Tuesday 7 February 2012

Inverted snobbery, "dangerising", and change at the CTC

The Times Cities fit for Cycling Campaign grows more impressive. You can still read all the stories relating to the campaign, without paying, via this link. I think it is absolutely admirable that The Times has removed their paywall for so much material, to conduct this campaign, and I hope they get some more subscriptions out of it. And do pledge your support, if you have not already done so.

There was some disapproval by cycling campaigners on Sunday of a graphic about "dressing to be seen" in specialised cycling clothes in bright colours. I think it is easy to get too worked up about this kind of thing. There have always been specialised cycling clothes, more or less since the invention of the bike. Making cycling practical in ordinary clothes is a great idea, and must be an objective, part of the Dutch-style mass culture of everyday cycling to be worked towards, and the article accompanying the graphic does make this point, but there is a danger of an "inverted snobbery" which says that you can't be part of a transport cycling revolution and still wear lycra. This would be silly. We have to face the fact that, as the UK environment is configured, many commuting cycling distances are going to be quite long, and some rides a bit hilly, and dressing for a 10 mile ride in such a way that you do not get overheated, and remain comfortable and unencumbered, is quite sensible, and there is nothing wrong with The Times featuring and advertising this garb.

The focus of The Times campaign remains bang-on, in my view, firmly on the subjects of lower speeds, safer road infrastructure, and how it should be paid for. Though some of the infrastructure they have suggested is on the whacky side, with futuristic cycle highways in tubes, how about their interactive graphic of suggested infrastructure at a roundabout? Here is thinking far ahead of that of Transport for London or other UK highway authorities, demonstrating continuity of networks, segregation on busy roads, cycle paths away from roads, and a cycle flyover – most of what you could want to "Go Dutch", in fact. The same graphic also shows the hazards resulting from the typical unsafe arrangement we have at the moment. Brilliant!

And they do keep banging on about the need for a dedicated fund to pay for cycling infrastructure. They have hit the nail totally on the head here, in my view.
Last year, funding for infrastructure in 12 Cycling City and Towns members was also stopped. Withdrawal of the £43 million came before final analysis could be made on whether the scheme was encouraging more cycling.
Critics argue that there is no central fund to build cycle schemes. Local authorities have access to a £560 million Local Sustainable Transport Fund until 2015, but early schemes appear to have prioritised improvements to bus and railway stations, smart-card ticketing and park-and-ride schemes, as much as cycling.
Mike Penning, the Roads Minister, said that 38 of 39 successful bids to the fund contain a cycling element. He was wary of calls for a new funding mechanism harnessing the Highways Agency budget. “Most cycling will be on local government roads so you are taking the budget out of national infrastructure into local government roads,” he said. “But like anything, if anybody has ideas they can be looked at.”
Penning isn't getting it yet. Until recently he seemed to think that cyclists were not allowed on the national roads infrastructure (trunk roads) at all. He is still not understanding the problem that there are not direct, efficient, and safe cycling alternatives, in general, to the big roads, and that this is a problem with the national infrastructure, which is his responsibility.

So The Times is plugging away at the real, core issues, and they have even got the AA to support almost blanket 20 mph in towns. Nobody seems to want to argue with this campaign! Nobody half sensible, anyway.

There has been the usual complaint from a few old-style cycling campaigners about The Times "dangerising" cycling. This is idiotic. The Times campaign is overwhelmingly a force for achieving the changes cyclists want. The Times did not dangerise cycling, just as I did not dangerise cycling when I wrote my piece Cycling is dangerous. The policies of successive governments dangerised cycling. A lot of people involved with cycling on a day to day basis seem to loose a basic grip on this danger issue, and I can see why. If you spend an hour or more a day in the saddle, on the streets of a major British city, and you (hopefully) do not come to any harm, you may easily start to believe that cycling in this environment is not dangerous.

