A Very British Revolution

Of course, we saw this all the time on the Study Tour of The Netherlands...

It is now over a month since I returned from the Cycling Embassy Study Tour to The Netherlands. It has taken this long for it all to really sink in and I advise any of you who have any interest in cycling, transport policy, planning, or you just want to see what a country can do when it actually gives a shit about its people by giving them unfettered freedom and choice on how they get about their communities whilst giving consistent investment in their health and wellbeing. In fact, I advise you to go anyway just for the bike ride. At least over there you aren’t bullied by people in 1 ton metal boxes who think that they are essential to ‘progress’ and that killing at least 1,700 people per year is ‘one of those things’.

It would be fair to say that I came back from The Netherlands a changed man. An angry man at that. It’s all very well to sit in front of a computer, to look up a Dutch street on Google Streetview and draw your own wierd and wacky conclusions based on the British experience. It’s quite another thing to actually go over to see it in context and realise that their roads are not wider, that they didn’t always have masses of cycle infrastructure and that what they have got isn’t always perfect but they are constantly innovating and striving to make it so. When you look at a typical street in Assen, it becomes instantly apparent what local and national Government thinks about the bicycle. You can draw your own conclusions from looking at a typical British street – in fact, it’s probably better to focus on the pavement because that’s either where a bicycle symbol might be painted or where the cyclists are anyway because they view riding on the road as an extreme sport requiring clothing and lights that make you visible from Neptune.

Recent events in the news have thrown light onto another problem that can be encountered when pushing for decent cycling infrastructure based on best practice from mainland Europe.

We hate Europe.

Not all of us of course. I certainly don’t and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably don’t either. As far as the latest call for a referendum goes, I personally believe that in the midst of a really big crisis, it’s not particuarly advantageous to turn to your neighbours and tell them to go f*** themselves. To a British cyclist [and therefore a small minority view], the Netherlands is a country of wonderful infrastructure where people of all ages are out on their bicycles, of multi storey bicycle parks, of railway stations where only having space for 20,000 bicycles gets the alarm bells ringing with local authorities, of schools where children are trusted and can cycle independently from a young age with their friends with no adult intervention. However, to many British people, The Netherlands is a place of red light districts, hen/stag destinations, clogs, Max Bygraves singing ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’, round cheeses, canals and a language that sounds like a bit of a laugh that got desperately out of hand.

A cycle path in Assen. It even has it's own lighting.

In an earlier post, I stated my opinion that the reason 20’s Plenty campaigns across the country generally work is because they are community led campaigns as opposed to being cycle-specific. This despite Rod King (the jolly nice Founder of 20’s Plenty For Us ) being a pinnacle of the Warrington Cycling Campaign. Even though the benefits of 20mph speed limits in populous areas should be patently obvious, 20’s Plenty allows a wide range of community groups to ‘buy in’ to the concept. It seems strange that in the early years of the 21st Century, curtailing someone’s right to drive like a pillock should be regarded as part of an arsenal in the ‘War on the Motorist’ – stranger still having just returned from a country where 30kph (18mph) is the default on residential streets.

The point of today’s sermon is that promoting decent cycling infrastructure is difficult enough coming from a minority, and quite often not a particuarly liked minority at that. However, when combined with the fact that mainland Europe is being used as an inspiration, it may be too much for many to bear. If I close my eyes, I can see the smoke and sparks billowing as the Daily Mail Europhobicometer slams into overdrive.

We have to be thoughtful and innovative about how we take the message to a group of people that don’t know they want to cycle yet. Also to planners and engineers that may in some instances be reluctant to take different practices on board. Whilst on my travels in The Netherlands I saw examples of great community spirit as people of all ages went about their business by bicycle; I saw groups of children chatting away on their way to school and college. I saw groups of elderly people and couples off for a nice social ride in everyday clothing, sharing the latest news without harassment. I saw hundreds of children being picked up from school by bike, hurredly telling their parents and grandparents what they did that day. In a way, it was looking back to a Britain that I once knew where I cycled to school and on adventures with friends. Where local residents cycled to the local shop to buy a newspaper without fear or being regarded as a f***ing taxdodger. In a sense, it could be argued that countries such as Denmark and The Netherlands are more British than Britain as they have retained decent values that are still about in Britain but have been tempered by consistent anti-social, car-centric policies. I believe the Dutch and Danes are on to something that’s worth fighting for.

I leave you with this latest offering from Mark Wagenbuur that I urge you to watch as it is utterly superb. In particular, look at the dire situation The Netherlands found itself as it entered the 1970’s. Then think about a typical school run in Britain today and wonder how it could ever get better with current policy.

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Cycle Campaigning Simplified No. 2 – ‘Road Safety’

Of course, they're sitting far too close to a rural road. They need high-viz and eye protectors and...

A curious one this. You probably thought road safety meant safety to all road users. You may have given a lot of thought to your local area and how difficult it looks to get around by bicycle and how dangerous it seems just to get to work or the shops. Being a nice, sane person, you want to do something about it like start a campaign group. Welcome to the insane World of Road Safety.

The whole concept of road safety is fundamentally flawed for these very simple reasons; Motorised traffic is treated as though they were on the roads first, the motorists themselves think that they exclusively pay for the roads. Therefore cyclists and pedestrians are merely guests that have to take all safety precautions necessary for what is increasingly regarded as a dangerous environment. The fact that cyclists and pedestrians were there first, that motorists don’t pay for the roads and that, unlike motorists, cyclists and pedestrians actually have the right to be there tends to get completely and utterly overlooked.

The Government, the Department for Transport and Councils across the land bang on about their commitment to sustainable transport and road safety where of course what they actually mean is a commitment to sustainable transport and road safety as long as it doesn’t annoy the ‘poor beleaguered motorist’ (voters) and the motoring lobby. A motoring lobby that advertises extensively in all national and local newspapers, radio and TV stations (also sponsoring documentaries – nice touch and what you need for unbiased subject matter).

The result is that if a car crashes, the road ‘engineering’ is examined and yet incredibly, no-one questions the car. There is widespread approval amongst the general public for schemes such as 20mph in urban areas (thereby linking school zones which are generally ignored with the residential areas that children could walk or cycle in from) or speed cameras and yet these are seen as part of an arsenal in the ‘War on the Motorist’. No-one questions that metal boxes weighing a ton traveling at speed is a problem that needs to be directly addressed. Instead, the onus of road safety falls on the most vulnerable, requiring helmets and high visibility tabards. Why?

If you are in a campaign group you will find that Highways Engineers will be all too happy to shovel you off the roads in the name of road safety but onto barely converted pavements with bicycle symbols on them, rendering cycling even more dangerous and circuitous. You will only find out about these plans when its too late and the work has been designed, signed off and programmed. Another thing you’ll notice, and a fundamental failure of Government, DfT and Councils is that at no point is space ceded by motorists. This has got to stop.

I’ve come to regard cycling as the beaten partner in the relationship of road users; cyclists are sometimes subject to verbal and physical abuse from bigger, more powerful assailants. Cyclists are often made to feel that the deaths and serious injuries that occur are their fault and if they get hit they only have themselves to blame.  Cycling has to consider itself lucky to get its tiny amounts of housekeeping money. The assailant in all this portrays themselves cunningly as the victim manipulating facts to allow them to continue killing and injuring with relative impunity. Finally, there’s the fact that cyclists keep going back for more, being faithfully and hopelessly devoted.

It’s time to find a new lover. Maybe something a bit more exotic and European. Dutch or Danish maybe?

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