An essay about personal transport that I often recommend to people (but which they only occasionally read) is John Adam’s 1996 essay Can technology save us? (if you do open the link, don’t be deterred that the pdf appears to be 32 pages long – the article is only 16 pages).

It is worth reading the whole thing but in essence it presents an argument that it is possible to have too much of a good thing and in this case the good thing is personal mobility. Not the technology that gives us that mobility but the mobility itself. This idea seems not outrageous but simply unthinkable. Once one has managed to think it, then it seems outrageous – patronising, elitist, anti-progress and just self-evidently bad. Or at least the conclusion seems bad if you haven’t followed the arguments that lead to it. Here is the crux of it: a personal choice made by one ordinary person is negligible. Hurrah for choice, we’re all in favour. The very same choice made by many people is not negligible, yet in the case of transport, this is ignored. Adams argues that we were not (and are not) given the true choice. He puts this is the form of three imaginary opinion polls:

1. Would you like a car, unlimited air-miles, and all the computers and communications facilities presently enjoyed by Bill Gates?

” … at present most people in the world have never flown, and do not own cars or computers. Their answer to this question, everywhere in the world is overwhelmingly yes. In answering, most people probably imagine the world as it is now but with themselves having access to the enlarged range of opportunities that they see present car and computer owners enjoying […] politcians, technologists and transport and communication planners everywhere are encouraging people to believe that everyone’s wish can be granted”

2. Would you like to live in the sort of world you would get if everyone’s wish were granted?

For such an opinion poll to yield meaningful answers there would need to be agreement about what such a world would be like. It would probably be grossly polluted, noisy, congested and anxious about the security of its energy supplies. Let us assume, however … that technology will solve these problems. What else might we expect? [drawing on the previous discussion in this paper] we can can speculate about some of its main features:

  • It will be a polarized world. Not everyone’s wish can be granted. About a third of the world’s population will never be old enough or fit enough to drive … Their disadvantage will increase as [everyone else’s] car dependence increases. they will be second-class citizens, dependent fortheir mobility on the withered remains of public transport or the goodwill of car owners. [universal car ownership will never be possible]
  • The world will become one continuous suburb. The traditional city, built for people not cars, could not exist. The last unspoilt islands and wilderness areas – which travel writers incite us with a sense of urgency to visit before they are spoiled – will be spoiled …
  • Geographical communities in which people know their neighbours will be replaced by aspatial communities of interest. People with similar tastes, interests and life-styles will commune on the internet or meet at conferences and vacation resorts. More high-security enclaves of the wealthy will be developed, but because of the fragmenting force of their inhabitants mobility, they will not function as true communities […]
  • Travel opportunities will be destroyed. The cultural and linguistic diversity in the world – the experience of which provides the motivation for much travel – will be obliterated by the rising tide of tourism […]
  • Fragile ecosystems will be destroyed: wilderness retreats with access to it. The provision for parking and road space for more than ten times as many motor vehicles will require paving much more of the world […]
  • Street life will disappear. The spread out scale will defeat pedestrians, and traffic will make cycling too dangerous. There will be no local shops to walk to. […] A world full of traffic and strangers will require the constant supervision of children who will no longer be alllowed to play in the street. […]
  • Law enforcement will become Orwellian. A world full of highly mobile strangers will require ever more ingenious technology to detect and apprehend wrong doers. As travel becomes easier physically it will become more difficult bureaucratically. […]
  • […]The ease with which one can live one’s life in a community of interest will diminish the contact people have with their geographical neighbours. concern for the local environment and the welfare of one’s geographical neighbours will diminish as people sped more time in cyberspace
  • Political authority will become more remote […] As technology deluges us in information, it leaves us less time for contemplation and reflection, and forces us to employ ever cruder perceptual filters in order to make sense of it all […]
  • Democracy will disappear […] democracies, to function effectively, require common values, and a measure of agreement about societal goals forged out of common experience. If distance is vanquished the requisite minimum level of concensus and trust will be unattainable … “

And what of the third question? The one that we really ought to ask?

3. Would you like to live in a cleaner, quieter, more convivial world in which you know your neighbours, it is safe to walk and cycle, and children are allowed to play in the street?

Transport and communication planning is in the grip of of a linear, backward-looking vision which extrapolates past “progress” indefinitely into the future. The vision is being sold on a false prospectus that invites individuals to imagine the world as it is now but with themselves having acess to the enlarged range of opportunites currently enjoyed by a small elite – an impossible world in which everyone is richer and more mobile than average.

