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.


  1. Had picked up the Stevenage link from elsewhere today, and it was a revelation. It has kind of crushed my faith that more people would cycle if only it were perceived to be safer. Apparently health, wealth, environment, aesthetics, noise aren't good enough reasons.

    I suppose the main thing that most English cycling cities have - Cambridge, Oxford, London, Bristol, York etc - is that congestion is horrible. It's not that people think cycling is good, but it offers tangible, immediate selfish gains over not cycling.

    Which is rather depressing.

    1. There are other factors at play in Stevenage - big employment sites on the outskirts poorly supplied by cycle routes or public transport, bringing staff in from many miles away, for example. Naff integration of new developments with cycling. And of course total dominance of car-centric design since the cycle routes were first built. Its a sorry state of play.

  2. Stevenage, now there's a reminder of my past. As a 16 yr old (1989) I used to commute to my first real job across Stevenage from the train station to an edge of town retail park. The journey was by cycleway through the busier centre and became on-road/pavement down the quieter London Road. It was my first taste of independence and ability to earn a decent wage for myself.

    However, today London Road has been developed as a huge retail area (with massive traffic growth) with cycle route development looking not like the original Stevenage blueprint, but like the typical crappy shared-use give way at every side road and gutter painted cycle lanes. If I was 16 right now, I'm not sure how viable that same route would be and I doubt my parents would allow it. Independence crushed.

    For all their faults, the segregated cycle paths of Stevenage are actually quite good. It's just more convenient by car.

    1. I kind of don't think it matters how great the segregated paths are if other sections of the journey are so bad as to put you off riding - this is why Stevenage, Milton Keynes etc. are great examples of missed opportunities. Started out with what ought to have been great networks for riding, but fail because car-centric designers are allowed to design the rest of the transport network in a way that actively discourages cycling. I don't hold with the idea that we must aim to make motoring inconvenient to make cycling appealing (an argument I'm sure hat you've heard, like I have), but we have to get away from the idea that a few decent cycle routes are the be-all and end-all. Closer to home, look at Gilbert Road - its way better than it was (but not good enough), but only of limited value as its got Histon and Milton Roads at either end, and both are terrifyihg.

    2. "I kind of don't think it matters how great the segregated paths are if other sections of the journey are so bad as to put you off riding"

      Precisely. If you can't get to that good stuff in safety, or it doesn't go to where you're going, or if it's inefficient and makes cyclists' journeys take longer than drivers' journeys, then it will probably fail.

      This has been known for decades. In fact, it's central to how the Dutch design cycling networks that there must be a tight grid of cycle routes which are of good quality and contiguous and which cover the entire country so that you can reach any destination. No stopping and starting and a no riding for a few metres across unpleasant badly designed junctions.