With less than a fortnight to go before he seeks re-election, Mayor of London Boris Johnson has described as “unacceptable” comments made by John Griffin, the boss of minicab firm Addison Lee, about cyclists in London, as bike riders and politicians were united in condemning his remarks. Mr Griffin himself has issued a statement in which he defends his comments, coming as a number of businesses were reported to have cancelled their accounts with the business.
In a column in the current issue of company magazine Add Lib, which is available free to the passengers of almost 4,000 minicabs and VIP cars that Addison Lee operates in London, Mr Griffin had called for cyclists to be subject to compulsory training and to pay non-existent ‘road tax,’ saying “You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up.”
News of his comments broke on Thursday evening, quickly spreading through the cycling community and beyond, with the hashtag #boycottaddisonlee trending on Twitter, demonstrating that in this age of social networking, many cyclists belong to a formidable, tech-savvy group that you risk alienating at your peril.
That has amply been demonstrated by a deluge of one-star ratings – the lowest possible – for Addison Lee’s iPhone app, responsible, the company claims, for more than £20 million of bookings since its launch, with a selection appearing on the I Pay Road Tax website. The same website has since reported that Addison Lee has subsequently updated its iPhone app - similar ones are available for other platforms - meaning that with the poor reviews pushed down, the average review has gone from one and a half stars to two and a half stars.
Already, on Thursday evening, a number of mainly small businesses had announced on Twitter that they planned to cancel their accounts with the company. Unconfirmed rumours over the weekend are that Barclays, sponsor of London’s Cycle Hire Scheme and the Cycle Superhighways, as well as the provider last month of £12 million funding to aid Addison Lee’s planned expansion, had done likewise; if true, that is a significant account to lose. Meanwhile, a new website set up over the weekend, Boycott Addison Lee, is urging cyclists to contact Barclays to ask it whether it is lending money to Addison Lee "so that they can encourage law breaking and increased danger on our roads."
By Friday, Mr Griffin’s comments were national news, with former deputy prime minister John Prescott, who had traded blows, figuratively at least, with Addison Lee over the M4 bus lane while secretary of state for transport, even tweeting a link to our original article, with the comment, “Here's one of the reasons why I've cancelled my Addison Lee account.”
Labour’s shadow transport minister, Maria Eagle had urged the Mr Johnson to “immediately distance himself from the appalling remarks about cyclists made by Tory donor John Griffin who claims that London’s Mayor entirely endorses his view that cyclists are responsible for the numbers killed and injured on the roads.”
“Cyclists in London are increasingly worried about the threat to their safety from the thousands of Addison Lee cars that John Griffin has ordered to illegally use the capital’s bus lanes,” she added, quoted on the website London 24.
“Considering this is a man who has given Boris Johnson’s campaign £25,000 in 2008, and a further £250,000 direct to the Tory party, there are real fears that the Mayor will not take the tough action needed to protect cyclists.”
A spokesman for Mr Johnson, who by virtue of being Mayor of London is also chairman of Transport for London which is seeking a High Court injunction following Mr Griffin’s authorisation to his drivers to illegally use bus lanes, confirmed that Mr Johnson had received no donations from him in relation to the current electoral campaign.
He added: “John Griffin’s actions are irresponsible and unacceptable, and Boris Johnson does not agree with his comments on cycling.”
On Friday, as a number of customers of Addison Lee took to Twitter to state that they had cancelled their accounts, a blog piece from Mr Griffin appeared on Huffington Post, in which he said, "My foreword in Addison Lee's magazine Add Lib, has caused quite a storm amongst the Twitter community, and I'm glad it has. In the article, I argue for compulsory training and insurance for London's bicycle owners and I still stand by my contention.”
If anything, his post poured more fuel onto the fire, however, making sweeping generalisations about cyclists “wearing flip-flops, T-shirts, a pair of headphones on, tapping their fingers on the handlebars to the beat of the music” and adding “we’ve all had to take evasive action as these kinds of cyclists tear trough red lights” – a comment apparently made without irony from someone who just days earlier had told his own drivers to break the law and that he would repay their fines.
He asserted that use of headphones by cyclists should be banned. It’s an issue that splits cyclists themselves, but many would say that enforcing existing laws that ban motorists from using mobile phones at the wheel would be a better use of resources, and one that would have a much greater impact on road safety.
