The Bristol Broadcast

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak on behalf of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain at a Scrutiny Committee held by Bristol City Council.

Sustrans were also there along with Dr Adrian Davis (Chair), Dr Fiona Spotswood of UWE & Ed Plowden of Bristol City Council.

I was speaking immediately after Dr Dave Horton, who was one of the team behind the excellent Understanding Walking & Cycling project last year (and blogs wonderfully about it too). I have given public talks on behalf of the Embassy before so I was not only extremely happy to put the our view to Local Government, but also to the general public who attended – many of whom were probably gearing up for a nice juicy Local-Newspaper-Comments-With-A-Dash-Of-Jeremy-Vine-Show-And-A-Twist-Of-Daily-Mailathon. Many (particularly groups representing the Elderly) had a particular and justified grievance against that doyen of local media, the pavement cyclist.

They were a bit taken aback when I started showing them what has been achieved overseas. In my allotted 15 minutes, I was able to convey the fact that; bicycles, pedestrians & motorists don’t have to be in constant gladiatorial combat with the correct provision and planning, that the economies and societies of the Netherlands and Denmark did not plunge into anarchy or boarded up ruin by designing the private car out of town and city centres and that providing inviting conditions for walking and cycling as valued modes of transport means all ages and abilities can get around equitably and without fear or the need for safety wear to mitigate that fear. This to me is the mark of a civilized society.

It went down very well.

From This is Bristol

RESEARCHERS have called for improvements to cycling conditions in Bristol, which they say could solve the problem of cyclists using pedestrian walkways.

Speaking at a council meeting yesterday, they argued that safer cycling networks in the city will help to discourage cyclists from mounting the pavements.

Judith Brown, chairwoman of the Bristol Older People’s Forum, which has been campaigning against cyclists using pavements, attended the Sustainable Development and Transport Scrutiny Commission meeting. After the meeting she told the Post that the council should listen to what had been said and change its “inadequate” policy.

Five experts addressed the public meeting and backed an investment in infrastructure that would pull cyclists away from the pavements and avoid conflict.

Dr David Horton, a sociologist focusing on cycling, said that his research showed how potential cyclists were put off by “terrifying” road conditions. He said: “Too often words like ‘petrified’ and ‘terrified’ crop up in surveys when people are asked why they don’t cycle around town.

“In urban Britain, at the moment, we are really struggling to provide for cyclists. There’s a real mismatch between policy and practical work leading to improvements.”

Jim Davis, chairman of the cycling embassy of Great Britain, said that planners should look to examples in Europe, where the provisions for cyclists make travelling by bike more “normal”.

He added that the changes abroad had also led to less conflict between pedestrians and cyclists.

Leading the debate, Adrian Davis, a public health and transport consultant, said: “There’s no doubt that the debate in the city is often very polarised. We want to move on from this by looking at the harsh realities.”

Following the meeting, Mrs Brown told the Post: “I think the council has to think seriously about its inadequate policy for all.

“As Bristol is a cycling city, the council must think how it accommodates them properly.

“What countries have done in Europe looks promising and it’s certainly worth thinking about how they can make life safer for everybody.

“I’m going to take this away to digest and tell my members.”

Mark Bradshaw, a Labour councillor and chairman of the cross-party commission, said: “What we are trying to do is get a bit more recognition and understanding about the cycling debate.

“Whether you are a cyclist or an elderly person, your views are just as important and valuable.

“As a commission, we want to share this with the rest of the council and with their officers.”

A common argument against having high quality cycle infrastructure is that there is ‘no political will’. That’s certainly true but political will comes from a mandate from the masses and how can the masses get behind something they don’t know about yet? The assembled audience had no idea what was being practiced abroad with proven success (why should they know?) and, when presented to them in a non-campaigning way that they could understand and buy into, they realised that if there had to be an ‘enemy’ it certainly wasn’t cyclists, pedestrians or motorists – it was the transport system we all have to navigate on a day-to-day basis. Society has simply been playing the cards that have been dealt them by successive Governments. And for decades the British deck has been stacked in favour of unfettered car use.

