This flyer came through my door today.
First, some recent Enfield history. Enfield’s ‘Mini Holland’ £42 million grant to boost walking, cycling (and town centres) was the brainchild of a Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, and was won in 2014 by a Labour council with the full support of its Conservative opposition. It was a cross-party bid, securing a huge investment for the health of Enfield’s residents and the economic health of its high streets. It was a bid that rose above politics for the common good.
Then it all fell apart. The designs came out for public consultation, residents got upset as residents always do when change is afoot (and even more so when they’re acycle) and suddenly the Conservatives were against the whole idea. The council opposition ousted the leader who had supported the Mini Holland bid and got itself a new one who hated it. Our Conservative MP also mounted a campaign attacking it.
Both were unsuccessful (except in delaying the work) and the scheme has gone ahead. More and more people are gradually using the new infrastructure, and the appearance of Urbo dockless hire bikes has caused quite a stir – people are talking about cycling for their first time in decades. But now it’s the run-up to local elections, and the Tories have renewed their efforts to weaponise the bike lanes. This is deeply disappointing.
Bike lanes are not a political football – they are a necessity for public health. If Enfield were not investing in active travel for its residents, it would be failing in its duty of care. (I don’t think I need to recite again the litany of childhood obesity, air pollution, sedentary lifestyles – not to mention congestion for a fast-growing population.) The analogy has been made before, but if the issue were about separating sewage from a clean water supply for the first time – rather than separating vulnerable road users from cars – would there be any question about what was better for residents’ health? And would it be moral for politicians to jump on the ‘Keep raw sewage in our drinking water’ bandwagon?
But that’s exactly what seems to be happening here. Political leaders of all colours (and there is nothing inherently Labour about cycle infrastructure) need to lead like grown-ups on this issue. The opposition could help the public accept the changes, playing a role in fine-tuning and holding the council to account in how they are delivered, rather than sabotaging them at every opportunity. Political expediency is trumping the common good.
But let’s imagine for a moment that this about-turn was not short-term political opportunism. Let’s look at their actual concerns. The leaflet says, ‘The orcas [bike lane separators] are a trip hazard, some small businesses have already closed and congestion has increased.’
The orcas: have indeed been tripped over by some people, although they are only used outside areas with a high footfall. That should be a cause for concern, leading to questions like, ‘How can we make them more visible?’ Yet the Conservative answer is ‘remove the dangerous Orcas as a priority’. This would leave only a line of paint to protect people who are cycling from the really dangerous things on the road – motor vehicles. Which would surely nip Enfield’s burgeoning cycle culture firmly in the bud.
Small businesses: some have closed. And some have opened. And none of this has any tangible link to the cycle lanes. (Hal Haines had a good look into the issue here.)
Congestion: I live right next to Enfield’s first completed cycle route and use it every day on foot or by bike, and sometimes in a car. I can’t see any difference in congestion compared to before. Proper data is needed, because I suspect the scheme’s opponents are simply seeing what they hoped and expected to see.
So what’s really going on? ‘I’m not against cycling’ has been the opposition’s mantra throughout. Cycling is to be encouraged – just not at the expense of precious space for car driving and parking on main roads. But I’m afraid the strongest message that comes across from the leaflet above is the one on the bright red background: CYCLISTS DISMOUNT.* That seems to be how Enfield’s Conservatives plan to ‘fix the bike lanes’: by snuffing out cycling altogether. How will that work out for the long-term health and well-being of the population, I wonder?
I hope I never get to find out.
Finally – I would happily discuss this with any Conservative councillor or candidate in Enfield. In particular, I would love to go on a local walkabout and chat with Cllr Joanne Laban, who originally supported the Mini Holland bid and is now leading her party again. Even though the leaflets are printed and the social media battles have begun, it’s never too late to talk.
Watch this space – maybe I’ll be reporting back on such a conversation soon.
* I emailed a complaint to the contractors about this sign months ago, pointing out that not all cyclists can dismount – for some, a bike is a mobility aid. To my delight the sign disappeared shortly after. Just not soon enough to prevent this photo.