Transport and communications planners alone cannot, of course, create the world described in opinon poll 3. But they can create conditions which will make such a world impossible […]

He therefore argues for priority to be given to policies which:

give absolute priority to those forms of land use and modes of transport – walking, cycling and local bus services – that promote a human scale of living

Well. That seems an extreme dystopian view of everything. It simply cannot be right. I’m sure my selective quotation does not look convincing – clearly Adams has overlooked this, that and the other obvious thing, and of course it was written in 1996. However, I think it is worth reading the whole thing. When I read it myself I found his conclusions chilling.

Ultimately the argument comes to the conclusion that we simply have to travel less – and yet I see no possibility of this happening because I cannot see that there is any limit on our desire for mobility. Obviously, it is better to be able to get about, travel a bit. Obviously, it’s bad to be confined to your village or town all your life and never see the sea or visit a foreign country. And yet, if too much casual travel (and who decides what is “casual”?) is as problematic as Adams argues, where do we draw the line? And who draws it? There is no logical point at which increasing travel passes from “life-enhancing” to “life diminishing”. As with so many sustainability issues, we simply have to engage with this – yet it is almost certain that the more-powerful are going to try and hijack it as a way of maintaining their power.

So don’t expect a simple conclusion from me – this isn’t that sort of blog.


See the following other posts:

The problem

How much choice do we really have?

More about choice


The problem restated


How’s that national petition doing?

It stays open until mid April next year, but going from the graph below, it doesn’t look as if it will make the magical 100,000:

National petition start Aug

It did pretty well though and the 100,000 doesn’t necessarily matter – they sort of promise that any petititon that gets to that number will be debated in parliament but the get britain cycling report is going to be discussed on September 2nd anyway. There’s going to be another of those big cycling demos on the day.

Where am I?*

More politics. Our local Cycling Campaign recently organised the Bristol Cycling Summit.

I felt quite inspired by it. Amongst other things, words were said about “nettle grasping”. The chair of the meeting referred to the need for “corporate collective cojones – someone is going to have to take the pain”. The necessity for “sticks as well as carrots” was mentioned, together with the absence of an “easy way out”.

Good. It really does feel as if things are about to change – maybe they have already changed and this will only become clear with hindsight. Maybe. Unfortunately my “feeling” is not necessarily an accurate indicator of where we are. I might be feeling that maybe we’re on the cusp of taking a similar route to the Netherlands simply because I haven’t been around long enough. Although I have been broadly aware of the active-travel argument ever since I bought a copy of Richard’s Bicycle Book at the end of the seventies, I have only been involved in what is really the very shallowest of activism for a few years.

It has been argued on a number of blogs (if you’re reading this, then you’ve probably come across this) that the abstract argument has been largely won. Walking-and-cycling (despite the occasional elected noodlehead of the Hammond and Pickles variety) has been a policy “fluffy bunny” at least since the early nineties – perhaps even earlier. Fluffy bunnies are cute, everyone likes them, almost nobody is actually against them, but they are not, you know, a serious grown-up animal. So what we get is a cycle of Fine Words followed by inadequate funding combined with a failure to take any decisions which might actually do anything. It was a previous turn of this cycle that brought us all the dangerous and inadequate “cycling infrastructure” that is so striking the moment one gets on a bike. As that cycle went on, the timid infrastructure was neglected and forgotten (except by anyone who attempted to use it). Now a new round has started, active travel is in the limelight once more, fine words are being spoken, more people are riding bikes, things are looking good …

So where am I? Have I wandered in at the early part of the cycle, heard the fine words for the first time and naively been inspired by them? Or is it really different this time? Or perhaps not even “different this time”, because the cycle is more of a spiral – even the crap cycling facilities have pushed things forward a little bit, we’re not where we were back in the eighties when I was a regular London cyclist?

There isn’t a doubt that the amount of cycling in both London and Bristol has increased. But what about life outside the big trendy cities? I’ve extracted this graph from the figures in one of the many, many tables in the National Travel Survey for 2012. To be exact, it comes from table NTS0304 and represents not average number of ‘trips’ but journey ‘stages’ per person per year – so it catches the people who use a bike to get to the station and so on. I’ve included walking as a comparison.

