Monday 27 January 2014

'Cities Fit for Cycling' - A badge to hide behind?

I've wanted to support The Times 'Cities fit for Cycling' campaign since the outset. Its a good idea - cities are congested yet we seem intent on getting more people in and out of them to work and to live, and the only way we'll manage that cleanly with the space available is on foot or by bicycle. We can't rely on more buses and cars - they take up space and burn energy, neither of which are cheap. I don't doubt the sincerity or the motivation of Times journalists for starting with this campaign. I have no major issue with their goals- although I think simply being more explicit with regard to coverage and quality of dedicated cycling infrastructure would be better.

I should be supportive of the campaign, yes?

No. Not entirely.

I want to be, but I can't. It pains me to say it but there is one aspect of it that I think rather lets it down, which has always been the reason why I've never sang the praises of the campaign here. And its rather reminiscent of the problems I had with how Cambridge Cycling Campaign used to act.

Years and years ago I recall conversations with road traffic people from the County Council. And they'd go something like this...

Me: This road is dangerous for cyclists, in fact your recent changes are terrible.
Officer: We consult with Cambridge Cycling Campaign.
Me: I'm not a member, they don't speak for me.
Officer: They speak for cyclists, we consult with them, they didn't object.
Me: What didn't they object to?
Officer: The scheme as a whole?
Me: So you can't show me their support for this dangerous road where you expect me to play chicken with lorries?
Officer: We consult with Cambridge Cycling Campagin, they speak for cyclists...

CCC have got a bit better with not accepting dangerously bad cycling schemes - and with time I hope we'll start to get better cycling schemes in place here. Councillors and council employees can no longer quite so easily hide behind such a bland statement - talking to the Campaign is no longer demonstration that they're pro-cyclist.

We saw a lot of enthusiasm from MP's and other political figures for The Times campaign - thats when, for me, alarm bells started to ring. The thing about cycling is that the benefits are uncontroversial - its quick, clean, healthy, cheap, passes on few problems to other people, I mean whats not to like? It is very easy for a politician to sign on for something as unambiguously beneficial, but really hard to make them stick to it. So we've had no end of announcements from politicians about this - heck this is even one where backbenchers can have their say and be seen to be good for criticising front-benchers for not being as good as they are. And each of them can proudly say that under their red, blue or yellow rosette they are wearing their cyclesafe badge closer to their heart, as they announce the same funding three times to make it sound like its more than it is.

I worry that by giving out such an easy badge, its so very simple for the politician to wriggle out of serious questions rather like we used to see here in Cambridgeshire. They'll all claim to be pro-cycling and point to their support for Cyclesafe etc. While doing nothing. This is a badge politicans can point to and say 'look, we're cyclist friendly' while quite demonstrably that is not the case - the same PM who so praised the Times campaign has entirely failed to take on any of the suggestions from the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group. But he's pro-cycling, don't you know? He supports Cities Fit for Cycling...

So what are we left with? We've got a campaign that does indeed have a range of articles in the paper that kind of keep cycling in the news - but its also a campaign that allows crap politicians to hide in plain sight, promising they're pro-cyclist while giving us nothing. From a newspaper that comes out with the occasional outright howler of an article about cyclists. And yes, holding the politicians to task in further articles is valuable, but outside of the narrow confines of cycle campaigning who is paying attention? Did we gain anything by having a parliamentary debate on cycling when there was no need for the PM to do anything in response because, after all, he already supports 'cyclesafe'?

I get what The Times is doing. My problem was, and is, that any such badge is something a shyster politician will hide behind. Strip that away, make it something that needs some analysis before you're a member, and you've got something of value. As it is? I rather fear its just impossible to find anything in it to hold politicians to. Both in its somewhat unclear objectives and lax 'membership' I've never been comfortable with the campaign.

But time will tell. Or, perhaps, time is already telling. Outside of London, are we seeing a cycling revolution in the UK? If you're not in London or Cambridge is cycling even an issue? Regrettably, I rather doubt it.


  1. "I'm a cyclist myself...."

  2. Where I live I am a bit of a freak, a source of hilarity to my neighbours. This is not because I ride a bicycle - loads of people cycle around here. They hammer their MTBs around the commons (of which there are many, with an excellent range of off-road riding). They join cycle clubs for long road rides, sportives etc. They commute to the railway station.

    The one thing for which I am almost entirely on my own is to ride a bicycle for other utility reasons - popping down to the supermarket, the pet shop, the newsagents etc. I save money on parking, I save time (hunting for a parking space, and then fetching a ticket) and I save weight and cholesterol etc. The only other person I know of who cycles for simple transport is our local independent county councillor, a former sustainable transport consultant at the European Commission.

    It therefore will come as no surprise that we have no real cycle campaign. I participate in the borough-wide group but the future of that is now in doubt - Surrey CC has published its cycle strategy, stating that implementation of the strategy is delegated to the "local committees" (the county councillors for the borough, plus a selection of the borough and town councillors sitting together) . One of the county councillors told us that he isn't at all sure how the committee is going to do this as nothing like this has ever been in its brief before. The user forum (councillors, CTC, Sustrans, residents etc) doesn't get a mention at all anywhere in the strategy.

    We have a group working on a local plan under the localism act, but while we have a transport group, the local plan is primarily about land use and planning consents for development, and other issues such as transport plans, speed limits etc are not legally part of the plan.

    So, in short, nothing is happening here.