London's black cab drivers want to stop its cross town cycle routes

Look at that lovely lack of cabs. Image: Greater London Authority.

Remember these?

These are the two new cross town cycle highways planned for London. One runs east-west along the Embankment; the other runs north-south along Farringdon Road (the maps expand if you click on them). They are, says the London Cycling Campaign (LCC), “Europe’s longest substantially segregated cycleways”.

Well, the good news is that, they've got the go-ahead from City Hall. There have been a few minor changes to the plans (a slight narrowing in some locations, that sort of thing), but nothing substantive, and construction will begin in March.

The bad news is that, within mere minutes of that announcement, this happened:

The London Taxi Drivers' Association aren't the only organisation whining about this particular decision. Consider this statement from Howard Dawber, spokesperson for the Canary Wharf Group property firm:

“Canary Wharf is calling for a trial period – like during the Olympics – so we can see how the scheme works in practice and make any necessary changes.”

How one can trial building a massive great cycle highway is not exactly clear. You either build it or you don't. If you only build part of it, you’re not really trialling the thing at all. But anyway.

Both these statements are – let's not kid ourselves about this – acts of naked self-interest. Cab drivers don't want scarce space on key routes like these given over to cyclists, which would slow traffic and make expensive black cabs less attractive as a way of getting around the place. Similarly, if you own Canary Wharf, you’re probably gonna oppose any development that might slow traffic down on the main road route to Heathrow.

A judicial review can't block the new cycle lanes forever: the courts are empowered to review the process by which decisions are made, but not the decisions themselves. The worst case scenario here is that Transport for London could be forced to go back to square one, and re-do their consultation process.

That’s unlikely to change public opinion. As the LCC notes:

There has been overwhelming support for the proposals... More than a hundred major businesses on or near the routes, including Unilever, Royal Bank of Scotland, Deloitte and Orange, also publicly backed the scheme, as did all parties on the London Assembly. Opinion polling showed that Londoners as a whole backed the scheme by 64 per cent to 28 per cent.

What a judicial review can do, though, is make the process of getting the cycle lanes built so horrible that London's political leaders decide it isn't worth the hassle. From here on, it's a battle of willpower.

Still, the whole thing has given Uber’s London office a great chance to troll their arch-rivals in the black cab lobby:

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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