A constant barrier faced by people arguing for change in conditions is the claim that the presence of those conditions is, in itself, evidence that the groups involved are in favour of their existence.
Perhaps my favourite, slightly pretentious example of this is the 17th Century political philosopher John Locke. One of the founders of liberalism, a staunch advocate of the social contract and fierce opponent of the arbitrary rule of monarchy, when discussing the role of women he has a pretty serious wobble:
She should be subject to her husband, as we see that generally the Laws of mankind and customs of nations leave ordered it so: and there is, I grant, a foundation in nature for it.
Locke is unable to overcome the conviction that women ought to be subjugated by men. His only justification for this being “natural” is that this is the behaviour that he has observed.
This continues into modern political debate. Attempts to strike a balance between economic productivity and the need for childcare are concluded with statements from media and policy outlets like:
Pay mothers to stay at home.
Why? This presumption that state should legislate in a gendered fashion based on the historical behaviour of one sex is underpinned by the assumption that actions in the past have been choices.
This view – that the actions of women are an approximate indicator of social vocation – is perhaps most succinctly rejected by Catherine MacKinnon:
Take your foot off our necks, then we will hear in what tongue women speak.
In Transport for London’s presentation to the London Assembly about Blackfriars Bridge, published last week, they similarly use the argument that a situation currently exists as evidence that it ought to exist – even though what we see at Blackfriars has quite clearly been artificially created by the very body who refuses to change it, Transport for London.
The Assembly were presented with this pie chart as part of the justification for making cycling conditions worse (p3):
These figures are highly suspect – we know that actually, there are more bicycles than any other vehicle over Blackfriars Bridge into the City during the AM peak.
Note how in the above graph, TfL lump together car and LGV occupants to make that section larger than cyclists (both would otherwise be smaller).
They also assume inordinately high vehicle occupancy rates – on average more than 3 people per occupied taxi – leading to the ridiculous conclusion that more people commute over Blackfriars Bridge by taxi than by bike.
But none of this matters. Even if TfL’s data was correct: so what?
Are we to assume that a relatively low percentage of cyclists over Blackfriars Bridge is an argument for worsening conditions over the bridge?
The demand is there
Transport for London can perpetually produce presentations and press releases of modal share stats, layout drawings and planners’ projections of junctions where they squeeze cycle lanes and remove pedestrian crossings.
But they cannot keep trying to use the fact that people are not cycling in London as an excuse for making London’s roads more hostile to cyclists.
There is a demand for cycling in London on traffic-free routes. On Sunday, 55,000 people on London’s streets showed us that.
And yet TfL in Blackfriars and elsewhere are not just refusing to make streets better – they are actively making them worse. The reason that there aren’t more cyclists on the streets is because of how those streets are being designed.
An executive decision
This is not about TfL and the figures they plug into which modelling software – if the Mayor and TfL can persuade us that it is, then we will never have conditions for cycling in London that would get the tens of thousands of Sky Ride participants on London’s streets any other day of the year.
This is a political situation where people do not have the freedom to use their streets in the way that they would like to. The way out is through a decision that the Mayor has to make.
This is an irritating issue for Boris Johnson and TfL because they are aware that Blackfriars has the ability to undo the good work of the Sky Rides: the persistent focus on the day-to-day reality of cycling can harm both Boris and TfL.
Catherine MacKinnon argued that practices of inequality do not require that acts be intentionally discriminatory, “all that is required is that the status quo be maintained”.
Boris can opt to do this – keep building streets the way that they have been built, keep designing people out of London’s cities, keep telling us that this is “not atypical” of London. Or he can choose not to.
But as more people start to notice, and write about it and take to the streets, Boris will find it harder and harder to convince Londoners that he’s in favour of cycling, while continuing to design it out of the city he runs.