What the Netherlands did was to essentially prize apart the different modes of travel and put them back together into a coherent, integral whole. We seem light years away from even grasping the fact that, to make a decent, equitable, sustainable transport system you need to make the simple modes of transport simple and the complex modes of transport complex.  Convincing the British public that this works could be simpler than we think. We just have to give them the correct information for a start.

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Well, Fancy That! No 1: Nice Things Cost Money

What happens when you invest consistently & wisely in people who know what they’re doing

It is a wonderful time for sports cycling in Great Britain; Bradley Wiggins has become the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France with Chris Froome enjoying an equally unprecedented second place. The hard-working men and women of Team GB are no strangers to success in Olympic events and so it has proved in London with medals on the road and the track with performances to give inspiration to all.

Wonders like this don’t happen by accident as other nations are already comfortably aware; This was never about ‘plucky British underdog spirit’. This was about the right talent, the right coaching staff giving the right strategies, confidence and belief and the right mechanics working on the right machinery. Above all, what we have been witnessing over the last few years is what consistent and focussed investment actually looks like by people who know what they are doing and care.

Norman Baker MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport) proudly trumpets the fact that last January he announced the Local Sustainable Transport Fund to the tune of £560 million (which has recently been increased to £600 million) as well as £15 million specifically for cycling infrastructure projects at railway stations to link communities and centres of economic growth. He has also recently announced a further £15 million cycle safety fund to help local authorities deal with high risk junctions.

These are undoubtedly large sums of money. I have no trouble with Norman Baker MP, nor do I doubt his overall commitment to cycling. However, I do have trouble with the fact that Local Authorities have been bidding for this money and are going to oversee the spending of this money. Put simply, the Government is giving sums of money for ‘Active Travel’ projects to people who largely haven’t a clue about the benefits of cycling as a mode of transport or don’t actually care about cycling as it gets in the way of more ‘serious’ modes of transport. Moreover, cycling design guidelines at local level are treated with the same professionalism and reverence as Dr Seuss, and The Netherlands or Denmark with their proven success are regrettably filled with foreigners so, apparently, nothing they do must ever be considered, let alone copied. As a result, we end up with what we’ve seen for many years; inconsistent and unfocused investment by people who don’t really know what they are doing or don’t care.

What happens when you invest sporadically and unwisely in people who don’t know what they’re doing and/or with Councillors who don’t care (Photo: Warrington Cycle Campaign’s ‘Facility of the Month’)

I don’t see this as a recipe for the same delirious success as Team GB.

To be fair, there are Local Authorities that are trying to ‘get it’ as far as cycling is concerned and are very proactive. Even trying to see things from a Dutch perspective like my neighbouring Authority of Brighton & Hove.

In a way, it is good that Local Authorities have had to bid for pockets of money. By tendering for funding, we get to see the projects that they have in mind and therefore some sort of benchmark for local active travel groups to monitor (hopefully, they would also have been involved in the consultation). The problem lies in the precedents already set by Local Authorities which are a bit lacking in qualityActually, most are appalling. Generally, the only time bicycle infrastructure works well in Britain is more by accident than by design; usually a converted pre-Beeching railway line or upgraded coastal path or promenade. Even then, because we never seem to be able to think in terms of network and linking stuff, people will often drive to it with their families if it offers the premise of inviting, quality traffic-free cycling.

The simple fact is that nice things cost money and, funnily enough, that includes cycle infrastructure. Why not pay more for a network based on principles of proven success such as The Netherlands and Denmark that people can and would actually use. It has to be better than our current sporadic and, by comparison to Mainland Europe, amateur looking attempts to solve a car-choked problem that has become too big to solve with pockets of cash dotted around Local Authorities that clearly need better guidance from Central Government on how to spend it.

This has to be bad because Jonny Foreigner thought of it.

