Battle for Blackfriars: Money and power corrupts

In media interviews on Friday night – the night of the Blackfriars flashride – Ben Plowden talked about the redesign of the junction on the northern half of Blackfriars Bridge. This is where a bike lane is being squeezed and an extra car lane installed. Cycling groups are dead against this redesign, and so are pedestrian groups. The London branch of Living Streets (formerly known as the Pedestrians’ Association) said TfL’s plans would result in a “motorway-style road layout.”

Ben Plowden’s family and work background suggest he’d be a staunch opponent of Transport for London’s plans for Blackfriars. From May 1997 to July 2002 Plowden was director of the Pedestrians’ Association. He was the organisation’s first full-director and it was he who led the change to switch the name of the org to Living Streets.

Plowden’s grandfather was an important civil servant who rode his bike to work and wrote an anti-car polemic in the 1970s (The Motor Car And Politics 1896–1970, William Plowden) that was radical at the time, and is still radical today.

But Plowden Junior is not opposed to TfL’s plans. In fact, he’s very much in favour of them. But then he would be: he’s the Director of Better Routes and Places at Transport for London. Is he toeing the company line or does he really believe it’s a positive move to remodel a wide bike lane to make more room for cars and lorries?

Let’s examine some of his views. But not from Friday’s TV and radio interviews, from the earlier Ben Plowden, the Ben Plowden who didn’t have a well-paid executive job with Transport for London.

In 2001 he wrote a piece for the New Statesman in his role as director of the Pedestrians’ Association.

We need to put pedestrians first in urban transport planning. Over the past 40 years, our towns and cities have been brutalised. Urban streets have become routes designed for one function only – to carry as much traffic as possible. The result is public spaces designed by engineers and dominated by the noise and danger of cars and lorries.

Creating places for people…will require strong and enlightened local leadership.

Also in 2001 he penned a polemic for the Open Democracy website:

If you want people to go somewhere and spend time and money, you have to give them a safe, attractive and people-centred environment.

Roads need to be re-designed to reflect the fact that they are social and cultural spaces as well as traffic routes.

In 2002, shortly before he moved to TfL, as Director of Integrated Programme Delivery – he wrote:

For thousands of years…streets have also been places for movement. People walking, riding horses and later bicycles, or travelling in coaches and buses. And goods being carried on people’s backs, by horse and cart or lorry.

But the arrival of mass car ownership and the dawn of the Motor Age transformed the character of roads and streets. The movement of cars and lorries has become their primary function. Motorised traffic has literally driven out all the other jobs streets used to do. What the Danish architect Jan Gehl describes as the ‘life between buildings’ has been ruthlessly suppressed.

The new primacy of the traffic function of streets has had a number of effects. Villages, towns and cities have been reconstructed to accommodate cars and lorries. Roads have been widened, junctions re-modelled and space given over to moving and stationary traffic.

The noise, stench and physical danger of traffic make being outside unpleasant or even impossible.

It is not just the environment that has been re-designed for traffic. Planning and highways departments in most local authorities are staffed and structured round the need to keep traffic moving. The education, training and career structures of transport planners and highway engineers are orientated towards designing, building and managing road infrastructure. Few people in national or local government have the skills needed to think creatively about the use of streets as anything other than traffic routes.

The most important requirement is local political leaders with a clear sense that streets are for people, not just for traffic.

Hear, hear!

If only the Ben Plowden of 2011 could tune back in to the Ben Plowden of ten years ago. Reducing a bike lane and adding a car lane is not something the younger Plowden would have countenanced. Clearly, wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age.

If Gary Imlach had a bike range…


Halfords has today said its like-for-like bike sales in 13 weeks to 1st July have risen 11.5 percent. No doubt its sales will increase even further in the current quarter because of the blanket advertising on ITV4’s coverage of the Tour de France. But I feel the company is missing a trick. Why limit itself to just a Boardman range of bikes? A Gary Imlach bike range would be a perfect fit for Halfords. They could flog the range on the highlights part of the Tour de France coverage, seconds before the man himself appears. Why should Chris Boardman get all the product plugs?

The first model in the new range would be an electric bike, with integrated hair drier for that cycle-coiffure that few can pull off. @velocast suggests the bike range would have to come ready-fitted with mirrors, too. Good point.

The advert copy for this new bike range could go something like this…

“I knew I’d had a good day’s fronting a sport show when they had to crow-bar me off the set…”

“Light blue is not a colour, it’s a frame of mind.”

Got any more suggestions?

PS I think Gary Imlach is the best presenter on telly. His scripts are first-rate, his humour biting, his hair…gravity-defying.

