BY MARK Ames
There has been much discussion online of a recent article in London’s Evening Standard; “Street rangers to crack down on rogue cyclists”. The rangers in question are private security guards employed by the Holborn and St Giles “inmidtown” Business Improvement District (BID) and will be enforcing a cyclist’s ‘code of conduct’ put together by the BID which includes spurious advice such as ‘use back streets to avoid traffic.’ According to inmidtown’s press release on the cyclist’s code of conduct “The code will also detail where and how visitors to the area can report cyclists who aren’t following the rules. Bad cyclist behaviour can be reported to a Midtown Ranger, or uploaded at a dedicated forum on the inmidtown website.” The inmidtown BID is not the only business group with a bee in its bonnet about cyclists. Another BID, ‘Better Bankside’, is pushing for an enforced ban of cycling on London’s South Bank at the behest of its primary tenant. So what are BIDs and are they bad for bicycles?
Business Improvement Districts, or BIDS, are an idea imported from America under the previous Government with much enthusiasm. Essentially, a group of businesses in a local area pay a levy or fee on top of their usual rates, to fund an organisation who’s primary focus is to improve the trading environment of a local area, that is to say to increase footfall in local businesses to improve their profitability. These improvements are usually pursued with a mixed policy of beautifying areas, increased CCTV and surveillance, local identity promotion (‘inmidtown’, ‘Better Bankside’) and private street rangers employed directly by the BID. These ‘clean and safe-style’ initiatives seek to take the fear of undesirable elements out of the BID’s landscape, thus making the area more attractive to the highest spenders. According to Anna Minton, author of “Ground Control; fear and happiness in the 21st Century City”; “A key feature of the new ‘private-public’ developments are the rules governing behaviour which ensure that only certain types of activities and certain types of people will be allowed to enjoy the spaces created. Typically, in ‘private-public’ space beggars and homeless are ‘moved on’ by private security, whilst behaviours ranging from skateboarding to rollerblading are banned.” Much of this thinking comes from New York, where BIDS were pioneered under former Mayor Rudolph Giulianni’s ‘zero tolerance strategy; “…he identified the homeless, beggars, squeegee cleaners, squatters, graffiti artists, reckless cyclists and unruly youths as elements whose presence would not be tolerated.”
Of course, as cyclists most of us do not desire to see ourselves linked with the groups named above. Neither, if we are law abiding riders, should there be any reason for us to be moved on or targeted by any private security firms under the guise of acting as ‘street rangers’. However, inmidtown’s decision to launch a ‘considerate cycling’ guide without any statistical consideration as to the actual primary sources of danger in the area highlights a worrying trend in which cyclists can be singled out as being somehow other or un-ordinary. It will not be to the benefit of the cause of cycling if business groups begin to brand us as a source of nuisance and danger in order to appease a commercial agenda. Especially if that commercial agenda includes ideas like this: “inmidtown is also looking into… .. implementing a Cyclist Therapy programme where cyclists identified as having broken the Code are sent out with the driver of a large vehicle to observe how dangerous it is for cyclists to not follow the rules of the road.” Therapy? For cyclists? Really?! And I always thought that we already had an adequate set of rules for dealing with the consequences of all road users who break the law… More worrying still is that the BID is able to pick and choose which laws they wish to see applied by their street rangers. Under the Police Reform Act 2002 which sought to extend the ‘wider Police family’, these rangers – working with their local dedicated PCSO – have the power to apply fixed penalty notices, as well as form part of the wider surveillance network of the BID area and can collect information in support of an Anti Social Behavioural Order against an individual banning them from the BID area. Again, if you are a law-abiding cyclist you should have nothing to worry about, however when these same people are issuing spurious cycling advice such as ‘Use back roads’ there is obvious grounds for conclusion as to what will be the consequence if you don’t follow their advice. Inmidtown’s ‘Cycling Code’ makes no mention of how the area’s rangers will also be targeting poor or dangerous driving of automobiles or anti-social parking.
The South Bank’s recent proposal to enforce a ban on cycling on the Thames footpath came with the proviso that it was done to ‘protect and benefit’ pedestrians. Regular readers to this blog will know that I often advocate that pedestrians should always have ‘top priority’ when it comes to provision on our streets. However, when that space is also being given over to commercial use such as seating for cafes and restaurants and tenant businesses, I don’t think it is wrong to be highly sceptical of the reasons for such a move. So far as I can see none of the proposed cycle bans have been backed up with any evidence that cyclists or cycling are the source of any more or less danger to the pedestrians in any of these areas than anything else. However, I can categorically say that in each of these areas crime such as mugging and theft, and more potently, danger from automobiles (both on an off the road) are a much stronger source of danger. That BIDs and their rangers are able to use the law to pursue their own populist agenda whilst stigmatising all cyclists and ignoring the real source of danger in their areas is a great personal cause for concern.
As BIDS increase in popularity and number across London they also present another threat to cycling. As we have already seen with Better Bankside many seek to ban cycling out right in large parts of their areas; through BIDS or private-public commercial land ownership cycling is now curtailed in large parts of Broadgate in the City, Canary Wharf, Spitalfields Market and so on. Furthermore, as any London cyclist will tell you, London’s cycling provision suffers greatly from the lack of a unified roads authority. The streets of Westminster are designed very differently to those of say Camden, and the two borough’s attitude to cycle lanes, advanced stop lines or even cycle parking are often very different. On top of this, the Transport for London roads network adds a further layer of diversity to this planning conundrum; the roads which are managed by TfL may pass through a number of boroughs but all are designed to be heavy-use high speed roads. This diversity of planning ideals by different Councils and their approach to cycling is already harmful to cycling as there is no single ‘cycle standard’ for London or single office to which cyclists should apply when campaigning for new facilities (thus why the London Cycle Campaign broke down into borough by borough groups). The imposition of a Business Improvement District’s approach to cycling on top of this planning patch-work will further lead to a dilution in the cohesive planning for cycling. If a BID or private-public area considers cyclist to be undesirable or somehow a threat to their primary customers they are likely to be highly disinclined to make cycling attractive in their private-public areas. This is demonstrated at East India Dock, a large business park on which falls the route of Cycle Superhighway 3. For the rest of the route the way is clearly marked with continuous blue paint on the road and clear signage. At East India Dock, where both the roadway and the ground are controlled by the business park operator, the route almost disappears completely with only small blue tiled squares every 5 metres or so pointing out the route, no street signage, and a manually controlled barrier across the road restricting access to and from the estate. Despite the Cycle Superhighway being a supposed ‘right of way’, it crosses privately owned and operated ‘public’ land and is therefore subject to the whims of the private operators who clearly do not value the contribution that cyclists have to make to the area. Perhaps this same thinking could also explain the shocking lack of cycle parking at Spitalfields Market, despite there being 3 cycle shops there as tenants?
I’m not writing about this relatively new issue for cyclists because I am overly concerned with the erosion of civil liberties in supposedly public space (though of course that is a concern) but because I believe that as BIDs and privately owned and operated ‘public’ spaces become more numerous in London the difficulties that these present to cyclists will also become more numerous. I do not believe that an open and balanced public debate about the effect these areas and organisations will have on our public spaces and roads will have has taken place, and it is something that cycling campaigners should be more aware of.
If a local area is to be re-designed, re-branded and driven by a business improvement agenda, is there a risk that there will be little room for cyclists left? And will the presence of nylon-clad private security who seeks to deter cyclists, deter cycling?