If this country can even begin to consider schemes such as High Speed Rail, or an entirely new airport for London, then there is no reason why we can’t consider thinking big in terms of providing a consistent quality network for the bicycle with its excellent rate of return in terms of  jobs, transport, health & well-being, greater freedom and subjective safety – especially for more vulnerable sections of society, increased social safety and reduced emissions. If Local Authorities are going to be the agencies providing it (which I’m not actually against believe it or not), then the guidance and funding from central government has to also be high quality, strong and consistent. Nice things cost money, even for a mode of transport so simple, egalitarian and cheap.

Believe it or not, a decent bicycle network can be cheaper than a sodding great airport built in the path of migrating birds

Localism for Dummies

A Wet Parliamentary Bike Ride

Last Tuesday morning, I put on my Cycling Embassy of Great Britain approved attire (just a regular suit for a regular activity) and attended the Annual All-Party Parliamentary Bike Ride, which is now in its twelfth year and is a prelude to Bike Week. Despite the wretched weather, there was a respectable turn out of MP’s (also in Cycling Embassy of Great Britain approved attire) including Norman Baker again (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport).

After the ride, we assembled in the Houses of Parliament to listen as Mr Baker spoke about how wonderful cycling is and took questions (I recorded it for YouTube and it should be going out shortly if you can contain your excitement). One of the key points he made was that cycle campaigners should not be afraid to approach Government Departments other than transport. This, in a way, makes sense; after all riding a bicycle is healthy so the Department for Health should be actively promoting it, it could get kids to school so the Department for Education should be actively promoting it and it is good for the economy where high quality infrastructure would bring rewards both locally and nationally to the exchequer so the Treasury should be actively promoting it. The problem is that we are pretty hopeless at the ‘high-quality infrastructure’ bit – the very thing that has been proven to have success overseas in getting the masses on their bicycles with increased subjective safety. So I guess that brings us back to the Department for Transport, who should be actively promoting it.

Cycling has always been about ‘Localism’ and ‘Big Society’ with local campaigners and activists that have been bashing their heads against the wall of local democracy for years (and for free). This, for me is where the problem lies; it’s all well and good giving local authorities ‘the right tools’ with devolved powers, but what if they don’t know what to do with them (or don’t even want to know). It’s like giving a group of primary school children ‘the right tools’ to design Britain’s successor to Trident – many will be keen as mustard and will give it their best shot. The results they come up with, whilst thankfully not feasible, will be all the more wonderful as a result and fascinating.

…and then it comes back down and blows everything up, Daddy. Next week we’re redesigning Bow Roundabout to give it lots of pretty lights….

The results that local authorities come up with for bicycles are usually far from wonderful and although we’d be fascinated to know how they arrived at their conclusions, local campaigners are usually locked out. It’s as though they are left staring through the railings at some sort of nightmare-ish Willy Wonka factory churning out pointless pavement conversions. Except their Council Tax helped pay for the nightmare.

Where ‘Transport’ and ‘Sustainable Transport’ collide (Worthing, West Sussex)

What’s worse is that when Councils across the land started to make austerity cuts, we didn’t need a crystal ball to predict that the position of Cycling Officer would be the first to go thereby cutting what is usually the only gateway between local campaign groups and the local authority. Worse still is that many councillors are actively hostile towards the humble bicycle, who view it as a symbol of non-aspiration to ferry the great unwashed along the gutter or an imposition to progress in their local area (particularly to the golf club). After all, bike parking doesn’t bring in parking fees, the most consistent issue in any local newspaper. In many cases, asking a Council to organise a consistent quality cycling policy is a bit like asking Nick Griffin to organise the Notting Hill Carnival.

I’m certainly not against localism. There are Local Authorities that are trying at the very least to understand the bicycle and just what a bewilderingly diverse mode of getting about their patch it is. But I personally believe that there has to be stronger guidance from Central Government in terms of consistent infrastructure standards, policy and funding which is at best piecemeal and often utterly soul-destroying for local campaigners. I still cannot fathom why ‘Transport’ and ‘Sustainable Transport’ are still treated as separate entities – We build a major road scheme and then apply the sustainable bits at the side or as an afterthought, which is why it needs to be integral to the Department for Transport, as opposed to a quango whose flame can be snuffed out as easily as Cycling England.

