Tuesday 26 February 2013

Cycle Campaigning Comes Full Circle...

It used to be the case that blathering online about cycling was mainly the domain of chaps who used Usenet, and they were all set in their ways in a manner that makes todays Youtube trolls come across as wimps. 

These guys liked things how they were - they were adherents of Franklins 'Cyclecraft' mantra, taking the practical attitude of survival by being assertive on hostile roads and transforming that somehow into dogmatic opposition to cycle infrastructure. And they had good reason too - for the most part the infrastructure on offer then was, as now, completely shit. They argued (at great, tedious length, if memory serves) that we need more education; both of motorists (they bought big time into the fallacy of mutual respect) and of cyclists, who must simply be more assertive and more dominant, only yielding primary position (that means being in the way of the traffic) if they absolutely must. The cyclist must learn to ride fast and assertively. Asserting himself in an assertive way the way an assertive chap should. And the damned motorists would all be asserted upon.

Over the years that has rather softened, and while there are still many who hold to the old ways. After a fashion I'm one of them, I'll ride according to Cyclecraft because its the right way to survive on a hostile road network. But we started seeing anti-infrastructure people turn into fans of segregation - for example Freewheeler while apparently fixing a puncture on the road to Damascus. Don't you know that the Dutch have got great infrastructure, its Nirvana over there. Just listen to David Hembrow. He'll set you straight.

And thus the phoney war started. 

There are actually cyclists who fell out to the point of not talking to each other, spreading rumours about each other online over this crap. It got personal. It got nasty. It got destructive. In short, it got real dull.

In the ascendancy have been the actually splendidly sane groups such as Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, who are pro-good infrastructure. And even local campaigning groups like Cambridge Cycling Campaign have begun to understand what Go Dutch is all about. Even the CTC have made the occasional good noises in this direction (but frankly they could be wafted down spreading free kevlar tyres on the wings of angels and folk would still have problems with the CTC). And for the most part the argument in favour of good infrastructure is compelling - who the hell wants to ride in traffic? Stop telling old fogeys and children that they can cycle, sure, but they've got to go and play in the traffic, that'll never get mass cycling! Give us INFRASTRUCTURE. It has to be WIDE. It has to be SEGREGATED... 

You're getting the picture aren't you? We've got two basic philosophies of cycling at play here - integrationist and segregationist. And I don't understate things when I point out that the two sides don't get on. Montagues and Capulets.  Jets and Sharks. Green and Purple.

I'm not going to bore you with links to data for and against the arguments that cycle infrastructure makes you safer - suffice to say you can find examples where good infrastructure is good and bad infrastructure is bad. But suddenly this has all come back to our attention by a focus among some bloggers on Stevenage.

Now there is a time and a place for nailing your colours to a mast, but I for one can't be arsed to do so right now. What Stevenage does, however, is it shows us that the 'build it and they will come' attitude isn't enough; you can't dump cycle facilities in a town and then continue planning solely around motoring and then come back half a century and say 'what happened?' To do so is simply naive - you clearly need more than just infrastructure. It has to be the right infrastructure, in the right place, integrated in to the local transport network in a reasonable and usable way.

I WILL however say that this is precisely the kind of counter-example that the likes of Franklin have quite reasonably been putting forward as examples of why cycle lanes aren't the whole answer for years. And the lack of connectivity between cycle lanes and where people want to go, hostile junctions between said lanes and the main roads hiligted by Franklin and others are exactly what Hembrow and his side have been saying is part of the problem for years.

Previously, I've sat on the fence on this issue because I don't see any real disjoin between advocating assertive riding to survive on hostile roads and campaigning for high quality cycle infrastructure as a better goal. And I've been shot at by both sides, I've even been called a traitor (it isn't clear what or who to though).

The point is, its perfectly reasonable to assert that confidence to ride on the roads is a useful tool for us, but we're fools if we think we'll get mass cycling if thats the only way one can ride in the UK. Thats a reasonable, rational conclusion to draw from places like Cambridge, London and Stevenage. These examples are not contradictory; they form a perfectly consistent UK picture.

I'm hoping now that cycle campaigners (and bloggers, whingers, and everyone else) can just be a bit more adult this time round - are we going to have yet more internal debate about this? Really? Must we? Because if we really must then I promise you, no one other than a few other cyclists is listening.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Cyclist and Driver Anger - not the same things at all

Two incidents on my ride in today.

