Space for Cycling and Childhood Freedom

I think that the London Cycling Campaign’s Space for Cycling message is spot-on for a cycling campaign.

Note the end of that sentence: it’s spot-on for a cycling campaign. It’s exactly what a cycling campaign should be saying to the government.

In a nutshell: separated cycle tracks on all main roads, slow down and remove through-traffic on all non-main roads. In other words, “Go Dutch”.

It’s great because the LCC is saying to the government: “We want you to create safe space for cycling, protected from motor vehicles” (as opposed to earlier campaigns with similar names, which said to drivers: “please drive carefully around cyclists” and was clearly never going to work).

But ‘Space For Cycling’ is never going to get the wider public’s support, and if you think it is then you don’t live in the real world.

A short visit to Earth

I myself don’t live in the real world but I do drop in occasionally to see how they’re getting on, and I can tell you this: these humans haven’t a clue about transport. They just do whatever is easiest, or whatever other people are doing. All that stuff we talk about every day – filtered permeability, modal shift, etc. – they haven’t the faintest idea that any of it exists.

Even when you think people understand what you’re saying, they very often don’t get it. While driving along New Kent Road towards central London recently, a close friend who has listened to me talk about all this stuff for the past 18 months suddenly said “there’s plenty of space for an extra lane here, that would end the traffic jams” and I realised: he hasn’t understood a thing I’ve been saying.

I expect he’s not alone. While my partner’s mum has been sitting and nodding at my long diatribes, she still thinks cyclists always go through red lights and ride on footpaths.

My friend who drives half a mile to the supermarket considers me to have strange and very unlikely ideas about how to get around.

And although my sister has been shown countless photos of children riding their own bikes to school in the Netherlands, she wouldn’t even consider it an option for her own daughter.

(I don’t blame any of them for thinking this way: they all live in Leeds, the motorway city of the 1970s. Actually, I’d be terrified if my sister announced that they were doing the school run by bike.)

Ah, but what about those sophisticated Londoners?

Even friends in London who use a bike often don’t understand. I find that Mayor Johnson’s just keep your wits about you mentality thrives among those who cycle in London.

And those who do support separate infrastructure very often don’t get it. When talking about Space For Cycling with a bike-riding friend, he agreed with the concept, adding “there’s plenty of space because cycle paths only need to be about a metre wide.” And this is someone who rides a bike for transport!

Okay, so I’ve laboured my point: the Space For Cycling campaign is great, but it has limited scope for wider support.

In other words, Space For Cycling is not Stop De Kindermoord.

So what’s the answer?

In short, children are the answer. Almost everybody is a parent or a grandparent, or an uncle or aunt. Everybody wants the best conditions for the next generation.

But the way we lay out our roads and streets is killing us in many ways. It’s restricting freedom (warning: Daily Mail) and causing physical harm, through collisions, poor air quality and the health risks that come with inactivity.

To get the general public on board, a campaign needs to speak to them and be something that everyone can empathise with.

What is needed is the Campaign for Childhood Freedom. I won’t witter on about it here, follow the link to read more.

I’m not criticising the LCC’s Space For Cycling campaign here, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I do think that Space For Cycling – although I support it fully – is too niche to have wide public support, and that’s what is required for the changes we all wish to see.

It’s not easy to convince people to support the curtailment of their freedom to rat-run anywhere and everywhere, and harder still to get people to see the bike as a suitable mode of transport for local journeys. But, framed in the context of the health and well-being of children, such changes may well become seen as a sacrifice worth making for the next generation’s sake.

That’s the direction which campaigning must take to reach the wider public.


Addendum: As often happens, a commenter has hit the nail on the head so squarely that it’s worth adding to the article. Farnie has tweeted: Need to get away from the ‘campaigning for cyclists’ thing. It’s for everyone and also commented below: “Make it an issue for parents, because they are a much more powerful lobbying group than any local cycle campaign.”


