So Long, And Thanks For All The Pish

 

Flipper: Charming, funny, been dead for decades and still more familiar to the public than Cycling England

Last Friday, road.cc reported that Cycling England now looks certain to be abolished as part of a Government cull on quangos (or ‘quasi autonomous non-governmental organisations’ to give them their full snappy title).

Christian Wolmar, writer, broadcaster and member of the board of Cycling England anticipated this by writing a very strong open letter to Norman Baker, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport outlining why he thinks this is a very bad idea. He outlined the fact that Cycling England runs cycling proficiency in schools and various projects across the country on a pathetically small budget annual budget of £60m (other transport modes get £15.36bn) and a lot of help of volunteers. All strong stuff but I bet Norman Baker MP thought exactly the same thing as I did;

Christian Wolmar is part of Cycling England??!! 

I’d imagine that hardly anyone outside the cycling World knows that Cycling England even exists and cares even less what it stands for. Cycling England, like CTC are great for the already converted but utterly crap at projecting out to the non-cycling  public who couldn’t give a hoot what a Cycling Demonstration Town is, or indeed how cycling would benefit them.

Cycling England was never going to set the World alight on a meagre budget of £60m per annum (Honda’s ‘Impossible Dream’ advert cost £4.5m alone for perspective). Above all, if Cycling England is a Quango then its foundations were always going to be shaky. Despite having origins far earlier, Quangos will be seen as a Blairite Government mechanism and detested by the public at the best of times (despite many of them doing deeds very much to the public good).  The point of this post is that I believe there must be wholesale reform of the Department for Transport with sustainable transport modes not only being brought ‘in house’ but also receiving a far more integrated share of the transport spend.

Cambridge Cycle Campaign has set up a website (savecyclingengland.org) to bring attention to Cycling England’s good works and to appeal against its abolition. Listed below are the key points:

  • Bikeability: …. the nationwide cycle training scheme, teaching children (benefiting around 300,000 per year) and adults to cycle safely and responsibly, at a time when there is an enormous need to encourage healthy lifestyles, promote safe use of roads, and give children freedom;
  • Cycling Demonstration Towns: Enabling over 2.5m people in 18 towns around the country to benefit from considerably increased levels of infrastructure funding to make roads safer and cycle-friendly, to get more people on their bikes;
  • Health-related projects to promote cycling as a means of addressing the obesity epidemic and tackling sedentary lifestyles;
  • Professional support for Local Authorities to ensure that practitioners on-the-ground get cycling right;
  • Creating design standards and guidance available to highway engineers;
  • Railway/cycling integration, getting train companies to take cycling seriously
  • Events and projects all around the country (including Bike Week), ranging from education initiatives, promoting cycling to minority groups, travel planning for businesses and much more.

All fairly good points until you realise that cycling as an overall transport mode still languishes in its single figure percentage glory. I would like to tentatively make the following points;

