What is it with Conservatives and bikes?

Evening rush-hour in Soho Square

Fresh from fulminating about the cost of petrol, Boris Johnson has taken a sudden turning without signalling (again) and been moaning in the Telegraph about why Londoners don’t make more effort to get on their bikes.

Unlike Lord Tebbit, who built a career on cycling advice, BoJo’s main concern is air quality rather than job-seeking. But in having a whinge, he needs to look first at his own backyard – that is, the City of which he is Mayor.

Despite great advances in the last thirty years, London remains one of the least bike-friendly cities in the world. Not many of the less well-off are going to use a bike for transport and exercise, because bikes are horrendously expensive, and buses (now having whole lanes entirely to themselves) are much safer, drier and cheaper. (Early research bears this out)

The return of the adult push-bike per se has been very much a designer, upmarket trend since it began in the 1980s. I watched non-Bo-Bike users carefully over two days in London recently, and they are almost all delivery oiks (mad and lawless, every one of them), fluffy greens, or supremely kitted out business professionals. Many bike lanes share with buses, whose drivers are not what one could call knights of the road: I used to cycle twelve miles to work every day, but I stopped when a valued colleague was killed doing it….by a bus that pulled out without warning. The same thing had happened to me many times.

In doing the deal with Barclays to sponsor State-supplied rental bikes, Mayor Johnson has made the same mistake that GLC leader Ken Livingstone made many years ago with bus lanes: pushing cars out of the way before the infrastructure was there to make this a sensible thing to do. To alleviate the congestion that Ken caused, he solved his self-made problem by introducing the congestion charge. When this simply moved the jams to the north and south circular roads, he extended the charging scheme. Bicycle lanes were not a priority during this venture.

None of this was good for suburban cyclists, a fact that seems to have eluded Boris. As a result – following an initial novelty period – his pale blue bikes do not seem to be in demand:

West End lunchtime rush-hour

Both the shots in this piece were taken at midday and evening peak hours in places where you’d expect high demand if it existed. Last June, BoJo was warned by ‘experts’ that the scheme would be swamped – and would need seven times more bikes than those being supplied. But by 25th July, Boris’s ‘Cycle Friday’ promotion was scrapped when just five riders took part.

A fortnight ago, Mayor Johnson told a Green Party member at City Hall:

“A cycle hire scheme in Outer London would be a wonderful thing to do. The difficulty is you can’t just have a new, self-contained cycle hire scheme a long way away from the current one without necessitating quite a big set of journeys by the Barclays guys moving the bikes around. It is logistically difficult, for instance, to set one up immediately in Croydon or anywhere else much as I would like to. But we are looking at it….”

The alignment of this answer isn’t awfully close to the truth: the verite is in fact that most of the demand is in the centre….and comes from people, ah, just like Boris.

The scheme cost £140 million to set up and launch, and Tranport for London (TfL) will spend a further £114m over five years on the project. That’s a quarter of a billion quid – and journeys have never been above 6,000 a day.

Basically, the bikes are in the wrong place, and subsidising people who earn over £50,000 a year – while the scheme has inherent problems when expanded to the suburbs. Boris says it’s all about “looking at it”, but it could well be that the blond bombshell is ignoring the white elephant in the room.

To judge, we need to see some up-to-date numbers on this. I think we should be told what they are.