Thursday, 27 January 2011

Herding cats: Why we need to shout with a single voice and why no one else is going to do it for us

I posted earlier this week about Moor Lane, a road in the City of London that is going to be redesigned to slow traffic and make it a generally nicer place to be. I'm dubious about whether or not the redesign will make life any nicer for cycling.

That aside, what really interested me was the way that the City of London went about securing public support for the scheme. It sent leaflets to residents and asked for representations from the developers and other property interests around the site. All fair and well. A total 248 people wrote back.

I suspect - and I can only suspect - that of those 248 responses, very few of them would mention cycling.

That's because very few people cycle.

Now, imagine that the same process is happening all over the country, every time a local council has money to spend on transport schemes. If you assume fewer than 2% of people are bicycle users, then you've got to assume that public support will very rarely think about how a scheme might impact on cycling. It's just basic numbers, really.

Now, let's combine that reality with another way that local government gets feedback from its local community. And that is in the form of some sort of local representative meeting. I've written about a typical local police priority meeting in the Barbican before . Once again, those are meetings that are dominated by people who don't use bicycles. In fact, at the meetings I've been to, I'd say most people attending were long since retired and had very trenchant views about people on bicyles.

Take a look at the sorts of minutes that are taken at local consultation meetings over in Westminster and you'll see that the issue of cycling, if it comes up, is an entirely negative issue:

"The key concerns you raised at the forum included: the behaviour of cyclists and their safety on the road; measures to control pedicabs; parking policy and management of roadworks"


"The key issues you raised included: the need for more effective residents' parking....; south bound traffic congestion on Baker Street...; Illegal riding of cycles on footways and through red traffic signals; poor air quality on Marylebone Road"

Our efforts to get the City of London to stop treating bicycle use as a catch-all for sustainability and start treating it with a proper strategy that makes it safer and more sensible to use a bicycle seem to be creating a stir. Which is great.

But the more I speak to people - whether they are people who use bicycles or local politicians or local transport officials - the more I realise that the UK needs a complete and utter overhaul of its discourse on things cycling-related.

Two of us stood on Blackfriars Bridge this morning handing out flyers to encourage people on bicycles to write into the City of London and put their views across. And we had some success. But a number of people on bicycles took issue with the fact that we are asking for space to be allocated from motor vehicles to bicycles. I posted this very issue on a web chat site and was laid into by a whole host of cyclists who complained about things like a) bike lanes mean I'll have to go slower b) bike lanes are dangerous c) why would I cycle to the pub, d) my bike will get nicked e) London's roads are 'too narrow' for bicycles and the list goes on.

Sometimes, you feel a bit hammered from both sides.

We need strong leadership to get things moving in a cycle-friendly direction.

The government isn't giving it. It has decided to push responsibility down to local authorities. Which is great if you live and work somewhere like Hackney. Hackney is quite happy to state things like "The Council provides strong political support for cycling" and to set sensible, achievable goals for cycling.

But if you live in Westminster, the council's transport plan is effectively saying (in my view), that cycling = cycle hire docking station and cycle parking. It doesn't feel like much of a strategy to allow people to feel they have the option of cycling. Just read the comments from Wesminster council surgeries, though, and it's hardly suprising that this particular local council might feel cycling is something it just doesn't want to support in any meaningful way.

The problem is no one else in government wants to support cycling in any meaningful way either.

So the question I mull when I jump on my bicycle to head home is how to help make things change. Our efforts with the City of London are definitely creating waves. Nearly 100 of you have written in to the City and expressed what you think is wrong with their strategy for cycling (namely, there isn't one). We've had vicars, bankers, lawyers, accountants and all sorts of people stand up for making the Square Mile somewhere they would actually like to cycle in. We have been invited to talk to people at the London Assembly (more on that next week I hope) and we have secured corporate support from two sizeable, well-known companies that will remain nameless for now. But we need to consolidate around a single loud and shouting voice.

For my part, I'm going to this at the weekend. And I hope some of you might feel inspired to as well. If you can't make that, then at least write to the City of London while we have a few more weeks left to note our concerns.