NTS2012 walking_cycling

I think all one can really say about that is “hmmmmmm”. So I’ll cheer myself up by presenting just the cycling data (the data-scrupulous will notice that, as with the above graph, the scale on the x-axis is not completely consistent – but all it means is that the first bit of the line is “squashed up” and it doesn’t really do anything deceptive to the data presentation. I just didn’t feel like faffing around to correct this).

NTS2012 cycling

That doesn’t really make it much better, though there is, arguably – going through the ziggy bit of the line, which is what you’d expect with such low numbers anyway – perhaps, maybe, an upward trend from about 2003 onward (and I shall now remind myself about the nature of exponential growth – nothing seems to happen for ages and then, in a big whoosh, an enormous amount happens. Or you can have “tipping points” if you prefer. Anyway, I do sort of remain guardedly optimistic).


Completely off topic comment – nothing to do with transport whatsoever. If you haven’t already read it, Where Am I? is an entertaining (in the sense of ‘mind-twistingly strange’) philosophical story by Daniel Dennett)

Real politics, real communication ….

… are time-consuming and not terribly exciting. And although I’d much prefer to sit around and think, maybe read the odd journal article and look at some statistics (the latest national travel survey results were released recently), I have to admit that it is probably a better use of my time to stand on a bridge in the rush hour and hand out flyers to cyclists.
FTR bike placard

We were communicating the existence of the Bristol cycling manifesto petition. As explained previously the idea is to make visible the support for an improved cycling (and walking!) environment in the handsome-but-harrassed city of Bris. The support is necessary to stiffen the political will of the people with power (notably the mayor) to push things forward. The support does exist, but it is largely latent and so, boring as it is, and even with the internet and whatnot, talking to people’s actual physically present selves is still a necessary and excellent way to communicate.

Might active travel decrease obesity?

For reasons explained previously, I’m not really that keen on the whole blogging thing. Apart from anything else, almost everything one wants to say will eventually be said by someone else, so what’s the point?

Here is today’s example, it’s from Joe Dunckley, and concerns the connection between lack of physical actrivity and the “obesity crisis”. It’s from what, he warns us, is a rather sciencey and not terribly finished piece – and yes, it is slightly confusing to read unless you’ve already read a bit about the debate he references. Nonetheless it contains a point with which I am in total agreement. Joe’s post is aligned with a central thrust of psychobikeology: stop thinking about individuals (oh it’s so terrible the way people behave! Let’s talk to them about it!), start thinking about systems (people behave the way they do for complicated reasons, most of which are related to external circumstances. How might we change those circumstances?).

(The full post is here)

“[Garry Taubes commenting on the obesity crisis, in the journal Nature] is right to treat those who “blame individuals for not following [healthy eating] advice properly” with contempt. But not because the advice is wrong. Because any “advice” — right or wrong — is going to be useless. This is not a problem that individuals have created for themselves, and it’s not a problem that individuals can be “advised” to solve for themselves. This is a problem of the environment that we live in: the types of food that are available to us, and the opportunities for an active healthy lifestyle that have been taken away from us. […]

“[…] obesity, is a process of physiology. But it’s a problem of environment. […] you can’t solve a problem environment with advice alone. Bad lifestyle choices are not an individual failing. Good lifestyle choices need an infrastructure to support them.”

Just to expand a little here, strategically, I think it’s best to avoid claiming “answer to the obesity crisis” as one of the benefits of a public policy which takes walking and cycling seriously enough to do what is necessary (just as I think it’s strategically best to avoid banging on about carbon emissions too much). This is because it is a huge oversimplification – and therefore becomes a source of yet more contrarian ‘debate’ and dithering. I think it’s better to point out how great physical activity is in health terms (and how effortless it feels when that activity just happens as part of everyday getting around) and skirt around the whole psychological rabbit-hole of dieting-and-weight-loss.

Commuter cycling: does it help your health?

In an earlier post I explained that recently I have been making more individual cycling trips than at any point in the last thirty-odd years. I also commented, when comparing the subjective experiences of cycling and walking, that cycling offers a wider range of physical intensity.

Even though most of my recent cycle trips have been short distances ( < 5 miles) it has been very striking that even a short, slow, flat, offroad journey will involve bursts of energy that you simply do not get in a walking trip. This is partly because nowhere, nowhere is completely flat. But you don’t really remember it. Thirty yards up a bit of slope, enough to make you pant for a few seconds? Forgotten as soon as its over. Accelerating to get past a bus? You do it without thinking or bothering. And these events occur even in the trips of the gentlest, the slowest, the most pootlesome of bike riders.

