Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Blackfriars Bridge, J.G. Ballard and the Bicycle

In 1973, British author, J. G. Ballard wrote the book ‘Crash’. In 1996, director David Cronenberg turned the book into a film, the general response to which was widespread confusion at a plot based on couples that have made car accidents a part of their sex lives. Admittedly unconventional, Ballard’s achievement was to take the mundane notion of road safety, and turn it into something artistically brilliant. The book’s anti-hero becomes obsessed with killing himself in a head-on collision that will take the life of Elizabeth Taylor, and though that is but one thread in the story, the general trend is to show a society fundamentally selfish in its desire for gratification, and to show humans prone to attaching their most animalistic desires, their love and lust, to contraptions of steel and synthetics otherwise known as motorcars.

I think of Crash often, I think of it every time a driver jeopardises my life to shave five seconds from his journey, when a driver accelerates dangerously to overtake, just so that he can wait behind another motorcar rather than my puny, engineless bicycle. I think of it when I see cars decked in aerodynamic flourishes and neon tints, the driver with his thumping stereo a regular pharaoh of our automotive age. Ballard was highly-regarded as an author, though brushed aside politically and filed under 'science-fiction', a label he rejected for the manner in which it allowed people ignore the reality of his subject matter. Anyone who might question the central thrust of Crash, the idea that cars can transform humans into emotionally numb murderers, need only refer to the Critical Mass event in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where an irate motorist accelerated his car through the middle of a group of cyclists. Alternatively, ask any regular bicycle commuter in a British city.

Crash has been in my thoughts a lot already this week. First of all came the preliminary results of a UK study investigating the idea that the nation, spurred by increasing costs of car ownership, is nearing a tipping-point at which everyone starts cycling and we suddenly wake-up in Amsterdam. The initial findings suggest that this is categorically not the case, and that amongst the many cultural attitudes behind Britain’s lack of affinity for the bicycle, fear is far and away the main reason keeping people off two wheels. Which is hardly surprising, nobody is likely to value quality of life or lower living costs when the ‘life’ component of those two statistics seems to be in danger each time you pull into the centre of the road to turn right. No matter how remote the possibility of dying on a bicycle, constant reminders of that possibility are not about to encourage cycling growth, moreover, if people are afraid, then it’s insufficient to simply tell them that they shouldn’t be.

As ever, the foremost word in response to this fear is ‘segregation’, and both the academics and Transport minister, Norman Baker, have emphasised the value of keeping bicycles and cars separate, a philosophy as inadequate for the protection of cyclists as it is insulting to conscientious motorists. Aside from the idea that cars should inhabit a barbaric territory unfit for bicycles, it raises the question of what happens when, eventually and inevitably, a motorist has to coexist in civilised fashion with cyclists they have been permitted to believe belong in a separate infrastructure. A look at footage of rush hour in Copenhagen is all it takes to see that, yes, believe it or not, bicycles and cars can use the same spaces harmoniously, and where they do, more people are inclined to cycle anyway.

The second reason for my Crash preoccupation is a vote in the London Assembly on Wednesday 8 June. In spite of his confusing title of ‘cycling mayor’, Boris Johnson has rejected the continuation of a 20mph speed limit across central London’s Blackfriars Bridge. The mayor has instead enabled a new limit of 30mph, because, let’s face it, there’s no freedom quite like accelerating for 400metres before stopping at the next set of lights. The majority of the London Assembly opposes Johnson’s decision, the City of London Corporation (the city’s central borough) is already seeking to impose a 20mph speed limit across the square mile, and a range of cycling advocacy groups have mobilised their memberships to lobby against the mayor’s imposition. What we have been left with is a classic case of the Big Society, where the very bodies charged with making our lives easier start making them harder, and everyday people are left fighting just to maintain a pretty shabby status quo. Cyclists are twice as common as private cars on Blackfriars Bridge during morning rush hour, and prioritising a motorist’s burst of acceleration over the safety of a cycling majority is further evidence of authorities prepared to champion cycling without actually taking cyclists seriously.

It is at this point that my two recent grievances suffer a head-on collision, with the number-one fatality being the ‘cultural shift’ that ministers seem to believe is in the offing. Both the Blackfriars speed limit and the segregationist thinking are typical of a delusion wherein decision-makers anticipate exponential cycling growth, without first doing anything to temper the habits and speeds of motor vehicles.

Boris Johnson has made a sound bite out of ‘smoothing traffic flow’, an agreeable title for the car-focussed reduction of pedestrian crossings, and complete removal of the western extension to the congestion charging zone. Despite 14,000 street light features in the City of London, a cyclist is expected to dress like a fluorescent lollipop if they wish to be seen by motorists, all of whom are supposed to have healthy eyesight and their own working headlamps. London cyclists continue to struggle with the fatal problem of lorries in the city, however, efforts from the Metropolitan Police and Transport for London have focussed amusingly on raising awareness about the potentially lethal threat, rather than actually doing anything to reduce the incidence of that threat. Initiatives in mainland Europe have established out-of-town distribution centres where long-haul freight is dropped and moved into cities using smaller vehicles. Coordination of deliveries means that one lorry will serve two separate addresses if they are nearby. Britain, meanwhile, remains crippled by the lack of imagination that blights much of our politics, and lorries in London remain one further example of an accepted culture of dangerous roads that cyclists must learn to survive within. The last four years have seen 26 London cyclists die under lorries, and that these tragedies have given such little impetus to the process of change underlines the horrifying reality, as espoused in Crash, that a broken transport model is actually more precious to us than human life.

I often think that a group of cyclists in London can sound like war veterans swapping stories, we have all been involved in an accident, if not then we know and love others who have. We know of drivers who have nudged us with their 1000kg vehicles, shunting us either to teach us a lesson or when nosing towards the front of a line of traffic. All too often our community is required to mourn somebody who has died prematurely and needlessly, and though cycle advocacy groups are loath to encourage an even higher degree of fear on the part of prospective cyclists, it’s inadequate merely to sweep the dangers under the carpet, the dangers need to be addressed. The police must penalise motorists according to the law, and not show lenience according to their empathy as drivers. The law must treat motor vehicles as a potentially deadly innovation that move things from A to B, not as an extension of our living room, office, or ego. Our cities need to be made into better living spaces for us all, and for that they must be made, genuinely, into better places to cycle.

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