This is an illusion borne of use, and there are a few ways to get back to reality. One is to spend some time cycling in an environment which is much safer. The best option is to go an a study tour with David Hembrow. If you do not have the time or money to do this, you can look at at some videos on YouTube. One of the best is this one from David's Hembrow's collaborator, Mark Wagenbuur: What defines Dutch cycling?

The point here is absolutely clear. This is a video of people doing daft things on bikes: things that they could only do in a really safe environment. You don't see British cyclists going along with umbrellas open, or cycling with dogs in tow, or people leaping on and off the back of their friend's bike, or people having conversations while riding side by side on city streets. Not often anyway. As Mark says, these are habits that only become normal in an environment which is really safe, where the constant anxiety arising from the need to share the road space with potentially lethal motor traffic is gone. Seeing how far were, generally, in the UK from the environment that allows these habits, gives you the measuring stick for how much underlying danger we are really coping with, despite the truth that UK cyclists are not being killed left, right, and centre.

The CTC, largest cycling organisation in the UK, have traditionally been prone to the "Don't dangerise cycling" tack, disliking ghost bikes and anything else of a publicity or campaigning nature that they feel might frighten people (as if they haven't noticed that what really frightens people is being passed with inches to spare by huge lorries). Blogger Cycalogical recently labelled this practice danger denial.

This brings me on to the fact that CTC have a new Chief Executive. This is a big change in the UK cycling world, as the last Chief Executive, Kevin Mayne, was in post for 14 years. Kevin Mayne was without doubt a hard worker for the interests of UK cycling, as he saw them, and without doubt a significant influence on the policies of CTC over a long period. In 2003 he told me that he didn't think that segregated cycle tracks on roads were a good idea. His argument was that you could never have them everywhere, and, because of that, if you introduced them anywhere, you would put cyclists elsewhere, on the normal roads, more at risk. He thought that creating tracks would attract cyclists to them (which I agree with), and that this would lessen the density of cyclists on other roads, which would make those roads more dangerous for the cyclists who chose not to use the tracks, in part, because they would get more harried and disrespected by motorists who thought they should not be on the roads.

Like many of the CTC's policy positions down the decades, unfortunately, this was just an argument for "no change". If you can never start to build a segregated cycle network, for fear of those consequences, then you are just stuck with the road network as we have it, possibly with the addition of a few bits of different-coloured paint, Boris-style. You remain in the situation of having only a tiny minority of people cycling, and with cycling in a politically very weak position. The very persecution of cyclists on the roads of the UK that Mayne worried about happened already, as things were, because of that political weakness. Inaction on the infrastructure issue was a prescription to keep that weakness permanent. Andreas Rohl, the bike chief of Copenhagen, drums the point home, in perhaps the most important words in all The Times's coverage:
From A to B there has to be quality before you can expect people to get on a bike. If you want to make cycling mainstream you have to separate bikes from cars and buses. It’s essential.
Ironically, Kevin is going on to a job with the European Cyclists' Federation, based in Brussels. I wonder if daily experience of that city, which does have a developing segregated cycle network, will cause him to modify his opinions. Anyway, I wish him well there. I wonder if the new CTC Chief Executive, Gordon Seabright, will be able to take advantage of the fair wind of The Times campaign to re-position his organisation as a more positive participant in debate about good cycling infrastructure and how to achieve it. My feeling is that if he did, a great many of his membership would back him.


  1. Completely agree with regards to the clothing issue. My commute is a hilly 12 miles. I also sweat easily, and enjoy the training aspect. I will always be a lycra wearer.

    Cycling isn't dangerous, but it is far more dangerous in this country than it should be.

  2. Yep, I wear lycra (although please avert your eyes!) as well normal clothes and greatly depends on where/how far I'm going. My concern with The Times coverage on clothing was it felt like it was a requirement and not an option. People do need to feel that it's fine to cycle in the clothes you want to, and I didn't feel that from that article. But perhaps thats just me.

