It's striking how much cycle promotion there is around London these days. You can't get on a tube or bus without seeing posters exhorting you to cycle.
And lots of people do want to cycle. But then come the practicalities. A question we just received on our Yahoo! group was: "What is a good way to cycle from Dollis Hill to Stanmore?" This cyclist has been on the TfL journey planner, and selected "bike only", and got the suggestion to go up the A5 and over the 50mph (in practice 70mph) Staples Corner flyover with it's terrifying motorway-style slip roads. And one has to answer his question, sorry, but it isn't actually possible to cycle from Dollis Hill to Stanmore by an acceptably direct route without going through feasome motorway-style junctions, or breaking the law and riding on pedestrian bridges and pavements. Brent south of the A406 North Circular road is completely cut off from north Brent and the outer suburbs, that is the way it is, and no-one in government seems to have a clue how to address that problem, or even to understand what a problem it is.
So, there's a fundamental problem with cycle promotion in this country. It's all upside-down, cart before horse. Government keeps telling people to cycle before the facilities are put in place to make it feasable, safe, and attractive - and, in fact, without there ever being a serious intention to make it so. We keep having cycling festivals and this and that cuddly thing, without ever having done the hard stuff, without having actually built the routes. The so-called soft and hard measures are in the wrong order, which will never work. Logically, it is completely crazy. Translated to another form of transport, it is as if we were railway promoters spending all our budget on advertising our wonderful railway, telling people to use it, but we don't build it, it just doesn't exist. It's just nuts.
Well, maybe as a nation we can't afford to buid proper cycle routes. But it seems we can afford to do the promotion. And advertising doesn't come cheap. Advertising budgets are measured in millions. The cost of, say, a cycle bridge across the North Circular would be millions too. But that would be millions well-spent, it would be a permanent piece of cycle promotion which would not disappear when the poster boards are resurfaced. And if it worked, it would continue working indefinitely - what an investment.
The sad truth is that the cynical, but realistic reply to the qustion about cycling from Dollis Hill to Stanmore is that the best way to do that is to take a folding bike on the tube and cycle the last bit from the station, or, leave a cheap bike permanently at the far end. The tube and railways are how most sensible Londoners without cars cross the North Circular barrier. Just imagine if the tube lines stopped at the North Circular, how divided London would be. That's what we have in cycling terms. We don't have the network, and we are wasting money telling people to use a mode of transport that is not practical.
Eventually that message must sink in, and either the authorities will give up on cycle promotion, or get serious about cycling. I don't see much sign of that happening during Boris Johnson's tenure as Mayor of London.
Camden Cycling Campaign have a very interesting critique of the London cycle hire proposals on their site.
Their analysis seems sensible and the bottom line conclusion significant:
"The differences in demographics between the London and Paris areas studied are immense...It seems intuitively unlikely that an area with so few residents will generate the required number of hire cycle journeys. Travelcard Zone 2 or a substantial part of it seem much more likely to support a successful deployment."
I agree there is a serious risk the London scheme could fail, not only because of the lack of residents in zone 1, but because of the perceived hostility of the environment by those who do not cycle already, linked to the lack of effective facilities in London. I observed the start of the Paris scheme, and noted how at that time there were far more segregated cycle facilities in central Paris than in central London, and how the hire stations had been planned to take advantage of these. These facts seem to have been generally overlooked by British commentators on the Paris experience.
If the hire scheme fails it could be disastrous for cycling in London, over and beyond the failure of the specific scheme itself, because it would send a message to politicians that cycling doesn't work in London and is not worth investing in.