Learning to give long answers

Previously I talked about the tactics of marginalisation in campaigning, and talked about the structural problems of the school run that no one individual can solve on their own. No doubt, it’s a very big problem we are trying to solve and seek justice for. I am quite often – in fact too often – asked what I enjoy about cycling. As many will surely sympathise, I am conflicted in my reply. We can find ourselves on various activation stages towards becoming city-for-all campaigners. And in the lumpy campaigning landscape there are always different roles each one of us can play in the campaigning orchestra too – the great potential for coordinated collaboration between political activists and community organisers was palpable at WACC2016.

Waxing lyrical about the loveliness of cycling just does not seem to be right for me any more. It’s depending on the overall context and audience of course. But being the ever-present campaigner for a fairer healthier city, we must distinguish clearly between the what and the how. Extolling the virtues of cycling is often missing the point, especially when pitched against the harsh cycling realities of our hostile roads. We need to link up the potentials of cycling to the road realities. As advocates we have to get real.

Reality cannot be ignored, or you are missing your audience. The road environment is compelling. The wonderful Cycling Embassy of GB has a good collection of barriers to cycling. Just like Beauty and the Bike say: “It’s the infrastructure stupid”. Through the motor’s domineering space allocation, its visual layouts and the avalanche of auto-ancillaries, it compels you to drive or desire to drive (if you cannot afford a car). The car provision physically and emotionally squeezes out alternatives to the tiny margin. So, my reply to “What do you like about cycling?” usually is “Cycling could be so much better”. Here is one such an exchange

How has cycling been confidence-building and empowering for you?

I do not find cycling an invigorating or self-affirming experience in the UK. I grew up in Germany where cycling is the norm and cycling is relatively convenient and comfortable due to the infrastructure present there. Here, in the UK however we are cycling outside the social norm, and you feel it every stroke of the pedal you take. If one thing, cycling in the UK has empowered me to become politically active. With friends I formed newcycling, Newcastle’s cycling campaign, and we lobby for the building of a cycle network in Newcastle so that everyone can cycle without fear and having to exhaust themselves. I have spoken to too many who started cycling under current UK conditions, trusting all the promises the council or sustrans had made to them, only to not find those fulfilled. Cycling for transport is currently far from being a fulfilling experience. People who started, then stop cycling entirely and disengage. I feel, that we must stop saying ”We want more people to cycle!” without contextualising it and making it relevant for everyone else. We have to become activists for space for cycling to liven up our sad urban car-dominated landscapes.

But can you remember what your experience was like when you first started cycling (in Germany), i.e., was that empowering in any way (even if it’s just in terms of how it changed your relationship to the city)?

No, not really. Cycling is so normal where I grew up that I did not give it a second thought. In hindsight, yes it probably provided independence from parents to get from A to B on my own terms, and yes, cycling is practical and quite a nice and energetic thing to do which makes you generally feel good about yourself. But hindsight is easy. At the time, cycling was so normalised through the available infrastructure, that I did not have to give any further thought to it.

What is the value in becoming politically active? How has becoming politically active changed your sense of self or sense of your capabilities?

Political activism was my way of “doing something” against the injustice of my restricted freedom of movement – and indeed, and more importantly, the restricted movement of the 97% who are not given a convenience to cycle regularly in the UK. Becoming an activist (and later an academic too) made me feel as if I was doing something, however little, and not remain silent, become complacent, despondent or cynical. I dislike the attitude of mere whinging without turning it into some form of action to highlight the problem. Cycle campaigning provides a positive outlet, and a good community and I have met the most excellent people through activism too.

So we went from “cycling empowers you” to “cycling creates activists”. Sometimes the long answer is the better answer. Insist on it. It’s a skill to learn, I believe, to give long answers. It’s the long answers that change the context, re-evaluate the original subject and ultimately challenge the current paradigm.

In conclusion, I am saying, no matter whether you are cycling or not “get politically active”, a better city awaits. And claim your space for long answers.

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