Fragile Thoughts

Funnily enough, the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain would be happy to not see segregation here..

For a while now I have been in a bit of a quandary as what to write about, not because I had run out of ideas but because at the precise moment I wanted to jot something down, someone else would write a jolly nice blog post or an incident would occur that made me stop to reflect and underlined what had been at the back of my mind already.

It started with Joe Dunckley and his wonderful blog, ‘At War With The Motorist’ when in this post he wrote the following;

‘There was a bit of a monkey fight over the nascent Cycling Embassy of Great Britain recently thanks to an article by Carlton Reid on Road.cc (since rebutted by Jim).  Given that the organisation in question has only had a preliminary meeting and has not even launched yet, I don’t think it’s worth responding to any of the speculation and fantasies that have been flying around.  But the episode revealed something fascinating about the way the minds of veteran British cycling campaigners work.

They are all constantly in a state of abject fear that cycling is just about to be banned.

I found it very difficult following all of the comment threads on and about the Road.cc articles.  Cycling Embassy supporters kept being accused of wanting cyclists to be banned from the roads, but I could never trace the accusation back to anything relevant that the accused people had actually said.  And then I stumbled upon a fabulous forum thread that started with a very simple two sentence post, and it all fell into place:

‘Cycling Embassy of Great Britain’ have it VERY wrong
IMO. Their way will lead to cyclists being banned from Britain’s roads.

The Embassy folk and other onlookers were as baffled as I when it came to the origin of this “ban” theme in the comments.  But I now realise that many of our venerable vehicular cycling campaigners are thinking about cycling bans every second of the day.  Everything they see and do, the first question they ask themselves is: will this lead to cycling being banned in any way?  They can’t get out of bed in the morning without first contemplating what effect such an action might have on the likelihood of a cycling ban……………..’.

Interesting thoughts indeed. From personal local campaigning experience I can partially vouch for this view. After being presented by the Council with a hilarious ‘safe route to school’ involving more dismounts than a Grand National for drunk jockeys, we would say how we would suffer abuse from motorists who would assume that that’s where we should be after this piece of infrastructure that owed more to abstract art than cycling was built. The Council would ignore everything we said as the work was already programmed and we were actually looking at the final ‘Signed Off’ design. But at least now they could claim that they had ‘consulted with cyclists’.

To me, this is creating an even greater nightmare vision portrayed than the recent naysayers – that cyclists get eventually shoveled off the roads onto the crap that has been built already and continues to be built whether CTC, LCC, Cycle Nation, the Cycling Embassy or the Abstract Art Appreciation Society want it or not. All this debate seems to be carrying on based on a premise that Councils have suddenly downed tools and stopped building this dangerous, unfit for purpose rubbish or that they could be stopped at any time, which is equally optimistic at best.

What the Embassy is hoping to create is a decent mix in more ways than one. It will never be an Embassy intention to cede a cyclists right to road and it’s not an Embassy ambition to see a fully segregated cycle path network everywhere either because that’s silly and isn’t happening anywhere else in the World, including the Netherlands. We do believe in Dutch, and other Global best practice, infrastructure standards being applied that supersede the current guidelines alongside new approaches to traffic planning & movement around towns and cities. We feel that this is just one measure but a fundamental one that needs to occur to lift cycling from something viewed as a dangerous and specialist activity by the masses to an everyday activity that also happens to benefit the masses.

The recent exchanges of words about the Embassy from journalist Carlton Reid and Cycle Nation ended amicably enough, and as Embassy ambitions slowly become clarified there should be no reason why a spirit of amicability and collaboration shouldn’t continue (especially as I own an ipayroadtax cycling jersey). However, it made me consider just how fragile the house of cycle campaigning seemed to me. As if by magic, a short article cropped up on Velo Mondial that ended with the following,

‘….The reason why Velo Mondial highlights this article is because the candidate in New York sends the strong signal that stand alone cycling policy is vulnerable. When cycling is not embedded in a wider policy of sustainable mobility politicians can easily use a cycle path in their negative campaigning. A path is easily destroyed so politicians can have a field day promising just that. Cycling policy needs to find itself in a framework of policy ambitions a city should have regarding economic growth, social cohesion and environmental objectives. As long as that has not happened, cycling policy will be under threat in the years to come’.

