Cycling: Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

It’s a week since David Cameron announced the winners of the Cycle City Ambition Fund.

It got quite a lot of coverage – most of the winners were suitably enthusiastic.

But there were also questions as to the nature of the bidding process, and the rather limited size of the budget. With a total of £94M awarded by the DfT, and £45M of local match funding, it works out at £9.71 per person per year in each of the winning cities. The cities’ budget is £122.5m, with the balance being spent in national parks.

Across the country, it breaks down like this:

Compare this with the Netherlands, where for a population of 16.7 million, they spent €410M in 2012. That’s €24.40 per person – around £20.80, and is considered their normal level of spending.

If the UK were spending at that rate, it would mean the cycling budget was £1.325bn –around 10% of the DfT’s annual budget of 13.09bn:

Note HS2’s budget of £300m is more than twice what cycling is to get over two years, and that this figure for 2012/13 only. The whole life cost of HS2 currently stands at £32.7bn £43bn an anticipated £83bn. And you thought hyper-inflation was for banana republics and the 1970s.

In fact, as @roadccdave noted on Twitter, DfT budgets are generally expressed in billions rather than just millions.

The DfT’s top four current major projects are:

  • HS2: 2012/13 spend £300m; whole life cost £32.7bn (projected £83bn, but we’ll stick with the DfT’s figures here for now)
  • Crossrail: £1.207bn and £14.5bn
  • Intercity express programme: £7m and £4.5bn
  • Thameslink: £42m and £4.01bn

Locally, there’s some work scheduled for the junction of the Coast Road and A19 at Silverlink. This is forecast to cost £140m, and is to remodel just a single roundabout. That’s equal to the entire national spend on cycling that was announced last week.

We can draw a map of the UK similar to the DfT’s one above, to show the disparity:

So it could be easy to see this glass as being half empty: Cycling is getting just 0.53% of the DfT’s annual budget, and so it’s little wonder that it’s stuck at around 2% of modal share.

And yet…

All of this also serves to underline what fantastically good value for money cycling really is, when compared with the other vanity projects that get funded. The promise of the Cycling Cities Ambition Fund is

“…to make it easier and safer for people who already cycle as well as encouraging far more people to take it up and business, local government, developers, road users and the transport sector all have a role to play in helping to achieve this.”

True, it only covers seven cities, and misses out places like Leicester. London, being an independent city state isn’t included either, but as Boris is promising to spend around a £billion, does that matter?

While I would like to see the DfT have also come up with a set of mandatory, nation-wide specifications for cycle infrastructure, I’ve also seen that a lot of change is about what we can get done locally.

Don’t get me wrong – a statutory duty on local authorities to build cycling into new schemes and retrofit it to the existing streets, and for this to be done to a properly defined high standard is essential. The floated and sunk Office for Active Travel could have done this (and coincidentally would have had a budget of £1bn a year – almost in line with what the Dutch would expect), but that didn’t happen this time round.

So right now, each of us can probably make a bigger change to our own streets than a whole lorry load of Whitehall consultation on any new specifications would ever manage. And we can do it within our own lifetimes, while our children can experience the benefits.

For my local programme in Newcastle, the promise is:

“Central to Newcastle’s bid is linking employment and training opportunities to new housing developments in Newcastle and to existing communities where people are currently least likely to cycle. Newcastle plans a network of 7 major cycle routes across the city making the best use of existing infrastructure and linking in with the major improvements currently underway in the city centre.

“This government investment will be supported by an Active Travel Centre where people can go for cycle maintenance, parking and information. Recognising the potential for cycling, almost a million of public health funding in Newcastle is being invested in this initiative.

“Newcastle’s vision is to achieve 12% of all journeys under 5 miles by bike in the next 10 years.”

This is great stuff, and each of the other cities have equally ambitious aims.

The only question remaining in each of the winning cities is whether or not their councillors and officers responsible for putting these plans into action really understand what they’ve got.

Put simply, do they have the AMBITION to make cycling the safe, convenient and obvious choice, or will they fritter away the time and money to maintain the status quo?

Only time will tell.

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What Would Jesus Ride?

I’ll come clean on this – I am an atheist.

