Test Driving the Boris Bike

I tried out one of the new Boris Bikes yesterday! The Critical Mass ride seemed like a good chance to personally inaugurate this new era of public transport in London. In the event, teething troubles with the hire scheme meant that we were left behind as the bike ride swarmed off into the distance.

The pricing is structured so that while half an hour is free and an hour is only a pound, take it back after an hour and you have to pay a pretty steep £4. Hopping from bike to bike seems to be the only sensible way to get round this price, so that was our intention.

The first problem is that some of the cycle bays on the map that TfL sent with the key don’t exist. The map lied to us that there would be bays at County Hall and at Old Queen Street. So as the Critical Mass ride made its stately way around Parliament Square and up Whitehall, we dashed around trying to find somewhere to swap the bike, while the clock ticked down on our reasonably-priced hour. The Evening Standard have visited 374 sites on TfL’s official cycle hire map and found that only 284 docking stations appear to be complete, 34 were being built, and no work had been done at 56 sites. So don’t trust the map!

Second problem was that when we did find a docking bay on the Strand it was entirely full, so there was nowhere to park up. When that happens you can log into the terminal and it grants you another 15 minutes to whizz off to try and find another one.

So as the Critical Mass disappeared up the Mall we searched behind the National Gallery for a free bay, parked the bike, and tried to hire another to continue on our way. There seems to be a wait between stowing one bike and taking another – I’m not sure why that’s entirely necessary. But no matter how long we waited, another bike wouldn’t release.

We walked to another docking station (and there are plenty of them in central London), but still couldn’t get a bike to release. A phone call to the helpline revealed that a bike we tried at the National Gallery station had been hired but not returned. Turns out that our bike had been activated, but the green light hadn’t flashed and the bike hadn’t been unlocked properly.

BBC London News are reporting today that this has been a recurring problem, with TfL cancelling the fine for a woman who was “billed for 11 hours’ use even though she could not get the cycle to unlock”. Luckily, we found out about the problem within twenty minutes.

To anyone trying to extricate a bike from the docking bay – lifting up the back wheel while pulling it seems to be required sometimes.

The Critical Mass well and truly lost, we settled on giving the Boris Bike our own test run.

They are little heavy to ride. I wouldn’t fancy cycling them up any sort of hill, so while I’d be happy to ride one from Angel into the City I wouldn’t fancy the return trip. It takes a lot of hard work pedalling furiously to get anywhere, even in the highest gear, and it’s hard getting up much speed on the flat. The basket is pointlessly small, and a bigger one would be welcome.

I still think the scheme is very exciting, and could potentially revolutionise public transport in London. Boris has admitted that there will be teething problems, and I hope they will be sorted out.

But for anyone living in London, it will still be better to own your own bike. The £45 you’d spend on Cycle Hire membership alone isn’t a lot less than buying a brand new bike. Nothing can match the convenience of your own bicycle, especially if using the Boris Bike will involve traipsing around the area looking for a free docking bay as the minutes tick on your affordable hour.

Riding the hire bike drew constant catcalls and hoots from excited pedestrians. And they weren’t yelling ‘Barclay’s Cycle Hire™!’ or ‘Ken may also have had this idea!’ – they were yelling, “Nice Boris Bike, Boris!” Looks like Mayor Johnson has his legacy sorted.

Published in: on July 31, 2010 at 6:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

A free lunch in the age of austerity

Local Government is expected to find £1.166bn in savings in 2010/11. Islington’s new Old Labour council is demonstrating precisely the wrong way to deal with this austerity – taking the axe to core services while paying out election bribes to the wealthy and saving their councillors’ pet projects.

Islington’s Labour councillors introduced Free School Meals for all children in the borough’s primary schools and nurseries. Helping low-income families with a free school lunch is a good Government intervention, but Labour councillors in Islington believe that this benefit should be universal. What this means is that the poorest council tax payers are buying meals for the sons and daughters of Highbury millionaires, including Boris Johnson. It’s an incredibly expensive project, with £3.5 million being spent on this handout to the rich and middle-classes at a time where serious budget cuts are being made.

