London Cycle Campaign interviews George Ferguson

There’s a three page spread in the June 2014 “London Cyclist” magazine from London Cycling Campaign. Some interesting things here and much that’s encouraging (we like the quote that “80% of people (and rising) in Bristol think cycling to work is ‘normal’ compared with only 66% of people nationally”).

LCC 30_JUNE14_LC Interview with George Ferguson

The Mayor of Bristol is fast becoming the country’s most prominent cycling advocate as Mike Cavenett finds out

You have an ambitious plan to double cycling in Bristol from 7% to 14% over the next ten years. Readers in London might be unfamiliar with Bristol, can you tell us what’s been achieved so far to increase cycling?

According to the 2011 Census, Bristol achieved the highest growth outside central London between 2001 and 2011 with the number of people cycling doubling from 8,108 to 16,211, and the modal share of people cycling to work now at 7.7%. This is still a long way off continental levels, but is a pretty impressive figure for any major British city, especially as cycling levels have remained relatively unchanged nationally.

The three key lessons are that, firstly, Bristol has been promoting cycling for a long time (with the first cycling officer in the UK in the late 1980s), and an ongoing sustained effort really does make a difference. You have to be in it for the long term and keep at it.

The second is making sure that you choose carefully where to invest, so it successfully gets more people on bikes. The Bristol-Bath Railway Path now sees millions of journeys a year. More recently we have seen up to six times as many people on the Concorde Way, one of the key investments of the Cycling City programme, chosen because it has employment sites at each end (the city centre at one end and the M4 corridor at the other).

The third is being innovative. We trialled contraflows and advanced stop lines in Bristol in the 1990s and they are now widely accepted. I am frustrated at how difficult the centralised rules are to be able to innovate more.

Looking ahead, what are the top measures that will help achieve your target in this electoral term?

Firstly, keeping at it. With a variety of different funding streams we are continuing to invest significantly in cycling, and making sure that other investments, like our Bus Rapid Transit system that will be coming on line in 2016/17, also benefits walking and cycling.

Secondly, Bristol is European Green Capital in 2015, so we really aim to create a bit of a buzz around sustainability for that.

The third thing is demand management — for example after 20 years of talking about it we are now rolling out residents’ parking, the last of the major English cities to do so. I am pleased that people will no longer be able to drive within a short distance of the city centre and leave their car outside other people’s homes all day.

Fourthly, we are rolling out 20mph speed limit areas with a very ambitious city-wide programme; the closer to the city centre you get, the more comprehensive the limit area becomes.

Lastly we are already seeing that people are encouraged in some areas by the numbers of people already cycling to take to the pedals themselves — ‘safety in numbers’ — but I also think that drivers are becoming more sympathetic and accepting of bikes on the road.

It is also important to remember it is not all about cycling, it is about creating cities that are fit for people to live and get around in without being dominated or intimatdated by single occupancy cars.

Bristol Cycling Campaign supports a similar policy platform to LCC: local streets without through motor traffic and reduced speeds, along with a safe, protected network of main road cycleways. Do you support these Dutch-style measures in Bristol?

The local campaign is doing some good work and I support this idea. I am rolling out a very ambitious 20mph programme on residential streets. Some of the areas where we are introducing residents’ parking also creates space for reallocation — for example, Clarence Road (near Temple Meads) used to have nose-to-tail commuter parking, but will now have a segregated bike lane instead.

What kind of street designs do you think will persuade parents that their children are safe on the roads on their bicycles?

I accept that there are conditions in Bristol that make cycling to school difficult, which is why we are focusing on active travel rather than exclusively cycling. As far as I am concerned, I am happy if a large majority of children arrive by foot or scooter as well as bike. I am also cautious of prescribing any infrastructural panacea; different conditions provide different opportunities and challenges.

Before the abolition of Cycling England, Bristol was the UK’s only ‘Cycling Demonstration City’. Have you found the national government helpful to your efforts to encourage cycling? Have you invited Eric Pickles over to see how sustainable transport can benefit urban areas?

Bristol has been very successful in persuading the DfT to allocate cycling funds, and we are very grateful for the opportunity to show what can be done. Analysis of the Census results shows that Bristol (and some of the others that targeted the journey to work) really did well on any measure, including comparison with the other Cycling England demonstration sites.

I do think that the government should do more to give us local flexibilities to try new things: we have the most centralised system in Europe and that makes it very difficult to trial different approaches that we are confident will work. IhavesaidIwouldbehappytobea test bed for innovation and I will also be watching what London is up to.

My own belief is at odds with Eric Pickles and I have already been publicly pulled up for my quotes about how our views differ. I believe there are dozens of examples in Europe that show limiting car traffic makes for much more civilised cities, but also that it takes bold leadership to change the status quo.

Car parking takes up a huge proportion of our street space, so what have you done to address this problem, to provide more space for cycling —and did you manage it without your popularity suffering?

Some of the resulting space from our programme of residents’ parking is being given to cyclists. Time will tell about how this will be judged, but we have already seen widespread support for it where it has been rolled out, with traders asking for it to be extended to the weekend. Change is always difficult, and the scheme has made me unpopular with some people, not least some of the local party politicians.

We also have a large and comprehensive car club provision in Bristol and, with technology, I think there are all sorts of interesting innovations around ‘demand responsive transport’ that will be appearing in the next few years.

Most evidence points to increased cycling benefiting all of society not just a minority — reduced congestion and pollution, improved public health, etc — but many people don’t understand this. How do you sell cycling to what is still a largely non-cycling electorate?

Everyone benefits from cycling, even those that do not cycle, and it has been gratifying recently to see cities in America, home of the automobile, really understanding this and making some impressive progress.

We have been doing tracker surveys of attitudes to cycling and we are showing that in Bristol there is increasing acceptance of cycling: over 80% of people (and rising) in Bristol think cycling to work is ‘normal’ compared with only 66% of people nationally. We need to do much more to ‘normalise’ cycling, and this needs to happen through soft and hard measures.

In 2013, a London coroner said that blue paint on the Mayor’s Cycle Superhighways was liable to confuse cyclists and motorists. From where do you take your inspiration when planning high-quality, protected cycle lanes?

I’ve just been to Copenhagen where the system is stunning, along with many Dutch cities. We have quite a bit of catching up to do! This will take time and long-term effort, but I do think that there is still a place for paint-based interventions.

Does your architectural background help you in examining the fine details of proposed schemes?

As I regularly cycle around town I’m interested in the fine details, but this is as a cyclist rather than as an architect. As an architect I’ve always been focused on people and how they use places and spaces, so I am interested in a broader palette rather than the minutiae of individual schemes and how it all fits together.

Some architects say that cycling is the transport mode that is most suited to the scale and road layouts of European cities, do you agree?

Yes, although with the hills in Bristol I do accept that some people may wish to use electric bikes, which seem to be taking off significantly on the continent.

You’ve mentioned creating a ‘cycling champion’ in Bristol. Why not simply appoint a cabinet member for cycling?

My Assistant Mayor, Mark Bradshaw, is the lead for transport and he and I take cycling very seriously — in fact Mark, as a Labour cabinet member, did a great deal of positive things, including winning the Cycling City funding in 2008. As an independent, I have put together a ‘rainbow cabinet’ with the parties represented proportionately to the number of seats on the Council.

On my behalf the Green cabinet member recently went on a study tour of Holland with my Director of Transport, but I am determined that it is about the holistic view of the city rather than just cycling where our focus needs to be.