The Sound of Silence

If a tree falls in the middle of the forest, and no-one is around to hear it, it would still make more noise than the British cycle campaigning establishment


Being an only child, I was fairly used to quiet and solitude; the purr of a chain combined with birdsong whilst cycling along local bridleways or the wind through the trees where I used to occasionally sit and read anything by Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl. Now I’m older I seem to get increasingly nervy around silence; not hearing my son breathe or stir via the intercom at night for example and not hearing a peep from the Cycle Campaigning establishment since the furore regarding Cycling England a month or two ago also puts my teeth on edge.

About a month ago, it was declared that Cycling England would cease to be as of March 2011. Cycling blogs were alight with hot debate over why such a small concern should be abolished when it also became apparent that there would be no real provision for cycling within the Department for Transport. We learned that cycling was literally going to have to sing for its supper with funding thrown out to the provinces and the ‘Sustainable Transport Fund’. If you needed to feel even more nervous, it would appear that the parameters for what constitutes ‘Sustainable Transport haven’t been set by the Department for Transport and Philip ‘no clever funny middle name as he’s just a tosser’ Hammond MP. This means that the Council can make the same ridiculous interpretation as Central Government  – that adding lanes to a motorway can constitute ‘Sustainable Transport’ as it ‘improves traffic flow’ which reduces emissions (conveniently sidestepping the fact that it creates more traffic but that can be dealt with at a later date or preferably by a later generation). This is a bit like BP arguing that they have done the Gulf of Mexico a favour by releasing catastrophic amounts of oil into the eco-system; it ensures that only the fittest creatures survive thereby creating a stronger, more efficient Gulf of Mexico for future generations.

What I’ve found a little disturbing is the way that the wrath and fury seems to have subsided save a few handsome journalists and blog writers. I like to think that the major players are just recovering from the shock and are now in a room somewhere, with secret plans  being drawn up to produce an all new campaigning, lobbying, gnashing of teeth version of Cycling England built on sturdier foundations. Then again, I also have a direct debit for the National Lottery.

Shortly after Hammond’s statements, including the hilarious assertion that electric cars would be the way forward, well and truly putting the ‘car’ in carbon, the CTC and Cycle Nation held a conference in Edinburgh hosted by SPOKES (the Lothian Cycle Campaign). Lots of people spoke and gave presentations including the very nice Philip Darnton, Chairman of Cycling England. Notes of all the topics covered can be downloaded from the excellent Spokes website – at least, nearly all. Roger Geffen gave a chinwag on ‘The Segregation Debate – Reflections from Copenhagen’

The only notes of this segment were kindly compiled by a Spokes representative and reads as follows

Roger Geffen (CTC Right-to-Ride). Why is he sceptical of segregation, if it works in practice in parts of Europe like Denmark and Netherlands? CTC doesn’t reject it outright but supports the Government’s ‘hierarchy of solutions’: Traffic reduction and speed reduction; re-allocation of road space, junction re-design and other infrastructure; and segregation last – though it’s appropriate in some circs, eg inter-urban dual carriageway.

Problems of segregation in town – junctions more dangerous, need 270′ vision instead of 90′;cyclist/pedestrian conflict.

Success stories: Copenhagen, New York, Bogota. (Lo Fidelity Note: And Amsterdam, and Groningen and…)

Main issue is two legal framework differences – 1 driver liability, and 2 drivers give way to peds/cyclists when turning, even if have green light. Different legal framework leads to different driver behaviour. Needs lot of political will to change this in UK – possible strategy for future. Boris suggests allow cyclists to turn L at red light but this leads to cycle/ped conflict.

According to one source, it ended up as a slightly heated debate. The Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club would have pointed out that the Governments ‘hierarchy of solutions’ are intrinsically car-centric and methods of traffic reduction and speed reduction, re-allocation of road space, junction re-design and other infrastructure always translates as ‘pinch points’, converted pavements, lethal on-road cycle lanes that terminate at parking bays and so on. Lest to say, none of CTC’s contribution has made their weekly emailed newsletters.

This post isn’t about the segregation/vehicular debate however (although like the Netherlands, the Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club believes that engineers should start properly designing out the private car from urban areas before looking at segregation instead of the UK method of tinkering around the edges so as not to annoy the ‘poor beleaguered motorist’). This post is about how we take cycle campaigning to a more coherent, robust level that can shout loud. And it will need to.

