once a day – DDXXVIII – and beyond

When I heard I was only allowed out to exercise once a day the chorus of this old heartbreak song popped into my mind.

You know there’s been a revolution? You know there’s been a revolution  when the Government calls an indefinite general strike. All that’s left is to decide the winners and losers. The Dunwich Dynamo is two moons away, what will it be like in these post-revolutionary days?

In the current context – regardless of the detail of any regulation and guidance in existence on the fourth of July – it’s irresponsible to go beyond your comfort zone. In summer 2020 London, Essex and Suffolk are – alas – not soft country. If you are unsure of your ability to look after yourself stay near home.

Part of the original raison d’etre of the Dunwich Dynamo is to encourage people who like riding bikes but are intimidated by the idea of riding a ‘long’ way to be more ambitious. A function of the Dunwich Dynamo is to disclose cycle-touring’s dirty little secret…
…it’s not that hard.

The raft of ancillary events that nowadays support and profit from the annual pilgrimage; the Southwark Cyclist’s coach-convoy, daybreak opening at the Flora Tea Room’s, food and drink all night long, all along the road, have made the event even simpler for inexperienced riders.

This July these support events may not be legal, practical or profitable. It seems likely that these services won’t be available this year?

A ride from London to the Suffolk Coast alone – or in company of other household members – a swim and a ride home is an innocent pleasure.

If you want to ride a Dunwich Dynamo there are other dates close to the full moons on fifth of June, fifth of July, third of August, second of September and first of October. Temporal distancing will allow anyone who can ride an unsupported Dunwich Dynamo out-and-home from their safe-house, well within their comfort-zone, to enjoy this delight discretely  – and discreetly – without adding to their own, on anyone else’s, risk.

By July I hope we may be permitted to ride with trusted comrades kept at a safe distance. Think of aerodynamics when calculating this – at high speed, in the plume of turbulence trailed by another rider – you risk contagion at a distance considerably greater than an arbitrary two metres.

If you’re a hard rider feel free to do whatever you consider prudent. If you want to ride a Dunwich Dynamo don’t expect, or ask for, food, water, any pastoral or logistical support. And don’t get booked or arrested, unless you want to, in anticipation of an interesting court case.

The DD is a cycle-touring event. In it’s purest form cycle-touring is based on self-reliance and spontaneous decision-making. ‘Cancelling’ the Dunwich Dynamo is as preposterous as cancelling Christmas, Ramadan or Halloween. The idea that it’s even possible relies on the widespread misconception that somebody ‘organises’ it. It’s a tradition that belongs to everyone – including YOU – and is owned by nobody.

Next year the July full moon will be on a Saturday night.

Dunwich Dynamo XXIX 24 July 2021.

where is health and what is safety?

Happy New Year, very late I know, if  you’re following the Gregorian calender, slightly early if you’re Chinese.

The Advertising Standards Authority(ASA) have banned this TV advert “SEE CYCLIST THINK HORSE.”…

…because of five complaints. They ruled it was…

“…socially irresponsible and likely to condone or encourage behaviour prejudicial to health and safety.”

This is good news for those of us who look forward to the advent of bicycle paradise.

I’m still dream of being a cyclist. My chosen life-partner is a serial horse-owner, so this little motion-picture has particular personal appeal.

Were it not for those five complainants – if they aren’t ‘road-safety’ professionals then they must be ‘road-safety’ enthusiasts – I’d probably never have seen it. Now, instead of season on TV in Scotland, the Paddy-Power-Principal – that getting your promotional material banned is good for business – has given the ad legs. Cycling Scotland, producers of the film plan to appeal. This on-going controversy offers potential for grand, national* exposure.

There’s no rigorous data on the the relationship between cycle-helmet wearing and the frequency or severity of crashes, or between cycle-helmet wearing and the reduction or mitigation of injuries caused by crashes. This marginal issue has been discussed here before, when Wiggins weighed in with ill-considered – and rapidly retracted – remarks following the death of Dan Harris.

As there is no evidence, strong views on the subject are often questions of faith. Messing with people’s faith can make them touchy

Attempts at normalising hard-hats for general cycling offer us a chance to coolly ask interesting questions…

  • Where does the danger come from?
  • Who is threatening who?

..and to assert the main public-health implication of crash-hats for general cycling.

  • If a crash-hat makes somebody feel ‘cool’, fashionable, stylish – and hence more likely to travel by bike – that hat can help them live longer.
  • If it makes them feel ‘dorky’ or freakish, and hence less likely to travel by bike, they are likely to die sooner.

If the ASA are worried about health and safety where’s the roll-bar on Mercedes and why is the driver not wearing a hard-hat and goggles?

The truth that people who ride bikes live longer has been understood – by academics at least – for more than twenty years. There is still work to do to push it into the realm of common-knowledge.

I like convertible cars, they’re not pretending to be practical. One of the draws of and automobile is that it allows its user the chance to privatise an area of public space. A convertible can be broken into with a Stanley knife and is clearly meant for frivolous applications. Choosing a convertible is a step away from the kind of agoraphobia that makes people irrationally afraid of cycle travel when the dangers of other modes are treated more fatalistically. It’s driver may be a victim of motor dependence but at least they’ve decided to get rid of the roof, who knows where that process might end?

Of course demanding the Advertising Standards Authority consider actual evidence is faux-naïf. They are referring to the Highway Code as arbiter of what is safe and healthy and – as noted here before –  Highway Code, the Road Safety industry are cultural phenomena desperately striving for some kind of technical validation.

