alibi facilities

Images of crap cycle lanes are a well-established, and popular comic genre of the early internet-age but analysis of the logic behind the phenomenon is missing.

On Wednesday (23/01/13) the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG) started taking oral evidence for an inquiry entitled “Get Britain Cycling”. There will be six sessions, over seven weeks, where a panel of MPs and Peers take verbal submissions from selected groups of witnesses, to supplement written evidence already collected.

A report with recommendations will be written by Professor Phil Goodwin of the University of the West of England and published in mid-April. What influence this will have on policy, and thence on conditions on the ground, we can wait and see. Informed opinion suggests that Central Government will float some pro-cycling initiatives this Spring – probably before the report comes out – to avoid any suspicion that they’re dancing to the tune of the bike-fancying parliamentarians of the APPCG.

The first session was a significant milestone on Britain’s road toward bicycle paradise
the usual suspects stating the bleeding obvious quite interesting, and – for a couple of hours – #getbritaincycling was the top trend on Twitter; a festival of brain-burps that offered some wisdom and plenty of terse foolishness…

“oh no! not more Wiggin’s wannabees slowing the traffic #getbritaincycling INDOORS!!”

“#getbritaincycling In this weather? You must be mental.”

“#GetBritainCycling For mass cycling to happen cycling needs to be made an option that ppl don’t need to think about it, just like taking car.”

It wasn’t long before laughable examples of current UK provision for cycling were being cited.

alibi facilities

Images of crap cycle lanes are a well-established, and popular comic genre of the early internet-age but analysis of the logic behind the phenomenon is missing.

The people (mostly men) who design and approve ‘joke’ facilities are not fools. A crap cycle facility is not a mistake. To understand the logic behind, and function of, the ‘useless’ cycle facility it’s necessary to revisit a concept popular amongst Northern European cycle-campaigners in the later 20th Century, what the Germans used to call ‘alibi facilities’.

alibi facilities

According to the APPCG their current inquiry will…

“…examine the barriers which are preventing more people from cycling in the UK.”

There is no doubt – as inquiry witness Carlton Reid put it – that there is “huge demand for cycling.” It is however a big mistake to imagine that the whole, or even a large part, of the population of Britain is currently in a precipitous, pre-cycling state, only waiting for conditions to change so they can start riding. Most people in the UK never consider practical cycle-travel as a realistic possibility for themselves or any other normal person. To talk about the ‘barriers’ preventing them from cycling is like asking why English people don’t – knowingly – eat horse-meat. They don’t do it because they’re normal and – everybody knows – normal people would never – knowingly – do it.

During yesterday’s session APPCG panel member Jeremy Corbyn MP recalled talking recently to a group of 30 local youngsters. Half currently cycled but only two planned to continue, they all aspired to own cars. Corbyn said: “One of them described it by saying cycling is for losers.”

A traffic-engineer is told to make changes to the streetscape that will ‘remove the barriers preventing people from cycling’. The traffic-engineer wants a quiet life, to do their job without controversy and then to go home and relax. Street space is limited. In the short-term the traffic-engineer knows they can’t make conditions easier for one mode of travel without taking space and green-time away from others. A dedicated cycle-lane may – for example – mean less space for parking motor-cars. The traffic-engineer might even feel sympathetic to the old, but by no means extinct, idea that people travelling by bike are ‘a vanishing tribe’.

The function of an alibi facility is not for cycling, not to encourage cycling. It’s function is to absorb any budget allocated to ‘removing the barriers preventing people from cycling’ without causing trouble among ‘normal’ people who just want to drive their children to school, themselves to work and home via the super-store on the by-pass. The point of the alibi facility is to enable bureaucrats to say ‘well we tried to encourage cycling but look what happened, nobody uses our new facility which cost £X00,000’. When a cycle facility is built for people to use, to make cycling easier, the more useful it is the better, and the less it costs the further any available funds can be spread.

alibi facilities

Alibi facilities are most effective when they don’t encourage anyone to cycle. It helps if they make cycling seem marginal, dangerous and problematic. The more they cost the better. ‘Oh yes we spent 100k on facilities for cycling but – you know – nobody really wants to do it.’

A conspiracy theory is always over-optimistic – relying as it does on the assumption that somewhere, somebody is in control of something and knows what they’re doing – but it can be a useful tool of analysis. We left the era of the vanishing tribe years ago and are now well into the era of mixed messages, old school highway-engineers are retiring and being replaced by those trained after it became necessary to, at least nod towards, sustainability, social-inclusion and the non-threatening modes of travel but – with Central Government poised to push for a ’90’s-retro road-building spree – we’re definitely not safe from the possibility that any new ‘pro-cycling’ programmes may be subverted into alibi facilities.

The unrestricted information super-highway has brought a welcome injection of energy into the toyland world of cycle politics. It’s brought in many new voices, some of whom naively imagine that this is a technical – rather than political – question. As if all we need do is send round pictures from our Dutch, Danish or Deutsche touring trips and the 97.2 per-cent of the population who don’t currently travel by bike will scatter rose-petals in our path before jumping onto their trusty rods and pedalling after us into bicycle paradise. The truth is – alas – more gritty.

The internet is great for our campaigns. It goes some way to re-balance the battle, by making communicating, organising and lobbying easier and cheaper; but ‘like-button culture’ is no substitute for the slow, dirty grind of politics. Supporting allies, isolating enemies, building coalitions, manoeuvring engineers, officers and politicians into positions where doing good becomes their line of least resistance.

The time-table for the remaining inquiry sessions is…

  • 30 January – Safety
  • 06 February – Planning and design
  • 13 February – Active lifestyles
  • 27 February – The local perspective
  • 06 March – Government

Which may be interesting – or not – depending on your taste. Really the press-release from the first session says it all. “Political leadership is needed to transform Britain into a cycling nation”. And that won’t happen by accident. The outstanding questions remain, what are we each doing, what have we each done, what are we each going to do, to make our own streets and neighbourhoods more pleasant and convivial places?