Tory walk-out: a PR stunt that might just work

This afternoon, the London Assembly was due to debate a motion about whether the speed limit at Blackfriars Bridge should be kept at 20mph or raised to 30mph. Prior to the vote, the Conservative Assembly Members walked out of the chamber, rendering any vote inquorate.

Why would the Tories do this? They must know that a walk-out is only likely to increase the publicity of this motion, and inflame an already irascible opposition (particularly because this also prevented a clean air motion from taking place). Twitter is already awash with angry people, demanding a reaction.

In order to see why the Conservative AMs have acted so, and therefore to plan an appropriate response, it is necessary to understand the following: people in favour of promoting motor traffic at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists are also in favour of the the 20mph motion gaining publicity.

I will try to explain why. This may become slightly theoretical, but please bear with me as I think this is crucial to our response.

The malleability of political reality

Political possibilities morph over time. Ideas which were once unthinkable become policy. In 1984, 50% of the country thought unemployment benefits were too low, and 30% too high. By 2009, those figures had switched places. (British Soc. Attitudes Survey.) The vigour and vitriol with which the current government has been able to attack welfare benefits could only have been dreamt of by Geoffrey Howe, or Nigel Lawson.

The constraints on potentially achievable political outcomes are constantly moving – this much we know. There are social, cultural, economic and political reasons for this. Let’s talk about the political.

Political constraints as a function of political action

As Steve Waldman brilliantly argues, a fact which is too often ignored is that the distribution of future [political] constraints is a function of present moves.

Waldman describes a world where there are two opposing teams. The first is a group of intelligent technocrats, who believe that the movement of political constraints is beyond their control, and that therefore their most advantageous political move is to argue for the optimum choice available to them within the current, given constraints.

The second group is comprised of politicians who understand, correctly, that their own actions influence what future political constraints will be.

Both teams act according to their respective viewpoints, and both are of the view that the other team’s actions are illogical. But, the technocratic team, the people who are constantly exasperated about the perfidy and sheer irrationality of the other side, is the team that is in fact ill-informed.

Sound familiar?

Walk-out as political weapon

We have to understand today’s vote not as a poll on a speed limit on a bridge, but as an event which shapes the culture of political possibility.

Today there was an argument about whether one component of an already dangerous and unpleasant road should be worsened, or kept the same. The outcome is irrelevant. The fact that this is the debate we’re having shows that those of us opposed to the primacy of the motor vehicle in London are failing to campaign.

The scale of the problem. Thanks to Jim from Drawing Rings for the data

Even its staunchest critics accept that the London Cycle Campaign has recently changed direction. It is undeniable that the LCC has been more active and vocal than usual. In choosing the 20mph speed limit as the focus of the Blackfriars issue, it has probably even successfully selected the most marketable aspect of the current plans to rally people behind.

The very fact that this campaign has worked – and yet those who oppose us are manoeuvring to gain publicity for this motion - demonstrates that we are fighting the wrong battle.

As Waldman notes,

Going forward, we oughtn’t confine ourselves to making the best of a terrible ideological environment. We should be considering how we might alter that environment to be more conducive of good policy.

This is why everyone who wants London’s road conditions improved needs to be arguing for a radical reallocation of street space. It is the reason to support the Cycling Embassy of GB, Clean Air London and Living Streets (Disclaimer: the views in this post are mine not theirs). Not necessarily because you think these organisations will ever fully succeed – or even because you support all of their goals. But because it is the only way to change the parameters that define the possible.

In 2002, George Bush’s notorious advisor Karl Rove famously said the following to his opponents:

When we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.

Cyclists, pedestrians and anyone who wants London’s streets to be a more pleasant place to be have a choice. We can study the political constraints set by our opponents and select the least-bad choice from within them. Or we can change those constraints.

What do we do now?

Naturally, we need to respond. But if we respond simply with a go-slow over Blackfriars Bridge, demanding that the speed limit is maintained, all this does is reinforce the culture that the only politically possible options are either a horrendous road with the current speed limit, or a horrendous road with an increased speed limit.

Whatever we do next, whether it is a go-slow, or something more inclusive of pedestrians and others affected by the Tory walk-out, one thing is clear:

The time for asking for the speed limit not to be increased is over. Our protest needs to demand that Blackfriars bridge be closed to motor traffic.

It’s time to change the discussion.

