Shaun Bailey will be mayor of London. Here’s why

The next mayor of London? Shaun Bailey, speaking at the 2018 Conservative Party conference. Image: Getty.

Shaun Bailey’s campaign for the London mayoralty has not, most commentators agree, got off to a flying start. Groups he seems to have alienated, either with past remarks journalists have dug out since his candidacy was announced or with brand spanking new comments made just this week, include Muslims, Hindus (in the latter instance getting special points for conflating following Hindu religious practice and speaking the Hindi language, offending two groups for the price of one), single mothers and anyone who knows any single mothers, people who use buses, everyone in Thamesmead, and, in a spectacular flourish, all women.

Even before this month, little about Bailey’s political career was encouraging; his path from contesting a winnable seat (Hammersmith) in 2010 to contesting an unwinnable seat (Lewisham West & Penge) in 2017, via failing to be selected for any of the winnable or safe he tried out for in 2015, does not suggest a political high flier. His policy positions are reliably traditionally Tory, deeply uninspiring or both. (The most notable thing about that 2010 election loss was another peculiar story, if not exactly gaffe, concerning Bailey’s Wikipedia page.) Bailey’s campaign looks like a lost cause, and as a one time champion of The Big Society, he should know a few things about lost causes.

Nevertheless, I have every confidence that Bailey, gaffe-prone though he may be – and despite the near certainty that several other groups will have joined the list above by the time you read this – will be elected mayor of London. The reason for this is simple: it’s exactly the kind of thing that happens nowadays. Political norms have been suspended. Things that obviously can’t happen, that go against all political wisdom can and do happen, and no one believes in them even as they happen.

A friend of mine recently claimed we were living in “the banter timeline”: a version of reality where things that obviously can’t happen because they’re ridiculous, that could only happen as a joke, are now routine. The word ‘banter’ has become justifiably toxic, referring to a particularly obnoxious kind of male behaviour, and it’s a good fit for where we find ourselves. Running ridiculous campaigns and systematically alienating huge chunks of the population, whittling them off your block of potential voters in stages, isn’t enough to stop you being elected president of the United States, so why on Earth should it stop you being elected mayor of London?

Indeed, it was another London election that kicked off the ‘banter timeline’: the elevation of a gaffe-prone Conservative candidate who was largely hidden from view by his own campaign during the election, so worried were they of anyone actually seeing or hearing him. (Whatever happened to him?)


There is a lot of this about. Recently Tory MPs who support the Prime Minister and her approach to Brexit were reported to be considering triggering a vote of no confidence in her – confident that she would win, because, under the party’s byzantine leadership election rules, anyone else would be barred from challenging her for a year. In other words, challenging here would secure her position.

Whether that would have worked in practice, of course, is a different question, and in the end the MPs thought better of it, presumably someone tipped them off about the nature of the reality in which they live.

If there’s one thing the last few years should have taught anyone and everyone, it’s that politics cannot any longer be gamed. Witness the almost endless hilarity that ensued from Zac Goldsmith’s vanity by-election loss to Sarah Olney in 2016 where, seemingly uninformed by David Cameron’s then very recent attempt to do the same thing, he forced an unnecessary election in order to get people to endorse a decision he’d already made, and found out that, in an actual democracy, that sort of thing doesn’t work as often as it does.

This isn’t a phenomenon confined to the right, of course. Some on the Labour Left have considered getting Jeremy Corbyn to fight a reselection ballot, just to make a point about the innate fairness of compulsory re-selection. Like a pre-emptive challenge on an unpopular Prime Minister, that strikes me as something that could easily have an outcome other than that its advocates expect. (And yes, I am acquainted with North London Labour Party members, as it happens.)

Many years ago a then flatmate of mine, a Labour voter and sometime member, admitted he had voted for a Liberal Democrat council candidate, who also happened to be our landlord, “for larks”. The joke was that said candidate, standing in a solidly Labour ward, didn’t want to be a councillor, and had just been pushed into being a paper candidate by his local party. He hadn’t even campaigned. His election would have annoyed him sufficiently that it would have been, briefly, hilarious.

These days, he’d end up Prime Minister. Assuming Shaun Bailey doesn’t get there first.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.