Life lesson from the Netherlands: don’t major on bikes, major on people

Cambridge April  9268

I’m in favour of separated paths for cyclists. I’ve been hammering on about it for the best part of 25 years, with editorials on the subject in the mags I founded such as BicycleBusiness (in issue number one, August 1999, I waxed lyrical about the “tendril-like spread of cycle infrastructure”) and On Your Bike, the non-Lycra magazine for newbie cyclists. More currently, I have an 8-page feature in the second issue of Cyclingmobility magazine on the sometimes excellent bike infrastructure in Taiwan.


But ‘build it and they will come’ is only a part of the solution to getting more Brits on bikes and it’s very possibly not even the biggest part. The perception of cycling as a sweaty, slow, outgroup thing to do is a huge barrier to cycling in Britain, and building a hyper-connected, Dutch-style cycle infrastructure, door to door, still wouldn’t get Brits on bikes en masse. Of course, more people would start cycling if road danger was removed by physical separation but probably not in the numbers that would be required to satisfy Government return-on-investment equations.

When new roads are built, cars quickly clog up these roads. Similar doesn’t happen with cycle infrastructure in the UK, even high quality cycle infrastructure. Partly this is because even the best, protected facilities are short – and a network with gaps won’t be used as much, but a joined-up network can’t be built overnight – but it’s also because there are many other barriers to cycling. ‘Danger from motorised traffic’ is always close to the top of the list when folk are asked why they don’t cycle but there are many others on the list too, and some of them could be just as important.

In the US, grannies are being attracted to motorcycling in record numbers despite the dangers. Some even tote their grandchildren. They are far from blase about the danger but recognise that the trade-off is worth it.

Two of the fastest-growing segments of the motorcycling population are women and riders 55 and older.

Kathy Hilstein of Arroyo Grande is one of those new riders. She called herself a “back seat” rider until 18 months ago, when she bought a Harley-Davidson Street Glide three-wheeled cycle.

Now, the petite and youthful 52-year-old grandmother rides daily, including shopping trips and toting her 9-year-old grandson Cruz Sumner around the area.

“It’s my way to relax. It just takes away all of the stress,” she said, admitting she was terrified of motorcycles until she and fiancee Dave Cantua rented one a Hawaiian vacation.

Now it’s her favorite pastime, and she rides alongside Cantua, venturing as far as Laughlin, Nev.

“I try to be aware of my surroundings constantly, but it doesn’t keep me from riding,” she said, adding her bike gives her a new-found freedom. “I don’t like to wait until he gets off work to go riding.”

Now, if a US granny can get over her fear of riding a motorcycle on American roads, why wouldn’t a British granny get over her fears of riding a bicycle on British roads? It can’t just be because motorbikes are fast and can accelerate away from danger; this acceleration probably adds to the danger, motorcycling is far more dangerous than cycling.

Bit Zen, I know, but British grannies don’t ride bicycles because they don’t ride bicycles: the UK culture for riding bicycles was wiped out in the 1950s.

To rebuild that culture it will take separated bike paths, yes, but an awful lot more, too.

In 2009, Peter Zanzottera of UK transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave told the Scottish Parliament: “People love cycling but hate cyclists.”

In the UK, and in many other countries, cyclists have a bad reputation. Cycling may be good for the economy, good for waistlines, good for unsnarling traffic, and good for the planet, but when a UK politician hears cyclists calling for dedicated infrastructure, nine times out of ten that politician pictures a cyclist running a red light, or buzzing pedestrians.

This is a mistaken perception but it’s a prevalent one. Cycling in the UK is perceived as – and is – tribal. In the Netherlands, there are lots of people on bicycles, not lots of people who would call themselves cyclists. For cycling to go mainstream in the UK, it needs to become more “normal”. This is already happening, albeit slowly.

London’s ‘Boris Bikes’ are being used by people who otherwise might have taken the Tube or a taxi. In Darlington, the Beauty and the Bike scheme (a scheme part-funded by the Bike Hub levy, of which I’m involved) is showing that cycling doesn’t have to be all about Lycra, testosterone and helmets. Yes, the teen girls in that Dutch bike scheme want bike paths (“It’s the Infrastructure, Stupid”) in Darlington but the very fact they are cycling in Darlington, despite the dire cycle infrastructure, is slowly creating a culture of everyday cycling in Darlington. It’s not just ‘safety in numbers’, it’s about making normal cycling visible, trendy even.

