Last week I watched the BBC’s ‘The Route Masters’, a series which has attempted to profile the roads side of Transport for London (TfL) in similar style to that given to their Tube cousins last year. It took until episode five before we finally reached an episode on ‘The Future’ which covered cycling. So, what kind of approach are the BBC taking to talking about cycling? And how much of this is a reflection of the institutional TfL view of it?
First mention of cycling comes from Michelle Dix of TfL – “we want to encourage people to use public transport, or of course cycle”
And of course we get a motorist chatting back from behind the wheel – “how to get people out of their cars, I don’t know whether you can.” We then see some enforcement of yellow box junctions via CCTV and police catching drivers using waste ground beside a dual carriageway to escape a jam via a backstreet. “Drivers are not the only ones who are breaking the rules to speed up their journeys”, says the strangely sober voiceover and off we go to the cyclists section.
We start with an aerial shot of cyclists negotiating a multi lane gyratory, this is legal.
and carefully setting off through some lights which have just gone green.
We are introduced to the experience of cyclists by… a bus driver, who says various things before saying “cyclists, ah they’re terrible, not all of them. Yeah, all of them. They just go through red lights”
And cue video of a cyclist going through a red light (note the cyclist in the distance obeying the red light).
“The number of cyclists in London has trebled in the last ten years” says the voiceover. Sounds impressive.
And an HGV driver “That one there, I just saw one there.”
“You’re like totally surrounded by them. They’re everywhere” What, by one cyclist in a bus lane? That’s surrounded is it? I wonder what the cyclists think of the vehicles surrounding them? Perhaps we’ll ask one…
Back to the bus driver: “Slows you down a bit, yeah.” No, no cyclist voice in this yet…
“Today PCs Tony Austen and John Harrison are targeting Elephant and Castle roundabout in South London. A notorious spot for red light jumpers.” Elephant and Castle is also a notorious spot for cyclist incidents, but the narrator forgets to mention that or that, as TfL’s own twitter feed noted, it is set for overhaul (after much delay).
— Transport for London (@TfLOfficial) July 23, 2013
TfL’s Roads Task Force has this to say of Elephant and Castle: “The roundabout has the worst collision record for all comparable junctions in London, experiences significant levels of bus congestion, and has poor facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.“
They don’t blame the bus congestion on the cyclists either, as it happens. So TfL and the roads task force are concerned about the safety of this junction and to help that safety our “cycle task force” are talking to cyclists and fining them. How does this help, exactly?
PC Austen: “It’s good to see more people around cycling and keeping fit. I just wish that they adhered to the laws and stopped at the red lights. But… as you can see… oh… they have stopped. I was going to say that they’re not, but they have stopped for once.”
No prejudice there then…
PC Harrison: “Once one person does it at the front of the pack, others will be tempted to do it. You can punish people, and hopefully change their behaviour.” Hmm, this is over a couple of cyclists jumping whilst a good crowd don’t jump. Not a word about safety or the view expressed by TfL and others that Elephant and Castle is unsafe and unpleasant.
So the majority obey the red light, but why are some people on bikes jumping red lights? Let’s see if the documentary crew talk to anyone. Here we go…
PC Harrison, jumps into the road and says “STOP!” at a cyclist. “What happened there?” Mr Bike: “I just find it easier to go through the lights than…” PC: “well, it may be easier but the lights are there for a reason” Hang on, he was trying to say something. What was it?
Mr Bike: “I think certain traffic lights are different.”
Mr Bike: “If you’re joining a busy road like that fairly quickly then I think it’s safe to do so.”
Mr Bike: “But if you wait for that light to go green you’ve got an HGV behind you, you’ve got 20 other cyclists, it just gets a bit messy.”
Mr Bike: “So I find it, I think it’s safer. I know it’s wrong, and I can’t really disagree with him, so… and he’s bigger than me. I’m just going to have to pay my 30 quid I think.”
And off he goes to rejoin London’s traffic. So, have the police listened or do they have their own particular view of what’s going on?
PC Harrison: “They’re on a mission, they’re on their way to work, they’re trying to beat their personal best time of getting to work and traffic lights are an inconvenience, and they’re the people we need to target.” Right, whereas that nice big lorry sharing the roads with them behind you has NOTHING to do with the problem, right?
And off to the cycling superhighway!
PC Austen: “you versus a car or a van who do you reckon will win?” he says to a woman he’s pulled over. Ah, so safety is an argument then.
PC Austen: “He’s had fines already and he still jumps red lights.”
Cameraman: “So, does enforcement work?”
PC Austen: “Most of the time, yes. But for people like him, when he said ‘I’ve had fines’ probably not.”
