In the run up to my visit to Amsterdam three weeks ago, I read In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan. I always thought that my first reference of this excellent book would be in relation to my excellent trip. I was wrong.
After Amsterdam’s Three large-scale bike demonstrations in 1974, in the summers of 1975 and 1976 bike demos became annual events that drew ever bigger crowds – 3,000 participants in 1975, 4,000 in 1976. Then in June 1977, an even larger bike demo took place. Nine thousand Amsterdammers – including a great many senior citizens and families with children – rode on a route that originated on Beursplein and ended in Vondelpark. The dense procession of cyclists stretched for two thirds of a mile.
A flyer was distributed to the cyclists at the outset of the 1977 ride. The flyer outlined the planned route and also advised how to handle anyone irritated by the demonstrations “Avoid getting into a wrangle with motorists. You don’t need to come to blows with loudmouths. There are already enough [traffic] casualties. Maybe, due to your dignified demeanour, they’ll join us next time – on a bike”. A number of obstructed motorists did bombard the cyclists with abuse. “Bastards!” shouted one motorist. “Tonight you’ll be asking for a ride again!”
A feature of the 1977 demo was a carefully coordinated stop on Museumplein, where thousands of cyclists lay down with their bikes to commemorate the 3,000 traffic fatalities suffered annually in Holland. After a moment of silence and a short eulogy, the cyclists then arose and rang thousands of bicycle bells. Then they “cycled for their lives” to the closing festivities in Vondelpark”
The above image is from the events just described and in the sublime film ‘How the Dutch got their Cycle Paths’ by Mark Wagenbuur. I had the pleasure of riding through the newly reopened bicycle path through the newly refurbished Rijksmuseum with my not so reopened or refurbished host, Marc van Woudenberg. I was already familiar with the post war years of struggle in Amsterdam and the Netherlands generally and as I coasted through this glorious piece of infrastructure looking out across Museumplein it felt deeply fulfilling that such protest and anger were not in vain. However, my experiences will have to wait.
Let’s fast forward to London, November 2013.
To say it had been a macabre month for the nations capital city would be reckless understatement. In the space of two weeks, six cyclists had lost their lives taking the death toll in London up to 14.
Although an initial vigil was held at Bow Roundabout organised by London Cycling Campaign following yet another tragedy involving a left turning HGV, sadly events even overtook that resulting in a ‘Die-In’ vigil, organised outside the headquarters of TfL by a new ‘grass roots’ campaign called Stop the Killing of Cyclists, I assume based on Stop de Kindermoord (‘Stop the Child Murders’). By the way, here is an excellent BBC World Service Podcast on how the 1973 Dutch grassroots movement got underway.
The demands [in London] are as follows:
1.The Mayor and Boroughs to spend at least the same per person on cycling provision as The Netherlands (the UK spends about £1.25 per person – the Netherlands spends about £33 per person)
2. A ban on vehicles whose drivers cannot see adjacent road-users.
3. A full London-wide segregated network to be built urgently
It got some coverage from news channels and all involved thought it to be a great success. The picture above was actually taken from the point of view of the TfL offices so it must have looked quite dramatic.
All stirring stuff.
I was therefore a little bit taken unawares when Mikael Colville-Andersen, leading bicycle and urbanism advocate, writer of Copenhagenize and direct influence for me founding the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain started writing the following tweets:
Lying down and playing dead in intersections doesn’t exactly encourage the 99% to ride a bicycle. #fail
7:38pm · 29 Nov 13 ·
Lack of intelligent, modern advocacy is just another reason why London and UK languish in the basement of the urban cycling league.
8:03pm · 29 Nov 13
In the UK today, a couple thousand people convinced tens of thousands of their fellow citizens never to ride a bicycle again. Well done.
9:36pm · 29 Nov 13
Sub-cultural peacocking – based on protest styles hailing from early 70s – are hopefully ineffective in 2013.