It's going to be a bit like herding cats, I suspect. But it's important.


  1. Perhaps part of the issue is how you are trying to get people to make noise.

    The feedback from cyclists you mention - bike lanes mean I'll have to go slower, bike lanes are dangerous, and why would I cycle to the pub - indicate cyclists are just like everyone else. We all operate on the WIIFM principle: what's in it for me.

    So perhaps you need to better explain the benefits for them, not you. I'm going to be embarking on a campaign soon to get more bike lanes in my part of Oz and like you, I'm planning to distribute some flyers. On them, they'll show a picture of the end result and list the benefits to non-cyclists:

    1) bike lanes make everyone safer

    2) bike lanes increase property prices

    3) bike lanes increase business.

    4) bike lanes decrease traffic.

    5) bike lanes allow your kids to ride to school again.

  2. Great idea. I too agree that we need to see a new type of platform that funnels active and would be cyclists' voices into something meaningful. If there's safety in numbers, there's definitely strength in numbers too.
    What needs to be done at the same time is to remove the stigma away from the cycle tracks. We keep hearing the same old tired myths which stem from poorly designed infrastructure that people see. Show them a 2.5 meter wide, one way, Dutch cycle path and they will change their mind (unless they are their views as so fossilised they can see reason no more).
    You're doing a great job by letting people know about thing that are happening around London. If anything it will definitely let the authorities know that people who ride bikes want proper infrastructure and don't want to be fobbed off with scraps.
    Keep it up.

  3. You say you want a common voice, yet you aren't willing to take on board the comments that those who already cycle make.

    You say we need a common voice, yet the website you promote is part of a movement which is selective of the campaigning environment, promotes comments from a Blogger who indulges in personal attacks but doesn't provide a right to reply.

    It's all very much "You're either with us or against us" and the further splitting of cycling groups will leave councils running their hands in glee with their opportunity to divide and conquer.

    Appropriate well designed cycle lanes would be great, I would support them, but this confrontational approach isn't going to bring many along.

    You need to understand their (often well founded) fears, otherwise it will be more footpaths with a bicycle painted on them with drivers swerving their cars into cyclists who refuse to use them. Sitting there going "La la la, we're right, you're wrong" sadly won't work

  4. You seem to have unlimited energy for this and all respect to you. Please keep posting, pushing and prodding as you and the other people blogging on similar topics are going to make a difference.

    You've personally inspired me to send detailed feedback on the draft LIPs of both the City of London and of the borough in which I live.

    Hopefully many others have been similarly inspired.

  5. @OldSkoolKona

    If some people want Dutch-style facilities, and some are rabidly opposed, then you are right that there is going to be conflict, which is not going to be helpful.

    However we can't not push for this, simply because some are doggedly opposed to the idea.

  6. @OldSkoolKona - Do you want to elaborate a bit. I don't see where I'm not taking on board comments from people who don't already cycle. My question is how to encourage those of us who do already cycle to actually engage with the political process that's going on at the moment. I suppose I have just been a bit surprised at how many people seem happy with the status quo, don't want to think about this stuff, it doesn't seem to bother them.

    As for not engaging, I'm spending two nights a week out talking to other cyclists at the moment in one forum or another. So I can't really buy that.

    Can you elaborate on the personal attacks bit. Your'e referring to the LoFidelity blog, right?

    At the moment, what I am trying to find in my own mind is where there is sufficient consensus and what is the best way to push that. If you've noticed, I've steered very clear of saying we must have Dutch cycle tracks or we must have xyz. I've stated we need reallocation of space. Which I think is a realistic goal to aim at

    Doesn't mean I'm right. But it's something that a lot of people seem to back but that isn't being clearly articulated by any more formal cycling insitutions. Note I say clearly articulated. And my point is that lack of clear vision that I perceive (personally) coming from some cycling bodies.

  7. It would be great to have "dutch style" things of ALL sorts. Their bike lanes are a symptom of a much deeper progressive sensability. Calling for bike lanes/reallocation in isolation will never work since we don't have leaders who are willing to undertake what will be unpopular policies. See your reporting of your local resident meetings... Ageing reactionaries have a voice too, sadly.

