Cycling has been neglected by council policies for too long. Motor traffic has increased to such an extent that many people who would cycle now feel that the roads are too dangerous. Whilst millions of pounds have been spent on planning and providing for cars, nothing at all has been done to encourage what is the healthiest, most efficient and safest method of personal transport, apart from walking.
That paragraph sounded reasonable, didn’t it? The sort of thing you expect me to write? Well I didn’t write it. I was a foetus at the time – it’s from 1978.
That’s right, it’s over 34 years old. That means it’s almost exactly the same age as myself, which makes the depressed feelings I get from reading it particularly poignant. It is the opening paragraph of the first ever Spokes newsletter, which is published by the Lothian Cycle Campaign.
Let’s read some more, shall we? To keep it interesting, some of the following snippets are from 2012, taken from the news pages of cycle campaign websites (though I changed the years and locations, obviously). See if you can tell which are new and which are three decades old before you click on the link to the real source:
AIMS OF THE RALLY
- To celebrate the great and continuing increase in cycle use.
- To publicise the benefits of bikes for individuals and the community.
- To demonstrate our concern at the appalling lack of provision for cyclists.
- To urge the Council to positively encourage cycling and start catering for cyclists’ needs.
Spokes issue 2, 1978, explains the aims of the Great 1978 Edinburgh & Lothian Bicycle Rally
Politicians are beginning to wake up to facts such as the 1.1 million bikes sold in the UK in 1976 – compared to only 1.25 million new cars. They are beginning to wake up to the campaigns by groups like SPOKES all over Britain from Penzance to the Shetlands. This is true all over Europe. In West Germany 4 million bikes are sold yearly compared to 2.2 million cars.
In May the government transport spokesperson John Horam said in Parliament: “we have drawn the attention of local authorities to the desirability of making cycling safe and more convenient.”
Spokes issue 3, 1978
1978 in Edinburgh and Lothian saw greatly increased public interest in cycling, and it saw a breakthrough in Council attitudes. With your active involvement the cyclists’ case is ripe for a real take-off in 1979.
Last June the SPOKES Events Group organised our first rally. 500 cyclists of all ages came together in a demonstration stretching the length of Princes Street, headed by Robin Cook MP and Councillors from three parties. … At our two election forums, MPs and Councillors were closely grilled by audiences of 50+ and 100+.
1979 also welcomes the new adult training group. Many people cycled when they were young but feel unsure in city traffic. The group will run training sessions on urban cycling.
Spokes issue 4, 1979
The Regional Council will co-operate with the District Councils to implement schemes that will allow greater freedom of movement to pedestrians and cyclists, and encourage more people to walk and cycle for work and leisure journeys.
Taken from the Region’s Structure Plan (“which guides land use planning for the next 10 years”) in which Spokes had to lobby to get cycling mentioned at all (see issue 4)
A mass pedal-powered procession will be held in central Edinburgh on Sunday May 13th. We are hoping for TV coverage and expecting double or treble the 500 bikes … which took part last year. The procession will be headed by MPs and Councillors, and this year roads will be CLOSED to TRAFFIC by the police for complete safety. … Please obey instructions from stewards and police.
Spokes issue 5, 1979. (Do those words describe the ride being co-opted by the authorities and neutralised?)
Despite gloom and recession in the economy and cutbacks in almost every area of public and private expenditure, business is booming in Edinburgh’s bicycle trade.
The ‘Evening News’ recently pointed out that “Edinburgh, as many European cities did years ago, must learn to accommodate the bike” and that cyclists have been failed by “the car-dominated planning doctrines of the last two decades.”
Spokes issue 9, 1980
GOVERNMENT ‘NO’ TO RAIL PLAINS
George Younger, Secretary of State for Scotland, has forbidden Lothian Region from buying Edinburgh’s disused rail network from British Rail. As reported in our last leaflet the Council had decided to purchase the lines for conversion into walk/cycleways … The decision to buy the lines had been unanimous (although the Conservative councillors on the Region want to build new roads on them…).
Spokes issue 11, 1981
BIG BOOST FOR BIKES FROM LOTHIAN REGION
July 6th 1981 may well prove to be the day on which Lothian’s “paper” commitment to cyclists took a decisive turn towards coherent and concrete action. Councillors on the Highways Sub-Committee instructed officials to undertake public consultation on a city-wide network of cycle routes; to start on conversion of disused rail lines to walk/cycleways; and to enter the public consultation phase of the Middle Meadow Walk proposals.
