The Winds of Change

The Future. For Britain. In 1992. And now again, apparently.

I was cycling to work this morning through very thick sea mist. The ‘March winds’ have not really materialised here on the South Coast. The winds of change are definitely picking up however.

At the beginning of March, I went to Portcullis House to represent the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain at the Labour Cycling Summit, chaired by Ban Bradshaw MP and Maria Eagle MP (Shadow Secretary for Transport). This was triggered by The Times ‘Cities Fit for Cycling’ campaign. All the usual suspects were there from safety campaigners, road designers, local government and road users, including HGV operators. It was remarkably cordial and some good points were made such as the need for systemic change in the training of future engineers to stopping thinking car first and foremost. I made the following points:

  • That The Times ‘Cities Fit for Cycling’ campaign is an incredible effort that should be acknowledged for, at the very least, taking cycling issues ‘out there’ far, far beyond the realm of Cycling groups and internet chat rooms.
  • That current cycling infrastructure is great if you like ‘abstract art’ (always good to get an early laugh in).
  • If adults need to not only put on body armour to commute to work but also put surveillance measures on that armour, than what hope is there for our nations children wanting to cycle to school?
  • Whilst there’s a lot of incredibly hard work done in the name of Bikeability (which I personally believe should change it’s name back to ‘Cycling Proficiency’. It is a life skill, not a jolly sounding activity) along with Sustrans ‘Safe Routes to School’, there needs to be a quality network of routes to get the 98% considering cycling again through methods with proven success such as those used overseas. Otherwise, parents may indeed ride to school with their children but instead of going on to the shops they nip back and get the car out, due to lack of dedicated ongoing route, lack of subjective safety and the very act of riding a bicycle looking like an overly complicated specialist activity.

What was particularly pleasing was that there was no political point scoring and it was accepted that whatever happens from here on in, it is a cross party issue.

Last week, I went to the House of Commons to represent the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain at the launch of ‘The Summer of Cycling’ which any organisation, group, shop or magazine can support. All the usual suspects were there in cycling and cycle campaigning. “It’s always the same bloody people” someone quipped (and no, for a change it wasn’t me). It has a shiny new website that will develop as the week’s progress with a facebook page and twitter feed. The premise is simple; if everyone that rides a bicycle pledges to get someone who would not normally ride a bicycle to ride a bicycle then the amount of people riding bicycles would double. Simplest ideas are always the best and all that.

At this point, I would normally write something with distain about promotion being one of usual the soft options we always settle for in campaigning to the detriment of everything else because it’s cheap. However, it would be sheer lunacy to not to get some extra promotional mileage out of the Olympics being held in Britain this year, particularly with the success already achieved on road and track. It helps that Philip Darnton is at the helm. He not only has the uncanny ability to sniff out a fiver in a force nine gale – essential for cycling in Britain as it currently stands, but to amplify the meagre funding that cycling in Britain has come to expect through the years, with Cycling England being the classic example.

Summer of Cycling is run for the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (on which the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain sits) and was created by 23 organisations late last year. It was confirmed at the meeting that Minister for Transport Norman Baker has pledged £20,000 for this venture (slightly less than the list price for a Volkswagen Tigua Crossover 2.0 TDi 140 BlueMotion 5 Door) with another £70,000 going to Bike Week (slightly less than the list price for a BMW 750i 4 Door Saloon).

This lunchtime marked the 2012 Budget delivered by George Osborne. Cycling is mentioned in the official document twice.

  • [The Government] is committed to tackling congestion, improving connectivity and supporting cycling in and around London. The Government will explore the case for using the Planning Act 2008 to streamline the planning process for the proposed additional river crossings in East London, for example at Silvertown, which will reduce peak period delays and congestion in the area……In addition, the Government will grant £15 million to TfL for investments in cycle safety, which will include improved provision for cyclists at junctions across the capital under consideration in TfL’s cycle safety junction review’
  • 2.255 London cycle safety grant – The Government will allocate £15 million to TfL for investment in cycle safety. This will include improved provision for cyclists at junctions across the capital currently under consideration in TfL’s Cycle Safety Junction Review.

