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.

Not too agressive I hope …

I put this sticker on the bike. Then I tried to take it off because I’m generally rather weedy about making political statements in public. But it won’t remove easily. Anyway, it might make it less nickable maybe?


And why would people take it as agressive anyway? “Who are all these people?” drivers moan at a spot of unexpected congestion – so surely everyone agrees that the fewer the better?

Political will in Bristol

I’ve already mentioned the Bristol Cycling Manifesto, but here it is again.

The top line is that there is a petition that, if you live in Bristol and wish to do anything other than use a car for every single journey, you really should sign.

This is about political will, as (briefly) discussed yesterday. We’ve ended up with a mayor who seems to genuinely support cycling. (And George Ferguson seems to have more of a real clue about it than Boris Johnson did). Making the changes that will foster active travel is going to come up against both considerable inertia and active opposition. It can only be done if there is seen to be real support. From the numbers of people riding bikes around Bris that support is definitely there – but it needs to be seen to be there.

As well as the petition, Bristol Cycling Campaign’s freedom to ride campaign includes a framework for the infrastructure layout that would make the city easy to bike around. Here’s their cute map of what a decent Bristol cycling network ought to look like:

toptube map print version june2013

This is another way that political will can be created – you do some of the work that ought to have been done already by salaried planners, you show what things ought to be, roughly, like. You act as if the thing has already started by providing a starting point.

Did I say that I really admire people who can get this sort of thing going? I am really not an activist, I’m more of a sit-on-my-bum-and-thinkivist.

Political will

“We could do what the Netherlands did – if we had the political will”. I’ve said this kind of thing myself – and what I’ve meant is that there is nothing inevitable about our present personal transport mess, that things could have been different if different planning choices had been made, that things could well be better – if different planning choices were to be made now.

But what is this mysterious thing, “political will”? What actually causes the people who have the choice-making power to do the right thing? What makes elected politicians feel that something is “the right thing”? What heartens them to actually push things through?

I don’t subscribe to the “all politicians are scoundrels” view. I think they are in many ways like the rest of us except that they enjoy the strange game of “politics”. What I mean by this is that politicians want to be not just re-elected (so they can go on playing the game) but also to be liked and respected and to feel they have been of some use – all the things that most of us want. But (also like most of us) they usually need to be pushed into doing awkward or difficult things. So “the right thing” needs to be made easier for them.

Which is all a roundabout way of mentioning the “get Britain cycling” epetition. I’m rather sceptical about petitions, but it can’t do any harm?

Almost certainly, everyone who sees this blog has already signed, but I thought you might like to see how it’s doing. It was started in April and will stay open for one year. The idea is that it will be taken a little bit seriously if it gets to 100,000 signatures. I’ve been tracking it since the start of May and this is how it’s gone so far:


Will it get to 100,000? Hmmm. Not impossible, but not by any means inevitable. I’ll give another update at the end of July.

Of course generating “political will” might be an easier task at the local level …

“Fair words butter no parsnips”

Getting shouty on the internet decorates no cakes

Polite indignation on a blog steams no broccoli

Unfortunately, the only thing that might go some small way to cooking your dinner is real world politics. Here is some modest activism from Bristol:


These people are from the local cycling campaign, which has just launched something called the Bristol Freedom to Ride cycling manifesto. The idea is to try to create a push, to assist a mayor who is basically sympathetic to active travel by showing support, to let loose some bold practical suggestions that can be taken up and brandished. “Thousands already cycle but our Council needs to provide a comprehensive cycling network” it sez ‘ere. Yes.

And there’s something you can sign .

[btw I haven’t abandoned this blog writing project – I’m just a bit engaged with other aspects of life, but should be back in July]

Bit of philosophy for you

Here’s a thought.

Telling someone what they feel is offensive and insulting. If they say that they have a particular feeling, then who am I to know different? People are best placed to know their own inner lives.

But consider this. We have to respect people, but we don’t necessarily have to respect what they say. (You think you are what you say? Really?) It is possible to draw a distinction between experience and interpretation of that experience. Interpretations can be mistaken. We revise our interpretations all the time, often in the light of other experiences, sometimes as a result of someone else suggesting an alternative interpretation, sometimes spontaneously.

Two experiences we often hear: a driver says that cyclists who hold them up and get in the way, put everyone in danger and make travelling frustrating and stressful; a pedestrian says their life is made a misery by hooligans cycling on the pavement. Are these really accounts of their experience? Or are they interpretations of something else: an experience of feeling frustrated, stressed, frightened and angry. I wouldn’t doubt for a moment that those experiences are real. It would be offensive to suggest otherwise. I would (often) doubt their interpretation of these feelings. I’d say these were caused by a badly-designed urban environment with too many cars, given too much priority. Our lightning-fast, causally-hair-trigger brains link up the feelings, caused by a complicated system, with the simple sight of a few bicycles and interpret the feelings as being caused by the bikes.

Campaigning relevance?

Communication. Do not get drawn into mollifying peoples interpretations and respond with tutting about red-light jumping and pavement riding. Do not get drawn in refuting other peoples interpeations and respond with growling about speeding and pavement parking. So far as possible point at an alternative interpretation of experience of the unpleasantness of the traffic environment – and a very real and possible solution to it. How do we do all this ‘pointing’? I don’t know, I’m still working on it – but the thing is, don’t get sucked in to disputing someone else’s interpretation of the world, because it can sound as if you’re disputing their feelings. Don’t get drawn into fighting their self-chosen battles on their self-chosen battleground. Keep it cool.

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!