When a picture is worth a thousand words

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This photograph, taken this morning on my regular ride to work, won’t be winning any Pulitzer prizes but it does have a lot to say about the state of cycling in London in 2012.

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In the foreground you can see a row of newly installed stainless steel bike parking stands, made by Cyclehoop, a company founded by the talented architect and product designer Anthony Lau and one of a growing number of small, hip London-based start-ups who are playing their part in current bike boom. At the far end is a shiny new Lezyne track pump encased in a towering column of brushed steel. It is free to use for anyone whose tyres need a top up.

Pump

It is all very high specification stuff, and I expect it cost a pretty penny to install the stands and the small expanse of cobblestone paving, but also to remove the pair of traditional black Sheffield stands that previously stood on this site, and can be seen in this image from Google Street View:

Street view

Of course, cycling in London is très fashionable and everyone wants their bit of the bike boom. The Times is campaigning for cycling and politicians are falling over themselves to get with the cyclists. They’ve given us subsidised hire bikes and even as they struggle with bruising cuts to public expenditure they are renewing perfectly serviceable Sheffield stands and throwing in top-of-the-range track pumps for good measure.

None of this goodwill goes as far as challenging the primacy of the motor car on the public highway, reducing speeds or re-allocating even a modest amount of road space so that people aged eight to eighty can ride their bikes in safety and comfort. But it’s the little things that count and a stainless steel track pump really shows us that they care, doesn’t it?

gutter

To the right of the track pump is a bicycle locked up to the new stands. It’s low end road frame with skinny tyres, deep section rims, mountain bike handlebars. No chain case, no mudguards, no pannier rack and no basket. The chain is poorly maintained and orange with rust. In other words, it is the typical bike offered to the prospective London commuter cyclist by the major London bike shop chains. Look more closely and you’ll see it’s a Claud Butler ‘Criterium’, a 2011 model (now discontinued) whose recommended retail price was £299. It is still available online for less than £250.

criterium

Claud Butler was a framebuilder from Clapham, just down the road from here, and one of the giants of British bicycle history. In the days when every London neighbourhood had its own frame builder, Claud Butler’s lightweight racing machines stood above the rest and helped define a golden era of mass cycling in Britain that began in the 1930s, blossomed in the years following the Second World War and lasted until the Great Extinction of the late 1950s when mass car ownership began to consign the bicycle to a marginal, mostly recreational role.

Cycling in Great Britain, 1949-2010

The 1950s Sport Anglais model, pictured below, shows the very finest of the Claud Butler marque. The elaborate bi-laminated lugwork, the partly chromed biplane fork crown and detailed box lining are the height of skilled craftsmanship.

In those days a Claud Butler bicycle would cost a full month’s wages, maybe two. And many Claud Butlers from this era (and later) are still ridden today. Our sub-£250 ‘Criterium’ model makes more modest demands on the cyclists’ wallet for it is a standardised, mass-produced product of the global economy and not build to last. Who knows where it was made, by whom, in what conditions. I draw a little comfort from the thought that somewhere in a far off eastern land, someone cared enough to ensure that the fork, frame and saddle each boast the distinctive ‘lemon and lime’ colourway that any Claud Butler connoisseur will immediately recognise as the distinguishing feature of the 2011 ‘Criterium’.

If he weren’t spinning in his grave, I am sure that Claud Butler, as a former racing man, would share my own doubts about the suitability of the ‘Criterium’ model that bears his name for anyone taking part in an actual Criterium race, such as the London Nocturne, which returns to Smithfield Market this summer, sponsored by IG Group, ‘a world leader in the trading of financial derivatives’. Even the financial whizz kids of the City want their share of the cycling pie.

But I digress. Back to our street scene.

Cycling in London

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The two cyclists we see are wearing yellow high visibility tabards, standard issue kit for the London commuting cyclist whose major concern is getting home without bodily injury. Not that wearing such a garment will ensure against a lorry crushing you to death under its wheels (click here to read the Coroner’s report following the inquest into the death of London cyclist Emma Foa).