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19 responses to “Space for Cycling and Childhood Freedom

  1. This was brought up in a twitter debate myself and @mknash were having about why cycle campaigning is mainly, on the whole, white men. With the odd notable exception, where are all the women? I think there are many reasons, but you have hit on the first one I thought of. If we create campaigns for cyclists and only a small % of cyclists are women, then it will be mostly male dominated. Also, if the majority of those women who cycle, do so for sport (I am mostly going off the numbers of female cyclists I know) then they are not always on board with the Go Dutch message. These are women who see themselves as having to fight double hard for their share of the road. Some are the most ardent supporters of vehicular cycling you will ever come across. To ask for paths and provision is in some way suggesting they are not ‘man enough’ for the road and to a club cyclist thats not how they want to be seen. This is why fundamentally, we need to stop campaigning for cyclists. We need a campaign for non-cyclists. For children. Starting with schools maybe? A right for children to cycle to school. Make it an issue for parents, because they are a much more powerful lobbying group than any local cycle campaign.

    • Tim

      I completely agree that campaigns (and consultations) should be aimed at “potential” cyclists (ie pretty much everyone) rather than existing cyclists*, but it’s hard to do. People rarely anticipate changing their behaviour until circumstances change in a way which allows (or even forces) them to do so. Sorry to sound so negative!

      I still think showing people what it’s like in the Netherlands is a great eye-opener. Many of us have seen so many youtube clips we forget that not everyone appreciates what a Dutch school looks like at dropping off time.

    • Nico (@Nicovel0)

      “A right for children to cycle to school”
      Yes, one thousand times yes!
      I already cycle, but there is NO way my wife or kids will do so anywhere else than in the park, it is just too mind-gogglingly dangerous for them.

  2. Lee Morton

    Hit the nail on the head. The primary message should be about childhood freedom/safety and livable cities.
    I’m pretty sure that “It will save you about 10 years of doing the school run” is an argument most people could get behind.

  3. Tim

    I quite see your point. But it’s a thorny one.

    Admittedly the call to “please think of the children!” gets attention. And highlighting the danger can also be persuasive.

    But actually the whole point is that cycling can be (and elsewhere already is) a very useful mainstream method of transport for everyone from kids to pensioners, with economic and environmental benefits which are potentially just as important as the child safety angle. And as you’re aware the actual danger is perhaps not nearly as much of an issue as the perceived (or subjective) danger*.

    I completely agree that it’s really important for kids to have safe accessible pleasant cycle infrastructure, but does narrowly focussing on that undermine the wider message?

    *while I buy the subjective safety bit, I do wonder if we underestimate the “actual” danger in the UK because the stats only look at a self-selecting sample of road-warrior cyclists. If we had as many pensioners and kids cycling as the Netherlands I imagine we’d see a lot more casualties over here.

    • Yes, we would see more casualties and then a real comparison could be made with regard to KSIs per million KMs traveled by bike between us and the Netherlands. It’s embarrassing now but just imagine how bad it would be if we started killing kiddies and grannies as well as fit young people!

  4. Sustrans tried it with their Free Range Kids campaign but I suspect it was too wishy washy i(although well meaning). I’m rapidly coming to the opinion that light hearted catch phrases are lost on most people and “Stop Killing Our Children” may make some of them stop and think “who, me?” Or maybe not.

    • I had this discussion recently on holiday with another cycling advocate friend. “Stop killing the children” can work on several levels:

      1. Stop killing them on the streets with your vehicles
      2. Stop making the streets so unsafe for them that they can only participate in non-physical activities that ends with them being obese and suffering health issues throughout the rest of their lives.

      There is absolutely no counter argument to “stop killing the kids” and any that is fielded can be quickly demolished.

      Any campaign that is framed as ‘cycling’ will fail because it will be seen as tribal/partisan. Vehicular drivers will see it as an attempt to steal road space from them with no visible taxation/cost incurred to cyclists, all the while cycling being a minority activity.

      It needs to be framed as ‘liveable cities’ (The Times campaigns fails as ‘Cities fit for cyclists’ rather than ‘Cities fit for people’) with peoples perception set viewing the future (How will childrens health be in the future, if they even survive traffic now?).

  5. Charlie

    I agree with this angle. In case anyone wants some factoids to accompany the campaign, I’d suggest this. Just over 2,000 children were killed or seriously injured in road accidents in 2012. (source here, page 2:

    However, it’s interesting that road casualties are on the decline. There’s a good chance that’s because people are keeping their children locked up, rather than letting them near roads, of course,

    • You can’t take this angle because the British public are content with this statistic. As a society we have weighed up the costs and risks of driving cars en masse and we are happy with them. How you tackle that, I don’t know, but as advocates and campaigners for better and safer transport we have to understand that the general public doesn’t give a shit.