There was a long (30+) line of cars waiting for lights ahead to change - and plenty of room to pull alongside the car at the front (or at least one of them). I was going straight on, so when I approached the front past a whole lot of cars turning right, I pulled alongside the car at the front, also indicating to turn right, and stopped on his left.

The driver looked at me with undisguised rage. I caught his gaze and quickly looked away, I don't really need that kind of anger. Too late though, I got a red-faced rant about who the **** do I think I am going in and out of traffic, where the **** do I think I'm going, do I know I'm just a ****ing bike etc. No need to labour the point here - the guy was sitting in traffic, angry, and a butt hole. Evolution in evidence - all he needs is a gob and an arse and so he's evolved a single mutli-purpose orifice.

Now the anger might seem extraordinary, but its not that surprising to most cyclists - the hostility they (many motorists) feel at us for simply being there, on the road, even when we're not slowing them down or inconveniencing them at all is something we've all encountered. I was there, I had no reason to wait for the lights to change three times to follow the cars all turning right when I was going straight on anyway. In getting alongside the car at the front I broke no laws, I harmed no one, all I did was gain an advantage at the expense of no one. Objectively viewed, isn't it amazing how angry many motorists get about that? 

I could go in to the psychology of that (we could draw in perceived, un-codified 'rules', social defectors, outlier groups, game theory etc.) but I see that as over-analysis. The phenomenon is caused when an arse hole gets in a car and is then subjected to traffic. No further analysis is needed - I feel we get close to offering some kind of absolution for these arse holes through said discussions. Yes, maybe he's conforming to a different kind of norm, maybe he's a victim of psychology. But he's also an adult who's got to take responsibility for his actions, and his actions show him to be an arse hole who by any objective standards deserves a slap (no, I don't advocate going around supplying said slap - thats inappropriate).

The second incident was way more hazardous and therefore far more serious. Approaching another junction, I slowed down behind a car in front of me stopping for the lights. Out of the saddle, balancing on the pedals while slowing, I know the lights sequence and that they would change in a moment and so I took primary position (central spot in lane) while looking about - another couple of cyclists were approaching from behind. My intention was to go straight on rather than turn right or left so I didn't indicate.

As the lights changed I moved forward, having not put my feet down during slowing, and another cyclist (togged up in hi-viz - looked serious!) nudged me on my left - he was undertaking, I moved in maybe a foot to the left as I started, his manoeuvre was silly and we both COULD have come off. Neither of us did. I called out "Dude, undetaking, THERE?" as he moved ahead of me. His road speed wasn't very great - I caught him and he said "Sorry buddy, thought you were turning right". All other things aside, I could have become quite an arse hole over this incident - but I didn't.

All the time on the road I'm burning energy - if I get worked up I can push the pedals harder, move into other gears and burn it off. I'm expending my own energy to move, I'm not gathering up loads of flight-or-fight hormones turning my stomach sour and upping my heart rate for no good reason. I'm using that as I travel - bluntly on a normal ride its awfully hard to hold on to the kind of anger that typifies the city driving experience for so many. I turned off a while after, called out to the other cyclist as he passed - "Ho harm, no worries!" I have no idea if he heard me, but I'm sure that the incident will ruin neither of our days, nor will it cost either of us any sleep.

Why is it that cyclists aren't yelling abuse at each other, despite these incidents being very common, but motorists feel such outright hostility towards us, towards each other, and everything else in their way? The answer is quite simple - and while trying to avoid the kind of over-analysis that can almost justify their behaviour, I think the phenomenon expressed above goes a long way towards explaining this. They're angry, there is nowhere for them to express their anger, we're just there. Other motorists are just there. 

The moral of this? Lets once agian re-iterate that the mutual respect mantra on our roads is vacuous crap. But lets take this a step further - quit accepting bad cycle facilities and hostile roads as if they're the best we can get. That simply isn't good enough - where there is space for good cycle facilities, and thats nearly everywhere, we must stop accepting second grade routes that don't protect us from this hostility. All that achieves is it allows the police to target us when we take reasonable steps to avoid that aggression - the facade of fake-improvement gives them the excuse they need to have a go at us and improve their otherwise pretty naff figures. The result of this is that so many people encounter this anger and simply don't ride their bike again - go on, talk to folk who don't ride and ask them about it. We need good, safe, continuous facilities to ride on, protecting us not only from the hazards brought by badly driven cars and huge goods vehicles, but also from the outright hate we face on a daily basis. We don't deserve that hostility - quit apologising.