Let me say at this point that I love the CTC; I worked for them so know very well their passion for cycling. I love their proud heritage. Their legal assistance (free to members) has helped me successfully on the two times I was knocked off my bike by careless motoring. They have campaigned for the rights of cyclists through the years, be it on the road or off the road by allowing cyclists on to the bridleways. However, one niggling question always sits at the back of my mind; is the CTC, being a membership organisation representing predominantly touring cycling, the correct mechanism to represent and deliver the interests of all cyclists in the twenty first century?

If it is then at the moment it faces an open goal as no other cycling organisation would have the campaigning/lobbying nous to step into the breech come March. To do this though it would have to start listening to ideas that their membership may find unpalatable, and digest the fact that generations of potential cyclists are continuing to be lost to the pull of the motor car and the society that successive Governments are continuing to build around it.

This is conjecture pure and simple, but The Lo Fidelity Bicycle Club would like to see the development of a privately funded (or part public/part private) lobbying group in the same dynamic as the Cycling Embassy of Denmark. It would be like the TfL’s Centre of Cycling Excellence, but this time with the Excellence. It could get companies with green credentials to put their money where their mouth is and lobby the Government directly about the merits of cycling and what Road Safety actually means. Partnerships should be struck with organisations in Britain, mainland Europe and Worldwide such as CTC, Fietsberaad, the Danish Cycling Embassy and New York City Transportation Planners for best practice (as I believe the argument goes way beyond just vehicular/segregated). Architects and engineers with an interest in transportation and urban design could be brought on board. The possibilities are endless if you look beyond the horizon of British cycle campaigning. Philip Darnton could Chair something that didn’t have foundations built on the shifting sands of a Quango.

By lobbying the Government, we need to question the Department for Transport why cycling is peripheral on their agenda, we have to lobby the Department for Health to keep reminding them that we have a solution to obesity, we need to let David Cameron know that he can save a couple of million pounds in happiness surveys by just getting everyone cycling.

Above all, we’ve got to do something. The sound of silence is starting to get deafening.

21 thoughts on “The Sound of Silence”

  1. “Above all, we’ve got to do something. ”

    You’ve said what you think needs doing so my question is who & how?

    1. I might just be clinically insane enough to have a go myself! A bit like ‘Challenge Anneka’ but with someone slightly less attractive. Well, quite a lot actually. 🙂

      1. Excellent. I’d support.
        I am essentially a touring cyclist but the only reason I belong to the CTC is because I feel the membership cost is worth the legal and insurance cover.

  2. Go for it Jim!

    As far as making a noise, well at least becoming known in local councils, Sustrans seem to be much better than the CTC. Sustrans do have a less democratic and more commercial structure, but the advantage of people who are paid full-time to campaign seem to beat the CTC who rely on volunteers in the main. Nothing wrong with volunteer campaigners, but we do have other things to do, like earning a living.

    Sadly it seems that money talks the loudest. If you can find a wealthy investor, or persuade BP that it’s valuable greenwash, you can change transport policy overnight. See how Barclays have funded the Boris Bikes – that wouldn’t have happened without some serious financial commitment from someone.

    The alternative is a bottom-up revolution. More Critical Mass rides, rogue cyclists slashing car tyres, etc. How about a war on the motorist? 😉

  3. I feel deep sympathy with your sentiments. I have had similar ones for years. (Although I have to say that I’m more integrationist than segragationist, but I won’t pursue that here because we will all die of boredom).

    I don’t , however, think you are going to get far with a new cycling organisation. I also think the CTC is about as good as you are going to get. If it makes any difference, it used to be a lot worse. I know the campaigning at national level is about as good as anyone could hope for.

    So why doesn’t it get results? Becuase we live in a car-besotted culture (one I have called “car supremacist”). This goes beyond what traffic engineers and planners think up: it goes into the structure of the car industry, the psychological grip it has on drivers, etc., etc.

    We had a small chance with the Road Traffic Reduction Act which NuLab brought in during the early 90s, and then dropped like a hot cake. Ultimately we require a Government committed to greenhouse gas reduction, environmental sustainability at local level, preventive health, and law enforcemnt backed up by appropriate sentencing to make the motorised accountable, with appropriate highways for all. Thatw ould do it.

    What kind of lobbying? Well, lobbies unfortunately, by their very nature, have to be in bed with the authorities, and tend to get bought off.

    I think the following are good: RoadPeace; Road Danger Reduction Forum (us); some of the local cycle campaigns are better than they used to be, but still tend to be too trusting.

    I wouldn’t push the private sector as a big benefactor (Incidentally, the Boris Bikes were going ahead anyway – Barclays have just added on the project).