  6. GareThugHowell

    Cycling through the West End, as I have been in the last day or two, I am amazed at the velocity and numbers of cyclists and the pride with which folder cyclists ride their push bikes. Compared with 10 years ago the increase in cycling is exponential, but what about the casualty numbers in all that hreavy traffic? (I am the kind of cyclists who gets off at jucntions and pushes the bike along with the rest of the pedestrians across the green man crossings… and I WAIT!)

    the one huge increase in value for pedestrians AND cyclists would be junctions with four dimensional pedestrian crossings, for the sake of a better expression, ie ones which have all the lights turn to red at the same time and pedestriands and cyclists can go STRAIGHT across to their chosen destination path. Some pedestrians can read the lights and walk all the way across while all the traffic waits! If that could be formalised at many West end four route junction pedestrian crossings it would strike a brilliant blow for pedestrian and cyclist rights! (the 10-9-8-1-0 crossings are very useful too!!)

    • Tim

      Getting a little off topic but in case anyone wants to google this i think what you’re referring to is often described as a “scramble”, as in “green scramble” or “pedestrian scramble” because of the way everyone goes at once.

      Pedestrian scrambles are relatively common in the UK, because we recognise that pedestrians are better at merging without conflict than drivers (perhaps because each car lane can only accommodate one car at any time so it’s harder, plus cars are bigger and faster so the risk of damage or injury is far greater). Notably, cyclists can generally merge without conflict in the same way as pedestrians – the traffic lights are only there to stop cars from crashing (or to separate different modes of transport temporally). So green scrambles work for cyclists as you say, and as this video from the excellent streetfilms shows.

  7. Jitensha Oni

    Sort of, and eloquently put. But with politicians starting to fall over themselves to extol the virtues of cycling, the cycling message is beginning to penetrate and this is not the time to give up on that. Cycling, Cycling, Cycling. Space For. It’s a simple message that politicians can get behind, or you could use Get Britain Cycling. Either will do.

    As you and the other commenters imply, an issue is that many do not factor in the needs of the intrinsically vulnerable when discussing plans for cycling, and you get the impression that it’s mostly the needs of 20-50 yr olds that are being considered (who only need training. really ). This is where the 8-80 angle needs to be used a lot more. For all their faults, Sustrans are at least reasonably good at that.

    Anyway on the schools/parents point, this lot did rather well:

    so they could provide a model for schools on narrowish country roads. Note especially that the school has its own cycling champion. A bottom-up approach. Get after it peeps. On busy main roads, however, you do need proper space for cycling and a top-down approach to ensure consistency. And that should be fought for too. So I don’t think we are looking at mutually exclusive apporaches here. Space for 8-80 cycling.

  8. On the theme of reaching the general public in a campaign… Here is an example of how Police are getting their drink driving campaign message out: work with schools, then children will pass message on to their parents (and media have a story to publish with striking headline plus pictures of funny-faced children to attract eyeballs) —

  9. Pingback: Coroner agrees: create space for cycling; but Mayor of London demurs | Pedaller

  10. 100% with you. We need proper compelling stuff like showing kids getting second hand smoking,
    It’s socially acceptable at the moment to coop our kids in a steel box, deprive them of exercise, pump them with poison gas and feel safe and smug while we are at it.
    We have a car but it’s predominantly used when we need to go outside of where we live, school runs, shopping etc is done by bike. It’s very hard work, it’s stressful, scary, involving much forward planning and multiple choices like trailers, trailer bike, kids bikes depending on risk levels.
    If this is to change, you are right, people have to realise what they are actually doing and causing. On “trust me I’m a doctor” on the bbc they said pollution from cars kills thousands every year. They put monitors on a family and the kid got the most amount of pollution and the biggest spike was during the school run, both in the car and walking past countless idling vehicles at exhaust height. It just isn’t waking people up though!
    We need a compelling campaign that hammers home both the roads being dangerously biast towards motorised transport, that puplic transport could do a lot more to be usable with kids and how much damage parents are doing spending so much time in the car.
    I want to start a specific campaign I’m in!

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