The portrayal of cyclists as easy victims both for angry motons and a police force desperate to look good in the eyes of those same angry motons is the problem here. And we have to stop playing into their hands by blandly going along with every rubbish scheme. Time to get angry? Maybe, but all things considered we're the ones who have made a lifestyle choice least conducive to that.

Monday 4 February 2013

Cambridge Cops to Claim Credit for Spring!

I'm a cyclist in Cambridge. I'm public enemy number 1.

There is a veritable army (well, extended platoon sized detachment) of 30 PCSO's supported fully by the police generalissimo Graham Bright out to get us cyclists for riding on the pavements, going through red lights, and all the usual crap you don't do you're used to people whinging at you about.

Now I'll not go in depth into why this is a waste of police time - for further info see other entries here - suffice to say that this is not a priority based on recorded accident statistics. This may reduce accident rates but if it does it will be such a small reduction that it'll be within statistical noise - we know that because thats the proportion of accidents being caused by cyclists breaking said rules.

So lets be under no illusions - this isn't about saving cyclists lives. If that were the goal then the action would not be to prioritise having lights, it would be to deal with the driving that injures, maims and kills cyclists (and pedestrians) in such numbers. This is about being seen to be doing something, its about appeasing those who set police priorities through incessant moaning, and it is about getting some positive headlines from a local press who are so demonstrably anti-cyclist.

This is the predictable result of an out of touch police commissioner being elected (Tories knew they could put up a monkey with a blue rosette - I leave it to my readers to decide whether this is what they actually did) to enforce the priorities of the complaining minority - Graham Bright has shown himself to be on another planet, as far as cycling is concerned. And our police force? They're not daft - they've found a way of appeasing both Bright and the motorists - all they have to do is scapegoat the cyclists. And they don't even have to achieve anything.

Anyone who has ridden in Cambridge for a few years will be familiar with the annual cycle of bike light discovery - new kids come to town, the clocks go back, suddenly its dark at teatime and there's a horde of cyclists without lights. After a few weeks of winter many have got lights or have just given up riding through the cold season. This is usually when the police have their annual crackdown - all they're doing this year is extending it further out from the city centre and for a little longer. Soon enough there'll be a press release claiming they've achieve an (x) percent reduction in cyclists without lights, which of course will be completely coincidental with the lengthening evenings. 

Operation Pedalo (as they've called it) isn't about reducing injuries to cyclists or pedestrians - such would not be a rational response to how accidents and injuries are caused in this city. Its about the police looking good for their new commissioner, and appeasing those whose bias against cyclists blinds them to the real dangers on the roads. It exposes Cambridge Constabulary not so much as our enemy, more as a body willing to prioritise good PR above our safety. Which, in my opinion, is just as bad. 

Friday 1 February 2013

Local Democracy and Cyclists - we're doing it wrong

I went to the Cambridge City Council North Area Committee meeting last night. Well, some of it.

Yeah, I know, aren't I the wild party animal, eh?

Now I'll apologise in advance - this is a bit of a rambling essay this blog post, so feel free to skip to the last couple of paragraphs. Which are a good bit, with some swearing in them.

I wanted to raise a couple of issues with councillors, but I also wanted to see how such a meeting operates; is this an avenue where we can make a positive difference for cyclists in this city? Can such committee meetings be the route by which we can get a better cycling environment? I've been to council scrutiny committee meetings before, and I must say I found them quite pointless, but this was a different beast; could this be a useful forum?

Sitting in a community centre sports hall bathed in a sickly mist of stale deep heat, an obstructively formal committee meeting started; that format is a fine way of holding an event where a need for impartial record taking of formal questions will be followed by reasoned analysis of the minutes by people who will then decide whether or not the questions were answered or avoided. It is a poor way of holding local counillors to account where, to be honest, the only people who give a crap about many of the issues under discussion are those in the room; a self selecting group made up largely of pushy busybodies (holds hand up) and pensioners. This structure allows councillors and council representatives to effectively fillibuster for a minite while not answering questions if they choose, and to gloss over issues they don't feel very interested in. Talking at recess to various folk who asked questions, few thought that they'd been answered completely or indeed very well; I wonder how many people go to one such meeting, experience this, and give up? That might certainly explain the clearly unrepresentative demographics of the attendees. Where, you have to ask, are all the working age folk? Was there anyone there (save perhaps one of the councillors) under the age of 30?