But anyway, when we were in Paris in June, I snapped this guy getting off his Vélib’ bike:

Interestingly enough, he was about the only person I saw riding one who had a helmet. I suppose it’s something to do with resisting temptation.

But it got me wondering… if there were a second coming, and assuming that it followed a similar pattern to Palm Sunday (riding a donkey into Jerusalem)… What would Jesus ride nowadays?

Like I said, I’m an atheist, so this is all strictly hypothetical.

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The Power Of A Simple Message

It’s as simple as this: we all know that cycling is good for the economy and the local economy in particular, great for people’s health, does wonders for community spaces, is quicker than driving / the bus / the Metro / the Tube, is the only viable truly carbon-free transport option, saves you lots (LOTS) of money, kills or seriously injures almost no-one, is near-silent, treads lightly on costly-to-maintain roads, moves people in the most space-efficient & congestion-free way imaginable, connects families, and is generally great fun, which is why events like Skyrides or Ride London are so incredibly popular.

The arguments have been had.

We won.

Every Single. One. Of. Them.

All we want is for riding a bike to be a safe, attractive and convenient option for people to get about.

The power of this simple message has got us a long way in a very short time:

But it ain’t over yet. So make sure your MP attends the parliamentary debate on the 2nd September.

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Moulton Bloke

I love Moultons. No idea why though. There used to be a guy who took one on the Shields Ferry about fifteen years ago, and I’d always find myself casting it sidelong glances of deepest longing. Makes you realise why Victorians insisted on properly attired table legs*.

But what is it about them? Sure, that space frame construction is sorta cool, but I used to be a manufacturing engineer. So what I see is a whole bunch of expensive preparation and welds in awkward positions.

Then there’s that whole disassembly thing. You can take a Moulton to pieces! Well, yes, technically. The cables have special connectors in them, and with a few turns of some screw things, the frame separates into two parts. But then what? Having carried a folded Brompton, I suppose the Moulton has the advantage that you can have half in each hand, so you walk more balanced? But convenient? No, not really.

Apparently they ride well, and do pack down into a small space. Yeah – blah, blah, blah.

ANYWAY… this guy was at the Cycle Hub the other weekend, so I just HAD to take a photo. Like I said, I love Moultons:

*Not really – that whole Victorian prudishness around furniture thing: Myth.

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Time-Travelling Spitfire Pilot at Recyke Y’Bike

Daughter and I were heading up to do a spot of light bin-diving at Recyke Y’Bike the other weekend. On the way, we stopped at Clough’s sweet shop on Heaton Road, where we were passed by a rather dapper chap on a bike.

Turns out he was heading to the same place as us, and I got him to pose for a photo:

Nice juxtaposition, no?

I can’t remember his name (I really should write these things down), but I’ve a feeling that he’s Recyke’s founder, Dorothy Craw’s son. Either that, or a time-travelling Spitfire pilot who’s just off to see his best girl between sorties!

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Inspiring Goals?

On the day that somewhere between £38M & £160M has been announced for cycling in the UK, this might seem a little churlish. But it’s important, as it’s about the vision needed if that money (and hopefully much more later) is to deliver results.

In the UK we’re at least 40 years behind the Netherlands in terms of cycling. We live in probably one of the least safe countries in Europe for people on two wheels. Put simply, in the cycling safety stakes, we’re getting our butts kicked, and it should be a national embarrassment for those in power.

Yet Boris Johnson said…

“They’ve [the Dutch] already got a totally different culture. We’ve got a long way to go before we’ve got the same mentality about cycling, and that’s what I want to achieve…

“… They already have a totally different culture for cycling. And we’ve got to get that. When you cycle in Amsterdam or Copenhagen or Berlin it’s… you’re not in a great fleet of people with their heads down, wearing Lycra who feel that they’ve got to get from A to B as fast as possible.

“You’re… everyone’s on big sit up and beg bikes; they’re weaving around, because there’s a much more relaxed feel to the way the cyclists occupy the streets. And we need to get that culture going, and that’s why we’re doing the mini-Hollands.

“Of course I believe in the segregation where it’s possible to do. But we don’t have, in the centre of London particularly, we don’t have enough road space to consecrate entirely to cyclists.”