    In the Netherlands, the policy of car use reduction was strongly opposed at first but the government pushed it onwards because they new it made such good sense. It is a raft of interlocking measures not just lanes. Who in the UK will be this progressive?

    Who are you going to ask? No one authority has the power to do this in London.

    A while back the Treasury produced a report looking at how to "save the NHS". More activity in the population was found to be the only way forward.... result.... total inaction. sigh.

    Please don't shoot the messenger here. I love that there is a new wave of active people arguing these issues. I feel less comfortable with some of the attacks on the cycling establishment as having "failed" though. These will be fractious and will not help. Some of us have been chipping away at this for many years (pre-internet - in my case since 81'). Cycling will keep growing now because car use is so unpleasent and getting worse no matter what they do to help drivers. There is no quick fix which is a shame.

    What we need is government that tries to look after the welfare of the society. Right now we have a crew who venerate a woman who believed, "There is no such thing as society". As long as shortermism(?) is the order of the day we will not get progress. The Dutch made a 30 year effort! That's 6 terms in our system.

    I look forward to hearing the results of the "Embassy" meeting later today.

    Good luck and enjoy the ride... ;-)

  8. Also...

    "Why we need to shout with a single voice and why no one else is going to do it for us "

    This neatly sums up your/our problem. What are we all supposed to shout? "We are all individuals!"? All together now...

    The CTC has never really represented my views or the LCC and neither do you. There is no such thing as a typical cyclist, as you found out on Blackfriars bridge. This is why the mainstream orgs have to have such average focus. This frustrates me as much as anyone but it's part of democracy. It's an old problem and you are not offering a new solution. "Cyclist" is not an identity one can pin down, neither is "Non-Cyclist". How can we have a single voice when we all want different things?

  9. @londonneur, @oldskoolkona I really think you are both missing the point. We know that there are many different views among cyclists and some of them inevitably conflict. We know perfectly well that if people write in to the City they will ask for different things, or express their reasons for what they ask in different ways. This is not about whether the mainstream campagning organisations have failed, although personally I think they have - they have presided over a relentless decline in cycling over decades and the increases we have seen in London lately have nothing do with them and a lot more to do with push factors like terrorism or transport strikes.

    The purpose of the campaign with the leaflets on Blackfriars Bridge (and elsewhere) is to have many, preferably hundreds, of cyclists or potential cyclists (or indeed pedestrians, etc) make themselves known to the City - "I am here, you need to take me more seriously".

    I don't thknk we actually need a monolithic position for that. After all, every motorist secretly wants other motorists driven off the roads, so that he can actually travel on them without delay. That is hardly a united stance!

  10. @PaulM

    I'm confused. If I have missed the point, can you tell me what the point is? As I asked, what are we all supposed to "shout with a single voice" and to whome? "I am here", is a bit too loose perhaps? One has to push for something that can be defined. Dutch lanes, Strict Liability or Rubber Knickers... ;-)

    OldSkoolKona is a bit harsh perhaps but I agree that the danger of handing the council a chance to divide and rule is very real. It lets them cherry pick the public responses that fit their predefined intention. Seen it happen MANY times over the years and it has made me cautious of loosely defined agendas.

    I agree that "push factors" are the main driver in London. I also think other pushes were the main driver for the decline in cycling. When I hear, "they have presided over a relentless decline in cycling over decades" it sounds as if the LCC created the decline, which we all know is nonsense. They didn't preside over it, they were just present. I am no fan of their tactics which I find to be too soft. You give them way too much credit. My personal view is that they provide a stakeholder consultatioin boxticking service to government. In fairness, there is some good work done but they should refuse to sign off on some of the terrible lanes they are consulted on.

    If you are riding in London then you are a friend of mine. However, ask 10 riders ANY question and you will get 10 diffrent answers... It's a tough nut to crack.

    Are you guys active on the LFGSS forum? There are 25000ish london riders there who will be only to happy to offer their opinions. That's a lot of votes if one could only mobilise them.

    All the very best