9:41pm · 29 Nov 13
If you look at the two photos, you will notice that, in the Amsterdam picture, not one of the protesters is wearing a helmet, or anything reflective – just ordinary people wanting to get around by bicycle, highlighting the carnage occurring on Dutch roads affecting every citizen at the time whether they rode a bicycle or not as well as taking a stand against the city of Amsterdam being smashed up further to make more space for the motor car.
The more recent photo, of London, tells a different story. Tragic, emotive and thought provoking but for different reasons – it shows what happens when private and commercial motor vehicle dependence continues for a further 40 years unchecked at the expense of everything else from transport equality to social inclusion to health. Those that remain within the Church of Cycling become increasingly radicalised from the rest of society – a society that thinks nothing is wrong in terms of safety because the UK has an alright road safety record from the inside of a motor car and would even see cyclist and pedestrian injury and death as collateral damage in the name of ‘progress’. To the vast majority outside the world of cycle campaigning, the scene outside the TfL headquarters was of an out group, many in the expected uniform of hi visibility jackets, helmets and lycra easily picked out by car headlamp or a journalists camera flash. That picture of London allows cycling commissioners such as Andrew Gilligan to dismiss the protesters and make them look as radical as, say for example, the Republican Tea Party.
But that doesn’t make Andrew Gilligan right, and I have to respectfully agree to disagree with Mikael Colville-Andersen. In fact, had I still been living in London, I would have attended the event myself.
This is because we come onto yet another battleground in the wonderful, trippy wasteland of British bicycle advocacy – ‘Dangerising’. Apparently, by drawing attention to the fact that six people have died in two weeks and the death toll has already matched the previous year, it is in some way going to make cycling look dangerous, and put people off. It also, apparently, undermines the hard work that Boris Johnson, Andrew Gilligan and TfL have been putting in. Statistically, it may be a safe activity, but that only paints part of the picture.
I used to cycle to work every day in my younger years from Morden in deepest, darkest South London, to Camden Town – to be more precise, less than 50 metres from where a young woman faced ‘life changing’ injuries after being hit by an HGV last October. My commute took in such gems as the multi-lane gyratory at Vauxhall Cross. At the time it was an adventure. But I was a fit[ish], confident[ish] young male. Now I am a father and watching the age of 40 fade as it waves me slowly goodbye from the harbour edge, the thought of carrying out the same commute fills me with horror. The thought of carrying out the same ride with my 3 and a half year old boy doesn’t fill me with anything because it simply won’t happen. When I unfold my Brompton at Victoria Station to head to a meeting, I do it with the same look these days as a pensioner being cajoled onto a ride at Alton Towers, being told to stop whining as it won’t last long and might be quite fun. The facilities provided for cycling in London [and the rest of the UK] are the infrastructure equivalent of the riddles and jokes one finds in a box of Christmas crackers. Whenever I see tourists on Boris Bikes at Parliament Square and Embankment (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less), they are always on the pavement and for good reason. If they wanted the level of subjective danger presented to them on the roads, they might as well have holidayed in Syria. This is because any plans for the future are anchored to the past - the incessant need to push as much motorised traffic through a given area under the deluded belief that it means prosperity and individuality.
The people that participated in the Die-In last Friday probably had better things to do on a Friday evening and there are better ways of campaigning but it has all come down to this. Desperate times call for desperate measures. If many were wearing cycle clothing and body armour with all the reflective bits, it is because the prevailing conditions have made them do so. These are people that have had to look grateful for every poorly designed, underfunded and compromised facility that has been set before them, and then take the flak when they ignore them. 40 years of neglect at the transport table has resulted in that photograph taken from the TfL offices. Most importantly, the remainder of people in the UK regard cycling as a dangerous activity regardless of protests like this.
If things are ever going to move forward, there needs to be greater liaison with elderly groups, disabled groups, pedestrian groups and even, dare I say it, motoring groups. They need to be shown examples of what does work, and why. This goes way beyond ‘space for cycling’ but creating more liveable neighbourhoods and quality networks for all. Otherwise bicycle advocacy will continue to be framed and then discarded with ease.