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Boris Johnson's new transport advisor Andrew Gilligan: 'The the answer is cycling'

Peter Stuart
28 Jul 2019

Andrew Gilligan has been appointed as Boris Johnson's transport advisor – we talked to him about fighting the cause for cyclists

Andrew Gilligan, a journalist most famous for his exposé of the 'dodgy dossier' in 2003, has been appointed as transport advisor to the new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. For cyclists, this could be cause for celebration, as it is a very good sign of future investment and considerations for cyclists across the UK.

Andrew Gilligan held the office of Cycling Commissioner from 2013 to 2016, a post created by Boris Johnson to implement his cycling transformation in London. Since Sadiq Khan has taken over, Gilligan has vocally criticised a complete stagnation of cycling infrastructure projects.

He spoke to Cyclist last year about the ideal solution for urban cycling and how this will affect the future of travelling by bike, so here's a look back at our Q&A.

Cyclist: Cycling infrastructure projects have virtually come to a halt under London Mayor Sadiq Khan, where do you think he’s gone wrong?

Andrew Gilligan: Sadiq Khan will discover that to get anything done, and not just in terms of cycling, you have to annoy people. And if he’s worried about annoying anybody about anything he’s never going to get anything done.

Cyc: There seems to be a lot of support for Cycle Superhighway schemes? Why do you think Sadiq Khan is seeing a backlash?

AG: All these schemes will almost always have majority support but they will never have unanimous support.

There will always be a very vocal, very loud, minority of people who genuinely passionately believe that their lives are going to be ruined because they have to wait 10 minutes in traffic on the embankment.

So the key condition for any meaningful Superhighway scheme to happen is political leadership which is prepared to listen to reasonable objections, but in the end to listen to the majority rather than the minority and proceed with scheme.

The problem is that it’s difficult and it will get you lots of angry emails and letters.

Cyc: The LTDA has complained that the reallocation of road space isn’t fair on taxi drivers, where did you stand on that?

AG: It’s a very fair deal. At the moment the vast majority of road space is given to the least efficient users of it.

Taxis are an incredibly inefficient use of road space. They’re even worse than cars because at least cars are always going somewhere, but taxis are often just cruising around looking for work or coming back from dropping someone off.

Cyc: Why has the government historically been so reluctant to invest in cycling and cycling infrastructure? 

AG: I think partly it’s a generational thing. One of the things I found most interesting about the job is that your view of cycling varied very much depending on how old you were.

For anyone over about 50, a bicycle was what you had if you couldn’t afford a car, it was a sign of failure, you wanted to get rid off it as soon as possible as you couldn’t get girls on a bike.

Buying a nice big car is how you said you were a man, and successful. That’s completely different for younger people.

Most ministers, certainly cabinet ministers are older than the average. Then the vast majority of politicians don’t come from London, which doesn’t help.

Cyc: Did you have any significant cooperation from central government for Boris’s schemes?

AG: The DfT [Department for Transport] I’ve always thought were a complete waste of time. To offer one example – a few years ago we wanted them to allow us TfL [Transport for London] to enforce mandatory bike lanes, so give fines for people who drove into mandatory bike lanes.

That’s a power we already have on bus lanes. There is such a power in the 2004 Road Traffic Act but it hasn’t been commenced. And all it would have taken is a minister signing a piece of paper saying ‘I commence this power’ to allow us to enforce it.

We argued for years and kept saying – can we please start this power so we can enforce cycle lanes in the same way we enforce bus lanes. And the answer was just no.

Thankfully we didn’t have to deal with them for London-based projects. I think the only way to achieve anything with cycling is to get it done through local authorities.

Cyc: With that in mind, why did you not achieve more wide-reaching changes?

AG: My experience of the three years was that, as you know, TFL only owns 5% of the roads in London, but then the other 95% of roads, including what we think of as main roads are owned by the boroughs, and unfortunately the vast majority of boroughs don’t really get cycling, and they’re not very good at it.

