Yesterday’s Standard followed up a claim by the London Taxi Drivers’ Association that “53 per cent” of cyclists go through red lights. I was immediately sceptical about this number, which is way out of line with the findings of more neutral parties – such as the Sunday Times earlier this month. Their figure for London, based on their own counts, was that just over 12 per cent of cyclists go through red lights.
The LTDA’s highly-scientific analysis is based on some filming they’ve done at (wait for it) two sets of traffic lights, in Hackney and in Camden, for (drum roll) one whole hour each. That’s a pretty small basis for a pretty big generalisation – but the problems with this story go even further.
You see, when I watched part of the unedited films myself, they didn’t show 53 per cent of cyclists skipping red lights at all. I watched the first ten minutes of the Hackney film. In that time, by my count, 130 cyclists passed the camera, of whom 12 – that is, 9 per cent - jumped a red light. In other words, 91 per cent did not.
If you confine it only to the periods when the lights were red, my count in that ten-minute period is that 39 of 51 cyclists stopped. My figures could be out by a few because there are one or two debateable ones - the LTDA probably counted cyclists stopping just beyond the stop line, for instance. But the riders only did that because there was traffic - illegally - in the bike box; and they did stop.
I said all this to the Standard when they asked me for comment, which I refused. The reporter on the story wouldn’t tell me whether he’d actually watched the full footage himself, or just taken the cabbies’ word for it. Maybe, who knows, there was a dramatic deterioration in cyclists’ behaviour after the first ten minutes.
But I have no doubt yesterday’s story will provide yet more tasty food to stow in that vast larder of myths, unjustified generalisations and general poor thinking that encircle the subject of cycling, like space junk orbiting the planet.
We have a second example today, from the other side of the debate. A group called “Stop the Killing of Cyclists” is organising a “die-in” outside Transport for London’s offices (“wear skull masks/death costumes, dress in black, put some fake blood on an old t-shirt,” advise the organisers.) The phrase “stop the killing of cyclists” implies that someone else is always to blame for cyclists’ deaths, which is untrue.
One of the demo’s demands is for a “ban on any vehicles whose drivers cannot see adjacent road users” – in other words, a ban on lorries. Not just in the rush hours, or in central London – but all lorries, everywhere, 24/7.
This would, of course, cripple London’s economy, empty the supermarkets and throw hundreds of thousands out of work overnight. There are things we can and will do about lorries – but not that.
Maybe the die-in people just haven’t thought about their demands. Worse, maybe they have - and are deliberately asking for things they know neither we, nor any administration, can give, so we can then be accused of selling out.
The problem, I suppose, for the diers-in is that we have a highly ambitious cycling programme. What can they ask us to do that we’re not doing already? The answer is what in opposition politics you call “demand escalation.” We promise to treble spending on cycling – so the folk in the skull masks demand we quintuple it, to £33 a head or £275 million a year. (This is only about £90 million a year less than is spent on subsidising the entire London bus network, which carries about 50 times more people.) We promise to do a huge network of cycle routes by 2016 – so the demand becomes for an even bigger network, to be finished even sooner.
I dare say that just like the LTDA “survey,” the die-in will get uncritical news coverage. But both these stories are examples of what the debate over cycling threatens to become. It’s starting to become a dialogue of the deaf.
From one side, cyclists are red-light-jumping menaces, even when your own filming says they’re mostly not. From the other, they’re helpless victims, “killed” by an uncaring mayor who won’t even ban lorries 24/7.
It’s starting to remind me of American politics, where the centre has shrunk, the extremes have grown and nuance is betrayal. We’re a long way off it yet. There are plenty of reasonable people around; I had a much better meeting last night with cycling campaigners and four members of the London Assembly to discuss our plans for upgrading the much-criticised Cycle Superhighway 2, which I will blog about later.
But we are getting closer to that kind of American situation. That’s why I’m going to start blogging on this site a bit more often, to try to explain what we are doing – and what we cannot do.