Because cyclists are inherently tribal, groups are solidifying, especially in the blogosphere: there are those who say cycle numbers will only increase if cyclists are separated from motorcars, and there are those who say cycling on roads is far from a danger-fest. Both groups are right. But both groups (of which there are many sub-divisions) are coming at this from the point of view – shock, horror – of cyclists. This isn’t always helpful because, well, cyclists aren’t exactly loved by mainstream British society.

To those who hate cyclists, calling for infrastructure to protect cyclists is like calling for nicer prison conditions for pedophiles. That’s a deeply shocking thing to say, and no doubt it will be plucked out of its context and quoted back at me, but we have to recognise we’re often despised to a degree out of all touch with reality. Even a picture of Kelly Brook riding a bike in a flouncy dress and heels can’t stop hate comments against cyclists in the Daily Fail.

Cambridge, King's College

If we’re hated, and our calls for infrastructure are going to continue to fall on deaf ears until our numbers increase, perhaps we could learn from what happened in the Netherlands? Not just by pointing our engineers and politicians to examples of great cycle infrastructure, but perhaps trimming back the cycling message altogether and going with a more broad-brush approach?

For instance, why do we feel there should be separated lanes just for cyclists? Why not also lanes for roller-bladers? Or pogo-stick users? Daft parallels, of course, but you have to put yourself into the shoes of a city planner or a politician. They get it in the neck about law-breaking cyclists, and to provide better conditions for cyclists – you know, who don’t pay for roads or bike lanes – is not something that will curry favour with the majority of their constituents.

Critically, increasing bike modal share will involve cyclists partnering with other groups. Other groups that also want cars tamed.

One of the reasons for the success of the automobile has always been the united front – at least in public – put on by what was once self-styled as Motordom and which we now know as the ‘motor lobby’. By singing from the same hymn sheet, the disparate parts of the motor lobby was able to steam-roller the not-at-all organised opposition.

By joining forces we could be stronger.

Tacking cycling aims to wider societal aims was one of the ways that cycling’s modal share was increased in the Netherlands. Post WWII cycle usage didn’t drop as far or as fast in the Netherlands as it dropped in countries such as the UK, but nevertheless, the writing was on the wall: cycle use was on the way out.

In the 1970s, the Stop de kindermoord campaign helped create an atmosphere in which Dutch politicians and town planners could do more for cyclists, arresting the decline. Stop de Kindermoord means ‘stop the child murder’. This was a safety campaign by a loose coalition of cycling groups but Stop de Kindermoord didn’t major on cycling. Its focus was on protecting children from harm, and that harm came mainly from motorcars. Tame the cars and children’s lives would be saved. Tame the cars and cycling is more pleasurable. Win/win. [There’s now a British, 2011, ‘Stop the Child Murder’ group. It’s on Facebook, naturally].

Likewise, the success of Sustrans in the UK, an organisation created by cyclists and largely still run by cyclists, can be attributed to its broad appeal. When it lobbies local Government or negotiates with landowners or goes cap in hand to grant making bodies for funds to extend the National Cycle Network, it doesn’t lead with its cycling credentials, it talks about routes for people, people on bikes, people in wheelchairs and people on foot.

Intelligently, like Stop de Kindermoord, Sustrans also pushes for better travel conditions for children. Which local politician could possibly argue against ‘safe routes to school’? By lobbying for routes that protect children, Sustrans is very successful at getting localised traffic calming. But schools are dotted here, there and everywhere. Join up the dots between schools and you have an urban cycle network. Sorry, an urban active travel network, designed for walkers, wheelchair users and, oh, coincidentally, a few cyclists.

Cycling groups who want to get more cycling in their locales need to buddy up with pedestrian groups, with wheelchair user groups, with child safety campaigners, with NIMBY organisations fighting urban sprawl. Don’t just fight for better conditions for child cyclists, fight for better conditions for all children. With cars tamed, human powered transport can flourish. And the taming is better done collectively rather than tribally.

Explicit encouragement for specific modes – the creation of dedicated infrastructure for cyclists, for instance – is important in some locations but it’s essential cars are tamed everywhere. Not every road needs a bike path, but every road needs slower, more carefully driven cars.

Be loud. Be proud. Stand up for cycling. But be aware that not everybody shares our passion. If we push for dedicated cycling infrastructure as the be all and end all of cycling promotion, we’ll achieve a lot less than if we had a broader objective, an objective shared with other, non-cycling, city dwellers.