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16 Responses to “Tory walk-out: a PR stunt that might just work”

  1. jamesup Says:

    Kickass post.

  2. chameleon Says:

    excellent post.

    but we also can change the shape of what’s imaginable by more radical action than the opposition expect – for example, by a sit-down protest on blackfriars, calling for both a redesign and the speed limit changes…

  3. chameleon Says:

    and, probably best to argue for closure to all traffic except buses and taxis, right?

  4. TfL considering modifying cycle lane on Blackfriars Bridge - Page 2 - London Fixed-gear and Single-speed Says:

    [...] nice post from futilitarian here: http://cycleoffutility.wordpress.com…k/#comment-100 [...]

  5. iamnotacyclist Says:

    Brilliant post. It always amazed when it was the cycle campaigns that said – oh it won’t happen, we shouldn’t ask because we won’t get it… I too think it’s time to ask for what is really needed – the reallocation of road space, more flashrides, more email campaigns – all to show that people want safe cycle tracks not more unenforceable speed limits.

  6. David Says:

    Closing a bridge as vital as this will force the motorised traffic onto the other bridges. In this case London Bridge particularly. An appalling outcome as this bridge is less safe for cycling with a terrible litany of accidents, and adding to the frustration of motorists (a majority of which on this bridge are NOT commuters, but tradesmen). A better case would be for the cycling lobby to push for a dedicated bridge for cycling to be built in this area. Then cycling could be banned from the more dangerous bridges and everyone will be safer and traffic will flow smoother and pollution will fall. None of the main river bridges were designed with cycling in mind. There are two pedestrian bridges in the area and it’s time to think about dedicated cycling bridges, no pedestrians, taxis, buses or cars…

  7. chameleon Says:

    @david

    there is not a set amount of motorised traffic to be forced elsewhere. a sufficient percentage is discretionary to self-regulate. tradesmen tend to avoid rush hours as it is. there is no need for separate cycling bridges – there is plenty of room on existing bridges for cyclists and pubic transport.

  8. iamnotacyclist Says:

    David – I think the point is – ask for impossible to gain publicity. What you’ll get in the end is of course a compromise. But in a face of complete closure, one lane dedicated solely to cyclists seems like nothing – on the other hand when you explicitly ask for a dedicated cycle track – it seems extreme.

  9. Mark Ruddy Says:

    +1
    There needs to be a step-change in approach here. LCC might have slightly modified their position but the CEGB, Clean Air London, Living Streets and other like-minded groups – who want safer, more pleasant spaces – hold the key to the future of our cities.

    Regular presence on the streets by a broad coalition of groups and citizens is needed. It worked in Stuttgart ( http://tinyurl.com/6gzpn7f ), let’s do it here, now.

  10. Dave H Says:

    There is a substantial body of cyclists – several hundred per hour who travel from Waterloo to the City of London, and they drove up the cycle count on Blackfriars Bridge Northbound to at least 15% of cycle traffic in a TfL survey taken a couple of years ago.

    The reason for this substantial volume of cycle traffic is historic and linked to the 6 month closure of the W&C Tube line in 2006-07. I made many observations of this, and photos of the cycle parking in 2002, shortly after the final recognition of the demand for cycling up the station approach (and opening of a proper cycle lane) show a neat and small cluster of parked bikes. In 2006-07 bikes were rammed solidly in to the racks so hard that it assistance was often required to get a bike out, and by 2010 the 30 bike spaces had been increased by 1000% to 320 spaces, with demand for more.

    At peak times spot counts indicate over 500 bikes/hour passing through exit 3 plus an uncounted number of people with clothes or accessories that indicate they will be retrieving a parked bike from the racks opposite. 60% of those bikes are folding bikes that have arrived on inner suburban trains 40% have either been parked on the platforms (3 over filled sites) or have come in from further out/slipped through the bike ban cordon.

    A random enquiry addressed to the riders of SWT hire bikes passing through revealed that both were heading for the City of London.

    One option which might be appropriate to eliminate the nasty right turn into Great Victoria Street could be to close Southwark Bridge entirely to motorised traffic – except for emergency vehicle access. This would be a natural continuation from the spine of pedestrian/cycle movement along Queen Street northwards. This could include a good and simple crossing priority of Lower Thames Street, or even using the option of a flyover for cyclists and pedestrians. Given the apparent volume of cycle traffic it may well be approaching levels at which the benefits of a route set up specifically for cycling can be realised (Stamford Street does have the width to manage 2 lanes of motorised traffic and cycle lanes on each side).