    Just crack on in your localities and in these organisations. Be wary of all the numerous fine words from Councils etc., and watch out in particular for “road safety” types and anything justified by it.

    Another point about membership organisations: most are made up of people who are too scared to rock the car supremacist boat. Partly it’s a green thing, wheerby people sensitive about the environment tend to abhor anything which is forceful. All that pacifism..

  4. As ever, you raise some excellent points, and I agree with you entirely.
    I, for one, am disillusioned with all these ever-so-polite “campaigns”. We don’t need those, and such campaigns by and large have been shown to be of little or no use.

    What we need is a revolution! Revolutionaries don’t get anywhere with a “If it’s OK by you, Mr Hammond, would you mind driving your Jaguar slightly forward so I can free my bike and my left leg?”

    I’m not proposing a violent campaign, and I believe some types of critical mass rides are counter-productive as they seem to exist almost entirely to antogonise.

    But we DO need cycling campaigns in the UK to grow a pair! CTC is NOT representative of all cyclists, and Sustrans remains a law onto themselves, beholden to nobody.

    If the two were to merge (shock! horror!) we might get a far better deal from it. Not to mention that the new body will have an additional income from membership fees, in addition to governmental funding. But we both know that’d never happen!

    In the meantime, Dexey, the who and what you asked are easy to answer:
    Who? Each and every one of us, including YOU. In fact, ESPECIALLY you. Live by the motto “If it’s to be, it’s up to me”.
    What? Challenge EVERY wrongdoing towards cyclists, relentlessly. It was exactly that strategy that turned racism and homophobia around. (And yes, I’m aware both still exist, but nowhere near the scale they used to).

  5. I think that cycling organisations could align themselves with the general anti-cuts movement, pointing to the loss of Cycling England while also emphasising the electric cars fund and the fact that some of the transport infrastructure projects that could be funded under the so called “sustainable transport fund” are anything but. The message should be that cycling will increase the happiness that David Cameron goes on about, and that it will solve the obesity problems; and that Phillip Hammond is subsidising wealthy second car purchasers. I can’t make it to the Coalition of Resistance conference this Saturday, but hopefully some of you can.

    So a top-down lobbying would be good – get businesses on our side by promoting benefits to health, resilience to fuel shortages and strike action, etc; but there needs to be a more visible movement on the streets.

    I was at the student protests in London on the 10th. There were 50,000 people there. Rather than heading for Millbank, how about next CM goes to the Department for Transport and blockades it for a bit? I also think we can take inspiration from the motorcycle protests against the “parking tax” – in addition to hundreds of riders circling round a specific location to effectively block it; how about mass rides around the Inner Ring Road, where cyclists take the lane and don’t filter, thus causing congestion like electric cars will?

    Riders of e-bikes could blockade electric car parking bays. This could be followed by a “mass chaining” where cyclists form a “daisy chain” of bicycles around Phillip Hammond’s constituency office, in the same method as the motorcycle “lock 2 lock” method, but with dozens of bikes.

  6. Excellent thoughts as ever Jim and as you know thoughts very close to my own as I explained in my post “The dog that barks the loudest gets the bone”

    Since then I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot more and the more desirable I think a cycle lobby is (incidentally I think the Danish Cycling Embassy is a fascinating model for international relations), the harder I think it might be to achieve. There’s a lot of resistance to any sort of change and as previous commentators have pointed out a lot of meekness within the campaigns – they’ve had to fight so hard in order to establish any kind of meaningful working relationship with the likes of Transport for London that they are terrified of upsetting them and loosing that connection.

    I was watching the student protests on the news this week and was interested in the way in which this week’s had been organised mostly through text messages, Twitter, Facebook and blogs etc. What I think, in order for some of the like-minded people who are agitating for change to be able to come together, is some kind of touch-event to act as a catalyst. Outside of cycling circles hardly anyone knew Cycling England existed and even fewer care that it is going. We are all in dismay at the Government building more motorways, subsidising electric cars, scrapping cycling england and buggering the bike to work scheme. Maybe we need some kind of “Put cycling first!” national mass bike ride through Westminster to act as a starting gun to all this and to get the ball rolling?

    Just an idea. Excellent post Jim, and of course the greatest sadness is that it is up to bike bloggers to have to write about this sort of thing. The campaigns should be right on top of all this now, but as you say the silence is deafening….