  • A personal preference this, but return the name ‘Bikeability’ back to ‘Cycling Proficiency’ so the public instantly knows what it is. This is, after all, a country that still thinks ‘Road Tax’ exists and I’ve never heard cycle training referred to by the general public as ‘Bikeability’. Also, if it can be claimed that ‘Bikeability’ brings cycle training up to the 21st century, how about the DfT giving new cyclists safer, 21st century roads or decent segregated cycle infrastructure based on a Dutch model to cycle on? Otherwise parents will never let children out on their bikes and gain some freedom, fitness and fresh air as it continues to be perceived as a dangerous activity.
  • Drop the Cycling Demonstration Town nonsense in favour of national policy. Otherwise the money will continue to be swallowed up by Councils desperate to plug other holes in their budgets or ‘Consultancy Fees’.  If Brighton & Hove is a ‘Cycling Demonstration Town’, then Milton Keynes is an ‘Architectural Treasure Trove’.
  • There must be proper design guidance on cycling infrastructure based on more robust models (such as the Netherlands). This is not a push to create a fully segregated cycle network but where Cycling Infrastructure is installed it has to meet minimum criteria, that is way and above the dangerous and appalling standards we have currently. Above all the Department for Transport has to integrate sustainable transport into its remit and stop using car-centric policies, particularly for urban areas (for example, favouring blanket 20mph speed limits across residential areas thereby linking the generally ignored School Zones with the streets that children are going to be walking and cycling in from).
  • There needs to be far better promotion of the benefits of walking and cycling. This should be coordinated better with other Government Departments such as the Department for Health – instead of health professionals banging on about things they don’t know, such as the misguided belief that sticking helmets on people will solve everything, they can bang on about things that they do know, such as cycling being a healthy activity.
  • I thought railway/cycle integration meant being able to take a bicycle on a train to allow passengers (sorry, customers) to get to their destination door to door with minimum fuss – One transport mode complimenting another to increase scope and versatility. The railway companies however believe that putting up cycle racks at stations is the only answer and gets them off the hook, whilst praying that everyone buys a Brompton. Rail companies will never take cycling seriously until it becomes a condition of the franchise or is legislated.
  • I believe that every time Philip Hammond releases a report or statement, it must be called ‘The Hammond Organ’.

We needn’t push for the last one.

In summary, I don’t doubt at all the fantastic abilities and knowledge of Christian Wolmar, or indeed Phillip Darnton, the very amiable Chairman of Cycling England. I just think its time for cycling to stop being treated at arms length by a Government Department that hasn’t a clue what sustainable transport or road safety is yet is in its best interests to do so if it’s to achieve anything close to integration. The good folk of Cycling England and all cyclists across England and the rest of the British Isles deserve far better than the current structure.

Cycling – Pleasure or Pain?

'I like cycling around Basingstoke'

I cycle to work. I cycle 12 miles to work to be precise. My route takes me from the seaside town of Worthing to metropolis of Brighton & Hove (a ‘Cycling Demonstration Town’ would you believe?) I cycle along the A259 coast road amongst the huge Lorries bound for Shoreham Port and the cars on the work and school run and the vans with the obligatory England flag fluttering forlornly from their roofs.

I cycle around those that turn suddenly without indicating, amongst those that desperately need to make a phone call on the move, avoiding the car doors opening and the buses that overtake to suddenly remember that they are in fact buses and need to pull over once in a while in front of me.

The question is, do I enjoy cycling, or do I enjoy the struggle?

I cycle nearly every day, I go to to cycling meetings and forums, I buy the latest cycling periodicals, I write on internet forums, I write this brilliant blog and enjoy reading the wonderful blogs and opinions of other cyclists. 

But when was the last time I really enjoyed my cycling for nothing more than just cycling?

Two occasions sprang to mind; the first was during the summer when I would bring out the Mountain Bike and in the evening I’d occasionally commute home along the South Downs Way – beautful countryside stretching away to the north, the deep blue sea to the south and other cheerful people on the trail. The other was when I occasionally cycled to my parents which takes in the Downs Link (Shoreham by Sea to Shalford, Surrey) in its 37 mile entirity – beautiful countryside and other cheerful people on the trail.

When I worked as a CTC Information Officer, with the exception of the wonderful Lands End – John O’Groats route pack, the most popular route sheets requested were for exotic items such as Cycling in the Netherlands, the North Sea Cycle Route and the Danube (all traffic free to varying degrees).

Why is traffic free only associated with leisure? Why can’t more road space be given to decent  infrastructure such as the Netherlands that shows cycling off for what it can be? Direct, quiet, fast or slow, healthy and above all fun. I’m not saying that all Britain should be segregated – as has been pointed out to me recently, Highways Engineers have been trying to shovel us off the road for years leading to the dangerous, poorly designed rubbish we have today. Indeed, I could take Sustrans National Cycle Route 2 if I wanted a relatively traffic free option for my commute, but it’s either too narrow, or I have to dismount, or it goes around the houses (and that fully operational port).

