Pricking bike bubbles

Coming to understand what’s needed starts with listening to what others have to say about it – about what they want or what they are lacking, their fears and hopes. For cycle advocacy that includes a listening beyond the ones who already cycle for transport. Yes, not all bike folks like to hear that.

To communicate with a broader array of people means looking outside our (often masculine and blokey) bike bubble. We are often so entrenched in our cosy labyrinth of slogans and off-the-shelf rebuttals. We glide around our little niches and underground caverns so much that we have forgotten to pierce our heads through the mole hills and check out what really is going on above ground in the real world. We are so desperate for cycling to succeed that we may even resort to wanting things to be true, manufacturing consent, crafting messages. Cycling is booming. This, to me, is wildly off the beaten track and, I feel, exhibits an ill-placed grandeur; a disconnect with the wider world we can ill afford – especially at a time we should be eagerly seeking to bridge that gap.

I propose here that talking to politicians and talking to the population is one and the same thing when it comes to our campaigning message.

I’ll try to illustrate that by using an example of bike-blurred focus.

The tensions I am trying to describe… you can hear in Jack Thurston’s excellent interview with Carlton Reid and John Stevenson dating 2 March 2015 – listen from 23:08 to get the context of the conversation. Jack gives an introduction, provides a setting and poses a  question. Carlton then looks at campaigning for cycling from the cyclist’s perspective. “Success breeds success” he says and that “you have got to talk the language of the politicians, and politicians like talking money”. Onwards he however somewhat struggles to successfully integrate these two quite separate aspects and ends on a “we have to be very positive” note, listen from 26:42. To me this sounds unrealistic, as it is solely resting on this attitude: it has to be true because it must be true for our survival.

The way I look at it, the fixated view (“cycling is booming”) occurs precisely because  of an inability to paint a broader picture and take concerted steps towards it. We need to dare to speak for others. Inclusively – with warts, hopes and fears and all. Carlton seems to find it hard imagine a world of ubiquitous people on bikes, because it too difficult to create in the real world. Too far in the future. It’s a lingering undertone… just how do we get from here to there? How do we get from low cycling to high cycling? Instead his answer seems to be that we talk ourselves (and others) into it. Employing the alchemist powers of positive psychology.

To me however this feels not real, like clutching at straws and somewhat missing the point. Carlton sees the goal “getting more people cycling, more safely, more often” (the national cycle campaigning anthem) but cannot chart the way. So over the last couple of years I have offered on a few occasions that we meet up and debate this ‘pathway issue’. I also proposed that it would be good to meet up to talk about the local campaigning activities that so brilliantly carries out and what I have learnt from my seven years of local activism. After all we both live in Newcastle. To date however, I have not been taken up on these opportunities for that kind of exchange.

Hm. I am a cyclist, like many others, and I want you to be one too. Do it. Sorry, this sounds unrealistic and not appealing to me.

I keep the same example going. It is obvious to me (in that interview on 2 March 2015) that Carlton does not believe that directly lobbying for infrastructure works. Infrastructure, in Carlton’s view, is not a worthy campaign message it seems. It’s in the future. It’s hard and difficult, politicians do not like that. Perhaps, also, he is too entangled in the situation that surrounds him. It is my feeling that this could well be a sign for a common fatigue I have noticed in campaigners: being worn down by the low social norm that cycling endures in the UK – again though, I hasten to point out: this is a cyclist-centric view. A reaction to seeking wider recognition is to seek ways to change that norm (rather than the environment). But doing so by ignoring external effects and general population will only lead to frustration and failure. Any person who does not see the tremendous and pivotal role urban design and street environment play in the normalising process (changing social norm, culture!) will be bitterly disappointed. I’d say, overall this again is a rather masculine attitude: using your self as the centre, not seeing beyond yourself, failing therefore to include others and their pathways and futures, and through that disconnect even perhaps losing trust in others (the others just do not want to cycle, why oh why, what is it they do not get?).

Whereas, well, yes to the public: I am a cyclist, and I can understand that you may not be. Let’s talk. It leaves a door open. It does not fight. It invites.

And to the politician we say:

Yes, I suggest we have the best chance of kickstarting the cycling revolution by lobbying for demonstration projects. And that we spend our first and last energy on lobbying national and local politicians to set aside money to design and build these projects – map out cycle networks, enshrine them in policy (to protect plans from institutional and political vagaries), design them well. As advocates we must make sure these projects are of good enough quality. That is, these projects are designed sufficiently well to be truly mode shifting and not set up to fail to create new cyclists (oh, we built this, but no-one uses it).

