People Still Aren't Getting It

I got back on the bike today. First time since I came off back in April. Both because I felt the need to add some variety to my exercise regime, and because so many people are riding these days. And also because I missed it.

It was good. Nice to be back on the bike. A bit annoying the way the mask makes your glasses steam up, but nothing that a bit of slipstream couldn’t clear.

But it was very disappointing regarding people’s behaviour. I cycled around central Hackney for half an hour or so from about 9-9:30. It was pretty busy.

I counted 11 people wearing masks (and two chin-wearers, so they don’t count). I must have passed about 500 people? 700? That’s just a guess, but it was a lot.

Eleven masks.

My mask was protecting all of them: why weren’t they protecting me, and each other?

I mainly blame the government, of course. Incoherent messaging and absence of care. But… some of us have learned what’s best, even given the government.

Strange seeing this tweet from the London Cycling Campaign:

Cycling is up all over, apparently. Yet I stopped cycling for fear of putting extra strain on the NHS.

The Last Bike Ride

I came off my bike today. Don’t worry, I’m not hurt, beyond a couple of scrapes. But as I was going down – you know how people say things go into slow motion? It wasn’t quite like that, but I did have time to think, “Shit, I hope they don’t have to call an ambulance.” And once I was down and realised that nothing was broken, I thought, “I hope no-one comes running to help, cos I’ll have to wave them away.”

No-one came to help, of course – mainly because there was no-one around. But all this is ironic, given that I read a piece a week or so back by a keen cyclist, saying he wanted to ride, but wasn’t going to, because if he got hurt then he’d be taking much-needed resources from the NHS.

“That’s very noble,” I thought, and then proceeded to completely ignore the implied advice.

No longer. From now until this is over, I’ll be exercising indoors, or at most, in the garden. It’s a shame, because I do love to get out on the bike, especially in the spring. But everyone has to put up with limitations during this, and this is a pretty minor one.

Two Wheels Good

Back when the internet was young — or at least the commercial, available-at-home internet — I sent an email with the subject line, “Bicycle on the Superhighway”. It was about me having a publicly-accessible email address for the first time since uni (as opposed to one that was only usable within the company where I worked at the time).

This was back when people — inspired, if I recall correctly, by Al Gore — were calling the net the “Information Superhighway.”

This post is not about all that, though; this is about literal cycling on a literal superhighway: specifically London’s “Cycle Superhighways.”

Since the building where I now work has showers, I decided it was time to get back on the bike. And since it’s in Westminster, it turns out there’s a really easy route, that uses CS6 and CS3: down Farringdon Road and west along Embankment, by the river.

These are fantastic cycling facilities, especially the Embankment one. Properly separated from the motor traffic, plenty of room to move and overtake, great sequencing of traffic lights so you hardly have to stop. It’s hard to fault it. Especially compared to nearly every other pathetic painted cycle lane in the city.

It gets a bit hairy where it all ends, in Parliament Square: the traffic there is unfeasibly heavy. Who drives near parliament?

If there’s a downside to it all, it’s this: I suspect that the motorised traffic is busier and faster, exactly because it’s not tempered by having bikes in the mix. I can’t be sure — I’ve never used Embankment before, and it’s years since I used to cycle regularly on Farringdon Road — but it feels to me that there’s a crazy amount of traffic and that it’s going faster than ever.

The latter can’t really be true — there are still speed limits, and they either won’t have changed or might have dropped to 20 mph in sections. But I still get this sense that, freed from interacting with the fragile two-wheeled minority, the armoured legions behave more like they’re on a motorway.

Whether that’s the case or not, the number of people cycling — especially in the recent bright spring weather — is huge. The only time I’ve seen more cyclists together was when I did the London to Brighton ride many years ago.

And also in the mix now are electric scooters and electric skateboards, which makes it all the more interesting. There’s even the odd cycle rickshaw.

It’ll be interesting to see how the volume changes with the seasons, but you can’t beat it for a way to commute: it’s faster than the tube, it saves you money, and you get some exercise. I recommend it for anyone who’s able.

Proposed New Cycling Race for the Olympics: the "Commuter Race"

This is something that I wrote some notes on around the London 2012 Olympics, and just sitting here watching the Men’s Road Race on day 1 of Rio 2016, I thought I’d dig it out and finally post it.

Competitors have to ride stock bikes — no fancy superlight frames or custom wheels; just ordinary commuter-type bikes. They can be set up for the individual, but they must have mudguards and lights and EITHER a rack and one pannier OR the competitor must carry a backpack or messenger bag; the bag to hold a weight equivalent to (say) a laptop and a change of clothes.

