About Simon Parker

An extract from an interview with the London Cycle Map inventor, published inissue 2 of Cycle Lifestyle magazine.

The London Cycle Map is the brainchild of Simon Parker. He’s something of cult figure in cycling in the capital, his dogged efforts to implement his plan eliciting both admiration and exasperation. I first met him one morning in Hammersmith, early in 2010. Forty-three years old, polite and unassumingly dressed, he earns a living working on farms and market stalls on the sleepy south coast. But he has a twinkle in his eye and an animated, incisive expressiveness that reveals a determined, almost obsessive, character. He’s been campaigning for his idea for over a decade, lobbying politicians and civil servants – ‘battering away’, as he puts it – and all the while honing his cycle network plans. It strikes me that I’m in the company of a visionary.

I ask Parker where it all began. In 1999 he was living in south London and working as an attendant on a bicycle-hire scheme in Richmond Park. Impressed by the smiles on the faces of his customers as they returned from completing the park’s eight-mile circuit, Parker decided to try to set up a similar scheme in Hyde Park. But he soon found that this park was too small to encompass a decently long route, so he began exploring the surrounding areas – down Constitution Hill and along the Mall, where he saw a scenic side of London that’s usually hidden away behind closed Tube doors or gridlocked highstreets. Parker then turned his attentions to Victoria Park and its environs – along the canal to the Isle of Dogs and under the Greenwich footbridge. He was finding out much more than he’d bargained for.

One thing Parker discovered was that following existing cycle routes in London can be frustrating. They’re often inadequately signed, so getting lost is always a possibility – even if you’re carrying a road map. It wasn’t long before the penny dropped for him. Back in 1931, Harry Beck’s celebrated Tube map had succeeded in taming the capital’s London Underground system, so why not create something similar for cycling? To the dismay of his parents (who wanted him ‘to get a proper career’, as Parker tells me) he began avidly researching the idea. He took a job as a taxi driver so he could earn money while exploring the streets of London, chatting to his passengers about the hidden local byways which would form the ins and outs of his plan. London’s worsening traffic congestion only emboldened him, and over the years he sketched a network that evolved in tandem with his knowledge of the capital. Then, five years ago, Parker decided to substantiate his ideas further with the advice of a professional cartographer. Their ongoing collaboration has produced a polished, stylised draft of his London Cycle Map. It fits handily in a pocket, capturing the behemoth of London in an eight-inch visual network.

Parker’s is a spectacularly economical system, and it’s not hard to appreciate what a powerful aid and inspiration it would be for cycling in the capital. Indeed, many local authorities have been quick to recognise the potential of his plan and have offered their support – not least because each of them would only need to spend approximately £50,000 to implement it. To put this in perspective, it’s equivalent to the cost of employing two traffic wardens for a year.

What makes the implementation so affordable is that it’s based on the concept of ‘Minimum Functioning’, as defined in the influential industry paper ‘Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities’. The idea is that in the first instance planners do only the minimum necessary to make a route functional: ‘you get it up and running’, as Parker puts it. In practical terms this means signing the network of routes as a first priority. Then, once people start using the routes, further amendments can be made, such as dedicated cycle lanes and other special features. It’s a logical progression, since the public would only be willing to meet the costs – in terms of resources and inconvenience – for elaborate provisions once they were enjoying the benefits of the routes and thus in a position to appreciate the potential for improvements.

So is the network being developed right now? Sadly not. A large-scale project like this needs the backing of Transport for London, and this is where Parker’s plans have been thwarted repeatedly. One senior developer there called the plans ‘complex and confusing’; but I wonder if that’s a better verdict on the bureaucratic process that delivered it than the exquisitely simple diagrams I’m looking at. Parker himself remains resolutely conciliatory – even if I sense emotion in his voice when he invokes Thoreau’s famous lament: “Trade and commerce, if they were not made of India rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions, and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads”.

I’m intrigued by the citation, and I suppose Parker himself must be made of rubber. I begin to wonder where he gets his inspiration from in persevering with such an arduous task. I ask him about his influences, and one of his answers surprises me: “Richard Dawkins”. The evolutionist, science-writer and public intellectual? At first I can’t see the connection, but Parker elaborates. As a scientist, Dawkins espouses an evidence-based, systematic, scientific, dispassionate and simple approach; the very same outlook that’s needed to appreciate the virtues of a London Cycle Map – whatever the political or cultural obstacles. I see the link, and I also sense in Parker echoes of Dawkins’ own down-to-earth, practical kind of idealism. Later I was struck by another parallel, between the Darwinian explanation for the evolution of the eye and Parker’s commitment to Minimum Functioning for the system of routes he has proposed: both are organs that must start out rudimentary before evolving into something more refined and wonderful.

The question is: is London ready to see the potential of a London Cycle Map? Parker has come to suspect that a people-based approach may be needed if his vision is to become a reality. There’s an online petition you can sign (www.petition.co.uk/london-cycle-map-campaign) if you support his vision of a capital city where you can easily get from anywhere to anywhere by bicycle. But, more than this, Parker wants feedback. He explains to me that his map has been evolving for years, with clunkier routes giving way to more streamlined descendents. He wants people to offer their suggestions, to help shape his plan further, to yield the diamond that London’s cyclists deserve.

I’ve enjoyed our meeting tremendously, but Parker has made one suggestion that’s inspired me above all. He insists that each generation should strive to provide a legacy to the next, citing Ruskin’s exhortation that ‘when we build, let us think we build forever’. With the 2012 Olympics just a year away I can hardly think of a better gift to future generations of Londoners than the fully accessible cycle network detailed in Parker’s amazing blueprints.

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