    1. I’ve just read Christhebull’s post and whilst his suggestions are similar to mine I would avoid getting too involved with the likes of the Coalition of Resistance – even though all the issues are of course party political if you make things seem party political you’ll instantly ostracise half the people who might be interested in taking part.

      Any action should be about providing solutions (ie “Philip Hammond; you should be doing this; put cycling first and make the world a better place”) as oppose to on the attack (ie “Philip Hammond; you’re shit!”)

  7. Excellent post, Jim! Gotta say, I can’t help but get so tired of these perpetuated & institutionalized myths about segregated infra. Roger Geffen should watch this…or I can take him for a ride, it’s pretty clear he’s either never done so or he suffers from cognitive dissonance. Or he’s just bowing to the lobby powers that be.

    1. Segregated CYCLE ROADS, as provided in the the Netherlands and shown in the video, are fantastic solutions to encouraging cycling, and I’m sure Roger Geffen would agree.

      Sadly, what we get in the UK is segregated CYCLE PATHS, with all the well-known problems associated with such sub-standard, incomplete and dangerous facilities. I campaign against these disincentives to cycling as much as I can, but still that’s all that money gets spent on.

      The question is: how do we effectively campaign politically to get the government to take cycling seriously enough to invest in segregated cycle ROADS? Do we try to get the cycle roads built, and hope that people will start using them, or do we try to mobilise people onto their bikes before the roads are built, to prove the huge demand? or both? how?

  8. I’m not heavily bike politicized, but I ride in Bristol pretty much every day, and as a “less engaged average person”, this is what I think, without wanting to dismiss any of what has been said above:

    It’s all very well getting worked up about the “right” reasons for cycling – environment, safety, cost etc, but these arguments will continue to circulate between a range of cycling nerds and interested politicians. These are actually debates about the how of winning the argument to achieve the goal, rather than the “why” of the goal – for the individual.

    More than anything else, cycling needs to be seen by a load more people as something they WANT to do. Then they will back the arguments about HOW to make it happen, but only then in so far as they need to. People are mostly interested in their desires.

    And I’m not talking about “if the roads are safe they will want to”. Safety is only relevant as a negative force – for not really really wanting to do it.

    What I’m saying here is that cycling has a way to go to becoming something cool, fun, sexy, and normal. Currently it is still by and large an activity for brave, fit, competitive, lycra-clad, clippy-cloppy shoe-shod, nerdy people (not all at once necessarily – just choose one or two!).

    More people need to feel that being on their bike is cooler than being in their car, cooler than their xBox, cooler than cool.

    It’s starting to happen, and I believe it will. markbikeslondon’s Friday feature is just one example.

    But any leading body needs to work really hard at promoting the positive personal reasons to want to cycle, be marketing savvy, inclusive, not geeky, and not frighten people away with all the boring stuff it will obviously have to do to help people achieve their desires.

  9. Really great post Jim, and it must be said also, what a great raft of intelligent replies :>)

    (I’ll do my best not to alter that last bit Sire!)

    Mike has just made an interesting point, that Cycling really does need to become cool & desirable, and I hope I’m correct in asserting that by Cycling, he means everyday cycling rather than the more sporting & leisurely aspects.

    From a campaigning point of view, it’s the opposite of that, and actual ‘lack of distinction’ that afflicts the local council cycle forum I attend, and in a much grander way also muddles the waters in the national debate with having CTC shouting from their rampart and Sustrans doing the same from theirs, with nobody (but us bloggers) in between arguing for the everyday cyclist & those who would if they felt it safe to do so.

    In a way, what CTC & Sustrans campaign for, compared with the needs of the everyday cyclist – is like comparing the needs of somebody who wants to do a long distance run or go hiking in the Peak District, with the issues affecting someone who strolls to the corner shop, or walk to work with their colleagues or to school with their kids – i.e their issues, their needs & their wishlists are completely different to what is needed to make bicycling more attractive for people to do everyday.

    Cough cough…vote for Jim!

  10. Those of you who criticise CTC, and I’m not a member, what are you doing beyond typing furiously? (and I exclude Jim from this sweeping generalisation as he has demonstrated what can be done on the ground with some effort) What councils have you engaged with, what MPs have you written to?

    You can see from just the comments to this post that even those who want change have wide ranging views on how to achieve it from confrontational direct action to simply better engagement. These varying views are what the likes of CTC are faced with trying to keep happy.

    Creating new groups further diminishes the clout of the cycling community, and I’ve witnessed many councillors gleefully use the existing divisions as an excuse to do nothing.

