You can thank God the meeting about cycling in Richmond Park didn’t become a bunfight

December 20, 2014

Leaflets handed out at meeting about cycling in Richmond Park

Strange times in Richmond this week, where a public meeting to address the tensions between cyclists and motorists in Richmond Park ended with panellist and GLA cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan noting that it hadn’t been the scene of confrontation that some might have anticipated. I think there were many small reasons that helped to bring about this Christmas miracle, along with a very big elephant-in-the-room-type one. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a moment. First, though, I’m going to run through what I consider to be the notable moments during Wednesday night’s event at Duke Street Church, which was chaired by Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston (and if you want a briefer and less analytical look at what was said, then by all means have a look at my running commentary on the night).

The audience’s most consistent response, judging by the level of applause whenever the issue was raised, was that far too many motorists use the park as a shortcut. The most visceral reaction came in the form of two collective gasps from the crowd when Sergeant Michael Boulton, who leads the park’s policing team, revealed that the average speed of motorists who had been caught breaking the limit was 38mph, and the fastest was 56mph (the limit is 20). By contrast, cyclists were not as badly behaved as they are often perceived: Simon Richards of Royal Parks observed that they are only really speeding on the downhill sections – damn you, gravity! – and Kingston’s police commander said the number of tickets issued in the borough for jumping red lights was “low”.

On the issue of special facilities for cyclists, there is very little enthusiasm for a cycleway. The Friends Of Richmond Park said they are “wholeheartedly” against the idea as they believe it would turn the road into a dual carriageway, while Peter Treadgold, the panel’s expert on sustainable transport, drew the line at adding “heavy infrastructure” and would only go as far as suggesting that a separate cycle lane on the uphill sections might enable cars to pass more easily. A comment from the floor that motorists should travel in one direction on the circular roadway and cyclists on the other was met with a few groans of displeasure. Through traffic is through traffic, I guess, regardless of which way it goes.

Zac Goldsmith suggested that one of the areas that might be explored by interested parties was opening the park at different times of day for different users. He asked for a show of hands which showed there was broad support for looking at this concept. I understand that various groups and individuals will be meeting to discuss ideas generated by the meeting, and I’ll be interested to see what becomes of this one, as well as the idea of road charging which was also raised by Paul Harknett, my chum and London Dynamo club captain.

There was, of course, a bit of hostility to cycling, most memorably with one motorist declaring that Richmond Park was “plagued” by cyclists (the irony that the park is a facility principally for outdoor pursuits seemed to have escaped him). I could hear some grumbles and snorts from my corner of the pews whenever a cyclist made a reasonable point, but they were too quiet to register in the room. So why, given the strength of feeling about the issues at stake, was this not a noisier and more confrontational affair?

One reason could be because the anti-cycling brigade felt inhibited because they didn’t have a visible platform: as you can see from the picture above, we were all handed leaflets publicising Royal Parks, the Richmond Cycling Campaign and Zac Goldsmith, but there is no such organisation as Friends Of Motorists Who Choose To Drive In Richmond Park. There was also clear common ground between cyclists and non-cyclists on the issue of through traffic. Paul, Dynamo’s club captain, sounded reasonable and engaged, which probably helped build bridges (although I admit to being biased on that one). And even though Zac apparently received hundreds of strongly-worded emails prior to the meeting, it appears no one on either side of the debate is brave enough to be as angry in a public setting as they are behind the safety of a screen and a keyboard.

But my theory is that the venue itself took a bit of the heat out of the mood. We were in a church. Many of those who clearly appeared to be against cyclists were of an older generation who are more likely to be religious or at least show greater deference to its customs. And they were, thank the Lord, unwilling to raise their voices in a house of God.

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