In real life, as in Le Tour, some motorists will hit a soft thing before a hard thing

“The cars and motorbikes believe that they have priority. They drive in the race without paying attention to the riders. We are the principal actors but we get less and less respect…On small roads like that that car could have waited before going past.”
Sandy Casar, FDJ team

Source: The Guardian

Defending Northumbria (and the low-risk activity that is cycling)

[UPDATED – see base] David Hembrow has a very popular blog. He’s the cycling campaigner who worked to improve conditions in Cambridge for 10 years before he moved his family to the Netherlands. He takes potshots at the UK’s dire cycling infrastructure. He’s almost always right: cycling in the UK, especially in cities, can be a fraught experience, especially for ‘nanas and nippers’.

In his latest posting he criticises the cycling conditions prevalent in Wiltshire (specifically Stonehenge) and Northumberland. Now, Stonehenge is a famous disaster area, ringed by busy roads that shame this country, but Northumberland is pristine cycling country and maligning it in the same breath as Stonehenge is wholly unfair.

David quotes a Dutch website which says that “Northumbria has the most beautiful, well marked cycle paths” which “criss-cross through the area and take you to interesting places”. David asks: “I’d like to know where they are.”

Er, pretty much all over this fine county, David.

He agrees that Northumberland is a “lovely area, but when we were on holiday there, all our cycling was on roads…There’s a lot of exaggeration about.”

Exaggeration? If anything, Northumberland is undersold.

Miffed, I left a comment on David’s site:

David, I was with you until your Northumbria comments. We live in Newcastle so we regularly take family cycle trips in Northumberland.

Out in the sticks you’re riding on roads, but you will see maybe just a couple of cars per day. In the College valley, motorists have to pay to get permits to drive through, and there’s a limit of 12 per day.

To get from Tynemouth out into the depths of the countryside, follow the Sustrans Reivers Route. Much of it is traffic-free in Tyneside because of the many former mineral line cycle paths. Once past hot-spots such as Ponteland the motorised traffic drops off massively and Northumberland becomes wonderful cycling country, on or off road. Tourist literature doesn’t do this part of the world justice, and is definitely not exaggerating.

Now, Stonehenge and environs is different, and truly awful, but don’t put ‘Northumbria’ into the same category.

My kids have been cycling quite happily and safely in Northumberland since the age of 6.

Northumberland would be a great destination for Dutch families and their bikes.

There’s separated infrastructure from the ferry to the mineral lines. Some of it is not up to Dutch standards but so long as the cyclists don’t try to reach Newcastle, they’ll be alright.

I’ve written about family cycling in Northumberland for National Geographic Traveller. Extract here.

I’ve also written about the Netherlands for NGT, and waxed lyrical about family cycling there, but you don’t have to go to the Netherlands to experience the perfect cycling holiday: Northumberland is stunning, and very lightly travelled.

The Reid family has been on many day-trips into Northumberland (cycling from home) and three week-long jaunts (again, cycling from home). Here are pix from some of those trips.

Kielder water


Josh on a boardwalk by the North Sea on the Sustrans Coast and Castles route.


Ellie on the traffic-free path near Druridge Bay on the Coast and Castles route.

Reivers Route, descending the Ryals

The hill descent near Ryal, not a car in sight.

Reivers Route, Bewcastle

On this particular road near Bewcastle I don’t think we saw any more than two cars in about three hours of riding.

Josh cycling as he smiles (or smiling as he cycles)

Josh seems to be enjoying himself. This is near Clennell Street, on the way to Kielder.

Ryal descending

Let’s play “Spot the car”. It’s a long game when you’re in the depths of Northumberland

Descending to Kielder

The cycle path skirting Kielder lake. The biggest danger around here isn’t motorists but midgies.

Ride to Blyth 26

Well-surfaced, well-signposted cycle route on Tyneside, thanks to a network of former mineral lines.


Lesson learnt: Don’t ever point out flaws in the arguments raised by David Hembrow. Even a little. In the comments section of his blog he says: “There’s no opinion here, just statements of fact” and “this is the truth.” After reading the National Geographic Traveller article about cycle touring in Northumbria (“…pictures on your link which show helmeted cyclists on gravelly paths…”) he wrote:

“You are willing to take risks with your children that other people don’t see as acceptable to take with theirs.”

Risks? By cycling in Northumberland? Apparently so:

“Just like everything else, cycling on “lonely roads” also carries a risk. A large proportion of the total crashes that cyclists have are single party crashes. If you were to have such a crash, or if you were to have a medical emergency in a sufficiently remote place it is possible that you would never be found.”

