I am intrigued how campaigns get started. The Newcastle case seems to have to do with a lot of coincidences and chance encounters.
My personal situation in 2009 was one of dissatisfaction with the council service. Too many contradictions opened up when I tried to get answers from the council officers and its cycle champion, a councillor. The starkest contradiction was between the loud proclamation of “we want people to cycle” and the clear absence of a supportive environment in urban space. At first, in 2009, I reserved judgment (maybe there were plans?) – but then in 2010 when answers were not forthcoming and I realised there were no real plans to improve the lot for transport cycling, I went on the offensive. I was angry. I felt there was a injustice. This was about wider social justice. And the rest is history, as they say (or at least not part of this blogpost).
What intrigues me is what exactly it was in 2009 that made me ask these questions. These questions came out of a sense that injustice was being done and that things were not adding up properly. Here I was, a cycle commuter at the receiving end of bad infrastructure and bad driving every day. Yes, I deeply felt that my personal experience counted. So I did what I knew best. I approached the situation from a rational point of view. What I knew about, was civil engineering and project management practices.
These things formed the basis of my communication with the council. My type of rationality and professionalism was not met by the council. It operates on a different basis. It took me years to figure that out. The council’s rules are not my rules. The council’s practices are not my practices. The council’s morals are not mine.
Also I slowly – and even less surely – learnt about power. In my case it was about comprehending the huge power differential between the council and a concerned citizen. At first, approaching this rationally (and probably from a ‘liberal and equal’ perspective too) I tried reason. But it was no good, it made me feel powerless. Marginalised. Not taken seriously. Not heard, not listened to – and discriminated against and perhaps above all: patronised.
Council’s power system was well established and endowed with a special rhetoric. All it had to do was simply push back in its well-trekked and well-rehearsed way. There was a distinct and final way of council to say ‘yes and no’ both at the same time. Giving the impression of action, where there was little or none. Giving twisted answers to a question. A way of communication I have come to know so well. Words matter. It also matters how many times you have said these same words before. This verbal fortification had worked in the past: people had not gone beyond liberal questioning; they had not got past the walls. There was no concerted action to soften and overcome the settled status of that manifestation of patriarchal power (in relation to democratising the transport system).
Power and responsibility
The hardest thing to try to understand perhaps was the lesson about power and responsibility. Or rather the disconnect between the two. I think it was this disconnect that got me to dare imagine something bigger – something more connected, more collective. This disconnect between power and responsibility, in many ways, was expressed in the “we want everyone to cycle” but “we don’t make big plans for it”.
And so, over time, a single voice met other voices to form a group to challenge the old paradigms of power and create new relations of power, responsibility, society and the city’s future. The voice was asking for radical change in urban design, as the liberal appeals by council were not good enough any longer.
Waking up to campaigning
What also helped my awakening to campaigning was that I had the time and energy to “become a troublemaker”. My professional work as a civil engineer had become boring and stale, much due to the risk-averseness and lack of innovation the public sector is known for so well. I was on the lookout for excitement, sources of pleasure and contentment. Places of growing. And for causes. And that’s when I stumbled across the cycling cause. The deeper I dug, the more it opened up its labyrinthine caverns stretching on mile after mile. It was a goldmine for a cause-explorer!
I also noticed fairly quickly, that this maze is a gendered matter. The people I dealt with at the council where men. Only very few women were around. And the ones that were seemed to have been much absorbed into the masculine culture that surrounds transport engineering and planning. On the whole, they were well versed at that repellant rhetoric and often seemed like mouthpieces with little own imagination or personal thought. Whenever I tried to get into the logic and rationality, as I saw it, the ranks closed.
The cycle community
Also I remember the first encounters with the cycle community. Also gendered. Also somewhat stuck in their progression and thinking. I suppose years of banging a head against walls can easily do that to you. But I also felt that the wrong questions had been asked by these keen cyclists. Questions seemed to centre on liberal (educational, informational) gains to rectify their outgroup status in society – the outgroup status which hurt them so much. With some of the cycle community there was not a whiff of campaigning for radical change in the air. You could rub their noses in urban design and they would still not see it. Ever since, I have felt uncomfortable with these particular people in the cycle community. Unpoliticised in their campaigning direction, and only out to right their personally-felt wrong – the outgroup feeling they want to rid themselves of.
Part of the cycle community was local chapters of national groups (sustrans and ctc). Both were challenging to communicate with, to say the least. At times, and this started as early as 2010, it felt as frustrating as with dealing with the council. Similar power dynamics opened up. Questions were tangentially answered. Or not answered at all. Policy was not followed or not known. Cooperation was not possible for spurious reasons. No talks. No common basis. Again, these organisations were asking for liberal gains, not radical ones. Campaign plans were missing, national-local coordination non-existent. A weird kind of chummy chaos results. It does not make for a collaborative working environment or a clear plan for future action. In fact these organisations equally, just like the council, wanted “more people to cycle” but had no plan how to do that.
This is back in 2009 and 2010. And it is my personal abridged account of this time. How much has changed in 2017? Or should that be an exclamation mark? Oh, the tangled web.