviously it is not her job to have any say or push Dutch values on British domestic policy, nor would she or her staff wish to – that’s my job as a campaigner. The one thing that struck us however (not literally of course but that was partly because we had a police escort) was the sheer volume of traffic throughout the city.  London simply doesn’t need its current traffic levels (unless TfL and the Boroughs are doing it for a bet) and the more years that pass, the more ridiculous London’s streets policies seem when set against an increasing number of forward thinking cities overseas designing out private vehicle use and handing areas back to its citizens with often fascinating and proactive results.

The Dutch Ambassador showing the British how this utility cycling thing should be done.

The Dutch Ambassador showing the British how this utility cycling thing should be done.

We eventually arrived at the Houses of Parliament.

Now, due to the very fact that the ride had started from the Dutch Embassy, where we were shown endless images of people of all ages, religions and genders riding bikes in regular clothing doing regular stuff; that the ride had stuttered through the stop start crappiness of London conditions ending in the Merry-Go-Round-in-Dante’s-Playground that is Parliament Square, that since the last ride there have been more deaths and serious injuries and pleas from bereaved families for better conditions, that there had been further protests and campaigns and calls to arms, you’d think that there would be new thinking and words coming from the MP’s, especially with a general election coming up.

Wrong! I couldn’t make the ride last year, but I didn’t have to worry as the same tired old rhetoric was pedalled before us. Every year that I attend, I am informed that there is a ‘cycling revolution’ and that we will achieve some form of ‘critical mass’ if we just keep going on our current trajectory and fighting the good fight. However by this logic year in, year out, we should by now be actually seeing these revolutionary numbers of cyclists on the streets everywhere. In cycling terms, London should resemble some sort of romantic Eugene Delacroix painting. With bikes. Suddenly, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, although only in Kensington and indeed the Netherlands, although only across the North Sea started to feel light years away. Or at least 40 years, which is the approxinate length of time it took the Netherlands to elevate the bicycle back to where it should be in society.

Labour’s Transport Secretary, Mary Creagh couldn’t help herself. If you get the chance, please read Mark Treasure’s account of proceedings as he writes with a more restrained hand than I. As some words tumbled from her mouth in some sort of order, I was left wondering if she was perhaps describing another London where Prozac had been introduced into the drinking water. As my mind wandered, I recalled a ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ conference held nearby, hosted by Dutch Engineering firm Royal Haskoning bv a couple of years ago, where lots of assembled British and Dutch experts and campaigners were shown, amongst others, a presentation that basically seemed to say how wonderful the borough of Hackney is and that they’ve managed quite well without foreign intervention and expertise thank YOU very much. I had to chuckle as I’ve never seen the expression ‘What in the name of F**king Hell are we dong here?’ plastered so beautifully across Dutch faces. Come to think of it, when I glanced out of a window and caught my reflection, that was my expression as Mary Creagh spoke.

It’s almost as if we don’t want to find a way to reduce obesity and other problems such as Diabetes caused by increasingly sedentary lifestyles, that we don’t want more alert and happier children in our schools, that we don’t want a more productive and healthier workforce that would make other companies consider investing in Britain, that we don’t wish to end transport poverty for those that can’t run a car, that we wish to keep handing fines for air pollution over to the EU. Or it’s the case that, even though we know what the solutions are, and there are examples of proven brilliance in other countries, we’re going to muddle through to a low cost bodged solution in a unique British way. I’ll be tackling the contents of this paragraph in my next post.

Sitting in that meeting room in the Palace of Westminster, I found my mind drifting Back to the Future. I was sitting in what felt like 1985 (when cycling in Britain was also probably enjoying a revolution in politicians eyes). If I had a Delorean that could time travel, I, like Marty McFly, would also probably head back to 1955. And run over Earnest Marples before he embarked on his grand road building schemes. Then seeking out Dr Beeching before he did to the railways [in my humble opinion] what the Pope hasn’t done to anybody. It would be horribly fascinating to see hopelessly car-addicted this country would be upon my return and if I’d be as immune from murder then as I would be if I killed someone with a car today.

But at last the weather was lovely. And I’m back campaigning.

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