“I regularly hear stories from my drivers about accidents they have witnessed involving cyclists,” he went on, although a search of the name of his company on any cycling forum used by riders in London will make clear that it is those very drivers who are regularly singled out as being among the worst on the capital’s roads.
His assertion that Addison Lee’s training for its drivers “requires that they are courteous and respectful to cyclists at all times” will at the very least raise eyebrows of cyclists who find that claim to be entirely at odds with their own experience.
In his original article, Mr Griffin had called for cyclists to receive training before they were allowed on the road, failing to acknowledge that most adult cyclists also hold driving licences and are therefore qualified to exactly the same level as most of those driving cars.
In his follow-up piece, he lamented the passing of the cycling proficiency test, asking, “What happened to that? Why is it not on the agenda any more?” Mr Griffin has clearly not heard of Bikeability, which bills itself as 'Cycling Proficiency for the 21st Century.'
This morning, the Road Danger Reduction Forum issued its own response to Mr Griffins’ latest comments, stating that “this is not just one more extremist. His views are simply versions of the dominant ‘road safety’ ideology which bedevils a civilised approach to transport and real safety on the road.”
It said that Mr Griffin was consistently approaching the issue of the safety of cyclists from the wrong angle, including his call for compulsory training – “if anyone needs regulation to control behaviour which is genuinely anti-social because it threatens other people’s lives, it should be that of motorist.”
Another example it highlighted was his apparent view that it is cyclists who are the main source of danger to themselves, rather than drivers who are cocooned within vehicles capable of inflicting death or serious injury if not driven safely.
As for media reaction to Mr Griffin’s original column, the Daily Mail focused on his call for cyclists to pay ‘road tax,’ including the misleading term in its headline, compounding the error by going on to report that “he believes they should pay for the privilege - as motorists do to drive their vehicles.”
While the newspaper did not itself provide a critique of Mr Griffin’s comments, it did include the response to them from the London Cycling Campaign (LCC).
On Monday, however, science journalist and London cyclist Michael Hanlon, writing in his blog on the Mail's website, roundly condemned Mr Griffin's comments. He may not have been the first to compare them to those once infamously made by jewellery chain boss Gerald Ratner which resulted in the collapse of his business, but perhaps the geratest significance of his well-reasoned response to Addison Lee's boss lies in where it was published - if the Daily Mail has turned against Mr Griffin, things are not good for him.
The Daily Telegraph also included ‘road tax’ in its headline and as the Mail had done, reported Mr Griffin’s words without specific comment. It did, however, balance them with quotes from Green Party mayoral candidate Jenny Jones, highlighting the ‘Die-In’ at Addison Lee’s offices tomorrow evening organised on Facebook, and from Sarah Fatica of road safety charity Brake.
The latter said that while his point about cyclists receiving better training was a valid one, motorists needed to take special care because of the nature of the vehicles they drive. “If a cyclist makes a mistake it is usually the cyclists themselves who are worse off but if a motorist makes a mistake it can lead to a number of casualties,” she pointed out.
A separate blog post on the Telegraph website, however, by author and journalist Harry Mount, did seek to demolish many of the myths that Mr Griffin had put forward in his Add Lib piece, starting with the headline “Bicycles don’t kill people; cars do,” adding, “That’s what makes [Mr Griffin’s] remarks so depressing.
“In a glaring non sequitur, Griffin says that, because cab drivers are protected by air bags and impact bars, and bicyclists have little more than a helmet, it is then the cyclists' fault that the roads are so dangerous. That is precisely why drivers should be particularly considerate of cyclists. A bike can do little harm to a driver. Cars kill cyclists.”
Other newspapers, such as the Guardian and the Independent, did provide a more detailed analysis of Mr Griffin’s comments, as did The Times, which yesterday also reported that he had signed up to its Cities Fit For Cycling campaign.
Some will view Mr Griffin’s endorsement of The Times’ campaign as little more than a damage limitation exercise suggested by his PR advisers, and the fact is that as the founder and chairman of a firm already viewed negatively by many of the capital’s cyclists, it is too little, too late.
The impression he gives is that despite his claims of being a cyclist who uses Boris Bikes regularly, is that he remains woefully out of touch with thousands of others who ride their bicycles in London every day, and would like to feel safer while they are doing so.