This country needs to drop the empty platitudes and actually start getting serious about sustainable transport through removing private cars from the equation, reducing speed limits in towns and installing decent (and by that I mean Dutch and not UK designed) infrastructure where applicable. In short, making the simple things in life like riding a bike or walking to work or the shops actually achievable and attractive for the masses [again]. Until then, commuting will always be associated with pain rather than pleasure.

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

Smokescreen

Road.cc reports this week on ‘crackdowns on so-called anti-social cycling, with initiatives targeting bike riders who commit transgressions such as ignoring red traffic lights and cycling on the pavement under way in cities such as Chester and Bath, while councillors in Middlesbrough are calling for police there to tackle the problem’.

As a cycle campaigner I certainly support such moves to a point. I passed my cycling proficiency in 1979 and have always carried the mentality that the safest place to be on the road is moving with the flow of traffic obeying all signs and signals. As soon as you break lights or hop on the pavement then in my opinion not only are you being selfish but you’re just creating more problems for yourself where you can be prosecuted (if caught by the law) or sued for damages. The Highway Code isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly a passport to relatively stress free cycling.

However, I wrote ‘to a point’. Many councils paint bicycle symbols on pavements, calling them ‘Cycle Infrastructure’. This conveniently gets cyclists off the roads and leaves those that persist with the roads open to abuse. The roads become more dangerous with fewer cyclists about and then everyone scratches their heads as to why novice cyclists would use pavements that don’t have cycle symbols on them too. I would class this as an irritant as opposed to something requiring such heavy handed levels of policing. My point is that if this level of policing is part of a wider clampdown in the name of road safety, then what is being done about the far greater problem of motorists breaking the law?

Not much, it would appear. In the same week, RoSPA (the organisation that originally set up Cycling Proficiency), along with CTC have issued a joint communiqué to councils that are considering turning off their speed cameras to reconsider.

We also read that Cycling England, a Government quango set up by Department for Transport with responsibility for Cycling Proficiency (or ‘Bikeability’ as it’s now known) may be abolished. The worst case scenario would see an end to cycle training in our schools with no-one able to administer it and a Government no longer wanting to support it.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond is said to be “far from convinced that it would be a good thing” to reduce the UK’s legal drink-driving limit and is set to reject an expert review that recommended that the country fall into line with the lower levels found in several other major countries in western Europe.

I can’t help but feel a that there is a little bit of a smokescreen going on here covering the fact that no-one is prepared to tackle the really big issues that kill and seriously injure every day. Making an example of cyclists that break red lights and ride on pavements is all very well. But speeding, drink-driving or mobile phone use whilst driving creates far more havoc for our society and its emergency services. Yet it’s ‘Demon Cyclists’ or ‘Lycra Louts’ or, even worse, ‘Middle Aged Lycra Louts’ that hit the headlines. Or Jon Snow being trailed by that tabloid Ku Klux Klan, the Daily Mail. Road safety, particularly for its more vulnerable users, is clearly no match for the motoring and drinks lobbies! 

Another recent example of victimising groups and creating a smokescreen is the surge of interest in ‘dole cheats’. These fraudsters are fleecing the innocent taxpayer of billions! That’s all very well, and £5 billion a year is certainly a problem. But what about the high level tax avoidance of the rich that’s costing the nation (it has been estimated) £50-60 billion a year? Again, the bigger issue disappears behind a smokescreen because it’s too difficult to face and the lobbying too powerful.

Think what could be done if that £50-60 billion went directly to cycling! A fully segregated cycle network could be created across the country linking villages with towns, children with schools, adults with shops and places of work. I have a dream, Brothers and Sisters. You’d have a lot of change out of that money too.

There’ll be a smokescreen though. With all the money snaffled by ‘consultancy fees‘ and used to plug other holes in Government & Council spending, so we’ll end up with this, this and this everywhere. Again

I draw two conclusions; firstly, this country simply doesn’t know how to deal with something like cycling because we have been so primed for ever bigger roads and car use that we cannot get our heads around catering for something so blissfully simple as riding a bicycle. As a result, it will always be treated like a stubborn stain that won’t go away unless there is a culture shift. Secondly, and pardon the language, but self confessed motor loving Philip Hammond MP seems to be about as much use as tits on a bull. I hope the lobbying perks are worth it.

Last Tango in Parris

Journalist Carlton Reid has brought this to everyone’s attention on his brilliant website.

The title of this post refers to Matthew Parris, an ex-MP and columnist. In 2007 he wrote a column in the Times ranting against cyclists.

‘A festive custom we could do worse than foster would be stringing piano wire across country lanes to decapitate cyclists. It’s not just the Lycra, though Heaven knows this atrocity alone should be a capital offence; nor the helmets, though these ludicrous items of headgear are designed to protect the only part of a cyclist that is not usefully employed; nor the self-righteousness, though a small band of sports cyclists on winter’s morning emits more of that than a cathedral at evensong; nor even the brutish disregard for all other road users, though the lynching of a cyclist by a mob of mothers with pushchairs would be a joy to witness.’

That’s just the opening paragraph! He then carries on in a way that makes Jeremy Clarkson’s words read like a bedtime story involving kittens. To be fair, Mr Parris was probably unaware of the fact that hilarious country dwellers were stringing wire between trees and fence posts on bridleways to garrotte cyclists and horse riders (it certainly wasn’t to catch 5ft tall foxes). Thankfully these were, and are rare events but you have to ask what passes through the minds of these spineless, spiteful people to summon up such hatred through these words and deeds.

The article received over 200 complaints to the PCC and an apology followed.

Let’s fast forward to last week’s Spectator. Mr Parris discusses the Monsal Trail in the Peak District National Park. Four disused railway tunnels are being opened up to create a path with easier gradients for cyclists, horse riders and walkers allowing decent connections to other routes. Part of the funding is coming from Cycling England.

(Further reading about the trail can be found at this wonderful blog post from the Worthing Wanderer)

However, Mr Parris continues,

‘……. couldn’t cyclists themselves be more involved in the funding of Cycling England — some £160 million per annum? Cyclists have a strong sense of community and are good at organising (as I know to my cost, having once upset them). I would hazard a guess that as an overall group they do not represent a particularly disadvantaged section of society. They pay no road tax. Cyclists do already support a range of cycling organisations, local and national, out of their own pockets: why not this one, if they want it to continue?….’

Regular readers of this blog (and Carlton Reid’s website) will of course have spotted his cardinal error; Road Tax hasn’t existed for over 70 years and even then it was heavily subsidised. Cyclists have always contributed to road building through Central and Local Taxation, often contributing to the creation of conditions hostile to cyclists. As seasoned cycle campaigners know, cycling budgets at National and Council level are woeful. West Sussex County Council have just confirmed that there is no money in the pot this year for cycling due to all the recent pothole repairs and of course cuts, cuts, cuts, except where motoring is concerned. (Actually I’m glad they haven’t any money because there’ll be no more of this, this or this)

Mr Parris continues,

…at an ancient and historic copper mine I visited in neighbouring Cheshire two years ago, a group of volunteer enthusiasts have been clearing away rubble for many years, all unpaid and all in their spare time. Most cyclists are by definition fit, strong and healthy. Campaigning by cycling groups will have been part of the genesis of this Monsal Trail project. Why not involve campaigners in the work itself? Shifting rubble is not highly skilled; it would be fun to be involved. Walking and horse-riding groups, to all of whose members these tunnels are planned to open, could join in’

and then he enthuses,

‘… how to collect the money? Here, government can help co-ordinate: if cyclists were to consolidate their organisations into a sort of AA of cycling, a range of benefits — like using this trail, or public cycle-racks, or railway provision for cycles, or discounts in cycle shops, could be made dependent on showing the badge.’

The CTC has been around since 1878. They successfully campaigned for cyclists’ right to be on the road, and to use bridleways (years before the Mountain Bike). They offer free third party insurance to members, free legal assistance and discounts in cycle shops.  Above all, they have volunteers working across the country; People that fight in their spare time to open up trails, to get our voice heard in Highways Departments that couldn’t care less and to secure funding through whatever means.

All this for something so beautifully simple, previous generations did it without even thinking.

Volunteers have always been the backbone of cycling, from those that build and maintain Mountain Bike trails, to the Sustrans Rangers acting as custodians of the National Cycle Network, to the volunteer marshals at road and mountain bike events across the land, to all the campaign groups, to the devilishly handsome cycling blog writers to the venerable CTC.

In conclusion, Matthew Parris is nothing more than a misguided fool who needs to do more research. Maybe he should do a bit of volunteer work in the CTC offices. He might learn something.

Cyclists Special

I know that this has featured elsewhere but it’s a wonderful film from a more civilised age.

On May 8th 1955, British Transport Films recorded an excursion organised by CTC. Please note the integration of bicycle and train network. To be fair, since the Royal Mail stopped using the rail network, the guards van was always going to be an annoyance to rail companies that couldn’t fill it with premium rate paying commuters whilst still treating them with the same contempt given to a battery hen.

Anyhoo, that debate is for another day. Pour a nice bottle of ale or stout, fill your favourite pipe with rough shag and enjoy people enjoying themselves in a time when it was allowed. And not a helmet or piece of hi-viz clothing among them.

Here is part 2 (see, you can even get up and make a cup of tea and some scones)

iPhone Apps for Cyclists

I’m currently road testing a new iPhone app for the CTC. I shall say no more as I have no desire to steal the thunder of CTC but my initial response is that it’s ‘utterly amazing’ although this may level out at ‘quite fantastic’.  If they progress with it and you own an iPhone then get it when it’s released even though you have no idea what it is yet. A bit like the iPad really.

As I was cycling to work this morning I started to think about other iPhone apps that could benefit cyclists. Sure, there’s a few for mapping, and a few to measure speed and distance (as you’d expect from a device that probably holds more power than all the computers combined that sent Man to the Moon). However, I would also like to see the following developed:

The Cyclops

You may be familiar with this concept if you follow the Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon each year. If a car overtakes too closely, the phone could emit a loud beep and someone screaming ‘OUT!’

The Col de Hell

I DO NOT advocate using an iPod when commuting at all but…

Imagine you are grinding up some tortuous climb and the spirits are a little bit low. Just put your earphones in to listen to a recording of an enthusiastic crowd on a Tour de France mountain stage. The cries of ‘Allez!’! The shouts of adoring people running alongside you! Then you can punch the air or give a Mark Cavendish two fingered salute as you finally crest the Paris-Roubaix style pave at the top of Guildford High Street. You hero, you! Chapeau!

The Male Lycrometer

You look in the mirror and see the physique of Alberto Contador. Meanwhile the mirror is trying everything in its power to stop itself smashing and sparing your blushes. This app could measure your main bicycle type, your height, weight and BMI. If you go over a certain threshold, or your only bike is a Brompton it emits a loud ‘NO!’ if you look at a piece of lycra or replica team kit. If you pick up a garment and walk towards the till the ‘NO!’s get louder and more urgent. If you purchase a team replica jersey or bib shorts, the sponsor is automatically alerted by email that someone is riding around with their logo on that has all the sleekness and power of a wheelie bin.

The Femail Lycrometer

No comment. I like my legs and kneecaps where they are for cycling, thank you very much.

I’m sure you can think of more, dear reader and I welcome your thoughts.