A campaigner’s day off

I was technically on holiday last week. We hadn’t gone anywhere as we had a couple of family visitors, and anyway we’re a bit broke after renovating the bathroom, and anyway we’re lazy and like just doing nothing at home.

Although the doing nothing bit is the challenge. Between family visitors I’ve had all sorts of plans for me-time things, like looking at garden porn on the Internet (‘Do you have to call it that?’ – the Redster) and maybe even some actual gardening. Campaigning and anything street-related has not been on the list, because that’s my day job, and I’m on holiday. Right?

Wrong, it turns out. My day job is focused on making streets healthier in central London. But back in the ‘burbs, with time on my hands and chores to do that involve travelling on streets locally, I can’t help myself. Take Wednesday last week for example.

7.30am Southgate Circus

As part of London Cycling Campaign’s Climate Safe Streets campaign, groups in every London borough are taking photos of local streets and using the Beta Streets app to show how they *could* be, in a parallel universe where people matter more than cars. I suggested in our WhatsApp group that we could do with Beta Street-ing Southgate Circus. But the photo would need to be taken early in the morning, before the traffic gets going, to get a nice blank canvas for the design.

Then I found myself suggesting that the mug who gets up early to take the shot could be me. Which is why I was at Southgate Circus the next morning at 7.30am in my pyjamas disguised with a jacket and a woolly hat. 7.30am of course wasn’t early enough, and the traffic was out in force.

Southgate Circus both fascinates and horrifies me. Southgate tube station is glorious, a circular 1930s Art Deco style building by Charles Holden, but you don’t even notice the station when you’re there because all you can see is wall-to-wall motor vehicles. There’s a bit of public space around the station – some (tired, littered) grass and a nice circular sheltered seat that echoes the station building. And Station Parade is for buses only, which is great. But any space for people is utterly dwarfed by the monster roundabout Southgate Circus itself.

This design probably seemed like a great idea in the 60s, when the only priority was keeping the traffic moving. But contrast and compare the amount of space for people (green) with the space given to infrastructure for keeping that traffic moving (red). Not only that, but imagine walking along the High Street to the south and having to cross those wide flared junctions, where drivers barely need to slow down to turn, and there’s no formal crossing. This is used by hundreds of secondary school kids every day on their way to and from the station and three large schools in the area. Then look in the north at the bit of road labelled Chase Side. It’s a crossing used by families going to the local primary school, having got off the bus at the station. It’s not a formal crossing, despite the obvious need – you just have to take your chances and hope for the best.

And don’t get me started on all the space given over to parking.

Southgate town centre is a centre for cars, despite its public transport hub, where people are allowed a bit of space on the margins. Do you know what I feel like, as a pedestrian in Southgate town centre, scuttling across the road in any gap I can find in the traffic? I feel like vermin.

Here’s my amateur offering of how we could do things differently, now that it’s not the 1960s anymore, and we’re in a climate crisis where a large part of our climate-harming emissions comes from roads.

I’m not a traffic engineer, and no doubt turning a roundabout into a set of signalised junctions is fiendishly complicated, but I’m sure this is possible. Apparently it’s called ‘peninsuralising’,* when you take the marooned public realm in the centre of a roundabout and moor it to the pavement. Think Highbury & Islington station, if you’ve seen the changes there.

Spot the ex-roundabout

The other bit of the town centre that’s crying out for transformation is Ashfield Parade – you can see the entrance to the street in the bottom left hand corner of the satellite image above. The whole street is basically a car park, with three lanes assigned to parking. It feels grey and unpleasant, but it has quite a few cafes and restaurants. Removing the parking, bar some disabled spaces and part-time loading bays, could make way for lots of greenery and outdoor seating for the eateries – and a lovely continental al fresco vibe which would fit perfectly with the Mediterranean heritage of many local residents. I also reckon some people who habitually drive to Southgate would start using public transport if parking was harder to come by. It’s not as if there isn’t a well-connected transport hub (a tube station serviced by roughly a billion bus routes) less than a minute’s walk away.

Ashfield Parade: Keep it as a car park? Or make it a plaza for people, with lots of greenery?

10am Street partaaaay

I got home and, if I remember rightly, changed out of my pyjamas, and thought before I started perusing images of luscious perennials on the internet I’d just do some street party admin. Our new street (we moved here a year ago – same low traffic neighbourhood as our old street, needless to say) is applying to close the road for a Platinum Jubilee celebration in June. I’ve been umming and ahhing about whether to get involved. There is a big family celebration this year with lots of combined Big Birthdays with 0s at the end, and I didn’t want something else to take priority. But… new neighbours… bunting… potential for egg and spoon races… and tug of war… I have given in, and got involved.

