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.
32 responses to “Is this worth repeating again?”
What I fear (and I mean this with no disrespect to anyone) is that the various campaigns are divided and need to unite under one banner; that the blogosphere can at time be a circle jerking talking shop; that the campaign, despite being decades old, has never had any self confidence.
I believe lessons must be learned from the great social campaigns of the past, Kindermoord, anti-smoking, even the Civil rights movement. The aims and the tactics need to be clear and advice given to campaigners on how to protest at a local level, while supporters from across the country offer help where needed, eg. in responding to consultations, this should be uncompromising.
Practical advice on civic matters would be useful, how do you find out what plans the local authority has and who do you write to about them? Where do you find statistics at national and local levels? Where can you read the findings of inquests?
If the police don’t have the power to modify driver behaviour how about a campaign to put pressure on professional drivers? This is much more direct and perhaps more likely to have an effect if you write directly to sombody’s employer and tell them their employee is driving like a tosser, I’ve had good responses from employers in the past.
I think the idea of having a banner under which the different organisations can agree is a good one, and would be worth pursuing – but will this happen when there are so many differing voices? Perhaps a minimum standard for cycle provision, the sort of thing that even a speed-commuting adrenaline junkie wouldn’t disagree with (decent width, length, priority), is the first step to some consensus.
I’m convinced that while local campaigning is very worthy, it doesn’t actually change anything on a big enough scale. It helps solve specific local problems, but the message from the government is still “provide for cars, vans and lorries – forget the rest.” I think that to have genuine change we need the DfT to rewrite the road design rule-books.
I think the comparison of the motor industry with tobacco is instructive. The tobacco industry was at one time – still is in much of the less developed world – one of the biggest industries, with the deepest pockets, the biggest budget for advertising, and so the most influence over politicians and the media. The auto industry fills that role today – I haven’t seen figures for the UK but in the USA the auto industry is the largest single advertising spender and with peripherals such as oil, insurance, etc accounts for more than half of all US advertising. In summary, the auto industry has the media by the short and curlies. No wonder they have so much influence and that all newspapers and broadcast media, almost entirely without exception, push the motoring agenda above all alternatives.
And make no mistake, the auto industry wants to eliminate competition. Of course it does not say so – it can’t voice such feeling publicly – but nevertheless it does. Ford, GM, VW-Audi etc do not want to give any ground to public transport or to bicycles.
We all know by now that more than half of car trips are under five miles nationwide, more than half are under 3 miles in cities. Five miles on a bicycle might seem a stretch (unless you’re Dutch or Danish) but certainly three miles is not – you could do that faster on a bike than in a car once you factor in finding a parking space and walking the last hundred yards from car park to shop etc. A substantial proportion of all car journeys, albeit a rather smaller proportion of car mileage, could thus be eliminated.
Surely that makes sense? Surely car and bicycle can co-exist? We might think so – with appropriate infrastructure – and mass opinion might follow, with the same caveat, but not the motor manufacturers and traders. If we keep our cars but cut our mileage and save them for longer journeys – a perfectly rational thing to do – our cars will last longer, because they get less use but also because the most damaging and wearing use is those short trips. That means less cars will be sold. The industry will not be able to sustain sales growth (and believe me, growth is an obsession in business – in corporate finance a business with projected sales growth will sell for a much higher profits-multiple than one with a flat sales projection). Similar effects will be felt by other industries – fuel, tyres, repair workshops etc.
Back to tobacco. The fight against the tobacco companies was relatively simple – campaigners had a unified position, that tobacco was dangerous to human health whatever form it took. No-one would campaign for reducing tar content, or making cigarettes smaller: they were just responses to stop-smoking campaigning by the industry. If campaigners advocated such things it was merely as a step on the road to total restriction.
Campaigning against the hegemony of the car, or in favour of cycling promotion, doesn’t have such a simple objective. People can’t agree, and despite what people at different points on the spectrum may think, we are not the wee free Presbyterian church – people whose views are slightly different from our own are not heretics and they are not sell-outs.
I think hoping for or expecting a united front of cycling around a single proposition is a forlorn hope. The enemy however is one single simple target – the motor trade. It is not necessary to destroy it but it is necessary to destroy its influence. That is where the focus should lie.
Perhaps the tobacco analogy would be better suited to the oil industry. After all, as David Hembrow says, the Dutch own as many cars as we do. The oil industry is the everyday lifeblood of motor traffic, and the reluctance of the government to actually increase cycling is somewhat tied in with this, having sent the country to war in order to secure oil supplies. I mean, in order to find WMDs and liberate oppressed people…
One importance difference between cycle campaigning in the 1970’s and now…. never underestimate the power of the Interwebs.
