Wednesday 5 April 2017

So what WOULD convince people we need cycle facilities?

I have occasionally mused here that when we talk to politicians (local and national) about cycling infrastructure what they hear is cyclists telling them what we want - another special interest group griping on. What they don't hear is people telling them what the UK needs as a nation is more people cycling because its clean, healthy, cheap, etc. and that many, many people want to ride but don't because its too damned terrifying.

Thats is a more profound point than you might think - that what they hear isn't what we're saying. And it probably sounds contentious. I know. Hear me out though.

How often have you been at a local political meeting, whether its a city or county council thing, or (such as we have here) a joint committee of both, and the subject of a cycle facility comes up. You stand up to say that its a great idea because you've talked to people in the area and they're in favour of making cycling easier, as its the hostile road traffic that currently makes the choice to ride so unappealing. And you've made your point eloquently, you've been clear, you've been fair... And then the next person gets up to speak.

That person is probably an older person (because the vast majority of people at all such meetings are old people) and the're conservative with a small 'c'. An ancient nimby. They start talking about roads and how much space is needed and how not everyone can cycle so cycle facilities are exclusionary for older people and disabled people, and then they'll talk about how cycle facilities aren't used by cyclists who'll all be on the road where they'll break the law so making more facilities for us is a bad thing and we don't pay our share anyway... Well, you've got a full bingo card, I'll grant you that, but you've also got a room full of ageing nimbys nodding in agreement - and you end up with a silly compromise between doing what cyclists need and, well, nothing at all, and yet another crap facility. At best. Or, in other words, they're projecting their own bias as a reason why cycling facilities aren't a good thing and we get nothing of value.

We make arguments about why cycle facilities are good, primarily based around removing barriers to cycling for those who don't ride. The objections to cycle facilities are never based on the people who don't cycle and they're not based on any analysis of what we say barriers to cycling are - the objections do not seek to refute points we make, or even address them. They're based on perceived injustice with regards to road space allocation, the perceived behaviour of people who currently cycle, on the identity of the objector as a 'motorist' or, at least, 'not cyclist' and they're based upon who current cyclists are seen to be. And they're also seen in light of how every other campaign group in local and national politics acts - in the interests of the people it already represents.

We try to advocate for those who are currently excluded from cycling by hostile roads. What they hear is us advocating for ourselves.

Our goal of getting better cycle facilities fails because we're not getting across the point that there's suppressed demand for cycling due to a lack thereof - it fails because we're seen to be asking for what we want for ourselves, in a manner identical to that of any other lobby group. They're not going in to what we're asking for in the kind of depth that would necessitate them seeing things from our point of view, or indeed from any point of view but the one they've already brought with them. We're cyclists and we say cycle facilities are good for people who don't yet cycle? Well we would, wouldn't we? Yeah, there are places like London and Cambridge where we do a little better, but there are many recalcitrant councillors in those cities whose dumb biases against cyclists are reassured by the codgers such that they'll never approve of genuinely safe cycle facilities on main roads, and more still who'll always favour storing cars in the road over cyclists having safe room to ride even on quiet routes.

This puts us in the unenviable position of being able to make really smart, well researched arguments about the cost benefit analysis of cycling facilities being massively more favourable than any other transport projects and no one gives a fuck. We can be right all we like, but unless what we're pitching for is what people already want it won't matter - a familiar refrain to any of us who've been talking about any of half a dozen different environmental issues for the last quarter of a century or more.

So how CAN we win over local and national politicians? How do we 'win'? How do we transform a 'correct' argument into a 'winning' argument?


  1. I've begun arguing around the concept of choice. That people have had the 'choice' not to use the car taken away and that the moment that you 'need' your car you have to realise this is due to the way all other choices have been designed out, either through lack of good cycle and walking provision on our roads, the creation of isolated 'unsafe' paths away from main roads, or poor hub centred time consuming public transport networks that do not enable you to travel conveniently from home to work.

    I've also being using hard data retrieved from Census 2011 WU03UK table combined with the 2011 School data to show the immense number of local journeys being made that should be made differently. Currently 7000 people living in Bath commute to work in Bath (two journeys a day), 5000 kids are dropped off by their parents by car (four journeys a day), totalling 34,000 unnnecessary car journeys in a city that can be walked end to end in 1 hour. Then put it into local context. In Bath's case, that's almost two days of London Road car traffic. TWO days.

    More importantly when you ask the council what the modal split is, they report 2%, whereas for Bath it is 4.3% and if you look at the 'local' modal-split (residents of Bath commuting in Bath) the number is 7%.

    Then you can bring in the modal split around schools, and see that only 1% of school kids are cycling to school.

    Then bring in obesity levels and cost to NHS with the UK at 35% obesity (up from 27%) by 2030 and the Netherlands at 8.5% (DOWN from 10%).

    Bring in child travel independence.

    Every person on a bike is one less person in front of you in a car and that this is critical to tackling congestion during rush hour.

    More importantly bring in the fact that many retired people have the luxury of driving after rush hour. That their objections to cycle lanes are very much against solving congestion as congestion never effects them. They have a choice to head out after 9am. They do not see a need for getting 1000s of people, including school children using healthy active modes of transport. They are being inherently selfish.

    Some of the work on Census 2011 data is available here.

    I am working on a longer transport piece once I've got all the data I need into something other people can use.

    1. Fascinating, thank you. Much to think about - I'll look forward to the longer piece you describe.

      I think that much of what you're saying is right - but we know that 'right' isn't the same as 'winning' here. So yes, we can talk about obesity, congestion, pollution, choice etc. all we like - does that not simply mean we're even more 'right' while still not necessarily winning? Are we not then still seen the same way, i.e. arguing for what we want rather than for what is a better overall resolution? Does this lift us out of being viewed as a special interest group and into advocates for a 'greater good'? I dunno.