Olympic countdown - Reasons for a London Cycle Map, #48. Evolution, not revolution.

#48. EVOLUTION, NOT REVOLUTION. No, I haven’t turned into Tony Hayers. When I first met Simon Parker he described himself as a fan of Richard Dawkins – which, coming from the inventor of a cycle map, surprised me somewhat. Then I realised I shouldn’t be too surprised – I, too, am a big admirer of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary evolutionist, and I’m an avid proponent of Parker’s proposal.

Understanding evolution equips a person with all sorts of mental tendencies, all of which are conducive to sound reasoning.

You develop an awareness, for instance, of how various ecological conditions promote different survival strategies in organisms; of how natural selection creates pressures which favour certain adaptations over others. Cold environments favour furry coats; tall trees favour long necks; dry environments favour succulent plants; and so on. In these conditions, sparse coats, short necks, and tropical plants hardly get a look in.

Thinking in terms of natural selection comes easily to evolutionists, which is why Parker intuitively understands the selection pressures exerted by London’s current transport infrastructure. With Britain’s capital being so huge and populous, its transport arteries groan with the largest, most efficient vehicles and the heaviest footfall. These main roads provide a harsh environment for bikes, favouring only the most aggressive and determined cyclists.

Other cyclists opt for the quieter, safer backstreets. But this is a niche which is mentally rather than physically tricky to thrive in. Planning a complex route – involving hundreds of turn-rights and turn-lefts – is beyond the daily abilities of most Londoners. That’s not to say that people couldn’t perform the mental feat – only that there just aren’t enough hours in the day for most Londoners to indulge in cycle route planning. The rigorous requirements of cycle navigation in London create a selection pressure which forces cyclists off the backstreets.

So what should we do to promote cycling in this great city of ours? There are two obvious alternatives: provide better cycle facilities on main roads, or make navigation on the backstreets easier.

London’s aggressive and determined cyclists favour the former option, a position I agree with when it comes to individual cases assessed on their merits but not as a rule for cycle development. I’ve provided reasons elsewhere for why we should prioritise backstreet cycle development, but one relevant factor is worth elaborating on here, because it comes straight out of evolution: gradualism.

Evolution is gradual in the sense that it progresses via the accumulation of small genetic mutations which affect the shape and behaviour of organisms over many generations. Whenever large mutations occur, they almost invariably do more harm than good, resulting in a ‘hopeful monster’ that fails to thrive.

Parker’s London Cycle Map, as he recently pointed out to me, has gradualism at its heart. Over the last 30 years, some 2000 kilometres of cycle routes have been developed in London, forming a vast network of safer, quieter backstreets. The only thing these ‘London Cycle Network’ routes lack is a decent map and system of signage to make navigating on them easy. Providing these way-finding resources is the logical next stage in the LCN’s gradual development.

In contrast, the proposal to focus cycle development on main roads is a hopeful monster. It seeks revolution rather than evolution when it comes to the capital’s cycling infrastructure. It doesn’t matter how aggressive or determined the proponents of such a plan are; as cyclists we simply cannot usurp the juggernauts of the road and the transport needs of a metropolis – not in such a short space of time, anyway. It is a revolutionary leap that’s destined to fail. If we must ‘reclaim’ the main roads, let’s do it gradually, by shifting Parker’s routes over time, or adding new ones.

With his London Cycle Map proposal, Parker has recognised the selection pressures which are placed on cycling in the capital and the importance of gradual change. Richard Dawkins would be as proud as he is inspirational. His pioneering campaign against obscurantism in all its forms gives Parker and I confidence that, when it comes to the London Cycle Map, reason will prevail.


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