This is a very good point – it’s so much easier to share information now, without relying on monolithic gatekeepers like in the bad old days!
Having cycled in Edinburgh for 18 years, I can tell you there have been very real differences in that time. The number of cyclist on the streets is definitely on the increase, but it is far from what it could be with the right political will.
The trick is to break out of asking for something for “cyclist” and start calling for improvements for everyone. You have to show how Active Travel is good for everyone. Edinburgh’s roads were not designed for the motor vehicle, they have been adapted to allow the use of motor vehicle. They could just as easily be adapted back to prioritise Active Travel, it is an argument which is currently being had and those in favour of Active Travel are starting to win.
Can you name another city in the UK where 5% of the city’s transport budget is dedicated to cycling? This is the council’s own money and not including ring fenced funding handed down from the centre.
Also keep an eye on the redevelopment of Leith Walk. In two conciliations the residents of Leith have clearly stated that they want to see a separated cycle lane on Leith Walk. Even local traders are starting to see that it would be of benefit to them. The city is reaching a tipping point.
Why has it taken 30 years? That has more to do with our broken democracy where the electoral system allows too much power to be concentrated in a small number of hands. Maybe a some political scientist would like to look at the influence of more representative electoral systems on the quality of life of citizens. We know that Active Travel is an important factor in quality of life. Is it any surprise that places which have been change to allow greater levels of Active Travel also have more representative electoral systems?
I’m glad to hear you say that cycling in Edinburgh has improved in the last 18 years – I’m sure it has, and I’m sure that Spokes are to be congratulated for being a part of that improvement. (Although to me Edinburgh felt no better than London or anywhere else, for that matter. It certainly wasn’t full of bikes!)
I agree about the broken democracy. I’m not depressed by Spokes’ efforts, more that the government’s response hasn’t changed in 30 years. They’re still fobbing us off with the same rubbish! I sincerely hope that Leith Walk is implemented to Dutch standards, and that the 5% budget is actually spent on good quality infrastructure (not just training days and posters, a la TfL).
But reading those old newsletters, it feels like we’ve been here before. You say the city is reaching a tipping point – but wasn’t cycling also “ripe for a real take-off” in 1979? I’m not pointing fingers or being a doom-monger, just interested in how we can learn from history and not fall into the same traps again and again.
Regarding your comment below, you’re absolutely correct – it’s all about safer roads for everyone, and cycling is just a part of that.
I agree with Kim that democracy, or a shortage of it, is actually at the root of the whole problem. A substantial but dispersed group of people (cyclists) in our system has less influence on policy than many small but concentrated groups (residents, shopkeepers, taxi drivers). Many other problems of discrimination in our society go back to the same cause.
Maybe the time traveller could give Spokes one piece of advice though over what not to do:
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.
The alliance of cycle campaigning with the concept of training people to cycle in car-oriented streets as they stand, as a pragmatic, temporary strategy, though not intrinsically bad, led to a permanent “get-out” for the authorities that contributed to decades of near-stasis. “We are doing nothing for cycling? Not true! We’re spending £xxxxx on cycle training and promotion. That should be enough!”
That’s the part of it that, in hindsight, I’d advise the campaigners of 1979 to ditch. Don’t compromise on the concept that bikes SHOULD NOT be sharing the roads with fast, heavy traffic by buying into the idea of training cyclists for those conditions as any sort of solution whatever, even a temporary one. That’s not the same as rejecting all cycle training, but it’s rejecting one concept that never helped.
I put the training bit in there because, as you know, there are still people pushing it as the answer. (CTC’s “Cycletopia” includes it, for example, but doesn’t mention separated cycle paths. One is proven to do little, the other proven to work wonders.)
Schrodinger’s Cat: It was after being disappointed again and again that we decided “move to Holland”.
PaulM: There’s actually no need for motor manufacturers to miss out too much. After all, car ownership in the Netherlands is not particularly different from that in the UK. I think it’s really important not to alienate drivers, and I think there is absolutely no need to do so. There’s plenty of free parking in Assen. Drivers are not being punished. Remember that no turkey is going to vote for Christmas.
Kim: While it’s fine in and of itself, I think you should be wary of celebrating too loudly that “5% of the city’s transport budget is dedicated to cycling” when this doesn’t actually include the major contribution which comes from central government. Also, look out for accounting tricks. What is a cycling budget spent on and how ? Also remember that it’s not so long ago that the already low cycling budget in Scotland was cut by a quarter. As I’ve pointed out before, not only is the cycling budget high in Dutch cities, but most of the work seems to get done without touching the cycle budget.