    Interesting about the CTC. And it is one of the dilemmas that has faced campaigning for better provision. I do hope that they recognise the groundswell of opinion in favour of segragation where it's possible. Go Dutch!

  3. In regards to the fears of the CTC's previous Chief Executive regarding cycle paths not being possible everywhere and therefore putting cyclists who wanted to go someone else at greater risk, I would like to see him apply that logic elsewhere. It would be like an architect deciding that having air conditioning in a new building would be a bad idea because "not all buildings can accommodate it, and people will get used to air conditioning and feel even hotter in buildings that haven't been upgraded".

    Or, perhaps, it would be like having an architect convinced that people who used buildings didn't want air conditioning - because their experience with it was like this; as well as not being powerful enough, and only being in 3 offices in a building with 1200 people, it was really fiddly and awkward to use, and it was easier to open windows; even though gusts of wind kept blowing their paperwork away.

    Clearly, in the UK climate, having air conditioning in every room in ones house would be as silly as having a cycle path on every residential cul-de-sac. But I would not use this infeasibility as an excuse not to provide air conditioning in places like computer rooms or nightclubs; and neither should the constrained width of a side street in Dartmouth be used as an argument against having a cycle path on an arterial road in Liverpool. Both cycle paths and air conditioning need money, so prioritisation is necessary in order that cities have a relatively sparse but high quality network first before systematically upgrading everything.

    Obviously there is the risk of "risk compensation" on the part of drivers who may not expect to see cyclists on major roads, but to be perfectly blunt, outside towns and cities, you can drive for many miles on roads that have existed for hundreds of years without seeing a cyclist, and therefore, I don't think a cycle path along, say, the A10 or A13 would be a problem from that perspective.

    In terms of cycle numbers, I believe it is conceivable that the numbers of cyclists on roads with mixed traffic at either end of a new cycle track would go up. Numbers on nearby parallel routes may go down, if, for example, a cycle track on an arterial road supersedes a LCN style signed route on side streets; but overall, I think the concept of "induced demand" can be applied to cycle infrastructure of a sufficient quality to encourage new cyclists (and just as importantly, but more likely to be ignored by campaigners, reduce the numbers of cyclists giving up).

  4. Nothing against Lycra myself: I've never worn it (because a 62-year old in a shiny body stocking perched atop a balloon-tyred Scandinavian tractor-bike would look just a little bit weird) but I'm told that it's just the thing for sport cycling: not just aerodynamic but dries out in minutes when you get wet. You'd wear Lycra on a road bike much as you'd wear a wet suit for Scuba-diving: rather than a woollen one-piece bathing costume.

    There was a piece in the "Guardian" recently which featured two photos, one of a podgy MAMIL kitted out as for the Tour de France, and the other of a participant in the latest Tweed Run doing his sad best to look like an Edwardian gamekeeper. The article asked "which is right?": to which I was tempted to reply "neither: both look complete pillocks though in different ways."

    (Someone neatly commented on the second photo, "Mummy, why is daddy dressed up like a racist?)

    Regarding segregated cycle tracks, although I've lived in the Netherlands I'm just a little bit wary of the idea in the UK context. Knowing the way the Average Brit's mind works, I'd guess that the reasoning would be that any road which doesn't have a cycle track is therefore off-limits for cyclists - which is effectively the situation nowadays on trunk roads like the A12. If HM Government can fob you off it certainly will. The Road Fund Licence (aka."Road Tax") was introduced in 1921 to fund dedicated motor roads. The first such road was opened in 1959...

  5. For those who can't make it to visit the Netherlands: use Youtube and Google's Streetview to check out Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam and Utrecht and you'll see how things are done over here, and I know all of our biggest cities together are a pittance in size when compared to London. And if you do come over: at most railway-stations you can rent a OV-fiets/bike for a couple of Euros a day and you can experience it all on your own (bikesharing.eu/dutch-solution and ov-fiets.nl). Plenty of space for bikes and most motorists are pretty considerate, so there's a good chance you'll survive.