The London experience
It's always interesting to ride in different places. Before my recent bike tour, there were some in this part of the world who raised eyebrows about the fact that I was going to be doing some riding in central London. I suppose it was the old "so much traffic" argument that caused their angst, but basically the attitude was that in a city of that size, it had to be "scary" or "dangerous". On the other hand, others who had actually been there suggested that London was far more accommodating to cyclists than where I ride now. Consequently, I was interested to see just how the experience was.
As usual in these situations, it was the people who had actually been there who were right. I found central London to be a far more pleasant experience than the traffic I deal with here on the Gold Coast everyday. That in itself probably isn't saying much, but the sheer number of cyclists I saw in London -- even during the Friday "rush hour", probably means something. Something else that was noticeable was the total lack of abuse that I normally have to deal with. So what is it that London, a city of 12 million, manages to do for cyclists that my home city of 500,000 cannot?
In truth I think it has more to do with the things London hasn't done than what it has. For one thing, I didn't see a heap of pointless off-road bikepaths that go nowhere. They have avoided the Dutch (and increasingly Australian) ideal of simply getting cyclists off the road. The general approach in London seems to be accommodating cyclists on the road as actual road users. This has the benefit of allowing cyclists to actually go somewhere when they get on their bike.
Contrast that with the approach a lot of "advocates" in this country take in suggesting that they can only ride where separate bike paths have been provided. I know which of the two is going to be easier for the utility cyclist to deal with. And while people might go on about "there are so many cyclists in Amsterdam", it's worth noting that cycling numbers there are actually declining, and that few of the much talked about "bicycle trips" there are actually for anything other than recreation (which, incidentally does nothing at all to alleviate pollution or traffic congestion).
The other major thing that became apparent in London was the lack of politicisation of the simple act of riding a bicycle. This should seem obvious, until one goes and reads through a few "advocacy"-themed Internet discussion fora, or reads any of the brochures put out by the likes of Bicycle Queensland. Most people in "advocacy" in this country would shudder to read this, but I even heard a radio debate about the upcoming mayoral elections in which the person supporting the conservative candidate was a regular utility cyclist. This isn't really a bad thing, because many of the things that would most benefit cyclists come from the political right, such as hiring a police force that will actually enforce the law on the roads.
It's all well and good to be concerned about issues such as the environment, evil oil companies, terrorism and so on, but the simple fact is that they aren't cycling issues. When people who call themselves cycling advocates try to claim the moral high-ground here, all they really do is alienate people who disagree with them on these issues. When people try to turn them into cycling issues (i.e. "we should all ride bikes to save the world"), they discourage a lot of people who might have been thinking of cycling to work for other reasons (i.e. convenience, money, health etc). It probably doesn't do anything to improve the treatment that cyclists receive on the road either, which I would have thought should have been the primary goal of "advocacy". Is it really so bad to just leave the politics out of it?
In short, riding a bicycle in London doesn't seem to be such a big deal. Certainly not in the way it's perceived here in Australia. In my view, cycling advocates in this country do a particularly poor job of promoting cycling. They expend inordinate amounts of effort making political statements that are, at best, only tangentially related to cycling. They expend inordinate amounts of effort in circulating stories of death and destruction (i.e. x number of cyclists killed last year -- even if the number x is minute compared to other ways of being nastily killed). They ask the government to expend enormous amounts of money on "facilities" that generally don't serve the needs of the cyclists they claim to be representing, and expend huge amounts of effort in trying to shout down anyone who disagrees.
What was most noticeable in London is that those attitudes simply didn't appear to be there. Either the advocates there are smarter than those here, or someone in London has found an effective means of silencing them. Consequently, when riding through the Friday peak hour in central London, I felt that I was working with the traffic rather than fighting with it. I felt a far greater sense of cooperation on the roads than what I normally experience. There are quite a few things there that people here could learn, but I won't be holding my breath for that to happen.