I’m with you on the electoral system though. It’s a disaster. The Netherlands has proportional representation and this helps enormously. Unfortunately, campaigners for electoral reform in the UK are no more focused on what they really want than are cycle campaigners.
Finally, if you’re interested, I’ve several posts on campaigning including some of the things touched upon above.
Give me another couple of years and I’ll be following you over there!
One thing Scotland does have is proportional representation – including this year for local government. We’ll see if it makes a difference or not, I suspect it will take time
I was interested in the mass bike rally too – perhaps you could have told the good folk of Spokes (some of whom are probably still involved in it) that the next mass bike rally would bring 3000 people onto the streets of Edinburgh – in 2012…
I hope PR does have a positive effect on road design, but I wonder how much the Scottish government can deviate from the guidance provided by the DfT here in London? While it’s possible to get good cycle facilities under DfT rules, they don’t make it easy.
I wonder what they would make of the 3000. While it’s an impressive number, they were already getting 1000 in 1979. I wonder how many we need before the government finally acts!
David, I can assure you that Spokes are very good at forensic accounting when it comes to examining cycle spending in Scotland. The fact that Edinburgh is dedicating 5% of its transport budget is worth celebrating as most Local Authorities spend nothing from their own budgets on cycling. Instead relying entirely on the small amount of money which comes from the Scottish Government.
With the rise Pedal on Parliament even more focused pressure is being brought to bear on Scottish Government too. PoP is working to break the mould of tradition cycle campaigning in Scotland by campaigning for safer roads for all, not just about “cyclist”.
Interesting that say that in Dutch cities most of the work seems to get done without touching the cycle budget. This is one of the thing we are try to achieve with Leith Walk (although the Council is finding it a little hard to get its head around the concept). The road has to re-built following the abandonment of that part of the tram project, which gives the opportunity to introduce cycle infrastructure at a very low cost.
The other difference with Scotland and England, is that all of the Scottish elections use some form proportional representation. Which leads to more representative government at both local and national levels. Although it is far from perfect, things are a lot better here than south of the border.
Wow, all the big hitters commenting!
David Hembrow:”car ownership in the Netherlands is not particularly different from that in the UK.” Nor are their oil and gas reserves or the need to access new supplies, and of course, we have Royal DUTCH Shell, while NAM is based in Assen.
Anyway, countries other than the Netherlands and some individual overseas cities have been improving their infrastructure in the recent past, and continue to do so, while the UK is standing still, so the official UK attitude is looking increasingly out of touch. See
Maybe international ridicule will help. Otherwise I think what happens to Leith Walk in the next couple of years will be a litmus test for any official change in attitude (at least in Scotland).
Keeping up the broken democracy theme, it is interesting to look at the composition of local government and their attitudes towards cycling. This is perfectly illustrated by Newcastle Cycling Campaign on page 7 of their review of their Summer of Cycling review:
Click to access SoC_finishLine.pdf
This features lots of informed comments from intelligent, switched-on people who are doing their utmost to deliver better cycle facilities because they can see the real benefits that this will have for their residents and are seeking input from their officers where they are unsure of the best approach to deliver their aspirations:
I wish that I wasn’t being sarcastic and I wish that the situation wasn’t exactly the same in practically every town hall up and down the country. Perhaps we should all stand as independents at the next local elections and campaign from the inside rather than standing forlornly on the outside hoping that someone will take the time to listen.
what would I say to them – and myself in fact (I worked with Andy in the 80’s, I don’t remember him wearing flares!)?
1. Be cleverer in the proposals we made. I wish we’d been more about quality than quantity. We were concerned about identifiying a network, but were too quick to accept very compromised engineering as its component parts. At the time you think anything is a step forward, that you are going places no cycle campaigner has gone before. That, in hindsight, is a fundamental mistake. If we’d stuck to the underlying principle (Spokes were very closely aligned with Sustrans), ie build traffic-free routes ourselves along old railways then campaign for routes to the same standard on the streets, we may well have been in a much better place by now. A harder start, but better in the long run. We should also have confronted the influential CTC more, whose leaders in the 80’s were completely appalling.
2. Being a campaign group isn’t enough – we should have built the mandate from the potential cyclists in the general public. We dipped our toe in it but didn’t go far enough.