The race to be a typical commute distances (say 5 miles?) carried out over normal commuting streets, during rush hour, with normal traffic.

Competitors get disqualified for jumping red lights or going the wrong way down a one-way street; and receive time penalties for going on the pavement (maybe disqualification there too, actually). They may receive a time bonus (or at least clock-stoppage) for unreasonable delays, as for example when an articulated lorry is reversing across the road and holding everybody up.

To be run as time trials with say a one-minute separation, so competitors should not be directly racing against each other.

An alternative version would have them use bikes from the city’s bike-hire scheme. They’d have to turn up at a designated pickup point, wait if a bike wasn’t available, and so on. This has the added advantage that it forces host cities to have or introduce such a scheme, and to keep the bikes well maintained.

It’s challenge that normal people — ones who commute by bike, at least — could really identify with.

Generation: Inspired

So, it's all finally over, and we go back to normal. Or perhaps not. The slogan of London 2012 was "Inspire a Generation", and I think that has happened.

But the question is, what generation?

The tacit assumption was always that the slogan applied to the next generation: to teenagers and younger kids. Get them up off their arses, it implied, and away from their consoles, and down to their local sports hall, playing field, or pool.

Whether and to what extent that has worked will take a long time to see. But there’s another generation that is already visibly inspired, to my admittedly limited view.


Where by “mine” I sort of mean “everyone who’s not still a child.” Because what I’m seeing as I cycle to and from work these days is that the streets are packed with cyclists. And people out running, too; there are definitely more than usual. But it’s us London cyclists who are really showing up.

I personally have taken public transport to work only once since before the Olympics started,1 and I’ve been pushing myself to get that bit faster on my bike rides.

I’ve been thinking of it as something like, “Hoy! It’s the Pendleton-Trott-Kenny-Wiggins effect.” But that’s a bit unwieldy, and misses some names out.

It is clear to me, though, that the “generation” that is in their twenties, thirties and yes, forties – and probably older – are out there in bigger numbers than ever before.

We’ll see how it holds up as autumn and winter come in, of course. But vastly increased cycling in London? That would really be a worthwhile legacy.

Anyway, here’s my Flickr set from our second event at the Olympics, namely hockey. Click through to see the pictures bigger and with captions.

OverheadBritain vs AustraliaJust what blimp is it?Hockey up closeHockey teamsGoooooaaaaaallll!!!!
Riverbank by nightRiverbank by night 2Night matchA very dull first half

  1. Admittedly I was on holiday for around three weeks of that time. ↩︎

Olympian Achievements

Initial scepticism

Back in 2004, 2005 or so, when London was bidding to host the Olympics, I was against it. My concerns were the cost, the crowding, and the general disruption of it all. I was, I admit, cynical. I recall being annoyed by the fact that the people running the bid published a number to which you could text “yes”, to say you supported the bid; but there was no option to text “no” to say you opposed it.

Looking back to what I wrote at the time, I see that my biggest concern was the effect on the Lower Lee Valley. It turned out that the removal of wilderness didn’t stretch as far as my fears suggested; and of course much of the land that has been used was polluted, abandoned, brownfield industrial sites. Bob Stanley of St Etienne (the band) has an interesting piece in The Guardian about that.

Coming round

But then London won the bid, and I though, “OK, fine, it’ll be interesting at least.” I had enjoyed watching the previous ones, and there was the regeneration for East London that looked promising. And the fact that it would just be down the road for me added to the interest. After all, that would make it easier to get tickets, right? Obviously there would specific tickets made available to to locals.

Hindsight even makes me wonder whether the events of the very next day didn’t make me more supportive: blitz spirit, don’t let the bastards grind you down, “soft power”, and all that.

The intervening years


In the years since then I’ve gone through various thoughts about the whole thing. Obviously there were the concerns about how long we would be paying for it all. And more recently there were the worries about the security preparations and the expected madness of the precautions. Of course more recently we’ve had the G4S fiasco, and the drafting in of extra soldiers.

More bizarrely we’ve seen the growth of the Olympic “brand police”, the forbidding of certain words and combinations of words (including, ridiculously, things like “summer”, “bronze”, and “2012”).

Cycle-friendly or not?

But closer to home one of the things that has annoyed me is the way they’ve treated our towpath.