Everyone, from Local Authorities that haven’t yet realised the real benefits of the bicycle from more energised workforce & schoolchildren, better local business and increased tourism (or ‘Localism’) to local campaign groups (or ‘Big Society’) deserve far better than this.

Misinterpreting Interpretations

No! No! No! Not 'Go DITCH'.....

Now that the internet has uncovered the realities of cycling in Denmark and The Netherlands and people in Britain have started to discuss what it means to ‘Copenhagenize‘ and ‘Amsterdamize‘ and realised that the cycling infrastructure design and implementation in Britain lags a bit behind the Falkland Islands and London Cycling Campaign members voted to ‘Go Dutch‘ and Norman Baker MP stated that we could learn from our Dutch colleagues and handsome, gifted young men start a Cycling Embassy to eventually start lobbying and exchanging ideas with British, Dutch and Danish friends and more friends beyond, there now follows the desperate period where British people start to speak with sudden authority interpreting what it all actually means such as this latest offering from the Guardian Bike Blog.

To many, ‘Going Dutch’ means having segregation everywhere! There are many British people, who through no fault of their own, are not Dutch or are in any way conversant with the Dutch experience. Thus the very notion of segregation will instantly make people instantly think of their local high street, housing estate or country lane and try to mentally cram in a couple of with-flow cycle paths with separating kerbs. And then dismiss the idea as bunkum.

The fact is that ‘Going Dutch’ does mean having segregation everywhere! But there’s one fundamental caveat; The British assume segregation to mean ‘segregating cyclists from the road to ‘improve traffic flow’ for motorised traffic’ whereas the Dutch mean ‘segregate motorised vehicles from people to improve movement for everyone’.

Through the years, the British have created a lot of bypasses, relief roads, motorways, urban expressways and the like. The Dutch did the same but ensured that it became an utter pain in the buttocks to get across the town being bypassed in a car, in effect forcing motorised traffic to use the new infrastructure built. The British didn’t and are still paying the price with heavily congested town and city centres. In fact we keep using it as some perverse justification to build more bypasses, relief roads, motorways, urban expressways and the like. Here’s a clip from ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ made in the very early 1980’s that captures it perfectly.

With traffic where it should be, it then becomes a lot easier to transform areas that were for people into areas for people, and giving planners a chance to make cycling and walking very direct, pleasant and safe options indeed. It also becomes less like political suicide to start suggesting things like ‘Strict Liability’, defined by Wikipedia like so,

‘”Strict liability”, supported in law in the Netherlands,[1] leads to [a] driver’s insurance being deemed to be responsible in a collision between a car and a cyclist. This makes car drivers very wary of bicycles.’

The fact is that no-one is saying that there should be segregated cycle paths everywhere, not even the Dutch or the Danes. It doesn’t help that cycle infrastructure in this country resembles something designed by someone who really, really, really hates cycling. But to dismiss them arbitrarily because of not understanding their true context in mainland Europe is a cheap shot. Even if they only create the ‘Placebo effect’ to which the Guardian Bike Blog post alludes, I’d prefer that to consistent fines from the EU for failing to meet air pollution targets, or more gastric band surgery or one of the worst road safety records for cyclists and pedestrians in Western Europe (as tragically demonstrated in this moving blog post from Embassy Press Officer, Mark Ames). Now that my Study Tour experience has really started to sink in (which the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain intends to make an annual event), I shall be revealing more over the next few weeks (and years) mainly through the Embassy website as well as addressing further how all this should be taken to a wider British audience that doesn’t know yet how much they love riding a bicycle like previous generations.

I leave you with this ditty I’ve quickly put together for the Cycling Embassy from footage taken by me on the Study Tour and then from my commute to work (Worthing to Brighton) on the Monday morning after returning home.

Words and Pictures

The police escort arrives to give me my Guard of Honour to the Houses of Parliament. Oh, and escort some MP's and Lords and yadda yadda yadda.