Of the 33 boroughs there are perhaps 5 or 6 that really get this and are willing to show the political leadership that’s needed.

So my conclusion was that we should probably not waste our time with boroughs that were not seriously interested in cycling, and we should focus our efforts on the TfL roads that we controlled and those handful of boroughs that were seriously interested in doing stuff.

Cyc: Does London present a different problem for cyclists than the rest of the UK?

AG: London’s transport ecology is completely different from almost all of the rest of the country. I mean virtually nobody drives into Central London.

There are 1.3m people coming into Central London each morning, but only 59,000 come by car, making up less than 5%. Yet those people get a vast share of the surface of London.

I just think it’s crazy that we prioritise this tiny minority above everyone else.

That’s the political reality of transport in London. You will get a lot of complaining and a lot of noises but they are tiny tiny minorities.

Cyc: What would your ideal solution have been for cyclists in London have been?

AG: I think we need less traffic in Central London full stop, we need to increase the congestion charge. The congestion charge is a proven instrument for reducing traffic levels and I think we should increase it significantly for private cars in particular.

I mean the number of commuters coming in by car is less than 5% but you look at cars, taxis and private hire vehicles together, they make up 50% of the traffic in Central London.

Then I would put in more segregated lanes on main roads, as obviously there will always be a certain amount of traffic.

I would put in more filtering of neighbourhoods, you could still drive to anywhere you wanted but it would take a bit longer that’s all.

Cyc: Does that mean a war on motorists?

AG: I don’t believe in a war and I don’t believe in banning driving and there’s obviously certain people that have to drive – that’s fine. But the majority of people in London want and would benefit from less motor traffic.

Nowhere in Inner London has even 50% car ownership by household, even in Kensington and Chelsea only 46% of households have a car.

That’s households not people.

Cyc: Where did you stand on the debate between people who considered cycling infrastructure essential and those who thought greater numbers of cyclists was more important to safety?

AG: Infrastructure makes a massive difference to safety. We know how people get killed on bikes. Typically they get killed by lorries crossing across their paths and crashing below their wheels.

That is physically impossible on a segregated track. We’ve had a consistently declining trend of cycling casualties in London due in part to this infrastructure and also other things like safety standard for lorries.

Cyc: Do you think that increasing the perceived safety of cycling is the important issue?

AG: I mean perceived safety is as important as actual safety I always believe this. Cycling as you know objectively is not unsafe, it’s pretty safe.

There were something like 270 million cycle journeys in London last year in which 9 ended in death. That compares with 1989 which was the peak year for cycling casualties when there were 90 million cycle journeys in London of which 33 ended in death.

More than three times as many and in a third the volume of cycling. The casualty rate has dramatically improved by all measures.

Yet people believe that cycling is unsafe, partly because of all the coverage of cycling deaths and so on and partly because it doesn’t feel safe – when you’re on the road on a bike you feel vulnerable.

We could have done more flexible forms of segregation outside of junctions, where the most accidents happen, but I wanted them to be permanent for that extra sense of safety and so no future politician could come in and take them out.

Or at least if they did want to we would definitely notice.

Cyc: How did you feel about the technical solution of the Cycle Superhighway? Was there anything you would have done differently?

AG: They’re pretty good I think. They’re the best thing that's been built in Britain and they’re carrying thousands and thousands of people a day already.

The North-South one is already carrying 29 a minute at the rush hour. We chose bi-directional tracks because that took up less space. That’s not the norm in other cities.

If you go somewhere like Holland you’re more likely to see two single directional tracks than a bi-directional track. We chose bi-directional tracks because they would take up less space.

You could get away with removing one of the four traffic lanes on the Embankment. If you wanted single direction tracks we would have to have removed two of the the four.

I think they work pretty well and I think most cyclists are happy, indeed ecstatic with how they’re working.

Cyc: How did you feel about the more creative solutions to cycle lanes, such as the plan to build skyways for bicycles?