The BBC picked up on the £22 million spent in Bristol and the City Council are defending their record. I have no doubt that Bristol Cycle Campaign, along with CTC Right to Ride & Sustrans Reps did their damndest to get the money spent correctly. However, I think the whole premise was wrong. Let me explain, or rather I’ll let Geoff explain,

[from road.cc]

‘Conservative councillor, Geoff Gollop, said the new cycle routes had been created at the expense of motorists.

He told the BBC: “The Cycling City initiative brought in match-funding which has delivered new cycling routes but these have largely been achieved at the expense of the majority of road users – by reducing road space or capacity.

“Whilst we recognise the merits of promoting cycling as a leisure activity for the individual – delivering personal health benefits and helping to improve the environment for all – this form of travel is unlikely in the near future to be a major means of commuting.

“We do not believe the £22m project can be said to have been successful even in its own terms.”

This to me typifies the problem. Instead of the act of riding a bicycle being treated as transport getting a deserving share of the transport spend, £22 million is presented as a stand alone (but welcome nonetheless) boost to try and shoehorn cycle-specific projects around the car-centric infrastructure that already exists. Furthermore £22 million sounds like a lot of money. It is a lot of money. But as road.cc Editor Tony Farrelly commented,

‘Another comparison would be the £1bn overspend on widening the M25 I think the Public Accounts committee used the word “wasted” to describe that one. All the money spent on cycling over the past few years in this country doesn’t even add up to that one item in the roads budget.’

£22 million is just a headline grabbing figure in the great scheme of things. That anything was built and that new cyclists in Bristol were attracted at all should be considered a miracle when one considers, for example, the consultancy fees that probably leeched funds away.

Being a cycle campaigner in the UK is a bit like sitting in a game of poker where you know you are holding all the best cards and easily deserving of far more chips. However the opponents keep pulling aces out time and time again, barely concealing their cheating and changing the rules as they go along.

We all know that cycling is greener, more economic & healthier but we’re made to feel that this is somehow blocking the UK’s progress to becoming greener, more economic and healthier.

One of the aims I had when establishing the Embassy was to stick to Central Government and to point out and keep pointing out that riding a bicycle has implications and societal benefits that cover lots of departments beyond transport. If we don’t join the fray, then an activity that was commonplace in fairly recent memory will continue to be regarded as a stand alone pastime to be abused by Council Highways Departments and ignored by 97% of the population. And they barely know what they’re missing anymore.

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10 thoughts on “Fragile Thoughts”

  1. “Whilst we recognise the merits of promoting cycling as a leisure activity for the individual – delivering personal health benefits and helping to improve the environment for all – this form of travel is unlikely in the near future to be a major means of commuting……” This more than anything else is what we are up against.

  2. I feel a lot of this ‘fear’ comes from the animosity that’s directed at cyclists from, let us say, /not/ the usual quarter, the motorist, but from the public at large.

    I recall a recent debacle in the local newspaper where letter after letter was being written to complain against a cycle route through a park being installed, from a school to a large dormitory village over the M42 in Solihull.

    One would’ve thought that the citizens of said village would’ve relished the thought of safe and traffic-free cycling for their kids. But, no. The rants against focused on ‘the waste of money’ it would be for the bare 3% of kids who currently cycled.

    Not one person realised that the whole point was to get more kids onto bikes, not just to service those who currently cycled.

    Add to this the regular and tiresome letters along the lines of “I was driving to the shops on Sunday morning and two cyclists riding abreast slowed my progress! Who do they think they are?!’ and it’s little wonder that some fear that a ban from cycling in certain areas is just around the corner.

    I’ve lost count of the number of hushed ‘oh, they’re so dangerous’ comments while collecting my child from school by tandem. This, from parents whose children have just expressed interest in the tandem, and in getting their parents to do something similar.

    Keep pedalling. To stop and ponder is to get depressed.