The cyclist waiting at the red light is unusual and I don’t mean because it’s unusual to see a London cyclist waiting at a red light. How so, you might ask. Is this not the archetypal London cyclist? It’s true, he’s one of several hundred thousand people who have made use of the London Cycle Hire scheme (aka Boris Bikes) and, like many other London commuting cyclists, he’s sporting a helmet and a casually cycle-specific outfit comprising of a pair of baggy black shorts and the aforementioned high visibility tabard. But it is the combination of these two choices that makes our man a most unusual sight. Overwhelmingly, people riding Boris Bikes wear neither helmets nor high viz and find their normal clothes more than up to the task. Most often they ride in a smart suit and tie, sometimes in a long, flowing flowery dress and occasionally a pair of velvet loon pants. In short, people on Boris Bikes wear their everyday wardrobe, whatever that may be.

While their contribution to London’s overall transportation mix has been minimal, the 8,000 subsidised Boris Bikes have done more to promote the possibility of everyday cycling in everyday clothes than any amount of cycle chic blogging, tweedy runs or state-sponsored bicycle catwalk shows. Boris Johnson, our dishevelled, tousle-haired cycling Mayor is as good sartorial ambassador for everyday cycling as you could expect to meet. Unfortunately, he is also the person with the most real power to improve London’s roads for cyclists yet he thinks that it’s fine to cycle down the Euston Underpass or around the Elephant and Castle roundabout, as long as you keep your wits about you and he thinks that the best way to make London a world class cycling city is to splash a lot of blue paint around.

"Super Highway"

Returning to the photograph, you’ll notice that unlike both of the cyclists, the large black minivan has no high visibility overgarments or markings.

Cycling in London

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An observant reader tells me that this is one of the new style London taxis made by Mercedes Benz. Its driver clearly doesn’t care much about his own safety on the road, preferring jet black for a sleek, stealthy, Knight Rider look. Nor does he care much about the safety of others, including our pair of safety-conscious cyclists. Not only content with occupying the 5 metre long cyclists’ Advance Stop Zone he has encroached a further metre over the stop line towards the pedestrian crossing. There is a large police station very close by to where this photograph was taken, but the taxi driver need not concern himself as according to this London barrister the police have a ‘total tolerance’ policy in relation to this kind of traffic law violation, as most drivers know.

Thanks to the taxi driver’s casual indifference to the rules of the road, the Boris Biker is perfectly placed in the vehicle’s blindspot, ready to to be tipped off his bike should the taxi turn left when the traffic light turns green. Let’s hope it is on its way west towards Kennington and not south towards the Elephant and Castle gyratory system towards which the cyclist in the middle of the crossing may well be heading. You may want to wish her luck for at the Elephant and Castle she will find herself in no doubt that whatever the politicians say about a cycling revolution, no matter how many stainless steel track pumps appear like futuristic mushrooms on London street corners, we are still deep in the period of the Great Extinction of cycling. And there is a long way still to go.

Summer’s here! Get on your bike and ride

Velonotte Rome - picture by Alan Vouba/Moskultprog

With the start of British Summer Time we look ahead to two upcoming mass rides: Velonotte London and the Edinburgh Pedal on Parliament.

On the night of Saturday 23rd June, Sergey Nikitin‘s Velonotte (pictured in Rome, above) will come to London as part of the 2012 London Festival of Architecture. A night ride starting at St Paul’s cathedral, traversing the East End to the Olympic Park and finishing with a live orchestra welcoming the dawn at the London Pleasure Gardens. The ride will feature a simultaneous broadcast on Resonance FM of soundscapes and Velonotte’s expert guides including Peter Ackroyd, Ricky Burdett, David Adjaye, Sergey Romanyuk and Peter Murray.