AG: Ugh, ludicrous. It was the bane of my life, I mean most weeks we kept getting approached by these people with absurd schemes.

Then the most ludicrous of all is their schemes for elevated bikeways above railways lines. Then there was this other one for proposed bike lanes in disused underground tunnels.

I remember saying - where are these disused underground tunnels and how would you get down to them by the way since most of these stations are only accessed by escalators or lifts? That ended that.

It was good for a headline in the Evening Standard but it is completely impractical, it would have cost every penny we had for three miles of route.

Then an architectural practice came in with some plan for an elevated bike path above the tracks into Liverpool Street and I said to them – what happens when you hit a bridge? Do you close the railway line to construct these things? What do you do about all the rail passengers?

What about all the people living beside the line who would complain quite rightly that their light was being removed by a double decker railway? By the way it’s going to cost £900m.

There are no magic solutions, there are simple solutions easy enough for everyone to support but you just have to have the balls to do them.

Cyc: You’re now working for the Sunday Times, what’s your explanation for the negativity coming from many national newspapers toward cycling when so many staff must be city-based and possibly cyclists?

AG: You must remember that newspapers are not written for the benefit of the staff but for the benefit of the readers, and in the case of the Mail that’s old farts in the countryside who hate cyclists.

The reason newspapers often cover cycling is purely clickbait. You do something about cycling and you immediately get a thousand comments and it’s just the way it is. It’s truly weird.

I don’t know why it attracts such passions, I really don’t. Maybe it’s because it’s relatively new, I don’t know.

Cyc: Cyclists seem to receive a lot of animosity, especially in cities, what solutions did you see to this?

AG: Well, people kept saying you should do more to improve cyclists’ behaviour but I’m not responsible for cyclists’ behaviour.

We did do a lot of stuff about improving behaviour, we did a thing called operation safeway putting police officers by the side of the road to stop people who were riding irresponsibly and driving irresponsibility, it was an impartial operation aimed at all road users.

But I don’t buy this argument that all cyclists should have insurance and wear helmets and high-vis and then everybody would love them. That’s not true at all.

People decide they don’t want cycling then they look for reasons to oppose it. Then sometimes they just make up reasons.

I’m not saying cyclists are complete paragons of virtue all the time, but they don’t omit any pollution (they’re not responsible for increasing pollution as many of their opponents say - that is just a lie).

They don't create much congestion if any and they’re not a safety risk. Occasionally cyclists alarm people by riding on the pavement or something but the number of people killed by cyclists in London averages out to about 1 or 0.5 a year.

The number of people killed by cars in London is about 100-200 a year I believe. It’s a silly argument.

We used to get lots of letters to City Hall complaining about cyclists’ behaviour and virtually no letters complaining about motorists’ behaviour despite the latter being far more dangerous.

Cyc: Have you been shocked by the claims that cycle lanes have increased congestion and pollution in London?

AG: Basically that’s one of the things you get. People makes things up, they lie. I mean either they lie or they just imagine stuff. Superhighways are commonly blamed for all of the congestion in Central London which is ridiculous.

I mean 15,000 miles of road in Central London of which 12 has got cycle lanes on [it].

Cyc: If not cycling, what other answers are there for the future of London’s congestion?

AG: I’m not absolutely sure that big infrastructure projects that politicians talk about actually do the job, I think you need lots of little ones.

Even Crossrail – Sir Peter Hendy [former TfL boss] has said it is going to be full virtually from the point it opens and the problem with big infra be they new railways or new roads is that traffic expands to fill the available space and I think it is true of public transport as well.

So we’ll have spent a lot of money to build a new railway but it’s not going to solve the problem, it’s not going to reduce demand.

We need to start thinking much more seriously about not only how we increase supply but how we reduce supply.

That means not building any more out of town supermarkets and not building any more NHS hospitals miles away from anywhere.

I don’t believe that the answer to London's transport problems is a vast slew of new railways or transport links.

I think the answer is cycling actually.

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