The Path Of Most Resistance, Tim Dawson (2011)
How cycylists kept their riverside rights. Original article first published at thesundaytimes.co.uk
“No cycling” signs were errected recently along a stretch of the Thames Path between Lambeth and Westminster Bridges. This is the section in front of St Thomas’ Hospital and opposite the Houses of Parliament. As riding on the path beside the river is one of the world’s greatest urban cycling expereinces, and a safe, convenient route for many pedalling commuters, there was an understandable furore.
The upshot has been a fabulous demonstration of the need for constant vigillance in respect of cyclists’ rights and the effectiveness of smart, focussed, grass-roots activism.
Lambeth council put up the signs – attatched to wasted bins along the route. “No Cycling Pedestrian Area” is their bald injunction. They were errected, it has since become known, after complaints from “key stakeholders in the South Bank area” were made to the council about “a small number of aggressive cyclists” using this part of the path.
The section of the route on which they were put up is by no means the busiest. Anyone trying to cycle between the South Bank Centre and the London Eye on a warm evening will have been met with so many strolling pedestrians that trying to cycle would be patently unsafe and antisocial. On much of the rest of the path, however, and during the morning commute time, there is eaisly enough space for pedestrians and cyclists to comfortably co-exist.
By December, bloggers such as Kennington People on Bikes, and the London Cycle Campaign had started to quesion Lambeth Council about the legality of the signs and their appropriateness. After much harrying, a coalition against the ban, including Boris Johnston and London assembly member Jenny Jones had coalesced.
Then during January, a Freedom of Information request, by Ian McPherson a member of the Southwark Cyclists confirmed what many who opposed the ban had suspected all along. The signs, in fact, had no legal force. According to Lambeth Council they are mearly ‘advisory’. “A Police Office or Police Community Support Officer is entitled to request any member of the public to dismount their bicycle, however, they are unable to force them to do so”. Should a cyclist ignor such a request, they would not be committing an offence, nor risking a fine or arrest.
The response also revealled that the cost of putting up the 20 signs was £2,600. By this time, signatures opposing the ban were piling up, it was the talk of the bloggospher and activists far from the capital were starting to weigh in. So yesterday, Lambeth Council announced that it was changing course.
“A decision has been made to take down the ‘No Cycling’ signs along the Lambeth-owned stretch of river walk and instead erect: ‘Pedestrian Priority. Considerate Cycling Welcomed’” said the council’s statement.
It is a fantastic result and a genuine victory for common sense, but underlines how easily the right to cycle might be lost.
In the early days the bicycle, attempts to ban the bike were commonplace. Then, after a determined campaign by the Cyclists Touring Club, a line was inserted into the Local Government Act of 1888. Henceforth, it stated, a bicycle shall be treated as ‘a carriage’ and is therefore subject to the laws affecting other ‘carriages’. It removed from statue those bylaws enacted by local bodies that banned cyclists from the roads and for many years, it was celebrated as ‘the cyclists Magna Charta’.
That part of the Act still stands – but the Thames Path case demonstrates how little room there is for complacency. It also shows how important it is to comply with the request for considerate cycling on shared-use routes.
Human decency should be sufficient for us to respect the rights of pedestrians. But there is a more calculating reason for giving priority to those who take to such pathways on foot. Only by maintaining the broadest possible coalition are cyclists’ rights’ safe. Alienate other vulnerable road users, and the battle against “No Cycling” signs might easily be lost.
TD Feb 11