Narrator: “With a cycling revolution happening on the capital’s streets, Transport for London’s traffic controllers must now also contend with this new breed of user.” People have been cycling on London’s roads longer than Transport for London has existed. Who writes this drivel?
Andy D: “We’re expecting a cycling demo, called Critical Mass, and we don’t know much about it until it actually happens.” Yeah, that’s how it works, well done. “When they do set off they cause quite a bit of disruption to the network.”
Now, Critical Mass – almost 20 years old in London has waxed and waned over the years. It’s very simple. Cyclists turn up by Waterloo Bridge on the last Friday of the month at 6PM and set off at a relaxed pace around town. At one time there were multiple London rides (here’s an archived report of a West London one), but now there’s just one. It started in 1992 in San Francisco and was quickly a global phenomenon. Like most public gatherings, it is popular because a group of people agree with its aims.
Critical Mass is disorganised and self organised. It is essentially a large number of cyclists trying to use their city with wheels, mostly on bikes. At different times it has been a safety protest, a desire for space or just a desire to have a good time. Almost as varied has been police involvement ranging from ignorance to assistance and usually just tailing the ride (effectively capping the size of it). Now it appears that there was undercover police involvement in at least the August 7th 1996 mass (contemporary report here). And of course, after the Olympic critical mass the police served many members with orders banning them from cycling in Newham, which didn’t impress the UN’s Special Rapporteur.
“Hundreds of cycle activists are assembling on the South Bank of the Thames, keen to show their strength, and bring the city to a standstill” Um, who is writing this script? The aim is usually only to have the ride and keep it together. It is not possible for cyclists to bring the city to a standstill and TfL’s employee says it will cause “quite a bit of disruption.” No more, no less. I wonder if we’ll hear from some cycle activists now, perhaps the London Cycling Campaign at some point…
… well, we get a rider: “um, it’s like one day a month where we get priority on the roads so… it’s a nice change.”
“At 7PM the cyclists enter the busy evening traffic.”, and for the first time in the programme we see cyclists with a safe route through a gyratory in London.
“It’s not long before the cyclists start to antagonise the motorists.” Is it? Looks to me like a taxi’s pulled out whilst a bunch of others are passing the other cyclists too closely.
There’s much talk of ‘gridlock’ and a ‘standstill’, bear in mind this is London traffic after 7PM on a Friday evening. It’s not usually that brilliant anyway. Again, here are cyclists able to ride in safety around a gyratory which currently has no cycle facilities, this time outside the houses of parliament.
Still, if they’re causing havoc in the traffic, I’m sure you’ll be able to keep tabs on them easily with your super duper traffic cameras and computers.
Andy: “um, we’ve lost them again, basically.”
Narrator: “After three hours causing havoc in the city the cyclists have dispersed” – um, I think you’re overplaying what a few hundred cyclists can actually do in London with this narration.
A bit later we sit in Linda’s car as she drives 12 miles to work (every day) which takes her an hour. She gets annoyed about light phasing, I wonder what a cyclist would say? I’m still wondering because they didn’t bother to ask one.
Back at TfL “Andy (a nerdier Andy than the last) is teaching the super computer how to prioritise one user over another at junctions giving buses and bicycles more green time than cars at traffic lights. At key junctions the computer is recalibrating the city in favour of buses and bikes, changing how we choose to travel.” Sounds like a lovely TfL press release, but I can’t relate that back to reality at all. Surely they would need bicycle specific signals to give bikes more green time, and there are very few of those, if any, on TfL roads. I’d love to know how this works and where TfL thinks it makes a difference.
Back to the cycle task force, who are on the cycle superhighway, yes the blue strip of paint under the bus. (this segment is online as a standalone clip)
And now here are the cyclists, who for reasons of safety find themselves riding just outside the blue stripe but still in the bus lane.
“John and Tony are from the cycle task force are watching over London’s newly prioritised cyclists.” Ah yes, they’re weaving around the bike someone’s parked at the edge of the lane.
And dodging motorbikes who are also allowed to use the bus lane.
PC Harrison: Cycling is what we’re trying to promote. That’s the way that things have to be.” Stirring enthusiasm there.
“They are on Cycle Superhighway 7, part of Transport for London’s new £1bn scheme to make cycling safer.” (don’t worry, CS7 is a bit longer than the piece shown in this shot)
Narrator: “But despite these new lanes, tempers still flare between drivers and cyclists.” You’d think they were just ineffectual paint, wouldn’t you?
Annoyed man on bike: “Him mate, it’s him!”
Narrator:”A blue van and a cyclist have nearly collided”
Van driver: “how many lanes do you want?”
Annoyed man on bike: “I want you to say away from me”
PC Harrison sends him off to PC Austen down the road, where he’s met by the van driver.