Last Wednesday, I caught the train up to London for the Annual Parliamentary Bike Ride which is the promotional prelude to Bike Week. As I was taking my Dutch Bike along, I had to catch the first train out of Worthing to beat Southern Rail’s [non-folding] bike ban which operates between 7-10am. I then cycled along Victoria Street, round Parliament Square (fine for me on an upright Dutch bike but I wouldn’t expect my mother to cycle this comfortably – unless she was actually a reasonably fit man aged between 18-45), over Westminster Bridge taking the vaguest of vague left turns into Belvedere Road toward the start point at the London Eye.

Carlton Reid interviewing Ed Clancy. He'd just interviewed me which was all the work he had to do really.

This is an event organised by CycleNation and ex-colleague Adam Coffman of CTC in particular. The great and the good of cycle campaigning were there including London Cycling Campaign’s new Chief Executive Dr Ashok Sinha. The ride was to take us over Blackfriars Bridge where Carlton Reid made this film.

We cycled along the Embankment, past Buckingham Palace and on to the Houses of Parliament where Norman Baker (MP for Lewes, East Sussex and Parliamentary Under Secretary for the Department for Transport) took questions before dashing off to catch a train.

Cycling over Blackfriars Bridge. It's quite pleasant and relaxing with a police escort. Some decent infrastructure and a maintained 20mph limit will do.

 It was all very nice but that’s all it was. I’m all for devolving power but it needs the Department for Transport to treat the bicycle seriously as a mode of transport and keep a grip on Local & Highways Authorities whose main mission seems to be making cycling look as inviting as a timeshare in Tripoli. Councils across the land are continuing to build pitiful infrastructure whether cycle campaigners want it or not and the Local Transport Fund is not going to help that – if anything it will only encourage them to paint more bicycle symbols on pavements. The Monday before the Bike Ride, I wrote a blog post for the new Cycling Mobility magazine outlining my views on this and more here.

What I really cannot understand is why this country continues to ignore the Netherlands and Denmark – countries that have had proven success in creating bicycle cultures, that have made lots of mistakes since the 1970’s when developing its infrastructure and learnt from them now using a mixture of solutions to achieve modal shares we can only dream of over here if we continue the way we are. Maybe I should have asked Norman Baker on the study tour I’m going on in September.

The day after I was commuting to work and the puncture fairy visited me..

Bicycle repair in Shoreham by Sea

 In a former life I would have thrown my arms in the air, sworn a lot, replaced the inner tube as to engage in repair would lose valuable time in my cycling rat race (time was always against me when I cycled quicker for some reason), sworn again as I get grease from the chain and derailleur onto my work clothes in my super dooper courier bag etc etc. This time I just set about the gentle art of bicycle repair, reminded by the advice given to me by Stefan Petursson when I purchased the bike from Amsterdammers in Brighton. The conversation went like this;

Stefan: (put on your best Icelandic/Dutch accent here) ‘you know the best way to repair punctures on a Dutch Bike?’

Me: (put on your sexiest British accent here) ‘No’

I was at this point expecting to hear some incredible tip known only by the Dutch Peoples – maybe something treasured & carried over from generation to generation by word of mouth

Stefan: We pump the inner tube up like so…….and we listen.

I closed my eyes in a half wince/half flinch way. This advice was of course nothing new to me. But in that instant it made me realise that I had been taking the commute far too seriously with all the kit and speed and competitiveness and the subscription to Cycling Plus. By buying an upright utilitarian bike, I had yet to realise that things were about to get a lot slower and far more interesting. Again, this is not to discredit other forms of cycling as we are all part of one big family. But since riding the Dutch Bike my life has become simpler and cheaper and more spontaneous with more freedom and time for thought as a result. Exactly as cycling should be.

Lancing Beach just off NCN2 looking back toward Worthing. I can think of worse commutes.

Obviously they are not everyone’s cup of tea but quite why we ignore Dutch & Danish bikes (and indeed classic British roadsters too) as well as their infrastructure standards is quite beyond me. In the UK, mudguards are still regarded as an accessory! In Wimbledon Fortnight!! Madness, I tell you.