The Islington Tribune reports that £3 million of cuts are being made to school services in Islington: 49 people laid off from the education department, including 17 teachers, truancy officers, specialist schools advisors, visiting music teachers, and an educational therapist.

Teachers are being fired so that middle class parents can receive benefits that were designed to help the poor.

The Islington Gazette reports on further cuts that Islington Labour is making across the council: cancelling improvements to Highbury Fields budgeted for by the previous Lib Dem administration, letting the roof fall in on a local heritage building, hiking the cost of council services, and, the cruellest cut of all, slashing the flower budget (actually pretty important to make inner-London life more bearable, and good luck to Rhodri Jamieson-Ball’s campaign to save them!)

If Labour weren’t giving handouts to middle-class and rich parents, all cuts to the education budget could be avoided, with money left over to save other services as well.

The thinktank Reform has shown that under the last Labour Government welfare entitlements expanded to groups not in need, with £30.9 billion spent on providing benefits to the UK’s middle classes. Reform argued that:

“Responsibility has drained away from the British welfare state, leaving a poisonous blend of entitlement and apathy. Middle and high earners, who could and should be independent of public welfare, instead use their political weight to extract ‘their fair share’ from government, through universal benefits.”

On the face of it, Islington’s ‘Meals for millionaires’ policy was a simple election bribe aimed at the well-off in the borough – give us your vote and we’ll give you more free money. That’s the Gordon Brown strategy of governance in operation locally: promising lovely things that you can’t actually afford. The difference is that Gordon knew he wouldn’t be in power to have to cash the cheques.

The project in Islington also continues for no better reason than because it was the pet project of an influential Labour councillor. The councillor behind the project also happened to be a professional lobbyist for Sustain, a fake charity which campaigns for universal free school meals across the country.

I’d also suggest that the Labour councillors (a rum bunch of unreformed loony-lefties) are following the old Jesuit proverb, “Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man”. Islington Labour are trying to get children hooked on welfare from nursery: suckling on the state’s teat in a horrifically almost-literal way.

Published in: on July 27, 2010 at 3:43 pm  Comments (1)  

Government ends war on the motorist

Tory Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has announced the end of the war with the motorist. In 2008 alone the war with the motorist claimed 2,538 lives in the UK. At least 230,905 people were injured, over 26,000 of them seriously. The peace treaty looks more like a humiliating capitulation, and the ongoing violence by motorists against the civilian population of the UK is likely to only intensify.

The Coalition Agreement included pledges to both “stop central government funding for new fixed speed cameras” and to “support sustainable travel initiatives, including the promotion of cycling and walking”. I’m not sure are compatible, given that the main bar to the promotion of cycling and walking is the lawlessness of the roads.

Ministers are trying to justify this on the basis of putting the public finances back in order. But increasing the number of speed cameras would ostensibly increase revenues, while saving lives by making sure drivers respect the rules of the road. The fact that they raise money from lawbreakers makes them, at the very least, an incredibly cost-effective way to enforce the law. The PR wing of the motorist insurgency claims that they generate £100million in fines each year- enough to cover not only their operating costs, but a slew of further road safety improvements or defecit downpayments.

Even as a good coalition man I think it’s still okay to recognise that Tories are gross, especially the ones who resent being obliged to obey the law while careering about in their tonne-heavy metal killing machines. Just avoid Oxfordshire for the moment, as if you weren’t already.

Published in: on July 26, 2010 at 4:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

ORGCon and the tentacle in your pocket

“H.P. Lovecraft taught us that you shouldn’t be worrying about the tiny tentacle extruding into our world, but the great big Elder God that it’s attached to.”
– Cory Doctorow

Yesterday I was at the Open Rights Group conference at City University. Julian Huppert, the new Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge proved to be a bit of a star as one of the keynote panellists, although he mysteriously failed to turn up for the Lib Dem session he himself had organised.

James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins, from Duke University law school, spoke about the effect of copyright law on our culture; Cory Doctorow talked about Digital Rights Management; and a cross-party panel of MPs looked at where we go from here politically. Pretty much all of what I write below is taken directly from their mouths (verbatim, in the case of all metaphors and aphorisms) and possibly infringes their copyright, but I hope that they would be indulgent in the circumstances.

