Friday’s Guardian piece on Boris Johnson’s vanity projects has caused a bit of eyebrow raising in some corners, not least over the inclusion of the capital’s hugely successful and popular bike hire scheme in what is presented as a roll call of waste and failure.
The Standard’s Ross Lydall neatly summarised the views of many when he Tweeted:
Deeply flawed, back of fag packet nonsense. Re Boris bikes, why fail to mention health benefits of millions cycling? https://t.co/Ws0miSdJwr
— Ross Lydall (@RossLydall) August 18, 2017
including, as it happens, me as I’d made this very point to the Guardian when it asked for a comment on the “the cost of Boris’s various vanity projects” for what turned out to be Friday’s piece.
On Tuesday, giving my initial thoughts on each of the projects listed by the paper, I said the following about the bike hire scheme:
“The bike scheme is I think unfairly included in the group – it’s very popular, promotes good health & has boosted cycling and cycling awareness.
“It is subsidised but then so are buses, Tubes and the DLR so it’s not really any different in that regard to other transport schemes and it does seem to take some people off the other transport modes who’d otherwise add to already over crowded carriages etc.
“Also the new sponsors are pretty good at putting their hand in their pockets way beyond the headline sums they’re contracted for”
In the same email I shared my views of the New Routemaster:
“The bus is definitely a shambolic waste of money which isn’t as clean as models coming online, has no market outside London and had to have windows retrofitted at extra cost.”
The response I got back made it clear the bike scheme was going to be listed in the article so when I sent over my for publication comment, I made sure to stress what I saw as its positive benefits.
The first draft of my for publication comment read:
“From uncomfortable and windowless buses to an unneeded cable car spanning the Thames, Boris’s Mayoralty will inevitably be remembered for his love of big ticket schemes.
“While some, such as the cycle hire scheme and segregated bike lanes have had a genuinely positive impact on the city, others, including the garden bridge and his lavishing of cash on plans for an unwanted airport in the Thames estuary have seen Londoners pay well over the odds for nothing but a series of pretty pictures.”
In response to some follow up questions I added a few words to the first sentence:
“From uncomfortable and windowless buses to an unneeded cable car spanning the Thames, Boris’s Mayoralty will inevitably be remembered for his love of big ticket schemes, many of which seemed to stem from a desire to prove there’d been a change of control at City Hall.”
and provided the following additional line in answer to a question on whether all the “expensive” schemes listed by the paper would harm any residual ambitions Boris has for Downing Street:
“Critics hoping that the garden bridge will harm whatever ambitions Boris still has for Number 10 should remember that this is a country which routinely wastes hundreds of millions of pounds on failed and delayed public procurement and IT projects. The bridge’s costs amount to little more than a rounding error in such waste.”
In the end the Guardian ignored all of this and quoted me solely as saying the new buses “have no market outside London”. Which of course I did, just not in the for publication comment I sent them.
How much of any quote a publication uses is of course a matter for its own editorial judgement, but in my view the Guardian has undermined some fair and genuine criticisms of schemes such as the unwanted Thames Estuary airport and the wretched Garden Bridge by lumping in one of the most successful efforts to take cycling mainstream this country has ever known.
PS: It’s maybe also worth pointing out that while the taxpayer does indeed subsidise the cycle hire scheme, its true originator Ken Livingstone has previously said (including to me when I tried to tempt him into criticising the choice of Barclays) that he’d expected TfL to have to cover the whole costs and that Boris had done well to find a sponsor. Praise from a very unexpected quarter!