Spokes issue 12, 1981
Nine ‘Regional Cycling Officers’ have been appointed in England “to make sure that the needs of cyclists are fully considered when trunk roads are designed or improved… and to liaise with local authorities and other interests on cycling facilities.” Advice has been issued to local councils on the construction of cycle facilities, grants given for experimental facilities, and a Consultation Paper issued seeking comments from interested parties.
Spokes issue 13, 1982
Two SPOKES members have been thrown off railway paths, on which cycling is permitted, by local police officers who were under the impression that cyclists were prohibited. Member Andrew Grant … has twice been asked to leave the Slateford/Balerno track, whilst another member received the same treatment on the Warriston/Leith path.
It is difficult to blame the particular police officers involved – paths are everywhere, with cycling intended on some and not others, and no obvious way to tell which.
Spokes issue 21, 1984
COUNCIL BACKPEDALS ON CYCLISTS??
Recent decisions and events cast doubt on the priority being given to provision for cyclists by the Regional Council. We have to expect the occasional negative decision and lost battle, but the present pattern causes greater concern about the importance being placed by the Council on getting safer routes for cyclists.
Whilst SPOKES greatly welcomes new pedestrian areas, to remove the hazards and unpleasantness of motor traffic, we generally see no reason to ban pedal cycles too. Cyclists, who were never the problem in the first place, are forced onto busier roads, and denied access to the old areas.
Spokes issue 22, 1984
I’m going to stop quoting there and reveal that I lied – all of the quotes above are from Spokes leaflets 30 years ago.
What I find depressing is that they could all have been written today. Change a place name, update the year, change “British Rail” to “National Rail”, and you could re-issue these articles on a rolling basis.
Thirty years later, why hasn’t anything changed? Why are we still running round in circles, fighting the same battles?
Back in the 1970s the good people of Spokes were complaining about exactly the same stuff we’re complaining about now: A roundabout was installed without any consideration for cyclists; A cycle route was closed with no alternative provided; The council have removed or banned cycle parking somewhere.
They also did the same things we’re still doing: Cycling is on the verge of booming; A mass cycle rally was held; Politicians have made promises to improve conditions and encourage cycling!
I’m not writing this to criticise Spokes (I know I’m normally slagging someone off here, but I’m really not today). If anything I feel sorry for the people involved back then, from this perspective at least. If only they knew that cycling levels in the UK would stagnate for most of the rest of their lives!
I wish I had a time machine and could go back to 1978 and show them a copy of the latest issue, just so they’d know that they’d be fighting the same battles repeatedly for the next 30 years. (And they thought the traffic was bad in 1978!) I’m sure that the most committed members would persevere anyway – if you believe in what you’re doing, to fight is important whether you win or lose – or maybe it would inspire them to try a new tactic (bribing councillors, political assassinations?). I’m sure some would just give up, and I wouldn’t blame them.
But the thing is, while I was back there in 1978, if these people in their flares and tank-tops were to ask me, the man from the future, “what can we do? How can we avoid Edinburgh becoming the car-sodden cycling nightmare you’ve shown us?” I wouldn’t know what to tell them (although I might mention about Jimmy Savile). It sounds like they did everything right. I would have done the same as they did.
They campaigned for safe, off-road routes. They arranged mass protests and got politicians involved. They kept pressure up on the authorities to enshrine in law words which should have had a concrete effect on the roads.
They knew that it’s not right to expect children to ride on busy roads. They knew that cycle casualties were increasing. They knew that a good cycle route is an uninterrupted one.
And yet… nothing. Well, almost nothing – there have been some victories along the way, after all. But overall, Edinburgh’s roads have been designed for the motor vehicle, and that alone. (At least the last time I was there in May this year, it was no better than any other city in the UK, with the standard DfT crap design we all know and hate.)
So, what would you tell the Spokes people of 1978? Keep going? Give up? Move out?
If someone from 34 years in the future appeared in front of you and told you that, in 2046, London Mayor Boris Johnson Junior was promising remedial action on the deadly Hyper Cycleways any day now, and that TfL were still insisting that Elephant & Castle is fine, and that the Department for Transport was finally about to test dedicated cycle traffic lights, what would you do? I’d probably start to cry.
And then I’d move to Holland.