    So leave your keyboards, find out if there is a cycling group in your area and inject the energy and dedication you all clearly show in your blogs in on the ground. In most cases the battle weary incumbents will welcome the extra support.Decisions are made by those who turn up.

    1. Mr B

      It’s perfectly healthy to question CTC’s role in the great scheme of cycling. A lot of despair has come from people doing just as you recommend.

      Another group could, as you say, diminish the influence of other groups. It could however, give said groups the kick up the backside they need to wake them from their complacency. Something could have been said by now, however small. Anything. The fact that nothing has been said, I find troubling.

      I personally believe that the Cycling Embassy is the right model to represent all cycling interests. Every time I hear a ‘it can’t be done’ view, I just remember that if people had the same attitude 130 years ago, there wouldn’t have been a CTC and we may not even have the right to the road right now.

      The CTC has it’s place, but it is a schizophrenic organisation with a predominantly touring membership that’s also trying to cater for everyone.

      It’s always good to question.


    2. You rather assume that those who criticise haven’t tried to change things from within.
      For myself, I gave up being a RTR and local cycling action group member because I got fed up with banging my head against the brick walls of a uninterested councils and their officers, a local action group frightened of challenging the status quo, and a CTC that is happy to keep its volunteers working in their local areas while it does little useful, imo, on the national level. The CTC is no longer about touring. RTR’s are cautioned against using the T word because it gives the wrong impression of what the CTC is about.
      I think that the focus of action should be at the national level and having pedestrians and cyclists working together. Until such a group comes together under good leadership I’d rather be using my time productively in walking, cycling and, less productively, continuing to lobby my MP and local councillors.

  11. In the absence of any money, political will – or dare I say it interest in the subject, the only way forward is to build demand – and that comes back to making cycling desirable and cool. It is why “cycle chic” is so important to demonstrate that it’s not compulsory to look like a geek on a bike. I am not a cyclist – I ride a bike, I am not a motorist – I drive a car (I also use the bus, the train, tram, fly and sail etc). We are not defined by our choice of transport at a particular point in time. Normalising riding a bike is essential, to be seen getting on and off a bike with with no effort, special equipment or strange clothes in a small way helps people who don’t ride bikes to begin to see it as something they could possibly do. It’s a small step, but at least in the right direction. On the plus side the deteriorating state of public transport with sky high fares is forcing more people onto bikes – cycling is no longer the preserve of the middle class in Sheffield, and more and more pensioners are out on bikes – a broader demographic is no bad thing.

    1. Quite agree. Bicycle riding does not require special clothing, protective gear, or a death wish. It also should not require special facilities, except perhaps on major roads. But it does work better with a bike designed for the job: mudguards, built-in lights, integral lock, hub gears, full chain case, hub brakes, relaxed steering and upright geometry. In fact bikes the now-elderly generation used all the time.

      We are often stopped by elderly people around here when they see our “Dutch” bikes. “What a sensible bike”, they say, “where did you get it?”. These people cycled all the time for transport in their youth; it’s only more recent generations that have forgotten the benefits.

      Bicycle riding shouldn’t need anyone campaigning for it, it should be an obvious choice for many. Sadly, in the UK, cycling is still something that’s seen as very dangerous and that can’t be done at all until we have Dutch-style segregated facilities everywhere. But there’s a quiet revolution going on (hence the silence!) of ordinary people just getting on their ordinary bikes in ordinary clothes, and cycling for local journeys. It’s quite noticeable here.

      Ever-increasing fuel prices, and silly money for teenage car insurance, is doing what campaigners like me have failed to do for decades: making cycling ordinary again.

    2. Howsabout a few pics on your blog of elderly Sheffieldians cycling then? I’d like to see a few folk of my age featured :0)

  12. In my own quiet way I have been working on empowering cyclists to change their lot for the last 4yrs. I set up the bike rescue project in York; once a very famous cycling city. It us my belief that to have change there needs to be agitation of the aggrieved from the bottom up as well as downward pressure from on high. On the 3rd if Jan 2011, we open our Cycling Hub Station, apart from providing facilities that ensure cycling can be a first class choice of transport: secure parking, showers emergency repairs and of course, coffe and cake. It will be a focal point for cyclists in York to have their say, there will be a big map on the wall for us to flag up accidents waiting to happen and improvements that will make life easier……. The local highway planners will get a weekly report.
    How much if a difference this focal point will make will emerge with time, but it is a beacon of light added to all the others shining in the dark world of Philip Hammonds unpleasant apocalyptic electric carred future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: