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, 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?


  1. Prior to this meeting I had visited the Histon Area Police Priority meeting and it was a really positive experience. There were about 10 cllrs, a few police and myself, and my local cllr introduced herself, and I had a chat with the police. It was friendly and decision making was positive and reached a consensus.

    Walking into the North Area committe tho. Wow, strange setup. Table of 12 cllrs behind desks in a row with mics and speakers - kind of like a worst case job interview. The audience were spread around the room sitting at tables too far from the cllrs. My late entry put me at the back of the room some 50yds away [with handheld mic] so interesting to read your account of their body language as I couldn't see their faces.

    I expected Cambridge to have some debate but there wasn't very much, perhaps ruined by having to wait for a runner with mic to reach you. Formalised a little too much, and seemed like the main aim was to keep to time.

    I didn't make a great job of making my point, but thought they might cut a member of the public a bit of slack as I crash through the china etiquette. Perhaps ask specific questions and clarify, but no, stonewalled. None of the 12 cllrs came to talk during the break or after, but there was a lot of lively chat with others at the back of the room and turned out to be the best part of the night. Kudos to Cllr Ian Manning for engaging on twitter later tho.

  2. I think you are at least partly right. For the most part - and I have seen one significant departure from this - those local meetings which the public can attend are in fact not widely attended by the public and are unlikely to be a useful forum for lobbying.

    What matters most to politicians, local or national, is their postbag. If they get a steady stream of correspondence on a particular topic, they will soon get the impression that this topic matters - even if, as you say, it is just a few serial moaners who have the time to write. That suggests to me that we have to mobilise our own like-minded folk to make similar nuisances of themselves.

    That is a big ask, as you say people are busy with work and family commmittments, but frankly I doubt we will make much progress unless we are willing, in larger numbers, to do just that. I think we have to say to firends who complain about the paucity of facilities, or lack of signage, or being busted by the plod for pavement cycling on an approved cycle path, "well, what are YOU going to do about it?

    Then, from time to time, we have to make ourselves felt in those meetings. I agree that they are deadly dull, and down here they tend to be held at inconvenient times for working people, so most members of the public attending are not, as you suggest, over 30 - they are over 70. But I have seen here how effective a batallion of wrinklies shouting and waving their fists in the air can be - sadly about their free on-street parking rather than anything worthwhile.