Jennifer Jenkins argued that the conditions of creativity today are fundamentally different from the past, because we have deprived ourselves of our contemporary culture. The use and quotation of other works has been central to creativity through history. Brahms’ first symphony is known as ‘Beethoven’s tenth’, so much does it owe to its creative influences. Today, even tiny fragments of music – an arpeggio, even a few notes – are copyrighted, with only artists with lawyers and corporate backing able to afford the up-front fees to clear samples for use. The default setting of the law is that contemporary works are off limits to us for exploitation, reference, and even parody. What was true for Beethoven and Brahms, or the giants of jazz or rock and roll, isn’t true for us today.

James Boyle, spoke about the ‘Twentieth Century Black Hole’– a whole century of creative culture that has passed beyond the event horizon of copyright law.

Only a tiny percentage of the stuff in the British Library is commercially available, even in the era of Ebay and Amazon resellers. The majority of works exhaust their commercial viability after five years, and then disappear. The majority of twentieth century culture is caught in ‘orphan works’ for which the copyright owner cannot be identified or contacted. Copyright is a strict liability system, meaning that these can’t be used or reprinted. They are lost to us.

According to the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property:

“Estimates suggest that only 2 per cent of all works that are protected by copyright are commercially available. In 1930, 10,027 books were published in the USA, but by 2001 all but 174 were out of print. The British Library estimates 40 per cent of all print works are orphan works.

“This is a large problem for many users, including those who wish to make copies for archiving or preservation and need to seek permission. The Chair of the Museum Copyright Group, Peter Wienard, believes that from the total collection of photographs of 70 institutions (around 19 million), the percentage of photographs where the author is known (other than for fine art photographs) is 10 per cent. In a British Library study to get permission to digitise 200 sound recordings, researchers were unable to identify the rights holders for almost half the recordings”

Copyright law does a good job of creating incentives for innovating and creativity, but in the UK works are currently held in copyright until seventy years after the death of the author. As the Gowers Report , commissioned by the Government in 2006 but largely ignored by Labour Ministers, has shown, allowing the estates and heirs of performers to be able to block usage rights is bad for consumers and actively harms creativity and innovation. The Gowers Report suggests that extending copyright beyond 50 years is purely harmful. The ideal period may be something like 14 years.

The extension (and extension and extension) of copyright has only ever been about Governments helping the rich protect their profits.

The creative industries (with the emphasis here very much on industries) have for a long time been using law to screw consumers. The war against their customers is only intensifying as modern technology hastens their inevitable decline.

Cory Doctorow spoke, as eloquently as ever, about Digital Rights Management – the technologies that restrict how people can use the data they own, make devices take orders from people other than those who own them, and stop devices doing what the owner would like them to (like Apple not allowing software on iPhone and iPads that competes with products of Apple or partner companies).

Technical DRM can only ever be a temporary solution. If you alienate your customers they don’t come back – especially when there are more open competitors, or anyone can download for free a copy without any annoying DRM. It’s a bit like the creator of a bookshelf deciding what books you can keep on it, or a dishwasher that requires you to have a certain sort of crockery. Everyone knows that it’s gross.

Cory Doctorow has said that there he doesn’t really care about the grandees of the old system, and it’s hard to disagree. Radio killed the vaudeville star; video killed the radio star. Some blacksmiths became Model T mechanics, and some became old drunks. The railways made the people who stitched horse feed bags redundant. Technology giveth and technology taketh away.

New technology means that more and more people are able to make art and music, but the current business models of the creative industry may not weather the storm. Technology just makes things too easy to copy, and there is absolutely nothing nothing nothing that software developers can do about it. Short of an Orwellian police state there’s nothing the Government can do about it either.

But to prop up the dying business model, the Labour Government bequeathed us the Digital Economy Act and the quixotic chase after peer-to-peer file sharers – with its option to cut families off the ‘net and its easily-abused siteblocking option.

The most intriguing part at the conference, for a politico, was the panel discussion with Julian Huppert MP, Tom Watson MP, and ex-MP John Grogan, titled Digital Economy Act: What’s Next?

