Horrible history

Just a quick shout for Joe Dunckley’s notes on the history of the national cycling strategy. This has relevance for some of my comments about the recent cyclenation conference and the wretched history of infighting in the cycling advocacy “community” – a history which generated a continuous bass grumble through some of the afternoon presentations.

The plenary comments made much of the “community” having “blown it” in the mid-nineties because of that infighting and how important it was not to “blow it” once again, now that a “window of opportunity” seems to be opening up. JD’s reading of the recorded evidence from 1996 to 2005 suggests that this is not a particularly accurate account of what really happened.

Why am I even bothering with this, given that I think it important not to get sucked into pointless pseudo-battles? Well, it’s useful to be aware of the past … for obvious reasons. Also, of course I don’t want to look naive to any (improbable) readers.


The Cyclenation conference again

One of the afternoon speakers was Roger Geffen of the CTC. I have to say I rather warmed to him. His talk alluded, rather gingerly, to the Big Infrastructure Bunfight and I wondered if his slightly frantic manner was caused by this being such a tender topic. Apparently not – other ctc bigwigs present told me that this is just his normal style and on this occasion he was actually being rather restrained.

The CTC are known for being, or perhaps for having been, strong opponents of cycle infrastructure which is segregated from the ‘real’ road. I sense that this particular debate is gradually coming to a sort of consensus, as can be seen from this item, dated 12th October, on the CTC website: CTC declares support for quality segregation while still opposing “farcilities”.

A point that was made by both Roger Geffen and by Philip Darnton was that the offical approval of cycling is maybe opening a ‘window of opportunity’ and that activists must be able to give a clear ‘ask’, or the window will close again.

Real politics is a strange business: we talk about it using all these glowing words like “vision” and “strategy” which imply that it is all about human will and imagination. A more accurate image for the actual business on the ground might be one of those games of traditional medieval ‘football’ that gets held every Shrove Tuesday in some village in the sticks. Hundreds of people pushing and shoving across three muddy fields, most of whom never even see the ball and the last goal was scored in 1382. So I’m trying to avoid premature rejoicing about windows of opportunity – but nevertheless this was a hopeful speculation which could, I suppose be true(ish).

Anyway, it contributed to the good feeling with which I ended the day.

The big infrastructure bunfight #2

… continued

So, there we were, and are, with perversely designed and dangerous ‘cycle lanes’ – the apt term used by the cycling bloggerati is ‘cycling farcilities’. There’s even a webpage devoted to documenting particularly laughable examples. Better off without them. If even a wimp like me could learn to use even the existing roads then surely anyone could.

I belonged at the time to the e-list of the Camden cycling campaign, and various online spats about cycle lanes finally resulted in the outbreak, in 2007, of a lengthy e-tussle about the use of segregated cycle lanes – i.e ones with actual physical separation between cars and traffic. Statistics and research papers, arguments, sneers and accusations of stupidity were flung about all over the place.

The thing is, it was really difficult for an outsider like myself to make any sense at all of this. As it gradually started to come into focus in my own mind, the following seemed to be going on:

1) There are people who are very strongly in favour of segregated cycle lanes.

2) They are not stupid.

3) This argument runs deep – it had been going on for years and had by now developed its own emotional momentum which had propelled it beyond reasoned discussion. There seems to be a whole back history which has nothing to do with most people who ride bikes, and which, quite frankly, does not matter.

To an outsider like myself (and I have to keep saying that, because I feel that when I publish this post I can’t quite claim to be an outsider any longer), each side seemed to be wilfully misunderstanding the other.

Look, I’m bored with this already, I’ll cut straight to the chase.

The chase

The most enlightening thing I’ve read about cycling infrastrcutre is David Hembrow’s blog a view from the cycle path. If you haven’t seen it then I recommend reading a few of the very earliest posts. David Hembrow is a lifelong cycling buff who comes from the west country and has lived in Cambridge. Even the best cycling town in the UK wasn’t good enough and he emigrated to the Netherlands, which has by far the highest rate of cycling in the developed world, and his blog is about why this is and how it came about. Hembrow has credibility, as far as I’m concerned, because it is evident from his writing that he is intelligent, knows what he is talking about, is placed to make decent personal observations and uses statistical argument appropriately. As the blog ran full-tilt for quite a few years, it is also very thorough, in that it manages to clear up all of the obvious misunderstanding and objections.

(A mention should also be given, I understand, to Paul Gannon of, guess who, the Camden cycling campaign. He also lived in the Netherlands for a while. Also an intelligent man who uses statistics appropriately*. But in my experience of his postings to the CCC e-list his voice had been distored by the infighting on this issue. It could happen to any of us).

Finally, there has been a ‘painful’ change of mind on the part of the academic Dave Horton, as a result of a qualitative research project.

… and so …

This is more than enough for me, so I’m convinced – but what am I convinced of? Well basically that the experience of the Netherlands should be the starting point. That the Netherlands is not so different from the UK that their experience can be discarded. That an important part of how it’s been done over there involves good segregated infrastructure. (though if you read a view from the cycle path you’ll see that there is a lot more to it than that, including encouragement and training). That the experience of people who find the current road situation too horrid to contemplate cycling or walking should be taken seriously.

That we’ll never just be able to persuade more people to cycle on the roads as they exist, that if we change the built environment in the right way more people will walk and cycle and the virtuous circle could be helped to start.