This struck me as something where – viewed purely as everyday transport – cycling really does win over walking. Raising physical intensity in a walking trip is difficult. With effort, you can just about make walking as hard as a rather gentle bike ride. I had lately taken to breaking into a minimalist jog for parts of walking journeys and of course Bristol is famously hilly – but I’m both temperamentally impatient and interested in experimenting with this kind of thing and I have to admit that truly vigorous utility walking is never going to be that popular.

So I was very pleased to see my speculation confirmed at Commuter cycling: does it help your health? a talk by Professor Ashley Cooper [note, I’ll change the link to the actual powerpoints, once they’re up on the Bristol Uni website]. The talk was one of the events of the Bristol Cycle Festival

There is now a ton of evidence about the benefits of what has been given the jargon term “moderate to vigorous physical activity” and Prof Cooper sketched out some of the seminal studies (the London bus crews for instance – conductors and drivers provided a really neat pair of otherwise similar groups which differ consistently in their workplace levels of physical activity). However he went on to say that there is “little hard evidence” of the specific benefits of cycling – but there is some. (By “hard” he meant well-designed academic studies – there is of course masses of personal experience – anecdotal evidence is not necessarily trivial in the sense that it can point at a real phenomenon, but the proper studies do have to be done to test our intuitions).

Sorry, I’m digressing – I made fairly extensive notes and I don’t wish to just transcribe them. To get back to the point I started with, Professor Cooper said plainly that the available evidence shows that:

“cycling gives you a bigger bang for your buck in terms of health benefits [than walking]”

And that benefit is thought to be because of the higher overall intensity of cycling:

“it is intensity which gives you the health benefits”

The research into physical activity has always shown that intensity is important. “Intensity” (how much it raises your heart rate) is to be counterpoised to “duration” and the current thinking is moving towards saying that “high intensity + short duration” is better than “low intensity + long duration”. I see that my notes contain the line “for increases in life expectancy – duration does not matter”.

Not sure how accurate that note is – it does sound pretty radical. It’s interesting to me how knowledge about exercise and health has changed over the years. At one point it seemed to be thought that beneficial exercise had to be both quite intense and of fairly lengthy duration. Decades ago I recall being told that going for a five- or ten-minute run couldn’t possibly do me any good at all – and as for walking hah! Well I’ve gradually watched the advice change and now it seems that almost any exercise at all will do you some good. This is great news. (And, incidentally, a nice example of the way the way that science changes its picture of the world as more evidence comes in). Any exercise will do you some good, but (in a broad way) greater intensity gives better results.

A complication

My earlier post on the epidemic of sloth was just a little disingenuous because I omitted an important caveat. The report I referred to was clear that physical activity wasn’t quite the whole story. The other half of the picture is the amount of sedentary time – if moving is a plus then sitting is a minus. You could take a good dose of exercise and then wipe out the benefit by sitting at a desk for the rest of the day. This was completely new to me; Prof Cooper said that it is new to everyone because the conclusions are recent.

The importance of decreasing the amount of time you spend sitting inertly on your bum is yet another plus for cycling – a “double hit” in Prof Cooper’s words – because the time on the bike is time spent not lazing about. You might be sitting on a saddle but you are active. It’s an even bigger plus for walking because walking journeys take so long (I’m currently at the stage where I arrive half an hour early for everything because I’m still applying walking calculations and can’t quite believe how much faster the bike is).

This caveat about taking care not to sit around for most of the day is important. The finding that, on the whole, intensity is more important than duration can be easily misrepresented. The BBC Horizon documentary the truth about exercise (the full versions on youtube have unfortunately been taken down) did not exactly misrepresent things and it did spend plenty of time discussing the importance of non-sedentariness but the documentary gave a misleading overall impression. Nevertheless it was good enough to be worth looking out for repeats, if you haven’t already seen it.