Boris Johnson on the Newsnight Report comparing UK cycling with that in the Netherlands. Available here ’till Wednesday 14th August.

It’s great stuff. Except for that last paragraph, which the status quo could see as its get out of jail card. It says, “We’ll do what we can, but not if it gets difficult, or if we have to make difficult choices”.

This isn’t the sort of speaking that really inspires action.

Let’s compare with a speech from over fifty years ago.

In 1961, the US of A was also getting its pasty white butt kicked – in the space race. Sputnik had appeared in orbit in 1957, creating what can only be described as an outside context problem for the Americans. The fear was compounded when Uri Gagarin became the first person in space, and something had to be done. America was becoming an also-ran; in the cold war, the embarrassment this caused was acute. The USA could not afford to lose.

There followed much discussion about what America could actually win in this race. First satellite? USSR. First man in orbit? USSR. Likely first lunar orbit? USSR. Likely first communications satellite? USSR. First man on the moon….? A marginally better than a 50:50 chance of success, and a similar chance of beating those darned Ruskies.

So on 25th May 1961, JFK announced to a joint session of congress:

“I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals.

“FIRST, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.

“No single space project in this period will be more impressive or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish…”

The goal was clear and unambiguous. There were no get-out clauses (least of all after 22nd November 1963), and everyone involved knew what they were getting into – this would be no walk in the park.

The project was approved. Within eight years, the help of around 5% of US GDP, and employing over 400,000 people at its peak, the Eagle landed in Tranquility Bay.

Yes, we can make giant leaps if our political leaders are willing to commit.

So make sure your MP attends the parliamentary debate on the 2nd September.

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So what’s this summer’s sport?

  • Tennis? (Wimbledon: Scottish lad done good)
  • Cycling? (Tour de France: Kenyan / South African lad done good)
  • Cricket? (Ashes: Australian lads done good enough not to win)

No. It’s bashing. If you don’t know what Nicewaycode is, it’s a road safety campaign funded from Scotland’s sustainable transport budget, that’s all about mutual respect on the roads:

“If we all make just a bit more of an effort to get along, maybe there wouldn’t be a war on Scotland’s roads any more”, or some such.

There are lots and lots and lots of criticisms of it. Personally I’d blame incompetence rather than conspiracy. So my feeling is that the whole thing’s one giant cockup, starting with a poorly defined brief from the funders, and compounded by some pretty lazy, unimaginative, pandering-to-stereotypes implementation by the ad agency responsible.

Have a look at the two TV ads they’ve produced. We’ll start with the Don’t Jump Red Lights one:

It’s not even worth wasting your time to read what I think of this. On second thoughts, I will.

Let’s just say that it actually achieves the exact opposite of what it claims and reaffirms people’s prejudices that ALL cyclists jump ALL lights ALL the time.

The truth is that some cyclists (16%) do, and most (84%) don’tjust like motorists.

In fact the split of who is responsible for accidents collisions and injuries at red lights broadly follows the split in modal share – 4% are caused by cyclists, and 84% by cars & motorbikes (presumably the balance is busses and lorries?). These figures are for London, which I’ve never found to be a hotbed of Highway Code conformance, and I would expect other UK cities to have lower figures on this lawlessness. Let me know if you have the numbers!

The thing is though, when someone rides a bike through a red light it’s largely their own life they’re gambling with. When someone drives a car through a red light, it’s the people around them who’re more likely to experience the consequences.

So a campaign for motorists to re-enforce the message what an AMBER light means would probably have a bigger impact on overall road safety, since there are more motorists and the consequences of their actions are much higher. From the Highway Code (with a slight addition from me):


…If the amber light appears you may go on only if you have already crossed the stop line or are so close to it that to stop might cause a collision. It doesn’t mean “Floor it!”, and once the light is actually red, you absolutely must stop. Claiming that it only went red as your front wheels crossed the line just isn’t good enough – this isn’t a photo finish for the 100m, and you had the whole of the amber phase to prepare to stop.

Maybe something like this:

Anyway, Nicewaycode’s second ad is considerably less controversial:

Or is it?

At first glance, it seems to make sense. Horse riders get a whole lot more respect from drivers, don’t they? We all slow down, wait ’till it’s really safe to pass, and then give them every inch of space that there is. Well, I do anyway. A spooked horse means over 500kg of iron-shod lunatic jumping on your bonnet, and is probably best avoided.

Yet more horses are killed on our roads than people – over 3,000 in 2010. OK, we’ll ignore the fact that if YOU get injured at the roadside, the paramedics are called, while for a horse, it’ll be a vet with a gun.

It’s still an absolutely shocking figure.

I used to have a client whose business was racehorse injury rehabilitation. After surgery, or physiotherapy, he’d get them fit enough to start proper training again. For a horsey person, I suppose it was the perfect job – lots of short trots and gallops, grooming, sugar lumps and shovelling shit.

Anyway, part of his routine was to take the horses to a nearby field for extended gallops to work on their endurance. This involved riding up a short section (200 yds?) of a relatively obscure A-road to get to his field, and he did this several times a day.

At least once a week some impatient eejit would overtake where there wasn’t room; ignore oncoming vehicles; not bother with the whole slowing down bit; sound the horn; or just pass far too close. On several occasions, he had the horse’s stirrup clipped by a passing car’s wing mirror, and on one of these, the driver stopped to engage in some shouty victim blaming.

The thing is, race horses are not like the ponies you get to ride at the summer fair. They’re highly strung alpha-horses. The male ones are just a hair’s breadth away from being red-eyed, foaming at the mouth, soaked in sweat, steeds of the Four Horsemen. Jumping on a car, or just giving it and its driver a damned good kicking Because They Can, is probably more or less on their “minds” most of the time.

And yet still a minority of drivers take chances with them.

So my client eventually decided he’d had enough. He now loads the horses into the back of a lorry, and drives them to one of our Northumbrian beaches. They can get their exercise in a safe, traffic-free environment, and he no-longer needs to worry about the minority of drivers who lose all sense of empathy when they get behind the wheel.

This probably sounds familiar:

Given the thoughtlessness, impatience and hostility of a small minority of drivers, is it any wonder that for many people, this is how they do cycling? Load the bikes onto the back of the 4×4, drive to somewhere nice and safe, and then go for a ride on completely traffic-free trails. We see this in country parks, the local network of Waggonways, and at events like the Skyrides.

So we can either try to persuade this minority of drivers not to drive like dicks, or start building the infrastructure to make these drivers irrelevant for what many people plainly want to do: ride in safety.

Given that we’ve had decades of the former with near-zero success, I’d suggest it’s time for the latter.

But in the meantime, or if you’re persuaded by the “See cyclist, think horse” message, you may find this useful. It’s official Nicewaycode-approved cycling safety wear, which has an even stronger magical field than either cycle helmets or hi-viz:

“This’ll definitely keep us safe, boys and girls”


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Tiny Fixie Riding Robot

You’ve seen Terminator… well this is how it all starts.

That hipster riding a “vintage” fixie next to you… Does he have eyes that shine red in the dark, and do dogs go wild when he approaches?

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Friday Caption Contest: Please Play Nicely

I’m left speechless. But maybe there’s something subtle afoot that could be explained by filling in the blanks:

Prize for this week’s best entry: A much nicer place to ride your bike.

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Bicycle Shopping Bag

Mrs McCracken is amazingly talented – she draws fabulous Celtic knots with modern themes. After a bit of persuasion, she did me a bicycle knot:

We’re printing them onto shopping bags (other products to follow), and this being a family-oriented blog, I got Daughter to model them. They’re available as:

A single sided print – £8.99 including UK postage. The bag is approximately 34cm wide and 36cm tall, with nice long straps to go over your shoulder.

It’s also available as a double-sided print (£9.99 including postage), with…

the flowers on one side, and…

and the bike on the other.

At the moment, these are thermal-transfer printed. We’ve tested the reliability of this, with Wife’s main shopping bag for the last 18 months. It’s got great colourfastness (i.e. it doesn’t fade), and is incredibly durable.

You can order here, paying by credit / debit card or PayPal:

Select print:
Single-Sided Print £8.99 GBP Double-Sided Print £9.99 GBP

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