  3. I simply cannot believe what Geoff Gollop said. No really! Half of me cheered as we simply must put in infrastructure that the expense of motor road users and so this sounds like a good thing, but the reality is that the Greater Bristol Cycling City project hasn’t taken away from motorists.

    As a Bristol resident I really appreciate what the cycling city has done for cycling in Bristol (giving credibility if nothing else) but it did not go anywhere near far enough with respect to decent infrastructure as envisioned by the CEoGB.

    This is a frank reminder that we are facing utter idiots like Mr. Gollop who damned the project from the start and clearly sees cycling as a token leisure activity for children and not for real, important people like commuters. Unfortuately he is in a position to do some damage and the sooner he is rounded up out of office the better. There are plenty of others to replace him though I fear.

  4. Just done some digging on Cllr Gollop. He lives in Fallodon way, Henleaze and works in Great George Street, Bristol. A commute of 2.7 miles – extremely cycleable and actually a nice route.

    I bet the lazy accountant drives this adding to the Whiteladies road congestion on that route. What a pillock.

    1. One interesting thing about the conservative party claims is that it showed their bias. Anything that took away roadspace from cars would be a failure to them, and they can blame increases in congestion to it. Anything that didn’t lead to (widly overoptimistic) growth figures of cycling city would also be viewed as a failure. Yet I, like Rhode Long, view it as a partial success. Partial, because we still have people like Geoff in positions of influence.

  5. “Whilst we recognise the merits of promoting cycling as a leisure activity for the individual – delivering personal health benefits and helping to improve the environment for all – this form of travel is unlikely in the near future to be a major means of commuting……”

    While this might be the message the Tory Party’s corporate sponsors want to send out, the British public doesn’t seem to keen on buying the e-cars which we are supposed switching to for our daily commute. We are a bit to ready to assume that top down solutions are the only way, sometimes it just has to be bottom up…

  6. “Whilst we recognise the merits of promoting cycling as a leisure activity for the individual – delivering personal health benefits and helping to improve the environment for all – this form of travel is unlikely in the near future to be a major means of commuting.”

    How is promoting cycling as a “leisure activity” going to “improve the environment”? A “leisure activity” is, quite obviously, a pastime, or a hobby – something that people do in their spare time.

    Unless these “leisure activity” cyclists that Gollop is talking about “promoting” are switching from massive gas-guzzling 4x4s to mountain bikes to roam around the countryside, I fail to see the environmental benefit here. Most likely, people will be riding bikes instead of playing tennis, or gardening, or doing DIY, or other hobbies.

    That’s no way to save the planet.

    (I’d also be interested to know how Gollop is so omniscient about whether cycling could be a major means of commuting in the future).

  7. Hi Jim,

    I’ve watched the Cycling City project from just down the road in Bath, and my own feeling is that they did just enough to annoy people, but not enough to make a real difference.

    Still, it takes *decades* of that level of funding to change the course of history, not just three years. Some of the kids that have done Bikeability may carry on riding into later life, but they may still aspire to car ownership. And, unfortunately, the hi-viz-helmet-crazy approach just isn’t going to appeal to at least roughly 50% of teenagers…

  8. Cllr Gollop behaves like a typical old school politician. He will say whatever chimes with the majority opinion. By positioning the cycling infrastructure as being a ‘leisure’ project that has robbed funds and road space from the motorist he knows that a good number of people will bray ‘Hear, hear’ in support.

    It’s a cheap trick to pick on a minority, like cyclists, when cycling is one of the most sustainable and virtuous transport options with all the health and well being benefits for those who participate.

    I’ve said it before – most local councillors are from a demographic that use their cars for a journey of 200 yards. The only way to change the way councils behave is to change the people who represent us. We need more cyclists taking an active part in local government. Get your nomination papers for the local elections in May now!

  9. Funny you should mention consultancy fees. When we looked at how the City of London has spent its LCN+ money from TfL over the years, we found that barely a quarter had been spent on actual tarmac and stone. The rest went on consultancy fees and subsidising the City’s own highways planning department salaries etc. Some of the listed projects spent literally tens of £k on consultants without spending a penny (if you’ll excuse me) on the road itself.

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