Van driver: “All I did was to beep him to get into the cycle lane and stop weaving into the different lanes.”
Annoyed man on bike: “He had an issue with me on a bike in front of him. Tooting me, passing way too close in heavy traffic. Waving his fist, making rude gestures.”
Note that the van driver has now parked his van ON TOP of the Superhighway leaving space in the parking bay. Great job!
Van driver: “I did give him a couple of hand gestures, because he was in front me and weaving.”
PC Harrison: “We got to share the roads, and it doesn’t always work”
Van driver: “But they don’t share, they take over roads. That’s what causes problems.
PC Harrison: “Yeah!” *nods*
Van driver: “Cyclists are militant!”
Cyclist: “I’m completely loopy yeah, that’s why I cycle in London”
Right, so how do the police deal with this situation, having spent quite some time talking to them both?
PC Harrison: “I don’t know if you want to shake hands. He’s prepared to.” Hmm, didn’t exactly challenge the driver, did they? Still, I’m sure the van driver can do this without screwing it up.
Van driver: “Look I’m sorry and I didn’t know you’ve been knocked off before”
Cyclist: “well, it shouldn’t really make a difference.” Oh well…
Van driver: “Motorists get angry because at the end of the day they get away with blue murder. We don’t. Just both of us got het up and… watch out for each other, I think.”
And nothing more from the cyclist because… PC Austen: “There is an accident further down the road.”
“A bus has collided with a female cyclist at a junction. She has been rushed to hospital.”
Lee Vehit, Network Operations: “It’s a female cyclist, she’s got significant injuries to her legs.”
We then jump to the woman, Conchita Williams recovering from her injuries at home “And then I looked down and I saw my legs. Under the front left wheel of the bus.”
“The bus run over Conchita Williams, crushing one of her legs and severely damaging the other.” we are informed.
“I’m very lucky to be alive. But I’ll never be walking properly again. They’ve already told me that. These sort of things could be avoided. ”
“Boris Johnson is encouraging cycling and I agree with him because it’s good to cycle. But it’s very, very dangerous, as I found out for myself.”
“Personally I think that the roads can be improved a lot. They should change things, because there are accidents very often.”
Lee Vehit: “If everybody behaved, and uses the roads sensibly between themselves in theory there should be no problems but we don’t live in an ideal world.”
Another guy from TfL: “I mean I was driving buses in the 70s and the traffic is phenomenal compared to what it was then. I wouldn’t like to do what they do. I’ve never seen so many cyclists. we have just got to be mindful of each other. You know. Just be a little bit more careful out there I think.”
Conchita: “People have got to be less selfish and be able to recognise that we’ve got to share the roads.”
“In 2011, 4,500 cyclists were injured on London’s roads.” (and 16 died)
“So on a rain-drenched piece of tarmac in rural Berkshire Transport for London has come up with a radical new idea to transform the most dangerous junctions.” Um, their original radical idea was some duff shared space with cyclists and pedestrians sharing the same space and zebra crossings. This idea is from cycle activists responding to the consultation for that (at Lambeth Bridge North roundabout).
“We’ve built ourselves a roundabout in the continental style here where the drivers and the cyclists are separated.” (in this case by paint, so quite British depressingly but I’ve used the roundabout and it varies depending on which trial exit you use)
“On this so-called Dutch roundabout the cyclists have priority, cars must stop for them, not the other way around.” Now, a lot to unpick here… certainly on previous solutions for cyclists off the carriageway they have had to give way (crossing a roundabout in Richmond takes a crossing phase for each carriageway on each entrance and exit for example). However, this does make it sound like cyclists get in the way and slow everything down, which is not how these work.
“But will today’s guinea pigs understand this revolutionary idea from Europe?” Or are the British too stupid. Indeed, isn’t the trial there exactly to test this? I’m sure they won’t just jump on the first failure and mock it, will they?
“And some cyclists still prefer to ignore the rules completely, going the wrong way around the roundabout.” Oh well. Actually, I know plenty of roundabouts where you’re somehow expected to go around it the wrong way if you’re a cyclist, like the one in Richmond I mentioned earlier. The Dutch roundabouts are smart because they usually (though not always) have everyone going in similar directions but separated at a distance.
So let’s end by asking a car driver on the trial “What are cyclists like in London?” “Maniacs, they can come from anywhere. I couldn’t describe it.” It’s as if they need some… I don’t know, space for cycling?
Shall we talk to a cyclist? Nah, better not.
And off we go to a car accident after the least comprehensible explanation of a Dutch Roundabout ever. If only the BBC had access to a nice aerial camera and lots of brightly coloured cyclists. Maybe then they could make a really neat explanation… Nah, it’d never happen.
p.s. If you want a good video of a Dutch Roundabout, try this one: