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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