So now we have to unpick the culture of sub-standard engineering that grew in the 80’s.
I’m not sure how to judge it all in retrospect. On the one hand, we did actually get a few good measures in – engineers these days are outwardly co-operative but institutionally manipulative of cycle campaigners, back then they were plain hostile, contemptuous and proud to put in schemes that would seriously endanger people who cycled (I am not exaggerating). On the other hand, if we’d been better at it, it may have saved an lot of people that were injured riding their bikes or just never got on them.
Thanks for your comment – it’s really interesting to hear from someone who was there at the time (although I’m disappointed to hear about the lack of flares!). I’m determined to learn from the past.
I’ve really taken your points on board – including, of course, the part about confronting the CTC, it’s interesting that you feel they weren’t scrutinised enough back then. An organisation of that size and age should be able to take criticism on the chin. In what way did you find their leadership appalling?
I think spreading the message as part of a ‘better streets’ message is really important too. I’m writing a blog post about this at the moment, but I think people who don’t ride a bike are a big part of it – I’m just preaching to the converted on here!
I was also active in the 70s/80s, in Nottingham rather than Edinburgh, but was aware of Spokes activites and cherish a collection of Freewheeling magazine.
It heartens me to hear your admission that Spokes didn’t press hard enough for quality. That was the one bone of contention between Nottingham CTC and Pedals, with whom we otherwise got on well. It was a common fault of the early cycle campaigners.
Maybe it’s a memory of such local disgreements that colours your opinion of CTC at that time. As I recall, apart from the issue over “never mind the quality look at the length”, we were all singing from near enough the same hymn sheet. But just to check, I picked the earliest copy of ‘Cycletouring’ from those I keep by my desk (Jan ’83) and turned to the first ‘cyclists’ rights article, where Simon Watkins reports:
Experiment on the Great West Road
The Department of Transport have made an experimental traffic order banning motor vehicles (except mopeds) from the cycle tracks along the Great West Road (A4) in London. The tracks, like many others built between the wars, had been used more and more for car parking than by cyclists, and until the order was made such parking was not even illegal.
The tracks will be resurfaced and signposted said the Department, but a recent trip along them suggests that they are still in a very poor condition and nothing has been done to solve their inherent design faults – e.g. putting cyclists back on the road at junctions. It is therefore unlikely that the experimental order will, as the Department suggests, “encourage cyclists to use these tracks in preference to the main carriageway”. Is this really the best they can do?
Never mind whatever local grieveance you may have had with some CTC member back in the day or even still – national leadership has been in favour of properly designed and made cyclepaths for at least 30 years. If we haven’t got them, it isn’t CTC’s fault.
You seem to have the knack for posting blogs which generate a lot of comment, and since I am particularly keen that we should be having “the discussion”, I do find myself with a lot to say on your blog. Hope you don’t mind.
I noticed from one of your tweets that you feel like giving up. Reading the sorts of things that were being said more than thirty years ago, and reckoning up the progress that has been made since, I can easily see why you must be feeling so disheartened.
Lovelo Bicycles makes the point that the various cycle advocacy groups are disunited. Sorting this out ought to be within our grasp. Mending our “broken democracy”, on the other hand, or even destroying the influence of the motor trade, are almost certainly things which would take us too far from our core mission.
The focus of our attention should be fixed on an answer to your time-traveller question, that is, what should have been done differently? As George Santayana has said: “Those who cannot learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.”
I really find it very difficult to understand why Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities — which, to my knowledge, is the only publication from the continent to answer the question, How to begin? — is generally disregarded by cycle advocates. If we can’t agree with them, it’s hardly any wonder that we can’t agree with each other!
Cecil said: “We were concerned about identifiying a network, but were too quick to accept very compromised engineering as its component parts. […] That, in hindsight, was a fundamental mistake.” Cecil might think so, but actually, Cycling: the way ahead would say that it is “a prudent course to follow”.
I would lay money that the cycle network which Cecil said they were concerned to identify was never made to function. There would have been holes in it, I’ll bet you. Even if the network had been established, and got up and running, albeit at a minimum level to begin with, it is highly unlikely that the final step would have been taken, which is to progressively reprioritise the public space in favour of more sustainable forms of transport through a programme of sustained investment.
If I could go back to 1978, these are the five steps which I would recommend:
1. Think in terms of a network.
Only by studying a cycle route network will it be possible to truly grasp the situation. (p.40, Cycling: the way ahead)
2. Plan the network.
Analyse journeys — origin/destination (headcounts, statistics, interviews). (p.56, Cycling: the way ahead)
Design from patterns to details.