In the same document, £56 million is going to the Bexhill-Hastings link road. Which is slightly more relevant to me as I live in Sussex and not London. I’m not sure what the implications are for the rest of the country.

This very week, the idea of privatising the roads was presented in a speech by David Cameron to the Institute of Civil Engineers. Some commentators were quick to say on Twitter that it was just a smokescreen mainly to detract from the NHS and Social Care Bill and partly because there are many that are convinced that we have reached ‘peak car’. At War with the Motorist believes we shouldn’t worry as cyclists about it anyway as it will only affect Trunk Roads (Motorways in all but name) and Motorways. I personally believe that the Income Tax changes were the smokescreen and what we are actually seeing is a nation three years into a deep recession with a deeply car-centric Government that thinks ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ is a challenge as opposed to a warning.

I can’t help but feel that the proper stuff that will actually succeed in enabling consistent mass cycling is as far away as it ever has been. At least people are starting to listen now and act. High quality cycle infrastructure will cost serious money – nice things generally do. Surely it’s better to get the right measures in now and get to put an end to the well meaning but crap facilities being built in our name as opposed to seeing more roads being made increasingly unusable with no safe, quality alternative. Or new private or publically built roads having the usual dreadful or non-existent provision. It’s always cheaper to get it right at the design stage than to retro fit afterwards.

The winds of change are certainly blowing. But not quite hard enough to clear the mist yet.

6 thoughts on “The Winds of Change”

  1. The quote about history by the way originates with the philosopher Georg Hegel, writing about the Bourbons, but I particularly like Karl Marx’ tribute to that remark, opening his essay “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”, that he might have added that the first time is tragedy and the second time is farce.

    I think War is a little too optimistic about the take-up of the privatisation of roads. Having worked on advising contractors involved in “DBFO” (design, build, finance, operate) roads about 15-20 years ago, I recall that the contracts were almost invariably let on the basis of shadow tolls – you don’t charge the motorists a toll, you just count them and collect money from the government. As the user is not motivated to avoid your road, you are quids in.

    Look at the baleful impact of PFI on our hospitals, schools etc. Many health trusts are faced with bankruptcy because they simply can’t afford to pay the charges to the PFI provider. The latter took some modest risks up front, mainly on construction budget overruns, and has been coining it in ever since – and will continue to do so for typically 35-38 years for each project.

  2. Decent bike infrastructure will cost money, but there has never been a better time to install it. The UK govt can currently borrow at negative rates (allowing for inflation). There are plenty of people unemployed. If people are prepared to pay the govt to look after their money for them, it’s madness not to use that money to do something useful while creating employment (I am leaving out arguments about whether it’s sensible to pay people to do useless things – google Keynes and “holes in the ground”).

  3. Loving your posts and thoroughly agree with you generally. However, I have to ask why you think ‘Bikeability’ is inferior to ‘Cycling Proficiency’? I think its good to ring the changes. They are different beasts after all. Cycling Proficiency was often taught by non-cyclists. Where’s the sense in that? With Bikeability, the students and instructors are all on the road dealing with everyday hazards. I am puzzled by your reluctance to change?

    1. Lyn

      Thanks for the comment.

      As stated in the post, my only issue is with the name. It’s certainly not with the substance of Bikeability.

      We have to bear in mind that this is a country that still uses the phrase ‘Road Tax’ and I have heard older people use the term ‘Cycling Proficiency’ often. To me, it simply makes it sound more serious. An official life skill imparted by trained people (the general public certainly don’t care how cycling proficiency was delivered in the past). ‘Bikeability’ to me sounds like a non-essential ‘fun’, kids activity that can have its funding cut when times are hard. I think the name is doing it a massive disservice and it is simply a matter of personal taste.

      1. Ahh right. Understand where you’re coming from but because we’re surrounded by those who will always think ‘road tax’, ‘cycling proficiency’, and ‘going to the pictures’, doesn’t mean people can’t adjust. Experience shows me that whereas CP is something a volunteer teaches, parents take for granted, and the kids get a badge at the end, Bikeabiltiy is actually taken more seriously as it entails bringing in the professionals! It’s changing out there and I’m loving it! Lx

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