The last Labour Government rushed the sprawling rag-bag of a bill through in the wash-up, with no time for scrutiny or amendment. It was the first ever controversial bill that had its second reading after the Prime Minister had already been to the Palace to dissolve Parliament, and so was pushed through by whips on MPs who were apathetic about the issue and who were already in election mode.

The Act was pretty much drafted by industry lobbyists, perhaps on a yacht in Corfu with Peter Mandleson. Grogan and Watson recalled how Westminster was flooded by lobbyists – more than they’d seen on any other issue. It was an abuse of democracy – bad law, forced through with dodgy constitutional tricks. Tom Watson noted that the same lobbyists are already back in Westminster, taking new MPs out for lunch.

So far so much a plagiarised summary of what everyone who already cares even a little bit about this issue already knows. In January 2009 Alix Mortimer wrote:

“I’m probably one of the few people in the political blogosphere who doesn’t regularly read tech blogs as well. I am very much your plug-in-and-play blogger.  So far as technology goes, I am a classic rearguard early adopter, last in line of the nearly-cool kids. It’s a burden.

But it does have the advantage of making me my very own canary.

If I suddenly start to get something, start to perceive a development, or start to read up on something to do with the world of tech, it means something BIG is about to happen. And this is the development I perceive:  increasingly, as the government’s designs on our personal freedoms grow ever darker and Jacqui Smith’s boots grow ever shinier, tech bloggers’ concerns are becoming our concerns as politicised liberals.”

But ORGCon was, by any description, a big hall full of geeks. Penny Arcade and XKCD t-shirts. More iPads than I’ve ever seen in one room (three). Introductions that ran, “Hi, I’m Jo. Jo5000 on Twitter.” A giant, obnoxious twitter feed projected onto the wall behind the speaker. Twitter is nothing more than an echo chamber, and it was everywhere.

But a lot of the chatter at the ORGCon workshops was about how we create a “citizens’ agenda” – actually get people interested enough to lobby their MP and create a groundswell. I think everyone at ORGCon recognised that this hasn’t even begun to happen yet. Ms. Mortimer is clearly too sensitive a canary.

As James Boyle said, Intellectual Property law used to be something for industry to worry about, not for individuals. It used to be really hard to break copyright law – you’d need a printing press or a movie studio. Now we all have the technical ability to break copyright, so we are all being subject to laws that were intended to govern businesses.

It affects everyone. It’s Apple tying customers into the bad deals that monopolies always bring. It’s Amazon deleting books from your kindle. It’s access to the whole internet – and everything that implies in our society – that can be cut off without proof, conviction, or a judge. It’s the whole of Twentieth Century culture trapped in amber because of our lack of sensible Orphan Works legislation. It’s corporations extending artificial monopoly rights to milk money out of us consumers even after the authors are long dead. It’s stifling the creative potential in everyone that modern technology has unleashed.

We have a new Government, with Vince Cable in a position to make a change. It’s not just geeks that should be interested.

Published in: on July 25, 2010 at 10:41 pm  Comments (1)  

184 killed during last year’s wave of violence in London

From the 30th of July, London’s streets will be strewn with new cyclists as The Barclay’s Cycle Hire™ scheme is launched. More people than ever will get to experience first hand the elegance and convenience of navigating London by velocipede. And, like all London cyclists, they will get to experience first hand the thrill of almost being annihilated under the wheels of an HGV. But with a Liberal Democrat as a Minister in the Department for Transport, do we have a chance to make the roads safe for cyclists at last?

I’m seriously delighted that Norman Baker is now a minister in the Department of Transport, and with specific responsibility for walking and cycling. It’s the job I’d choose if I were given the pick of Whitehall. I hope he takes his responsibility seriously and lives up to the coalition agreement to “support sustainable travel initiatives, including the promotion of cycling and walking” and longstanding Liberal Democrat policy objectives to Promote “Liveable Cities”.

My main hope for the the Barclay’s Cycle Hire™ scheme is that simply having more people on bikes on the roads will create a more benign cycling environment. London drivers will be more used to seeing cyclists, en masse, in central London. And as these new people will be green, rather than battle-hardened veterans of London’s roads, drivers will get used to treating cyclists with due caution.