Then, just because I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, I emailed a proposed article for the local press about healthy streets being like recycling bins. I don’t think it will get printed anytime soon.

3pm Cycle lesson

Now this was the highlight of my day.

A week earlier, I’d turned up to a church event on my bike and a friend of mine was there, Mary, an English / Greek lady in her sixties with a huge heart for feeding homeless people. She looked at my bike and said “I want to ride a bike. I’m sick of waiting for the bus” (she stopped driving a couple of years ago). So I’d offered to let her try out a bike that the Cutester is no longer using, with a view to buying it from me if she got on with it.

I turned up to the church car park on the Cutester’s bike and found Mary (having put the roast in the church oven for that evening’s meal for the homeless) beside herself with excitement. She told me she hadn’t ridden a bike for 40 years, so what followed was basically a cycling lesson where neither of us had a clue what we were doing.

It may be true that you never completely forget how to ride a bike …but you can forget the details, like stopping, starting, steering and using the brakes. Mary threw herself into it but got incredibly frustrated that she couldn’t go in a straight line, and forgot that the brakes existed, so my impersonation of a cycle instructor involved shouting “Cover the brakes!” every few seconds. It didn’t help that the car park is not big nor that there was an enormous BMW parked in the middle of it which she was terrified of damaging, so just as she got close to going straight she’d have to turn around.

Eventually I phoned my friend David, who is a proper cycle instructor.

“Tell her to look straight ahead,” he said.

Mary and I both went “Aha!”

She had indeed been staring at her handlebars the whole time. While David was still on the phone to me, she got it. She pedalled off in a beautiful straight line. Then she turned around and pedalled back again, also in a beautiful straight line. Except she’d forgotten she had brakes, and in my excitement I’d forgotten to remind her, so she carried on going, hit the kerb at the edge of the car park and fell off.

At that point two other church volunteers sprinted into the car park. They seemed very concerned, as they picked up Mary and dusted her off, that a 65-year-old woman was being encouraged to ride a bicycle when it was clearly going to be the death of her.

“She’ll need hi vis and a helmet!” said one, “And she mustn’t ride on the road!”

While I was still reassuring this volunteer that I wasn’t about to let Mary near any roads, as roads are clearly not ready for Mary yet, she had got back on the bike and was riding off again. She’s unstoppable.

When she finally reluctantly handed the bike back to me, with an agreement that we’ll meet again in the park at the weekend, she said she felt a bit bruised on her hip and her legs were wobbly but she was otherwise okay. She was also super proud of herself, and I was super impressed by her enthusiasm and determination and told her so. I was also feeling rather pleased with myself, basking in the glow of Mary’s success despite my uselessness as a cycle instructor. Is there anything more satisfying than helping another human being discover the joy of riding a bike? I know what my friend David would say.

Women liberating women

I’ve been massively inspired recently by two local organisations who are helping get people, especially women and children, on bikes. One is the big-hearted, inclusive, passionate-about-cycling Londra Bisiklet Kulübü (or London Cycling Club) which has literally changed lives in the Turkish-speaking community in north London. The women cycle instructors there tell me how when one of their students first starts to wobble off on their own, they get more excited than the student. Nothing, they say, is more fulfilling.

Two of the instructors at Londra Bisiklet Kulübü, Sibel (left) and Belgizar (right), on either side of their grateful graduate Iman

Another is the Green Stars cycling club based at Palmers Green mosque. Its founder, Hamida, took up cycling for her own health but wasn’t satisfied until she’d started teaching other women to cycle as well. Here’s the brilliant Carla Francombe’s Twitter thread with Hamida’s story.

I turned fifty this March, and among my goals for this year is encouraging 50 women to cycle, whether by going on a ride with them to build their confidence or even teaching them to ride for the first time. No idea if I’ll hit that target or not, but it will be fun trying.

As I was leaving the church car park** one of the volunteers, Charlie, came up to me with a bouquet of flowers. He’d just collected some donations from Tesco’s and they were giving these away, so he said I could have them. The Cutester’s bike is of course very cute, with a cute wicker basket strapped to its handlebars, so I cycled home with my basket full of flowers. It felt like a fitting end to a very satisfying day, and even if my garden plans didn’t happen, I did have some flowers to look at after all.

*As my fellow campaigners pointed out, you have to spell check this word very carefully. One of them said that if you left out the second ‘n’ it could lead to some interesting urban design. I said that given the lack of women in the field of highway engineering and town planning, this is sadly the basis of most urban design already :-/

**This Good Friday we had an open air service in the church car park. I told a Jewish friend and he responded instantly with “Pray and Display?”

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