  11. Dr. Robert Davis Says:

    Very interesting post.

    I admire your approach of working out the likely consequences of using a particular set of tactics and questioning them well in advance.

    My view is that what has been gained so far is a clear picture of how TfL is – how can I put this politely? – not acting as a body willing to genuinely support cycling. There are other ways in which this can be portrayed, such as their lack of funding for cycling, willingness to tackle careless/dangerous driving etc., but these items don’t get the kind of publicity and raised awareness that this episode has. I think the unfolding of various TfL failures (the use of wrong modelling, indaequate consideration of junctuions as well as the speed limit) in public in this episode has been fascinating.

    I also think that episodes like this can give a boost to the confidence of campaigners – not ot be underestimated.

    My problem is that spending time on one particular piece of road space can lose the impetus, which I believe needs to go into an overall programme for supporting cycling. (I’ll be posting on what I think this could be shortly on the http://www.rdrf.org.uk web site).

    A lot of people are not affected by what happens on one particular bridge. Removal of all motor traffic may be way beyond possible objectives – and won’t , I believe, lead to other re-allocations of road space elsewhere.

    My pessimism maybe, but that’s what I think having listened to people say this kind of thing for 30 years or so.

    Anyway: onward!

  12. scsmith4 Says:

    The first thing I was taught at a course on negotiation set up by my Union was to ask for the thing you knew you’d only get in your wildest dreams. The last thing you would ask for before walking out is the bare minimum, which in this case is the 20mph limit.
    But what do I see campaign groups asking for time and again? The most watered down bit of the wishlist.
    I *would* settle for a 20mph limit in zones 1&2 – because at least then the inevitable over-the-limit creep would be to speeds where injuries are less likely to be fatal (optimistic, aren’t I?), but what I want to see is Copenhagenisation. According to my union training, I should be asking for motorised non-delivery/emergency vehicles to be banned from Blackfriars. So the next question is, how do we start negotiations again, from that point, instead of this one?

  13. Ciarán Mooney Says:

    @scsmith4:

    Whilst I agree with the tactics you mention, a Union has the opportunity to use the large and heavy stick of a workers strike to beat the opposition into submission.

    Unfortunately we do not have that kind of threat.

  14. All the Fun of the Fair « The Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club Says:

    [...] Bridge debacle I strongly recommend the London Cycle Campaign website this brilliant post by Cycle of Futility, I Bike London and of course, Crap Cycling and Walking in Waltham [...]

  15. Paul M Says:

    Following the theme of asking for the moon in order to settle for the stars, sure we can demand a complete rethink of road priority, return of streets to people, total closure/segregated lanes/filtered permeability on a grand scale. We can also demand keeping 20 in a 100m stretch of road just off the north end of Blackfriars Bridge.

    We could then perhaps focus attention on something in between: each and every Thames crossing between, say, Putney and Tower Bridge. Why?

    - because the bridges are an easily defined battleground
    - everyone knows that bridges are more dangerous than most roads either side, partly because
    - speeding and dangerous overtaking are endemic on the bridges. Taking Blackfriars as an example, on either side you approach from three directions, and fan out to three directions on the other side. So a triple capacity narrows to a single one and as always happens with road narrowings, traffic bunches leading up to it and then shoots out like a champage cork once it hits the narrow section. (You can see the same effect if you drive down the A303 towards Devon on a summer Friday afternoon)
    - these factors amply justify specific action. Total closure to motor traffic doesn’t make much sense to me – you will worsen the impact on another bridge and unlike cars, cyclists need to expend effort to detour to take the traffic-free bridge – much of the reason why the bridges are bad is precisely because they are natural bottlenecks
    - the TfL London Road Safety Unit has already published a report supporting speed limits on the bridges

    I wouldn’t stop at a lower speed limit. I’d want well-protected cycle paths like those on Southwark Bridge (introduced not to benefit cyclists by the way, but to prevent coach parking on a bridge considered insufficiently strong to support the weight)

    I’d like to see other things of course – decent ASLs, and a cycle-green phase on the lights ahead of the motor-green phase, like they have in the Netherlands.

    This would only be a start, but every journey starts with a single step.

  16. On campaigning « Cycle of Futility Says:

    [...] Blackfriars is also about pedestrians, cleaner air and ultimately more pleasant [...]

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