Yet it’s hard to imagine that London’s drivers will become more tolerant. The life of the London motorist is one of savage fury. They are, as a species, given to shriek out of windows at any pedestrian or cyclist who slows even for one second their 20 yard dash to the next red light or traffic jam. I once saw a car driver nudge an elderly lady with his front bumper because she had the temerity to still be crossing the road when the amber light began to flash – and that’s not atypical from the London driver.

Bus and taxi drivers are among the most hostile to cyclists. Transport for London seems to have little handle on making these registered, professional drivers behave responsibly. A bus driver once tried to murder me on the Old Street Roundabout by flying across two lanes, one of which I was occupying at the time. Only yesterday evening I had words with the driver of a 55 bus who tried to edge over the Advance Stop Line into the cycle reservoir where I was waiting at a red. For some reason he didn’t take my polite, constructive criticism very well, and used some very unprofessional language. With a lot of wobbly new cyclists in the city centre, this behaviour is going to to have to change.

But that hostility is ingrained and institutionalised.

The Metropolitan Police has a policy of not enforcing Advance Stop Lines – the space for cyclists created at stop lights to give them a safe space. It is illegal for cars to enter these spaces on red or amber lights – but in London obeying this law is a minority activity.

Breaking the speed limit is normal.

It’s also frighteningly usual to see drivers on mobile phones, paying scant attention to the road. The head of road safety at the AA, has said that there are probably 100,000 people driving around using their phone on the roads at any moment. Even on the rare occasion that they are stopped, the punishment is risible, for saying that they are essentially behind the wheel of a tonne of metal killing machine. Ed Balls got a slap on the wrist and a minor fine and Harriet Harman, despite actually crashing while on the phone, escaped even a short driving suspension.

The Met have a website for reporting bad and illegal driving – but with the caveat that “we will not initiate a prosecution other than in exceptional cases”.

Last year in London alone 3,227 people were killed or seriously injured on London’s roads, of whom 1488 were pedestrians or cyclists. 184 people died – 101 pedestrians and cyclists.

On the roads, it is taken as natural that people in their metal machines will sometimes slam into passers-by. But it’s not natural: often it’s the result of poor law enforcement, and failing to make drivers obey the law.

An article in the New Law Journal by cycling lawyer Martin Porter (here at his blog) demonstrates that even when careless drivers actually do kill, the punishment is disproportionately low, and the tendency is to blame the victim and let the murderer off the hook. A driver on the wrong side of the road who could not see where he was going hit and killed an oncoming cyclist:

“Rice had been driving home along a narrow country lane near Fenstanton on a November evening. He was third in a line of three vehicles headed by a car travelling at 40 to 45mph. Rice pulled out to overtake both the cars ahead of him but the driver of the second car, Miss Buckingham, then also pulled out to overtake. Rice could no longer see what lay ahead but remained behind Miss Buckingham to overtake the lead car. A cyclist, Mark Robinson, was riding in the opposite direction. His “quite brightly lit” front light was seen by the driver of the lead car. Miss Buckingham saw him just in time and was able to regain her correct side of the carriageway without a collision. Rice did not see Mr Robinson until it was too late. The road was not wide enough for two cars and a bicycle and there was a head on collision, at a closing speed of about 70 mph, in which Mr Robinson was killed. Rice was driving fast on the wrong side of the road in circumstances where he could not see what was coming towards him.”

He recently received just a suspended 20 weeks sentence and a 12 month driving ban. For killing a man.

Making our roads safe and welcoming will require cross-departmental working with the Home Office and Ministry of Justice to ensure that the police make motor drivers obey traffic regulations, and the Crown Prosecution Service to make sure that dangerous drivers are prosecuted.

The question for Norman Baker MP, our man in the Department of Transport, is, then: what conversations has the minister had with his colleagues in the Home Office and Ministry of Justice?

When the inevitable happens and the first tourist using the Barclay’s Cycle Hire™ scheme is killed, the media, the driving lobby, and many politicians will instinctively blame the victim. But it will be the fault of the police and the machinery of justice for letting the roads become lawless, and for setting a precedent of letting car drivers literally get away with murder.

Published in: on July 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm  Comments (3)  

Save the whale?