The structure of the documentary resulted in a foregrounding of some research findings about capsule exercise. The findings are that it is possible to get the full benefits of exercise from a very small amount of maximum intensity exercise. In the documentary we see the presenter (the very affable, and medically trained, Michael Mosley) following a programme where he does three twenty-second intervals on an exercise bike. The idea is that you really have to go absolutely flat out – you need to be gasping and groaning at the end – but you only need do this minute’s-worth three times a week. This is quite staggering I’d agree. Unfortunately the documentary did not make it clear enough that this needs to be done in conjunction with reducing the amount of the sitting down. The programme was not structured in such a way that the central argument about exercise came through. Although all the pieces were in place it succumbed to the gosh-wow factor (perhaps from a sad lack of confidence in the mental acuity of its audience?) and this resulted in a degree of confusion. (Horizon seems to do this rather a lot).

Incidentally Prof Cooper remarked that when he presents to audiences of fellow academics and practitioners in the area of physical activity, there are always a bunch of people at the back who have deliberately chosen to stand rather than sit. That seems perhaps a little ostentatious to me, but in case you’re wondering, I’m writing this post standing at my desk, with the laptop perched on a bunch of boxfiles and I’ve been doing part of my desk work this way for a few months now.


This all seems plain enough to me. If you get to work on a bike you get some reasonably intense exercise every week day. Furthermore, the time it takes to get to work is not time spent immobile in a chair. Double hit.

This knowledge is not a big secret. “The government has been told about this. It does know … it’s up to them to do something about it” said Prof Cooper. We’ve been so battered by half-baked US rhetoric about “big government” that perhaps it needs spelling out: the government spends my taxes to do things that I cannot do on my own by means of my own individual choices. I damn well want my taxes to purchase public health by means of doing what is necessary to foster walking and cycling. Increased public health means an increase in the amount of choice you have in your individual pursuit of satisfaction. It leads to more freedom.

Notebook: why did the cycling demonstration towns fail?

Well “fail” is not the right word; they did achieve some good stuff even though they didn’t live up to the original ambition of the project. I think the CDT project is best viewed as having built some mental infrastructure – and here in Bris some useful physical infrastructure as well.

I’m writing this now because I was looking for something to push the previous post off the top of the stack (so’s I don’t look like a sluggard who leaves old news lying around) and Dave Horton has just listed some possible reasons for the somewhat disappointing results of the project. He’s talking about Lancaster, but I think his comments can be extended further. In addition to the main post he gave a numbered list in reply to one of his commenters, and I think this is worth repeating. His comments are here and here is a filleted version:

“First, the money & status associated with being a Cycling Demonstration Town was seen as more about the money & status than about the cycling (i.e. key people saw things ‘the wrong way round’;

[My comment: yes, for sure – and I bet the same thing applied to Bristol – and all the other places. But what can we do about this? We’re back to this whole nebulous thing of “changing cultures” arn’t we?]

“Second, the project’s goal to enable more short trips to be made by bike very quickly got transformed (because it is easier to do) into a focus on making the district a more attractive cycling destination (i.e. the project became about using cycling to sell the area as a tourist destination, much more than about doing the difficult things required to get local people cycling). That’s a bit unfair (I’m skipping some important detail), but I’m confident of my general point.

[My comment: presumably this only applies to specific towns which have some sort of tourist trade – not all the CDM towns had this – something to be aware of if and when “son-of-CDT” comes to pass]

“Third, people (including key decision-makers, but also ‘ordinary’ local people) were never convinced of the case for re-making the district around bikes. That’s because there were too few people articulating that level of vision and ambition, and they were too peripheral to the process. The main people in the project, in other words, didn’t believe in the product they were selling enough (and related, were not sufficiently charismatic).

[My comment: this seems to me connected with the first point. I don’t know enough to make a detailed comparison between the Bristol and Lancaster experiences, but I recall there was a definite feeling of distrust among Bristol cycling campaigners when Cycling city started – it started with a whimper not a bang. Again, what can be done – what can we do about it?]

“Fourth, that local institutional capital which did get built during the six years of the project was immediately lost when it got cut. Key council officers were made redundant, the dedicated website became neglected etc.

[My comment: in other words, the gains are being rolled back. Bristol had its stint as a “cycling city” later than Lancaster, and we are still able to draw on it. It feels like we haven’t yet slumped back into business as usual and we’ve still got some momentum, but that there are forces in that direction.]

Oh, time for a picture, I think. One of the cycling demonstration towns was Southport. I know the town and had cause to visit it shortly after its CDT term. Was there any difference? It should have been perfect for cycling – flat as a pancake and ridiculously wide roads. No difference visible to my casual eye, apart from these cute cycle stands (unsullied by actual bikes, you will note):

Southport cycle stands