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The Lure of the Pedal

Now we know.

Londoners have been given a sneak
preview of the city, and indeed country, that Mayor Boris Johnson and thousands
of his hero-worshipping followers ultimately wish to create: a car-free zone given
over to perpetual phalanxes of perspiring, pedal-pushing puritans.

Yesterday’s ‘RideLondon100’ bicycling
extravaganza – in which 20,000 of the alliterative zealots are said to have participated
– rendered Boris delirious with joy.  No
sooner had he himself completed the 100-mile course around the suburbs of
south-west London, and beyond into the nearby county of Surrey, than he was calling for “the
next leap forward”, meaning an annual event. 

The bicycling lobby, I fear,
won’t let this chance go a-begging.  Next,
there will be demands for a bi-annual event. 
And soon after that the clarion call will be for a total ban on all motorised
traffic in London
every weekend in summer – and perhaps autumn too.     

“For all of us on that race
yesterday,” Boris exulted in his Daily
column this morning, “it felt like a dream come true: to cycle on
the roads with a carefree confidence that is normally impossible.  My eyes were opened to the enormous support
for cycling, since we could have filled the marathon with would-be entrants
many times over.  But above all, it
opened my eyes to the astonishing beauty of countryside that is only a few
miles from London”.

Boris doesn’t stop there.  He can’t stop there, because the blood is up.  “As I cycled along I elaborated a bucolic
vision: of a gigantic Rooseveltian scheme to get tens of thousands of young
people into work – building a rural filigree of cycle superhighways, and making
use of the old Beeching railway lines (branch lines closed after an official
report chaired by Dr. Richard Beeching in 1965).  At a stroke, we would allow everyone to do
what I did yesterday, and enjoy our amazing country in a completely different

All this enthusiasm, with its
wild Utopian flights of fancy, sounds so compelling that to object to it on meagre
practical grounds is to invite accusations of churlishness.  But some balance is required in the face of
Johnson’s adrenaline-fuelled euphoria.

Cycling is a fine pastime, and
those who cycle are perfectly entitled to enjoy the exhilarating feeling of air
whistling past their ears.  But the
undisputable truth is that the roads of London,
not to mention those of the leafier outlying suburbs, are inadequate to
accommodate an amalgamated flow of motorised and pedalled vehicles.  A generation or so back, when cars came less
than one-per-household, the uneasy truce between motors and bicycles (they were
always at war) just about held.   Now
that cars number two-or-three-per-household the armistice is over.

Closing the roads once in a while
for some wheeled jamboree is one thing – and, by the way, much of London was
reduced to chaos and confusion yesterday – but the urge among the cycling
fraternity to challenge what it sees as the dire autonomy of the motor car is
relentless – and Boris is recklessly feeding its most ardent proponents a diet
of raw meat.     

Allow me, please, a
countervailing argument.  Present-day London is no place for
bicycles – not during the week, nor at weekends.  That the city’s impossibly narrow streets,
little changed from the labyrinthine urban design bequeathed by the Romans, are
clogged with traffic is inevitable in a city in which millions of commuters
must be conveyed to work by car, taxi or public transport.  Furthermore, this travelling community must
be constantly serviced, which involves the provision of food and office equipment
by delivery vans.  On top of that, with construction
sites a more or less permanent feature of the city landscape, a contingent of
heavy goods vehicles must be added to the vehicular cavalcade.

All of which inevitably means
that, every year in London,
dozens of cyclists find themselves in injurious and occasionally fatal
collisions, usually with lorries.  I hate
driving a car into London,
let alone biking.  I wouldn’t ride a bike
there even for a substantial amount of money. 
I feel sorry for those who do, even though it’s their choice. But my
sympathy curdles when cyclists cry foul, as they so often do, asserting that
somehow the road belongs to them and that the vehicles they deplore as gas-guzzling,
carbon-emitting monsters are the unwarranted invaders.   

I must here confess that my own
encounters with cyclists, even in Surrey’s quieter,
semi-rural environs, have failed to endear me to the cycling cause.  Cyclists, in my experience, are every bit as
unpredictable, selfish, discourteous and ill-tempered as the motorists they
despise for being so.  It’s the
unpredictability that’s the worst. 
Drivers of motor vehicles usually indicate the direction they’re taking
with a clear, illuminated signal, whereas cyclists, in my experience, rarely
signal their intentions, and even when they do, only activate the arm when the manoeuvre
is underway.

In short, like many non-cycling
motorists, I have come to regard cyclists as a potential menace – both to us
and to themselves.  Worse, though, having
achieved this, in my opinion, deserved status, they turn the blame on us
drivers, using the kind of holier-than-thou rhetoric designed to convey how
much more morally, spiritually and socially superior they are to us.  “We’re healthy, fit and free,” they seem to
be saying. “And you’re not.  We deplore
the ravages wreaked by the advance of the internal combustion engine, and the pathetic
fripperies of the car makers – as you would too if you weren’t so self-centred,
materialistic and downright lazy.”

For bicycle read high horse.

No more than Boris are these
would-be revolutionaries wrong in wishing to advance the cause of cycling, but
society, for good or ill, has constructed itself around the imperatives of the
automobile and that won’t be changed in a hurry – and certainly won’t be
advanced by identifying bicycling with the moral high ground and motoring with
the work of the devil.   

And Boris, since you’re so keen
on turning us all into pedal freaks, why don’t you, in your capacity as mayor,
come up with a proper, radical, comprehensive, joined-up plan for London’s
traffic, instead of tinkering with bike lanes and incomprehensible road
markings at busy junctions?   

We’ve been waiting for such an
initiative for years.  It may be on the
drawing-board, for all I know, but I’d bet it’s been there for decades,
occasionally updated by some keen soul with what he sees as an overarching
solution.  When the day comes to publish
such a plan, there will be widespread astonishment, to be followed by endless

Meanwhile, all I can say, Boris,
is, “Off yer bike!  


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