Meanwhile, on 28 April, Scottish cyclists will take to the streets of Edinburgh to call for the Scottish government to put more investment in cycling infrastructure and cycle safety. Sally Hinchcliffe is one of the organisers of the Pedal on Parliament.

And if you’re taking part in either of these rides, there’s no more stylish and practical bike to ride than the Paper Bicycle. Its designer Nick Lobnitz explains the thinking behind a bicycle that could join the F-frame Moulton and the Brompton folding bicycle as a British design classic, pictured below.

Paper Bicycle Lausanne

Paper Bicycle in Lausanne

Christian Wolmar on London’s Transport Choice

A rolling interview with Christian Wolmar, journalist, cyclist and Britain’s leading transport commentator. We ride from Tufnell Park to St Pancras and encounter a flood, demon drivers and Camden Council’s contraflow cycle track. Christian explains where it went wrong with London transport and what’s needed to get things back on track. He also offers his take on choice facing Londoners at the upcoming Mayoral election.

How to get more women riding bikes

Image courtesy of the Breeze Network

To mark International Women’s Day, a discussion of women in cycling, from bygone days of the Rational Dress Society of the late Victorian era to Britain’s twenty-first century successes in competition on the track and on the road. With all the progress that’s been made, we ask why women are still three times less likely to ride bikes than men. Jen Kerrison and Jack Thurston are joined by Ann Kenrick, a trustee of the London Cycling Campaign and Natalie Justice of the Breeze Network at British Cycling.

The Cycling to Suffrage exhibition at the Women’s Library in London opens on 21st March.

Londoners On Bikes…with Votes!

Make our Junction Safer

In the studio with Stephen Taylor and Katherine Hibbert of Londoners On Bikes: a new group of London cyclists who want to put cycling front and centre in the London Mayoral elections this May.

We hear from Allister Carey, father of Ellie Carey, the 22 year old woman who was the 16th person to be killed while riding a bike on the streets of London last year. Allister talks about his family’s loss.

Jen Kerrison reports from the latest Bikes Alive protest – spiky or fluffy?

For more on how you can help make the Elephant & Castle a better place for cyclists, check this out. Please send your letter as soon as possible.

Red Flag, Yellow Flag

Oh, how the tables have turned.

In the late 19th century, people looked with alarm at the new ‘horseless carriages’ that were appearing on the public highways. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic responded by passing ‘red flag laws’ to regulate this new and potentially dangerous form of transport.

In the UK, the Locomotive Act of 1865 required motor vehicles (mostly steam engines at that time) to be led by a pedestrian, waving a red flag or carrying a lantern, to warn bystanders of the vehicle’s approach.

According to Wikipedia Quaker legislators in Pennsylvania unanimously passed a bill through both houses of the state legislature, which would require drivers of “horseless carriages”, upon chance encounters with cattle or livestock to

    (1) immediately stop the vehicle,

    (2) “immediately and as rapidly as possible… disassemble the automobile,” and

    (3) “conceal the various components out of sight, behind nearby bushes” until equestrian or livestock is sufficiently pacified.

The bill was vetoed by Pennsylvania’s governor.

With the coming of the internal combustion engine, steam gave way to petrol-power and a new breed of ‘automobiles’ took to the roads. The UK Parliament repealed the red flag law in 1896 and raised the speed limit from 4 mph on country roads (2 mph in towns) to 14 mph. Motorists celebrated with an ’emancipation run’ from London to Brighton, an event that is still commemorated in by a vintage car rally.

More than a century later and in the town of Kirkland, Washington, it is pedestrians who are encouraged to carry yellow warning flags when crossing the road.

Sergeant Mike Murray of the Kirkland Police Department is in no mistake about who’s to blame when a car runs down a pedestrian in his town:

“we had 62 car-pedestrian collisions in the city and of those 62, none of them were carrying a flag”

Progress, eh?

But don’t be downhearted. The fightback is underway. And it’s deliciously subversive: