Dunkirk Spirit

‘Dunkirk Spirit’ dates back to the Dunkirk Evacuation in 1940. It’s a phrase used to describe the British public’s ability to pull together and overcome times of adversity. It’s a dogged, backs-to-the-wall phrase requiring Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ to be played whenever it is invoked. It is a phrase that I believe accurately describes British cycle campaigning over the last 30 years. 

There seems to be an alarming increase in the amount of discussion regarding the compulsion of cycle helmets. Earlier on this year, Jersey voted to make cycle helmets compulsory for under 18’s. The same idea is being mulled over for Northern Ireland. As I have written before on this blog I am not anti helmet but definitely pro-choice. I wear a helmet on my 24 mile a day commute, partly to put my wife’s mind at ease and partly because of the real problem which is that driving standards are sometimes shocking. There is compelling scientific data to promote both sides of the helmet argument. It’s a massive debate that always throws up a lot of emotion, so for now I strongly recommend the website of the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation.

However, my view is as follows; if we honestly believe that putting protective clothing such as helmets or high-viz tabards on people should be considered as the best way forward for something as simple as riding a bicycle then we have collectively failed. The Government has consistently failed to deliver on sustainable transport policy, Local Councils have consistently failed by installing infrastructure that is often a poorly designed, dangerous insult to cycling, Highways Authorities have consistently failed by upgrading main roads to the point that they become effectively unusable for cyclists and pedestrians whilst providing no decent alternative, Road Safety groups have consistently failed to address what the real issue is regarding road safety, motorists have failed with their scant regard for other road users in the self-important belief that they own the roads, cycle campaigners and campaign groups have all consistently failed by entering a protracted dog fight that is ultimately doomed to failure. The ‘War on the Motorist’ is already over without a meaningful shot being fired and yet still produces thousands of dead and injured. As I look at an AA road atlas, I still note that one can drive to all points of the British Isles without let or hindrance. Cycling to all points is a different matter.

When I worked for CTC as an Information Officer, I realised that we were very good at speaking to the already converted (as you would hope with a membership organisation for cyclists) but the wheels fell off when appealing to non-cyclists to consider it. There is a systematic failure to appreciate that we have lost maybe two generations to the pull of a more sedentary lifestyle with all it’s paranoia about everything Outdoors, computer games and snacks. They now perceive cycling as a dangerous activity and expect to be carted everywhere in a metal box, increasing their chance of ending up in a wooden one early. Cycle training and pushing for the right to the road is all very well but when the public sees cyclists in helmets and high-viz clothing, it’s not going to make them rush to the bike shop.

The point of today’s post is that I believe it’s time to let go. It’s time to stop doggedly hanging on in there in the vain hope of achieving parity with the motor car. We look to countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands where the benefits of cycling are not only fully understood but taken very seriously.  And then we settle for a cheap, pale, despicable imitation that fizzles out when it requires thought from the designer, such as a junction or roundabout. We have websites and books laughing at these efforts, yet no-one is being brought to account.

Helmet wearing must be regarded as the benchmark of absolute last resort for the Government and highways engineers. We have to be effectively campaigning for a decent, segregated cycle network to Dutch and Danish standards that renders all protective clothing an irrelevance, and normal, stylish (in my own opinion) clothing a necessity. This of course, also means segregation from pedestrians (why can’t they have some quality too?). Let’s make cycling enjoyable again as opposed to a dogfight.  

In conclusion, we have to Copenhagenize if we are to see any meaningful increase in cycling levels in this country, and to make our living areas more liveable. It can be done, contrary to popular myth and to find out how I recommend the blogs and websites below for bedtime reading on best/worst practice.

Anything by Crap Walking & Cycling in Waltham Forest

Copenhagenize and Copenhagen Cycle Chic, both by Mikael Colville-Andersen

David Hembrow’s brilliant blog, particularly here and here

5 responses to “Dunkirk Spirit

  1. I wear a helmet on my 24 mile a day commute, partly to put my wife’s mind at ease and partly because of the real problem which is that driving standards are sometimes shocking.

    That sentence contains two concepts worth commenting on:

    1) “put my wife’s mind at ease”:

    Cycle “helmets” are sold very easily using the safety argument, which is very Good News for the companies that make and sell them.

    I’ve yet to discover the manufacturing costs of polystyrene mouldings, but given that the same stuff is used to package all sorts of things and is just thrown away, I suspect they’re very cheap to make once you have a machine set up. So if you can sell them as an essential safety aid for £100 a go, you’re laughing!

    Be wary of organisations and businesses that make lots of money from selling “helmets” and try to blackmail you into buying them.

    2) “the real problem which is that driving standards are sometimes shocking”

    Cycle “helmets” are certainly not designed to be of much use at all in a collision with a motor vehicle, except perhaps at speeds less than 12mph. This is clear in the official standards that “helmets” have to conform to, and is also made clear by the little label inside the “helmet”. See http://cyclehelmets.org/papers/c2023.pdf for an inside viewpoint from a helmet testing laboratory – they know exactly what a “helmet” can and cannot do!

    The most-often source of danger that helmet-wearers cite is fast-moving motor vehicles: the one thing that helmets patently are unable to protect against :(

    But the debate’s fun :)

    • It is indeed fun Anthony :-)

      The helmet debate will run and run with it’s combination of emotive anecdote and facts and statistics. For this blog post however, I wanted to put forward that cycle helmets, high-viz and indeed the whole debate about speed cameras & road safety could be regarding as a red herring (and all very negative topics) when we could be actively campaigning for something that will get actually succeed in getting people on bikes such as Dutch and Danish style infrastructure. It’s not all perfect across the North Sea but it would be a massive improvement on what we have here currently. If cycling continues to be portrayed as a dangerous activity (and lets face it, with the Daily Mail et al, the situation will not improve anytime soon), and our society refuses to acknowledge where the problem of road safety really lies then lets get cyclists out of the equation by creating proper segregated facilities and let the figures speak for themselves. It would be a much more positive and proactive debate and campaign.

      All the best!

    • You certainly can! A very well written post.

      My version has a bit more sarcasm

      This country will always find an excuse to not castrate the Bull, which is another reason to strive to get cyclists out of the field. That way, more people can see what a big dumb and dangerous animal the Bull is.

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