Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Times - an unexpected friend for cyclists

The Times has launched a big campaign for cycle safety, with front page treatment, centred around the serious injuries suffered by Mary Bowers, a Times journalist, on her way to work in November.

The Times is almost the last place I expected to find support for cycling, but they seem pretty serious about it. Cycling campaigns have so far been unsuccessful in reaching beyond the margins into the mainstream, but it seems that, at last, some kind of momentum is developing. The London mayoral elections this year will give even greater prominence to cycling.

As a social scientist, it's interesting to see how something can change from being an accepted pathology to becoming a political issue, requiring action and change. In part, it's about tragedy touching the people running a major newspaper directly. But clearly something was already moving, as cycle deaths had started to hit the newspapers before that. I can't help thinking that the disproportionate number of London cyclists who are young, well educated and linked to the media industry has something to do with it.

But it's also yet another demonstration of the role of social networks; blogs and twitter have served to mobilize the cycling community and reinforce a sense of grievance and a sense that change is possible. The feckless Boris Johnson and his inability to build on the success of the bike-hire scheme is another factor: it was a great publicity stunt to get people to call them 'Boris bikes', but it turned out not to be a free lunch. People expected roads that you could ride them on, and the cycling superhighways have been a dangerous fiasco.

So, we'll see what happens. 20mph limits in city streets would be a start, but what is really needed is a fundamental culture change, in which motorists give up their presumed right to dominate the roads. It's hard to see that happening without fundamental, and expensive, redesign of the urban space. I'm not sure if the Times really wants all that, but then again, I didn't expect this either.