Beyond Brexit, does Boris Johnson’s cycling legacy show a PM who could actually achieve something?

From what we know of him, he is an interventionist politician with at least some record of getting things done

John Rentoul
Saturday 03 August 2019 15:06
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A blueprint for the country?
A blueprint for the country?

Do away with all private cars in London over the next decade, says Leo Murray. He has written a report for a green coalition (and an article for The Independent), which sets out a vision of the zero-carbon traffic chaos of the future, with bicycles, electric scooters, “e-tuk-tuks” (electric rickshaws), buses, taxis, trams and pedestrians competing for road space.

This is utopianism at its best: idealistic, dramatic and not too bothered about the practicalities. I like it because I don’t like cars and have never owned one. Murray is right to point out that cars are wasteful and dangerous and that cities shouldn’t be built around them. The average car spends 95 per cent of its time parked, and 20 square miles of London is given over to car parking.

Then the doubts creep in. If zero carbon is your objective, abolishing private car ownership is irrelevant. The simplest way of achieving that would be to make all cars electric, and to generate all electricity from the wind, sun, water or nuclear reactors.

There are other reasons for cutting down on cars, but they tend to be aesthetic or to do with the efficient use of scarce resources. I think streets without metal boxes crowding the sides look better than the normal kind; and, if more people used taxis and car-sharing, the average vehicle would be used more than 5 per cent of the time.

But Murray’s plan for a car-free London did make me think about how much the city has changed in the 19 years it has had a directly elected mayor. Because the centre of London is already mostly free of private cars. They have to pay to go in the congestion zone and there is now an ultra-low-emissions zone as well. So most of the vehicles going round Parliament Square (when it is not blocked by protesting taxi-drivers) are taxis, delivery vans, buses – and bicycles.

Five big things have changed since Ken Livingstone was elected mayor in 2000. More skyscrapers, more buses, better underground trains, the congestion charge and the bicycles. The net effect is that the city is much better to live in, and one and a half million more people live in it, making it more expensive.

One of the most interesting changes is the bikes. They interest me because I started using Boris bikes last year. They are a wonderful way to get around central London. They are safe – I use them only on the segregated cycle lanes – and I get more exercise than I did.

What is relevant to current politics is that they are still called Boris bikes. He set up the bike hire scheme as mayor of London in 2010. Just as significantly, he pressed ahead with the disruption of traffic caused by building dedicated cycle lanes all over the centre of the city.

This has transformed transport in London. To start off with, road users fumed as they sat in jams next to empty cycle lanes, and they still often look pretty empty in the middle of the day, partly because bikes take up so little space compared with cars. But in the rush hours the cycle lanes feel like a peloton in a professional cycling race.

This matters to people who are not fair-weather cyclists in London, because Boris Johnson is now prime minister. For a long time, I used to call them Ken bikes because I thought it was unfair that his successor took the credit for a scheme that Livingstone had started. But when I looked into it, all Livingstone did was agree a scheme in principle. It was Johnson who did the difficult bit of delivering it – and in particular of building the segregated cycle lanes that make the big difference.

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This is at odds with the recent portrayal of Johnson as a right-wing, small-state Conservative, which is often based on little more than his wish to leave the EU. From what we know of him, he is an interventionist politician with at least some record of getting things done. His bikes, his opposition to Heathrow expansion, and his trumpeting of new rail links in northern England on his second day as prime minister, ought to endear him to greens.

As mayor of London he even got rid of those bendy buses – death traps for cyclists and pedestrians – that were one of Livingstone’s mistakes.

Maybe I am reading too much into Johnson improving the quality of my own life, but I do wonder whether – if he can solve Brexit – he could be an effective prime minister. Never mind utopianism about the future of London in 2030: if he could do for the rest of the country the equivalent of what he achieved for London when he was mayor, that would not be a terrible thing.

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