In the last week or so there’s been quite a discussion going about what people should campaign for if we’re to get more people in the UK to ride bikes rather than drive cars. The discussion can be summarised as, in the blue corner :
Cyclists and so-called cyclists’ groups should stop being such a bunch of push-overs, and start campaigning seriously for proper, decent segregated infrastructure if they ever want to lift cycling’s modal share above it’s current rock-solid modal share of 1-2%. "Cyclists’ groups" (CTC, LSC, et al.) should be recognised as representing only "serious", capital-C Cyclists, and not the potential other 40% of the population who would happily ride if only there was the infrastructure that allowed them to do so while feeling safe from the danger of cars, busses, lorries, etc. Let’s face it, strategies like extolling the alleged safety-in-numbers effect, campaigns like Stop-SMIDSY, and being grateful for the occasional few hundred yards of piss-poor cycle lane have been anything but a success, and to keep doing the same thing but expect different results is evidence of madness.
The contrasting view from the red corner :
It’s totally unrealistic to expect any government or local politician to be able to see the big picture when they’re focused on an election some time in the next few years: the infrastructure we have now (a.k.a. "roads") has been developed over the last 100 years almost exclusively with cars in mind. To change this in any meaningful way would take decades (or at least decades longer than most political careers), and cost £billions. Put simply, there isn’t the political will or the money for this. Although it might be the moon-shot that we could aspire to, the cost of overcoming the gravity well of our current reality is just too big, and rather than any kind of success, we’re more likely to get discouraged by failure after failure (imagine if none of Apollo 1-10 had managed to clear the tower before exploding in flames – would anyone have even bothered to even fuel-up Apollo 11?). No. Worse still, the evidence of our own experience is that motor-myopic traffic engineers, contractors and surveyors in the UK would still fob us off with sub-standard crumby infrastructure that leads no-where (unlike roads, that join A to B and every other destination). Yet with an extensive segregational build programme, there’s a very real risk that cyclists would be compelled to use this dangerous, useless infrastructure. So we’re better off focusing on what can be done – getting blanket 20mph speed limits in town, ASLs actually enforced, cross-town routes made impermeable to motorised traffic, and crucially having the UK adopt the EU 5th Motoring directive, which would make for strict presumed liability against the driver in a car Vs bike crash (and against the cyclist in a bike Vs pedestrian crash).
I’ve kept out of the discussion, and watched it pan out. At times it’s seemed more than a little farcical. Two bald men fighting over a comb (especially in the comments), or the re-birth of Judean revolutionary politics*:
But in general both sides have put their points across really quite well, and I’ve found myself agreeing with first one and then the other and back again. What it comes down to is whether or not you have faith in British traffic engineers and planners to create proper, safe cycle routes that you’d always want to use in preference to roads. Oh, and that you’d still be able to get from your front door to everywhere.
I have to say that initially went with Mark’s (blue corner) segregationalist argument – in working on corporate change programmes and working with people who want to build world-changing businesses, I’d always opt for the outrageously ambitious goals:
The biggest danger isn’t that we set lofty targets and fail to reach them, but that we set low expectations and do achieve them.
However. I also like practical solutions, and Carlton (red corner) was fairly compelling on this. Campaigning to have a single street closed to through traffic, getting that 20mph zone extended by one more street (we have some totally bonkers exceptions in North Tyneside that I can get my teeth into), insisting on cycle parking facilities, and asserting our right to be on the road may ultimately have a greater impact.
But on whichever side you come down, either lacks leverage to get political will behind them. If you want politicians to start insisting on proper segregated facilities, or even to have them insist on a policy of person-permeable street closures, they need a reason. Some sort of standard around which we can rally, and at which they can point as their motivation.
It’s the elephant-in-the-room question that’s not being asked at the moment – brought out into the open and fed a sticky bun in Mark’s comments by TownMouse :
I suppose it comes to this: we need to be asking the powers that be (which seems to be councils now that the national cycling bodies appear to be being dismantled):do you really want more cycling? And what % of trips do you think should be done by bikes locally? Because it seems to me that when cyclists talk about ‘more cycling’ they’re thinking ‘something a bit like the Netherlands’ whereas when councils talk about ‘more cycling’ they’re thinking at the most ‘doubling the number of trips taken by bike’ (which given our 2% share at the moment is pretty pathetic). It’s only once that is out in the open that we can start having a debate that makes sense. If they’re only looking to double cycling, then exhortations, bike schemes, the odd contraflow lane and training all makes sense – they might even actually achieve that target, especially if you look at what’s happened in London. It’s only when you start talking about aiming for 20, 30, 40% of journeys done by bike – which is what the Netherlands have achieved – that you have to start seriously inconveniencing motorists with loss of lanes and parking and speed restrictions. Unfortunately, I don’t get any sense that there are any councils with that level of ambition out there so maybe we’re fighting the wrong battle. Before starting a fight amongst ourselves about lanes vs. training etc. we first need to build the desire among councils (and the people who vote for them) to see cycling at much higher levels – say 10%. Given the level of discourse you see about cyclists (pavement hogging smug red light jumpers etc.) this is going to be the really hard bit. But until we’ve done that, we’re not going to see one metre of road removed to make room for bikes.
Ultimately my problem is that I’ve seen the way Daughter is afraid to ride (accompanied) on the road though. She’s boisterous and confident on her bike, but when faced with a 30-ton monster (or even a 1.5 ton monster that’s driven by a moron) she gets The Fear . And you can hardly blame her or the 50% of the population who could ride but don’t. To overcome that will need a degree of segregation with decent, high quality routes that don’t desert you when you need them most.
So here’s what I think I’m going to do:
- Start again trying to understand our local transportation policies & strategies. Have you tried to read this stuff? Turgid and [deliberately?] opaque would probably describe the writing style.
- Get access to the elected members with transport responsibility again and work on them setting ambitious targets. Not in relative-to-today terms (double nothing is still nothing), but in absolute terms. It is only this which can give either of the two methods any hope of success.
- Use other organisation’s muscle to open up the cracks – one commenter in IBikeLondon suggested going via his employer’s corporate social responsibility people, which makes sense to me.
- Work on cycling organisations’ policy bodies to go to work seriously on lobbying for strict liability (which if adopted would give campaigns like Stop SMIDSY real clout) and for them to start raising segregation as a serious proposal. These organisations are themselves subject to cultural inertia, and that change in itself will take considerable time.
- Work on those 30mph roads and traffic cut-throughs that so irk me.
- Assert my right to be on the road, but if any council realises that in order to hit their absolute targets for % of journeys that are made bay bike, then they’ll have to strip out the parking spaces to put in a broad, safe cycle route that doesn’t give way to minor roads it crosses, they’ll have my support.
That’s more than enough to be getting along with. So I’m going to set myself a baseline measure for success.
I want my daughter to be able to feel safe riding to school, the shops, the swimming pool (in fact anywhere that kids want to get to). And in her childhood the element that’s got the greatest chance of success is tackling those 30mph roads & traffic cut-throughs.