3. Study the feasibility of the network.
Studying the feasibility of a network is of a similar importance to setting up a cycling unit or appointing a cycling coordinator. (p.57, Cycling: the way ahead)
4. Introduce the network.
The level of minimum functioning is a prudent course to follow. (p.56, Cycling: the way ahead)
5. Develop the network.
Implement the network further on the basis of priority interventions and a timetable. (p.56, Cycling: the way ahead)
Added to the above, I would stress the importance of appointing a Cycling Commissioner. “It will be the task of this Commissioner to remind everybody of the implications of cycling,” explains Cycling: the way ahead (p.55), “and to act as a resource person at all levels of the municipality (policy formulation, decision-making, execution and monitoring) … All projects should be submitted to the Commissioner as a matter of course, and his or her approval should be made compulsory for all projects in the areas of town planning, transport and public works.”
Kim makes a couple of good points, I think. “Interesting that in Dutch cities most of the work seems to get done without touching the cycle budget.”
Freewheeler has blogged about something along similar lines just recently, when talking about cycling in the 1990s (quoting from this report):
“The government had at last agreed to take account of cyclists’ needs, to encourage people to take up cycling, to save the nation’s health, to cut congestion and therefore pollution. Campaigners thought that at last, cycling was to have its day.
“But no. It never happened, not even when the National Cycling Strategy was created under the Conservatives in 1996, and launched with a huge press conference in London.
“This was the first ever transport strategy, a historic moment. A breakthrough, at last. But there was a catch. There was no money for it! I recall transport journalist Christian Wolmar demanding Sir George Young, the secretary of state for transport, to tell us where the money was. “Well, where is it?” said Wolmar. “Where’s what?” replied Sir George, a lifelong cyclist, by the way. “The money, there’s no money,” countered Wolmar.
“Sir George told us it didn’t need any money as such, because transport planners would be required to include cycling within the budget already provided for general transport development. It never happened, not on a realistic scale. In fact, when, to induce local authorities to apply for grants to build ‘integrated’ transport facilities, such as for cycling, many of the local authorities siphoned the money off into ordinary road building schemes.
“The government raised hopes yet again by endorsing a brilliant design guide, setting out how to build a cycling infrastructure into the road system. Turns out this is as close as it would get to emulating the best of what we see abroad. So what happened next? Nothing. Local transport engineers took no notice of the guidelines.”
And why did local transport engineers take no notice of the guidelines? I don’t know. Why not ask the locally-appointed Cycling Commissioner (if there was one)?
The other thing that Kim talked about was Leith Walk. In London, we have have a similar opportunity to ensure that we get some really high quality cycle infrastructure with the soon-to-be-started CS2 extension and CS5. I absolutely accept Cecil’s point about the importance of developing benchmark examples that really set the standard — the LCC have a similar view — but please don’t forget the network.
Once bitten, twice shy? Yes, of course. But we do have the wind in our sails again, and we will get it right this time.
Simon P – I understand where you are coming from with your five-point network plan. But I’ve seen a hundred cycling strategies come and go and, to be honest, they’re all versions of what you’ve written and they’ve all failed. There can be no claim to success anywhere with such a low and/or stagnant share of journeys by cycle.
I think you describe one way campaign group can engage with a council on one particular aspect of planning: we can all be stakeholders in working groups, earnestly pore over maps and make co-operative site visits together, including bonding cafe stops. But it does not get you to solving the screaming-out need, which is to have the majority of the population onto bikes for everyday trips. No-one has achieved this in UK which is why we have ended up with – well, the London Cycle Network. Networks schmetworks – they just represent a failed and unimaginative process and mindset.
Cecil, we cannot proceed on bare assertion. If it were true what you said, you would be able to point to at least one town or city in the UK which has a functioning cycle network. That is, functioning even at a minimum level, which means to say, the routes are all joined up, work in both directions, and are well signed (Stage II here).
You mention the LCN, but that was never made to function. It was full of holes.
Networks schmetworks, or bits and pieces schmits and schmieces? Take your pick. But if you don’t have a solid base on which to build, then what have you got?
I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts, feel free to leave as many comments as you wish! They’re always clear and informative.
With regard to the discussion between yourself and Cecil about the network, at the risk of sounding wishy-washy I think you’re both right.
A network which only exists on a map, or even just signs on poles, isn’t really a network – such as NCN-4 in London, which you can’t actually ride a bike along without getting off and pushing, or jumping up and down full-height kerbs. So the quality has to be there or the routes just don’t actually exist.