The main stadium sits between two branches of the River Lee (or Lea): the river itself, and the Lee Navigation or Cut, which is essentially a canal constructed as a tributary1 of the main river. The towpath of the Navigation is a popular cycling and walking route for us local types. As we watched the construction site form and the massive buildings grow (and in my case moaned about the ugly fencing round it), we were able to keep a close eye on it all by going along the towpath. And indeed, a minor, but pleasing, instance of regeneration has been the resurfacing of the towpath, making it much more pleasant to cycle on.2

Above all, it seemed obvious that we would use the towpath to actually get to the Olympic Park. How else?

Until a few months ago when it became clear that the towpath was going to be closed for the duration of the games. The reason given – of course – was “security”. But what exactly is the security risk of providing access via the towpath?

In all honesty, I had my doubts about its use during the games; but I wasn’t concerned about terrorism. Rather I feared for people’s safety. It’s a towpath, after all: relatively narrow, unfenced, and unlit. And, critically, next to a polluted canal. If thousands – or even only hundreds – of people were trying to leave the park that way all at once – after the opening ceremony, say – then I could see that it would be problematic.

So I begin to wonder whether the “security” excuse was brought out to hide the more mundane, but always-criticised-by-the-tabloids truth: health and safety.

Then we heard that bikes would be among the banned items in the park; but also that there would be cycle parking: it sounded like mixed messages, but we would have to wait and see.

Those pesky tickets and the getting thereof

Ah, the joys of Olympic ticketing. Even as I write, on the third full day of the Games, they don’t seem to have really sorted it all out.

It’s a massively complex task, to allocate and sell tickets for hundreds of events over dozens of venues, all taking place in such a concentrated time period. But it’s not like they’ve never done it before; it’s not even like they haven’t done it in the Internet Age. It should largely be a solved problem, it seems to me.

We had decided to treat the Olympics as our family holiday: we would take a couple of weeks off, buy a load of tickets, and that would be our main summer break. After all, it would be just down the road, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, etc. So we signed up for the ballot, spent time listing events we might like to see, and so on. When the time came we hit the website and listed a summer holiday’s worth of tickets (hampered slightly by me having a MasterCard, which of course is the black sheep of Olympic ticket-buying).

In the end my beloved was allocated tickets to three events, and I got none (had they detected that invalid-card possession?)

However, that was just the initial ballot; and because I had been unsuccessful there, I was entitled to try to buy tickets in the conventional way in the second round.

On the day I woke up early and grabbed my laptop. The site, inevitably, crumpled. I went back to sleep for a bit. Tried again later.

I don’t recall how long it took, but in the end I managed to get a further three events.

And that was that. Remember when I said up there, “it would just be down the road … that would make it easier to get tickets”? Yeah. Somehow that didn’t happen. The Olympics is clearly not meant for the people who live near it. Or not particularly. I’m not suggesting it should be only for locals; but how hard would it have been to allocate a percentage of tickets to residents of host boroughs – or the whole of London – in a first pass? If they didn’t get bought they would be offered on, of course. The answer is “not very”; the Hackney Weekend festival did exactly that, after all. Glastonbury gives free tickets to residents of the nearby village, I seem to recall.

Anyway, that’s where we are. We later added a Paralympic athletics day, which will finally get us into the main stadium; and a set of Olympic Park passes, so we can go and have a wander round and soak up the atmosphere on Wednesday. But as I write there are still tickets available, even for swimming, even for the main stadium.

If you’re made of money, at least. Hell, you can still go to the closing ceremony if you’ve got £995 or £1500 to spare.

But still…

But I don’t mean to turn all negative. I’m actually really excited about it all, and thoroughly enjoying everything I’ve seen on telly; especially, of course, Danny Boyle’s masterpiece of an opening ceremony. Much has been said about that elsewhere, so I won’t say a lot. Just that it was far better, and a far truer representation of Britain than we could have imagined, or even hoped for. Part of the fun was following along on Twitter, of course (when it wasn’t too distracting to do so). And my favourite comment of all was one that Mitch Benn retweeted from Simon Evans:

It's not that I'm proud to be British. It's that I'm grateful.

So true.

And I’ve been enjoying seeing the first few days worth of events on telly. Some thoughts:

  • The tennis is just like Wimbledon, except with colour, and Omega timing instead of IBM. And "London 2012" logos, of course.
  • I normally go from one Wimbledon to the next without watching any sport; now, suddenly, I'm almost fanatical about everything (except boxing and anything with horses; and archery is much more boring than you might expect).
  • Seeing those cyclists in the road races made me want to get on my bike; not for those kind of distances, though.
  • Similarly, badminton & table tennis; maybe there will be a knock-on effect on people doing sport after all.

