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Cyclists are not a menace, say Ken Livingstone and I

The Telegraph: Cyclists are not a menace, say Ken Livingstone and I

By Andrew Gilligan Last updated: December 1st, 2009

Ken Livingstone and I made a tiny bit of history last night. We spoke at the same event – on the same side. It was a debate organised by The Spectator magazine on the motion: “This house believes cyclists are a menace” (yes, we were against.)

As I said in my speech:

“Ken and I have a worse relationship than Gordon Brown and the Taliban. The feud between Mohammed al Fayed and the Royal Family has nothing on ours. Our agreeing with each other seemed about as likely as Imelda Marcos sending her shoes to the mender.

“So to get me and Ken on the same platform shows the size of the emergency we pro-cycling forces face this evening.

“The fact is, we cyclists are on the back foot tonight. You hate us. We jump red lights. We wear terrible clothes. Despite all that, we have that ineffable air of smugness – you too could ’save the Earth for our children’ if only you were more like us.

“Now all that might be annoying – but but I’m not sure any of it really amounts to being a ‘menace,’ a source of danger. Because being a really effective menace needs a lot more hardware.

“We cyclists have got a flimsy contraption of aluminium tubes, a few kilos in weight, taking up about one square foot of roadspace. Our top speed is three times slower than a Reliant Robin.

“Motorists, well, they’ve got thirteen tonnes of German engineering, bull-bars, 235 brake horse power,140mph, a Jeremy Clarkson loop-tape and serious anger management issues.”

(I’m exaggerating of course. I’m blaming an entire and vastly varied group of people for the characteristics of the worst. We’ll come back to that problem in a minute.)

“The number of people killed per year by cyclists averages less than one. The number of cyclists killed per year by motor vehicles is around 120.

“We are not a menace. We are menaced. And that explains some of the cyclist behaviour that gets up people’s noses….

“You might say that even if we’re not a menace to other vehicles, we’re a menace to pedestrians. But again the figures don’t stand that up. Cyclists make up about 1 per cent of the traffic in London, and they also cause 1 per cent of the traffic injuries to pedestrians – almost exactly in proportion with their numbers. The injuries they cause are also, as you’d expect, disproportionately at the lower end of the scale.

“The fact is that only a minority of cyclists indulge in the arrogant behaviour towards pedestrians which gets us a bad name. I would have no problem with a motion that says some cyclists are a menace. But tarring us all with the brush of a minority would be like supporting a motion that says Muslims are a menace. It would be outrageous. ”

And so on. I wrote it before I got there, but when I reached the venue and saw how many bikes were chained up to the railings, I knew we’d be all right. And indeed, the brethren were out in force. Some of them were even wearing Lycra. (One of my fellow panellists claimed that I turned up in a Lycra top – a shocking slur. All I can say is that while my jacket was certainly of a fibre and a colour not found in nature, no inch of Lycra shall ever touch my body.)

Ken and I sat next to each other and chatted a bit (we’ll be collaborating on a Christmas single next.) We’re always perfectly nice to each other when we meet face to face – it’s just when we get writing about each other (in my case) or giving press conferences and TV interviews (in his) that it all goes wrong.

Steve Pound, David Thomas and Baroness Sharples did a good job for the supporters of the motion, and managed to shift a few votes in their direction during the course of the evening. Ken and my Telegraph colleague Andrew Gimson, the other speakers on my side, were good, too. We won 96-45.

But perhaps the best contribution to the debate came from none of us, but from a guy from Cambridge who pointed out that in that city, cycling is so mainstream and cyclists so accepted that no rider feels the need to behave aggressively.

Just as in Cambridge and in such other mega-cycling cities as Copenhagen and Berlin, the key, I think, is normalising cycling – making it as common as driving, rather than the transport of a minority. You see old people and kids cycling in Berlin, all of them in their normal clothes, not a scrap of Lycra in sight. That’s how we need it to become here.