Such a risk seems to be confined to the UK:

“You are willing to take risks with your children that other people don’t see as acceptable to take with theirs. This doesn’t happen in the Netherlands. No-one sees cycling as a risk…”

Perhaps David will again accuse me of non-contextual editing – “you have quoted back to me half of one of my sentences out of context in order to try to continue a pointless argument” – even though he’s happy to lift partial quotes from my comments:

“However, thank you for proving my point both with your words: “Much of it is traffic-free”, “Once past hot-spots”, “so long as the cyclists don’t try to reach Newcastle”…

When I suggested his comments about my parenting skills (“You are willing to take risks with your children…”) weren’t terribly kind or accurate, he was in no mood for compromise:

“There’s no opinion here, just statements of fact. I’m more going to “retract” this than I am to retract that the grass is green.”

I’m happy to retract stuff. David was upset that, in the bio above, I said he so hated the cycling conditions in Cambridge he moved his family to the Netherlands. I’ve changed that to the description he suggested.

To put all of the quotes here into their full context it’s well worth reading the debate in the round on David’s excellent blog, but don’t expect a happy ending. David ends the discussion thus:

“please stop the bullshit. I’m bored of your arguing, bored of your pretense, bored of your paranoia and simply don’t believe that you can really be this stupid.”

Sadly, David is no longer OKaying my comments on his blog even though two commenters – including ‘Freewheeler’ – have been let through to write comments disagreeing with me. Debate is good: we can’t all agree with each other all of the time. For the record, here’s the comment, written yesterday, that David won’t OK:

Here we go again, folks assuming I’m anti-seperation.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

On my blog, a commenter sides with David and then launches into an attack on the “old guard of cycling advocacy”. He then suggests I read Dr Dave Horton’s work. I replied that I know it well because I published a huge article of Dave’s and promoted it widely.

My original point was to suggest David revise his views of Northumberland. I thought it unfair he lumped it in with the awful busy roads around Stonehenge, and implying that tourist boards exaggerate about their localities. Some might, but Visit Northumberland doesn’t. I said if anything, it undersells the place. 25 miles from Newcastle and you can be on roads where you may see 2-3 cars all day long.

Northumberland really is a wonderful place for family cycling, and Dutch cyclists could ride off the ferry and straight into the depths of Northumberland on traffic-free paths nearly as good as found in the Netherlands. David doesn’t seem to know this and was unwilling to do anything other than to selectively list some of my quotes and turn them back on me.

He wanted to prove that Newcastle has poor cycle infrastructure, a point I would be in full agreement on.

But the first point was about Northumberland.

None of this needed to spiral into the kind of abuse I later got.

I have been civil and respectful in these postings. I also revised some text that David took a dislike to on my blog (I am always ready to admit to my mistakes). What did I get from David? I’m “stupid”, “vain” “boring”; and full of “pretense” “paranoia” and “bullshit”.

Was any of that called for? Is any of that *ever* called for?

My handbuilt Dave Yates like-sh*t-off-a-shovel MTB, circa 1987

Back in the dim mists of time (OK, mid-1980s) I started to write for Bicycle Times magazine. I was still at uni but was pretty much editing it within a month or two. When I left for Bicycle Action, then owned by Muddy Fox, I was given a two-page spread: Off Road Reid.

Drew Lawson, publisher of Bicycle Action and co-founder of Muddy Fox, asked me whether the market was ready for a full-on mountain bike magazine. I said ‘no’.

Mountain Biking UK launched soon thereafter, and it’s still thriving today, showing you how much I can be counted on for predictions. I started writing for MBUK from issue two. Living in the North East of England, I knew road- and touring-bike builder Dave Yates of M Steel Cycles. Teaming up, he built me some bikes, and I got commissions to feature the bikes – and the building of them – in MBUK

In the mid-1980s Dave built me a number of custom bikes, including the pig-heavy Pink Thing, which was pink. It was heavy because it had welded steel racks front and rear. I used that bike for a month long tour of Morocco during my uni vacation.

Tiring of heavy, touring MTBs, I suggested we build – and write-about – a fast, skinny-tyre MTB made from Reynolds 753, road bike tubing. And the pix above and below show the result. The M Steel’s paint crew even hand-painted our faces on to the bike (it’s Dave with the beard and the widow’s peak; I’m wearing original Oakley Factory Pilots and have yet to develop my own widow’s peak).

Years before Ridgeback popularised the fast hybrid MTB, I was riding one in Newcastle. It’s now gently rusting away in my dad’s garage. It’s no longer safe to ride: the seat post is fused into the seat tube. One day I’ll clean the thing and hang it up as a reminder of some great days.

Like-shit-off-a-shovel was one of Dave’s favourite sayings. That and Dog’s Bollox, I suppose.