21st June 2011

If only…


Simon Parker of London Cycle Map Campaign is one of our ‘How can we improve transport in Britain?’ GeoVation Challenge winners. Below he shares his thoughts on why we need transport alternatives to the car to keep our cities moving:

If you were to look at maps of London as often and for as long as I do, you might find that your imagination wanders on occasion. In my case, I have created a little fantasy. By an as yet undetermined means, I travel back in time to the period just before the railways were developed. Then, with a carte blanche in front of me, I set about recreating London, imagining how the metropolitan area might look with the benefit of hindsight. If only we knew then what we know now!

Anyone who saw these maps would fairly conclude that I am not anti-car. But, like many people––including, I might add, a former CEO of Volvo: ‘Private cars are not a suitable mode of transport in town’––I recognise that large numbers of petrol-driven vehicles driving about the place diminishes the quality of city life. Thus it is that I spend many a fanciful hour considering how to mitigate the car’s less attractive features.

If we were able somehow to start afresh, it is almost impossible to believe that the capital would look much the same as it does now. Don’t get me wrong. I love the randomness of London’s road network, and personally I wouldn’t change that aspect even if I could. But if, as I say, we had ourselves another chance, then surely more emphasis would be placed on alternatives to the car the second time around, including, of course, the bicycle.

It might surprise those of you unfamiliar with the history of the bike to learn that in 1949, 37% of all journeys in London were made by bike (20% nation-wide). The main reason that this enviable position changed was that the bicycle came to be regarded as a poor man’s form of transport. People were looking to move on from the austerity of the post-war years, and with the increasing availability of mass-produced cars, four wheels became more desirable than two.

The car, of course, is more than just about getting from A to B; it’s about status as well. But even though we cannot turn back the clock, we can still wind it up from time to time. Let me conclude with some choice words from Andrew Marr in his programme on Megacities:

If we’re all going to live in the megacity––and it rather looks like most of us will––are we all condemned to a future of choking jams and sweat-packed tube trains? No, I think that maybe, we don’t want to turn our backs on our low-tech past. Maybe Dakha and its half-a-million cycle rickshaws does have something to teach us. Across the globe, and London is gearing up for a three-speed revolution.

To get real change in the city, you need two things: you need pent-up demand on the streets, and you need proper leadership. When the two come together, change can happen very, very fast. A good example would be the London bicycle [hire] scheme. When this got going, a lot of people said, ‘Well, it’s not going to work.’ And within the first ten weeks there were a million journeys made.

There’s no single magic bullet that’s going to solve the megacity transport crisis. We have to snaffle ideas from all over the place, taking smaller, smarter solutions which, when you take them together, can have an impact. London’s first large-scale public bike hire scheme is part of that potential mix.

In the economy of the great cities, they’re always learning and copying and stealing from each other. And it’s not from just the high-tech cities, so Dakha in Bangladesh may be a nightmare, but it’s a nightmare run on pedal-power, and that’s something that modern cities are re-learning. And so to have a transport system that really works, you need everything. You need the taxis, and the cars, and the buses. You need the trains. And you need bicycles, and of course, decent places to be able to walk safely as well. It’s a bit like fusion food, you know, that we eat all the time. You bring in all sorts of lessons, all sorts of flavours, and you mix them up, and with a bit of luck and leadership, you get a city that’s moving again.’

Simon Parker

See Simon’s London Cycle Map