My favourite quote of the last Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth came from Nick Clegg:  “You might not think we are exciting, but even the great mammals of the sea find the Liberal Democrats exciting!”  A female bottlenose called Gilbert had attempted to upstage us by appearing off the Bournemouth coast, and we laughed that a whale was trying to get into  conference.  Then Gilbert washed up dead, and unkind sketch writers spied a metaphor.

No dead whales washed up poetically on the beaches of Agadir in Morroco last month, but the talks of the International Whaling Commission foundered once again on the issue of the international moratorium on whaling that has been in force since 1986.

‘Save the Whales’ was an icon of the environmental movement, but our Government should base fisheries policy on sound science rather than sentiment.  Our credibility as environmentalists depends on it.

The whale population collapsed due to overfishing, but governments came together and saved them from the brink of extinction.  It was a monument to international cooperation and law achieving a concrete environmental goal – and as a result, there has been a 24-year moratorium on whaling, with only a few exceptions for indigenous peoples and scientific studies.

The most recent IWC meeting at Agadir seemed ready to overturn the moratorium, with a proposed deal to allow commercial whaling, under strict quotas.

Alongside the political body of the International Whaling Commission, a scientific committee was set up to monitor whale stocks and report on the commercial basis for whaling.  These scientists are saying that Minke whales are abundant in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean, and that many depleted stocks of other whale species are recovering at encouraging rates. Which is to say that the resource basis for whaling  can support exploitation, and is expanding. The IWC’s own scientific advisors are saying this – but our politicians are ignoring them in favour of sentimental vegetarian arguments.

The only way we can save the planet from the threat of disastrous climate change is by mobilising hard science to convince the public and international policy-makers that there is a real problem.  As environmentalists, we must also be scientists. If science disagrees with us on other issues and we distort or dismiss it, we lose all credibility where it matters most.

Anti-whaling members of the commission argue that not enough research has been done to convince them to establish catch limits other than zero. They demand further work on formulating inspection and observer systems.  This is as cynical as George W. Bush demanding further work on climate change, while accusing climate change campaigners of having ulterior motives.  And just like ex-President Bush, anti-whaling politicians are only doing so to please their constituents at home.

As one long-standing IWC Scientific Committee member, Dr. Peter Best, has argued, the moratorium continues in spite of science, rather than because of it. He wrote:

“Do I think in retrospect that the adoption of the moratorium was justified, on the grounds of prevailing uncertainties? Well, in the sense that the adoption of the moratorium forced the development of the Revised Management Procedure, which directly addressed scientific uncertainties in assessment, then I think it was justified. On the other hand, in the sense that the moratorium has become what we all feared it might, an indiscriminate and permanent ban on whaling, then I don’t think it was justified.”

The International Whaling Commission was set up not to enforce a ban on whaling, but to manage whale stocks.  It was established to protect whales from overfishing and regulate the number of whales that can be harpooned while safeguarding this natural resource for future generations.

The IWC is a law-creating body that binds member countries. But it is being used to satisfy an unscientific public mood in  countries that, in any case, don’t even have whaling industries or a desire to eat whales.  It looks unfair and cynical.  That undermines international law.

Marine resources should be harvested in a sustainable manner, and taking out one species for sentimental reasons is not constructive environmental policy.

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

First Post!

Welcome to my new ‘blog, where I will be writing about Liberal politics from the East End of London.

Today, Nick Clegg lead Prime Minister’s Questions.  The party is achieving big things as part of the coalition Government.  It’s an exciting time to be a Liberal Democrat.

The elections were disappointing locally:  Bridget Fox was yet again foiled by the dastardly Emily Thornberry in Islington South and Finsbury, we lost control of Islington council to a bunch of unreformed loony lefties, and Hackney continues to be pretty much a one-party state controlled by Labour.

But for the first time in a long time it feels as if the country is being run by decent people, and along more liberal lines.  A new dawn has broken, has it not? It now, at last, seems possible to write in a spirit of optimism that things may indeed get better.

I’m still trying to find the buttons that make WordPress do what I want, so expect changes and glitches while it beds in.  And I’m already regretting the choice of URL, but if the brilliant Alix Mortimer can flourish under the ‘fabulous blue porcupine’ moniker, I can at least try to make this work.

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 5:30 pm  Leave a Comment