Nobody is in favour of ‘farcilities’. I think the most important (implicit) point made by the “cycle on the roads” camp is that we can’t entirely trust the authorities to get it right, or right first time, or to not to do it on the cheap. A campaigning message that crudely says “we want segregated cycle infrastructure” is a bad message, (a) because a completely segregated cycle network does not even exist in the Netherlands and more importantly (b) because with the wretched lack of political will in the UK, can we trust the powers that be not to create a load of lousy bike lanes and then force us to use them?

Well, keeping a sceptical eye on the powers that be is just the task for local campaign groups, which brings us nicely back to the cyclenation conference …

* why do I keep mentioning statistics? Because statistics are life, dammit!

The big infrastructure bunfight

Small groups of people seem to go in for ferocious infighting – the internal politics of amateur recorder consorts and country-dance groups is, I have been told, rather scary. When a group is small and also beleaguered the ferocity is doubled . I suspect that this is because people who are on ones own side, but with whom we disagree on some minor point, are simply more available than the true enemy. The energy that ought properly to be sent outward into the wider world seems to have no obvious clear target … but your fellow small-and-beleagured-group colleagues are right next door. It’s a variation on kick-the-cat.

There are a number of these rows simmering away in the cycle-campaigning micro-community, and of course the internet amplifies everything. Mention on a e-list that you think all those yellow-jackets and hi-viz kit look like a rather jolly uniform and you get a whirlwind of response. No, no, no, we really must not admit that some people look good in lycra. The line we simply must take is that hi-viz makes us look WEIRD. Have you got that? Oh all right then … it was only an innocent remark that I thought luminous yellow looks nice on rainy day for goodness sake. Or mention on a different e-list that, as a re-starting cyclist, you think you were better off twenty years ago without any of these cycle lanes and you discover you have accidentally pedalled into a minefield. Apparently, combatants have been at it for decades and vast grudges have had time to build up. If you want to be a proper cycling campaigner you really must pick a side on all the big points of discord so you can have some fun beating up the opposition.

So what, exactly was the minefield that I pedalled into (and rapidly out of, I might add). Dear imaginary reader, I really find it difficult to know where to start.

Let’s go back to my own cycling history, as described previously. My formative cycling experiences were in a world with no bike-specific infrastructure – not even Advanced Stop Lines. I stopped cycling and walked for a couple of decades and when I tried the bike again in the noughties there were loads more cyclists and there were all these painted cycle lanes everywhere – there were even a very few sections of physically separated bike lane. There was lots of new signage which acknowledged that cycling did in fact take place. It all looked very encouraging and I assumed it was going to make for a pleasant experience. It didn’t

And I was not alone in finding this. It turned out that there was a whole literature, on the net and in print, about the general ghastliness of cycle lanes, cycle tracks, cycle paths. They are dangerous. The best way to keep yourself safe on a bike is to be alert and assertive – plonk yourself where you can be seen, be clear in your intentions and so on – just as I had discovered for myself back in the eighties. In fact there is excellent book about this called Cyclecraft. I recommend it. It’s by a chap called John Franklin. He was at the Cyclenation conference in fact. “Ooh” I thought, “will there be a scrap?”.

To be continued … which is why comments for this one are closed.

“Cyclenation” conference in Bristol

So why did I enjoy it? Well, roomfuls of cyclists tend to have nice energy about them. I used to do a martial art and it feels like that – it is I suppose just being surrounded by people who are unpretentiously fit. And it’s nice being surrounded by people who you knowaren’t going to plunge into Tedious Car Conversations at the drop of a hat. (On the downside, I suppose it was rather undiverse – though it was somewhat less middle-aged and mono-male than I was expecting).

A bonus was that the structure of the day catered to my natural fidgetiness. It started at 9:30 with a set of mini-field trips to look at the local roads with specific reference to cycling infrastructure. That is to say, half of the morning was spent walking or cycling. Then when the indoor talking started, it commenced with a discussion format which involved attendees talking to each other, then getting up every so often and talking to a new bunch of people. In other words the morning was partly spent in outdoor physical exercise, followed by an indoor activity at which it was almost completely impossible to fall asleep.

The afternoon was, of course, speakers, but I was still surprisingly perky. There was the launch of the cyclescape website, some quite technical political stuff which I didn’t entirely follow and there was also … well no fights broke out, but I gather there had been a few skirmishes in the morning session.

Ok. This blog is shy and retiring. If it was a bird, it would be a small brown thing that goes “pheep” occasionally. Nevertheless, part of my purpose (inter alia*) is to address an imaginary reader who is innocent of the culture of cycling activists, and so I need to outline the debate about cycling infrastructure. This is usually called “integration versus segregation” but this is a misleading phrase and one of the annoying things about this particular Heated Debate is that both sides have consistently misrepresented each others stance. In fact, this issue is slowly coming to a semi-consensus, but it gave a thorough airing to lots of important points along the way, so is worth a few words in the next post.


I’ve just been to a cycling conference …

This one – “cyclenation” is an umbrella group of cycling campaign groups. One of the organisers of this shindig was the Bristol Cycling Campaign.

Was it good? Yeah it was, and it’s going to be the jumping off point for a number of posts. It was chaired by Philip Darnton, formerly head of Cycling England, useful and pointlessly-culled quango. Amongst other things he said this (more or less – I don’t know shorthand), which is so completely in keeping with the spirit of this blog that I have to repeat it:

“No-one starts cycling because they’re ‘saving the planet’. They start because it’s convenient, easy, cheap or for whatever reason. Once they’ve started and find that it works them and they enjoy it and it becomes part of their life, then, if you ask them why they ride a bike, then they’ll say ‘oh, I’m saving the planet’ “


More soon.