More or less every time a city orders a report into how expanding populations can be moved around in efficient ways that also improve liveability and sustainability, the same answer comes back: active travel – that is, more walking and cycling.
And yet in many of those same cities, when specific plans are introduced to make walking and cycling safer and more pleasant, they face a fierce backlash, which can be sufficiently noisy and disruptive to scupper the schemes.
Such wrecking tactics are, it appears, increasingly common even as the need to move away from vehicle-based cities becomes ever more urgent.
Are the nimbys winning? A particularly alarming example has just been seen in London, where the grandly-named Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) in effect pulled the plug on a flagship plan from Transport for London to improve walking and cycling on a particularly feral stretch of west London roads between Notting Hill and Wood Lane.
Yes, I’m afraid it’s another example from London, but please do bear with me. The events from last week are illustrative of the ways safer, cleaner transport is being undermined in towns and cities, largely through myths.
So here’s some selected thoughts and lessons from the ongoing battle. Feel free to add your own below.
Opponents claim to support cycling in principle. Really?
RBKC’s decision to block safer cycling and walking on a route that has seen 275 collisions in three years came, amid loud applause, at a meeting of opponents on Thursday night. Beforehand the council’s cabinet member for transport reportedly said he was “hugely supportive” of cycling, but did not support this particular scheme.
This seems deeply peculiar. If he does support cycling, then why not work with TfL on improving the scheme, rather than blocking the entire thing, without warning and before a consultation was finished (more on that later), with no plans for a replacement?
There is something of a pattern to this. The wise and indefatigable New York blogger and podcaster Doug Gordon once compiled a long list of people who insist they simply love cycling, but have a unique, unfixable problem with one particular bike lane, namely the one in their city or neighbourhood. See also: “I’m a cyclist”; “I own a bicycle”.
Many of the arguments against bike lanes are misleading or false
One of the most depressing elements of events in west London has been the spread of the myth that protected bike lanes cause more pollution (© Professor Robert Winston). This has now reached the mainstream, with elected politicians repeating it as fact.
It is a complex issue, one often reduced to an asinine series of assertions (“less space for motor traffic must equal worse congestion, which must equal more pollution”), one blithely repeated by RBKC.
While the TfL modelling does indicate some journeys in one direction of travel could take longer after the work, a series of other factors need to be considered, not least the primary cause of congestion – too many motor vehicles – and the aim of eventual modal shift to other means of transport.
Opponents also cited worries from shops and companies along the route. Again, these are common with other plans, but invariably ill-founded. For a variety of reasons, cycle infrastructure is almost always good for business.
A more easily-comprehensible objection was the fate of up to two dozen trees of various sizes that would have been felled to make way for bike routes. It’s worth remembering that trees can be replanted, and also that the route could have been adjusted to save the trees – instead of taking more space from cars.
Opponents don’t have any plans of their own
Chris Boardman, the saintly walking and cycling guru for Greater Manchester, has an inevitable response to those who oppose schemes for safer, more human-friendly streets: OK, so now what? Without proper cycling infrastructure, how will you ease gridlock, reduce pollution, lower the road casualty toll?
In my experience what usually follows is silence or platitudes. In the case of RBKC, I’m afraid, they’re offering both. The council has, as far as I can see, no scheme on the table to improve the main roads on which the ditched scheme was due to run.
It does have another planned bike scheme, one that was intended to be an addition, not an alternative – a convoluted quietway-type route via back roads, roughly twice as long, and with few planned safety interventions beyond some speed bumps and tweaks to junctions. It’s not what you’d call ambitious.
“Consultation” too often means vetoes from nimbys
Perhaps the oddest part of the RBKC debacle is the fact that the council said it was acting on behalf of local residents, but blocked the scheme before a consultation run by TfL even closed, long before it had any results.
I repeatedly asked the council’s press team how they could know the scheme was opposed by residents without a formal method of assessing local views. They were unable to tell me.
The council did receive, I was told, 450 emails opposing the scheme – which amounts to 0.28% of the borough’s population. The press team angrily insisted there had been “hundreds” more residents getting in touch via other means. Even if you give a generous final total of 1,000, that’s 0.6% of the population. It’s almost the dictionary definition of nimbyism.
Two other things are worth noting on consultations. Firstly, even when they are strongly in favour of new bike schemes, the opponents often do not back down.
Secondly, there is a strong argument that safer walking and cycling isn’t something people should have a veto over anyway. To paraphrase the argument of another tireless New York cycling advocate, Paul Steely White, when the Victorians were building London’s sewage system they didn’t endlessly consult on whether separating drinking water and human waste was OK with local people. It saved lives and so it was the right thing to do, so they did it.
Labour are at fault as well
RBKC is a Conservative-run council, and a famously dysfunctional one, as the appalling tragedy of Grenfell Tower showed. But worryingly, both the local Labour MP, Emma Dent-Coad, and her constituency party, not only failed to support the safer walking and cycling scheme, they – in the case of the party – openly celebrated its demise.
This might seem weird, that a left-leaning party would oppose the most equitable forms of urban transport available and choose instead to favour the needs of drivers. But it shows how far the anti-cycling myths have penetrated.
People die as a direct result of campaigns like these
London’s walking and cycling commissioner, Will Norman, is generally a patient and measured man. But in a furious reaction to what he called a “cynical political stunt” by RBKC he said: “People will die and suffer serious injuries as a direct result of this.”
This is perfectly possible. Among those who have expressed alarm at the council’s decision is Kate Cairns, whose younger sister, Eilidh, a 30-year-old television producer, was run over by a lorry in Notting Hill in 2009. Kate has said she is happy to meet local officials to see if there is a way to build the separated cycle lane, which she says would have saved her sister’s life.
The stakes could hardly be higher. Having cities still dominated by motor vehicles is heavily contributing to a climate emergency; to deadly pollution and endless noise disproportionately caused by richer people and visited on poorer ones; and daily peril for more vulnerable road users.
It’s simply not good enough to say you support walking and cycling in theory, but then block every effort to make it actually happen. People are, and will be, judged by their actions. And they should remember that.