Equally, there are some great examples of decent-quality separated cycle paths in the UK, but most of them are either very short, or don’t serve a purpose. Little bits of quality cycle paths are of little use if they don’t take you very far.
I think that’s why our focus should be on central government. We should be demanding that the DfT re-writes its guidance to make it compulsory to install cycle paths alongside new roads, or install Dutch-style roundabouts, for example. Just as the highway authorities can’t invent a new ‘give way’ symbol or install a new type of traffic light, they shouldn’t be allowed to ignore cycling. A minimum standard of required cycle paths would mean that cycle infrastructure would start appearing all over the country – in a decade we’d have so many miles of cycle paths! It will be pretty cheap to start joining them up.
I feel that, without a minimum standard mandated by Whitehall, highway departments will continue to sideline cycle infrastructure.
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. […] 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 […]. It sounds like they did everything right. I would have done the same as they did.
I have recently completed a design for a cycle network in Edinburgh (map here). This was a very satisfying experience for me personally. I shared an initial design with the good folk at City Cycling Edinburgh, was given some intelligent feedback, much of which I found very useful, and then did my best to incorporate as many of the suggestions into the new design as possible.
I expect there to be a bit more tweaking yet, but if the five-step plan I identified in my first comment (above) was followed through, it wouldn’t be long now before people started to study the feasibility of the network.
And then what? “Introducing” the network would be the next logical step, surely. Just get the thing to work. Thus, as I explained on the Edinburgh forum, treating the non-functioning parts would be the priority.
Jason Roberts talks about setting a date and publishing it. He calls it blackmailing yourself. He says as well that they always like to do short time-frames, to commit to these things, because if they don’t they tend to want to talk themselves out of why they should do it or why it’s going to be a problem. (See here.)
Once you have “introduced” your network, once it is up and running, you have gone from zero to one. This, say the eastern philosophers, is the hardest step. But how much easier it’s going to be now to go from one to two, and from two to three, and from three to four. By the time we need to go from six to seven, we find that we can skip along. (This is where the Dutch are now, and we deceive ourselves into thinking we can get there quicker than they did.)
The key to the last step is sustained investment, progressively reprioritising the public space in favour of more active forms of travel. The suggestion that we can Step 5 now, without taking the first four steps, is a bloody lie.
I think an important difference between 1978 and now is that in 2012 the Netherlands have a proven infrastructure in which bike riders in the UK and elsewhere can use as a reference.
I’ve cycled all my life in Melbourne, Australia and kept an eye on bike infrastructure improvements here. It was only recently (in the past two or three years) that I learnt about what the Dutch had done. Until then I thought Melbourne’s network was fairly decent. Sure, it’s expanding slowly, but very rarely is any of it to the standard the Dutch have set.
Blogs like this one are an important part of getting the message out to people that proper bicycle infrastructure is absolutely vital. Of course the problem is that blogs like these, like Spokes, are a bit of an echo chamber – mostly read by cyclists. Somehow the message needs to reach the (much wider) audience of potential cyclists. I don’t think that’s an impossible goal.
You’re right about cycling being a closed talking-shop, and that reaching a wider audience needn’t be impossible. I’m writing a post on how I think we should be presenting all this information to the non-cycling public.
I think we cycle infrastructure campaigners should be particularly grateful to David Hembrow for his blog blog, “A view from the cycle path” without which the Dutch cycling experience would probably still be largely unknown in the UK.
Better late than never with a comment on this initially depressing but excellently researched blogpost. Like others, I agree that the key difference between then and now is the internet and also social media. There is nothing stopping anybody writing directly to politicians and including a link to say one of David Hembrow’s blogposts as an example of what you want to see in your patch. And there is nothing stopping anybody starting an on-line campaign/petition to show politicians that there are large numbers of votes in proposing cycling infrastructure in cities.
I’ve worked in transport for over 20 years and, like Andrew Clarke, only saw proper cycling infrastructure and mass cycling on the internet 2-3 years ago (thank you Copenhagenize!). Based on my experience I would expect that most politicians and senior transport executives haven’t been exposed to it either, even with some of them having been to places like Amsterdam and Freiberg. A good video is worth 10,000 words, and with the appropriate permission/acknowledgement is a ready-made PR aid that politicians of all stripes can use to “sell” proper cycling infrastructure to the electorate.
Remember that in a democracy you don’t necessarily need an absolute majority to make change, a plurality is often enough to convince politicians to pass the appropriate budgets and legislation.
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