I should write about legacy (and sustainability3), but I’ve gone on long enough, and anyway, it’s another whole discussion. But I cycled down that way on Saturday; along the part of the towpath that’s still open, across Hackney Marshes (by a new, temporary path) and to the bridge across the river where there is access via Eton Manor Gate. There is a vast cycle park there, and from the gate it’s only supposed to be a few minutes walk to, for example, the Basketball Arena. So it’s all good.4

We visit the park on Wednesday, and start seeing actual events from Friday. I may report back.5

  1. Or really an inverted tributary, as it forks off the main river in a downstream direction. ↩︎

  2. There are still a few spots of cobblestones, but we can cope with those. ↩︎

  3. Yes, that’s a Twenty Twelve reference; if you haven’t watched it, you should. ↩︎

  4. Yes, so was that. ↩︎

  5. But under no circumstances will I post photos, OK? ↩︎

The London cabbie: good and bad

We experienced the best and worst of the London cabbie last night: from not taking a fare because to do so would have been a rip-off, to attempted murder.

We were going to an exhibition opening, and had got off the bus wildly too early. We were walking in the right direction, but weren’t quite sure where the gallery was, and we were running late. So we flagged down a passing cab and asked for the street. “It’s just over there,” he said, pointing, “Don’t waste your money.”

It was, indeed, just over there. Admirable behaviour, I thought, as he could easily have made a few quid taking us there.

After we left and were walking to the bus stop, there was an altercation between a cab driver and a cyclist. I didn’t see how it started, but there was shouting and gesticulation, and the cabbie started to get out of his cab.

The cyclist headed off up the road, and suddenly the cabbie roared off after him. It looked like nothing less than an attempt to run the cyclist down.

I guess the cabbie came to his senses, because I don’t think he actually hit the guy. The cyclist very sensibly got off the road and cycled down the pavement in the opposite direction. The cab zoomed off up the road, to fast and too far away for me to get its number, unfortunately. I had my phone out ready to call the cops.

The cyclist seemed to be OK, physically at least. We saw him back on the road and heading in the direction he had been going. It’s scary to think, though, that you could either be that cyclist, or get into that guy’s cab.

The Water of Life

Or at least a container for it. It’s Bike Week this week, and as I happened to be cycling through Islington anyway, I was caught up by the members of the local LCC. They were offering a free cyclists’ breakfast, and a Dr Bike clinic. I had already had breakfast, and my bike was serviced recently, so I didn’t stop for that (though it is making a strange noise again, so perhaps I should have).

However they were also handing out free water bottles, which is just what I needed: I just noticed this morning that mine is cracked, and in any case it’s very prone to making the water taste plasticy. So I accepted that gratefully, and am giving something back by adding what tiny amount of Google juice I can to the URL that is printed on the bottle: Islington Borough’s Green Travel page.

Now get on yer bike, everyone.

Eye Contact, or: Pay Attention to the Web Behind the Curtain.

Eyes in the sky

There is a strange and mighty power to eye contact, it seems.

I’m not talking about the effects of making — or not making — eye contact while talking to someone, though of course that does indeed have a great symbolic strength and communicative ability. Rather, I’m talking about the effect of making eye contact at a distance; specifically while cycling.

As you might imagine, cycling round the streets of London has its hazards. It’s not as fraught with danger as some believe (fear of the dangers is one of the main reasons people give for why they don’t, or wouldn’t, cycle; which is a shame, because it’s good for the individual, and good for the environment), but that’s another discussion.

Most potential problems can be avoided with a suitable degree of alertness. But the necessary alertness isn’t all on the part of the cyclist: it’s important for other road users to be alert to the presence of cyclists, too. Who remembers “Think once, think twice, think bike!“, the road-safety campaign on British TV during the seventies? That was intended to make other road-users more aware of cyclists (and motorcyclists).

That is where one of the biggest dangers lies: quite frankly, there are a lot of road users who just don’t notice cyclists. And it’s not just the BMW drivers and Royal Mail vans (in my experience the two most dangerous types of motorised vehicle, from a cyclist’s point of view (though all generalisations are false, of course)).

No, any motor vehicle can be a problem, and pedestrians and even other cyclists are almost as bad. Indeed , the two accidents I’ve had in all my years of cycling in London were both caused, at least in part, by pedestrians. There is, however, a simple technique that can — almost magically, it sometimes seems — make other road users notice you.

Look them in the eye.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Just make eye contact with the driver, cyclist or pedestrian, and suddenly they realise you’re there.