A two track approach is long overdue at the very least. We need take the old voice (that states the end goal “more people cycling”) and overlay and precede it with a new voice providing a descriptive direction providing solutions (ie understanding the reasons why people don’t cycle, changing urban design, building cycleways so people can cycle). Politicians do not yet widely understand that. They have not heard our call yet. We have not repeated it enough, yet. When talking to pro-cycling MPs in November I found out that they were not clued up about this change in tone, despite the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain trying so hard to provide it. So, who has been advising them? (The other obsession is that with road justice which is similarly misguided as a singular campaign issue when we are up against an unsupportive road environment.) The new voice is definitively there, and clear, and eager to be heard. Thanks, again, to Jack Thurston for this superb podcast edition with Clare Rogers and Robert Wright.

Enticing people over by simply proclaiming “it’s great over here, join us, we are so much fun over here” does not work if what surrounds the product (more people cycling) is deemed difficult, dangerous or simply is less convenient than something else. Not taking into account public sentiment “I do not want to cycle amongst motor traffic” also takes an unnecessarily divisive (cyclists versus public) approach. What must happen next is removing the barriers and rearranging the entire transport’s playing field. You cannot manufacture a feel-good attitude about the current street environment. It is the built environment, our urban designs, that will have to change and that will have to be the focus for our campaigning – first and foremost to include protected cycleways on main roads in the urban structure, to be precise. I am at a loss about the road justice focus of the APPCG inquiry.

The “cycling is fun and many already cycle” approach is not sited in the felt reality; it confuses a lot of things and muddles up various strands, but mostly two things. The political campaigning we do must address the real and broader issues and have a clear campaign message “changing urban design”. The timeline anxiety (oh, it will take too long) can be overcome as we now have the luxury to point towards examples. As Sevilla, New York and more recently London have shown: it is entirely feasible to thread cycleways through busy city streets, and too at a good enough quality to get generate mode shift and actually “get more people cycling”. It’s the cycleways what did it. Why not lobby for them? Unashamedly.

I strongly believe that armed with these examples in particular, and having the Netherlands up our sleeves, building better, healthier, happier cities inclusive of protected cycleways is a well worthy campaigning message that we should repeat back to local and national decision-makers over and over again.

2 thoughts on “Pricking bike bubbles

  1. Indeed – it has often been a stubborn behaviour – where an embarrasing and growing number of people just ‘living’ keep running against the status quo. There are changes that have been driven by that ssue that won’t go away – cycle parked everywhere when no parking is provided being a basic example, but equally cycle traffic increasing in volume to the extent that it cannot be ignored or swept into a ‘general’ solution (Blackfriars Road & Bridge)

    This still leaves the ‘lady bracknell’ stasis – where we have accident (ie collision) black spots, where the same crashes keep happening but there is no objective investigation, delivering a public and transparent review of the root causes of problems with road use and transport modes.

    I’m keen to track the refreshing news that New York’s transportation department is facing a civil action following a traffic collision, citing the road design and operation as a key cause of the harm. Perhaps if this was expanded we might see some changes. Two examples spring immediately to mind of the failures here

    1) A pedestrian killed by a bus driver in N Greenwich – 8 weeks after an identical collision also left the victim under the bus, but not dragged along to the extent of being killed. Action after the second crash but why not the first one (or the series of other fatal & serious crashes on same stretch of road)

    2) Two cyclist deaths 5 years apart at the same junction by the drivers of large vehicles driving through the cyclists’ path (in the left hand lane) to make left turns from the right hand lanes, because the left turn was not set out for a safe left-turn made from the left side lane. This issue – if sorted out by proper review of the first fatality would have eliminated the second one. The whole issue fr the majorioty of HGV-cycle fatalities in London would be massively changed if the 80+% delivered by drivers turning left into sub-standard junctions, by making the turn from the right-hand side of the road and expecting road users (including those in cars) to realise that the HGV driver wants to subvert the expected ‘rules’ and force their way through the bona-fide movement of other road users.

    The failure to recognise and accommodate normal activity through the narrow through the windscreen focus?

    Held to account ? Hmm?


  2. “To date however, I have not been taken up on these opportunities for that kind of exchange.”

    I may live in Newcastle, but with my day job I have a national focus. When I ran a London-centric story on at Christmas you tweeted that I was a “lazy journalist”.

    When I did do a Newcastle-centric story (a positive piece about the John Dobson Street cycleway) you asked why I hadn’t asked anybody from Newcycling for a comment. You didn’t reply when I said I had, in fact, asked two members of Newcycling to get down to the centre of town to be in the video – they couldn’t make it but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to get some Newcycling involvement.

    But what’s this about us not meeting? How about that meeting we had last autumn in a Gosforth pub?

    Or how about before that when we met in London? You know, when I turned around on a Cycle Superhighway and raced back to greet you, and then rode with you for a bit? You’ve even used the photos I took of you.

    Your comments about my supposed views – “Carlton seems to find it hard imagine a world of ubiquitous people on bikes … Infrastructure, in Carlton’s view, is not a worthy campaign message …” – bear no relation to reality.

    I. Am. Not. The. Enemy.


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