I believe most or all of the Councillors (an ominous dozen or so) had been there at least an hour already - most of the public don't turn up for the first part of the meeting which is to do with planning. Five of them already had that 'is the meeting nearly over yet' glazed over look about them - planning isn't an exciting matter, so you can't blame them. To their credit the rest continued contributing productively. There's a lesson here though - planning and local issue meetings are not the same thing and should not be in the same meeting slot! Councillors are basically volunteers, and after a days work I don't believe they've all got the energy for these combined, long, mutli-purpose meetings. Our own Kings Hedges City councillor had a good evening, as did his co-chair, maybe a couple of others too. 

The answer to my own question (getting grit into long empty grit bins) was a fair enough solution for a barking mad hole in policy. But some of the others? Not good  - one chap gave specific examples of vandalised trees, the answer was that the councillor would need some specific examples - the questioners frustration was obvious. When questions veer away from 'the services provided are failing us, fix them' on to 'can't we do it this way, it would be better' councillors are basically started defending their own pre-existing views rather than canvassing opinion, considering it, and maybe changing their positions. These meetings are not a place where we can affect that kind of change through having a better argument or just being right - if you go to such a meeting with facts you won't impress anyone.

And I'm afraid thats what Cottenham Cyclist found - he (and I) contend that all should be obeying the rules of the road, but the priority of which rules the police should spend more effort enforcing should be based on the harm done by those breaking each rule - and as we have a pretty good dataset for who and what causes most harm on our roads we ought to take that into account. He tried to draw this to the attention of councillors and to the Police Sergeant (Sgt. Wragg - who I've found to be a good chap) - and, bluntly, they didn't care to hear it. At all. In fact from the moment he started trying to tell them about the numbers, four phased out entirely, two gave long suffering slumps of boredom, and the scowl on two more was just hostile - no one chose to respond meaningfully to what @cotnm said. Most, not all of them, very obviously hated hearing this. Ladies and gents of the Committee, you may not care to set traffic policing priorities based on road safety data, thats your perogative, but your attitude towards a gentleman trying to present a constructive argument based thereon was poor. Do not be surprised if the very limited selection of people turning up to these meetings continues.

Further questions on this topic area were put to Sgt. Wragg - Richard Taylor asked about some of the dreadful signage on cycle lanes (leading to flat out unacceptable things like this  http://cambridgecyclist.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/milton-road-shared-use-cycle-route.html), I asked about specific priority locations where the police are asked to target cyclists who are simply trying not to die, but all we got was that police and council will actually talk to each other re-signage and that eventually junctions like that will be re-designed. Well, gee. Sorry but thats no comfort with the police actively stopping people where no rational person would assume there is no cycle lane, or when I'm facing near death experiences on the road NOW. You have it within your power to change the police priority to deal with those motorists bullying cyclists off the road at those very same locations rather than the cyclists fleeing for their lives onto the pavement - you could tackle the source of the problem you're complaining about rather than the symptom.

But it occurred to me that the meetings themselves aren't the point - when councillors are responding to us there they're not really just talking to us, they're talking about the weekly and daily contacts they have with people in their wards, people who complain. Incessantly. They've got a constant drip, drip, drip of negativity regarding cyclists - they don't have a dataset such as presented by @cotnm, they have something far more potent - the opinions of people with time and motivation to be unceasingly unpleasant about cyclists who they see as problematic. Sgt. Wragg and various councillors are quite clear that they get this a lot from residents - and now whats going wrong for us all just slots into place.

Watch the cyclists going up and down on, say, Gilbert Road every day - almost all of them are a lot younger than almost all of those who turn up to these meetings! Parents, commuters - busy people with ever less free time. I compare them with the people who make time to badger local politicians and I strongly suspect that they're two different groups of people, with very little overlap. This IS deomocracy - after a fashion, but rather than being rule for the majority its rule for those most willing to badger. Those with the free time to do so.

Lets be honest - you can't form a good argument in favour of Cambridge Constabulary targetting 'antisocial' cyclists based on accident and injury stats - but you can pander to persistent nagging.

So here, readers, is where I think cycling campaigners need to change our attitudes - lets stop only acting collectively. You know what would help more than a campaign group badgering on our behalf? What would help would be all of us pestering - all of the time. And here is our problem - we're not, for the most part, the old and retired, the underemployed. How do we get priorities changed to reflect the measurable reality of harm caused on the road rather than the biased perceptions of an unrepresentative but time-rich demographic? Are we not, in a nutshell, fucked?