Which is not so surprising: it’s hard to not be aware of the presence of someone who is looking you in the eye. What is strange, though, is the way in which it works at a distance. You don’t have to be able to see the other person’s eyes, or even to see the person. Innumerable times I have been hurtling along a road and seen a car or van about to pull out of a side road and smash into me (or at least, make me brake sharply). I can’t see the driver because of distance or dark windows, but I aim a hard stare at the area where I know the driver’s head must be. And the car (or van) suddenly brakes, and lets me sweep past.

Similarly, a burst of laser-like staring swept across a group of pedestrians can stop them stepping off the kerb and into my path. It’s quite remarkable, really.

I’m reminded of the story of James Dean’s death. He crashed his car into another car that was pulling out of a side road, and supposedly Dean said to his passenger, (who survived the crash), “It’s all right, he sees me.”

Clearly, the other driver didn’t. Perhaps if Dean had just tried looking at where the other driver’s eyes were, the strange, near-telepathic effect might have happened, and he could have lived to make many more films.

The effect is, I suspect, related to the “feeling of being watched” that most people have experienced at some time. There’s no obvious mechanism for it, but it does seem to be the case that, when someone is looking at us, we become aware of the fact.

Attention surfeit disorder?

When some one is looking at us, or is paying attention to us. Which brings me to another angle on this. That is the idea of attention.. Up here in The Future, in the days of the development of “Web 2.0″ (which, by the way, is pronounced “two point zero”, not “two point oh”, as I heard them saying on Newsnight the other day; we are, after all, scientists) we are often told (though perhaps mainly by Doc Searls) of how important our attention is.

Indeed, the phrase “the attention economy” is in use by some. Of course, the expression “pay attention” has been around for a long time, but only now has attention taken on some of the other trappings of money. We can “pay” for a web site’s services with our attention. Any site with adverts effectively meets this model, though there are more direct examples, such as Salon‘s premium content, for which you can get a “day pass” by sitting through a short advert — as an alternative to paying actual cash for a subscription.

The force of our attention — of looking — is powerful in multiple ways.

Transport against london

I take a couple of weeks off (a week at home with the kids, a week in Dorset: very nice, thanks, since you ask) and when I first get back to posting, I find I’m channelling the excellent Disgruntled Commuter. This morning’s journey into work was a vision of madness and chaos straight out of Dante’s Inferno.

I exaggerate, of course. The Waterloo and City Line is a key link in my standard route to work, when I go purely by public transport. Hackney to Wimbledon is not the simplest route between two parts of London, but it doesn’t have to be insane. That line, though, is currently closed. Until September. If we assume it won’t reopen until the end of that month at the earliest, that means it will be closed for half the year. I understand that things wear out and break down and have to be maintained: but it only goes between two stations. There’s not that much to it. How long can things take?

So for two days this week I cycled to Waterloo (I work at home on Wednesdays) which is the best way to get in anyway, for all the usual reasons why cycling is best1. But lately I’ve fallen out of the habit. To break myself back in gently (in other words, to give myself a rest from it today, or out of sheer laziness), I decided to chance public transport today.

I’m a great fan of public transport generally, of course: but there are times and services that… don’t show it in its best light, let’s say. The North London Line is one that has a bad reputation at best: indeed, the aforementioned Disgruntled one has written about it in the past. Yet gettting that line to Highbury and Islington and then the Victoria Line to Vauxhall for the last leg to Wimbledon seemed the best alternative route for me.

You’ll have guessed, since I’m writing this, that it was not.

The North London Line is characterised by infrequent, jam-packed services, and it deserves the characterisation. Don’t get the idea that this was a surprise to me: I knew perfectly well what it would be like. What do you think was the biggest prod to get me back onto my bike?

So that wasn’t really the problem (though the difficulty of seeing the station name signs when you’re jammed in standing up makes it extra hard for the infrequent user to be sure they are at the correct station). No, the problem was my old friend2 the Victoria Line.

It was, in short, fucked.

So I got on that curious bit of non-Underground underground line that also runs out of Highbury and Islington (and that I can’t remember the name of), and got a train to Moorgate. Thence by Northern Line to London Bridge and Jubilee to Waterloo. I left home at about 8:15 (significantly later than I originally intended to, admittedly) and the train from Waterloo pullled into Wimbledon at 9:35. Bah!

1. Exercise, knowing fairly exactly when you’re going to get there, and not being at the mercy of the transport network chief among them.

2. Before I lived in Hackney I lived in Walthamstow. You get on at the start of the line (and thus are almost guaranteed a seat) plonk yourself down, open your book, and don’t look up until Vauxhall.