*A sublimimal horse-related reference for Unionists. Those who favour independence for Caledonia make it grand INTERnational exposure.

grinding down the barriers to cycling

Sunday April 27th found the junction of Broad Lane and Tottenham High Road bustling with men in fluorescent pyjamas.

A couple of years, ago on arrival in my new neighbourhood, I noted that the local the junction of St.Annes, Hermitage and North Grove…

…local junction was ripe for a redesign.
Imagine the surprise – on Monday 28th April 2014 – to find a gap cut neatly in the guard-rails blocking the southern end of North Grove?

 The footway is already designated ‘shared use’, and level with the carriageway, so riding deferentially across it is now easy and legal; happy days.

I don’t know who undertook the small but important task making the northern arm of the junction permeable for cycle-traffic? Despite some big talk in the comments of a previous post, suggesting guerrilla action…

…it seems most likely – and most optimistic – that this small step, toward bicycle paradise was undertaken by contractors working under instruction of the London Borough of Haringey.

I’ve sent a note of congratulation to the council member for that ward, who also happens to be the ‘cycling champion‘ for the LBHaringey. Acknowledging good work is always polite and politic.

This is not the only good news from N15. The small hours of Sunday April 27th found the junction of Broad Lane and Tottenham High Road bustling with men in fluorescent pyjamas. Helpfully these industrious munchkins had fired up a portable LED matrix to inform passers-by what they were up to.

I thought about hanging around to become the first person through when they moved the cones, but my bed was calling, so – in traditional random push-bike style – contented myself with being one of the last naughty riders to go East on Broad Lane illegally.
Transport for London – who administer these trunk roads – have allowed their contractors a long time to return the roads of the Tottenham Hale one-way system to a default setting. This is customary. Works that involve changing the highway pattern almost always drag on for months and years, even though it’s possible – when deemed necessary – to make extensive changes at very short notice. Older readers may remember the famous ‘ring of Lego‘ that went in – pretty much overnight – twentysome years ago in response to Irish Republican bombs in The City of London.
There’s a conspiracy theory that suggests works like these are deliberately allowed to drag on for months so that anyone disadvantaged by the changes forgets what it was like before the prolonged digging and re-jigging started. The theory suggests that, if the works last long enough, relief when they do finally end will be enough to obliterate any nostalgia for the old system; that months of cones, congestion and temporary traffic lights will obscure the difference between the past and the future. Blurring this distinction also inhibits those who much prefer the new arrangements from demanding more civilisation. When people notice change it reminds them that how things are is not how they’ve always been, and not how they always have to be. For clock-watching traffic engineers that may smell like trouble.
Conspiracy theories are always over-optimistic – they contain the idea that somebody somewhere knows what they’re doing – but they can be a useful tool of analysis. With their unenviable task, resolving conflicting demands and aspirations within finite space and green-time, it’s not really surprising if highway engineers, planners and politicians endeavour to keep the focus on technicalities. How, and for whose benefit, we organise our public space is a political question, but it suits those who plan, build, maintain and administer our highways if this truth remains obscure.

How streets are laid out, how people are encouraged to use them can be treated as a technical problem with solutions. It’s also useful to think of it as a political contest with winners and losers.

The excellent ‘space for cycling’ campaign is currently releasing lots of energy. Enabling many people to make small efforts is more productive than stakhanovite labours by a few. If you haven’t yet taken the time to fill in the boxes and alert your local candidates do it now. It only takes a couple of minutes.

I have a small quibble with ‘space for cycling’ as a slogan. Does it reinforce the popular misconception of cycling as a problem, yet another demand on public space? As arguments against engineering the World to accommodate and encourage motor-dependence become better understood and more popular there’s a reactionary tendency to see cycle-traffic as another interest group at odds with ‘motorists’, or ‘pedestrians’, or ‘bus passengers’.

On roads subject to motor-traffic congestion – in urban and suburban Britain that currently means pretty much all roads – cycle-traffic produces space. When you’re riding along and somebody with a potentially higher speed is being momentarily delayed by your presence – when you’re presence is producing a convergence between their maximum speed and their average speed –  you’re releasing capacity. Bursts of speed waste space.

If you want to travel by bike gyratory systems are a nuisance.

They mean you have to…

  • …travel further
  • …deal with junctions with more lanes and higher traffic speeds.
  • They encourage the operators of motor-vehicles to go faster and take less care.
  • They make navigation more difficult.

Research showing busy one-way roads, roads carrying heavy flows of motor-traffic, are less convivial places to live dates back to the 1970s.

Getting rid of one-way streets…

  • …is good for residents and traders.
  • …means finding bus stops is simple.
  • …is good for bus passengers.
  • …make it easier to cross roads on foot.
  • …is good for local motor-traffic.

Getting rid of one-way systems is good for everybody except the people who manifest as through-motor-traffic, who contribute nothing to the local environment and economy but noise, severance and toxic polution.

Cycle-traffic is not another dish on the menu it’s the mainstay of a whole new cuisine. Building broad alliances against one-way operation marginalises those still clinging to the unrealisable fantasy of universal personal mobility via motor cars.

It’s too early to assess the value of the new two-way Broad Lane, it will take six months for things to settle down and folk to get used to it. It used to have three traffic lanes in one direction, now it has one in each. The 20 mph speed limit is unenforced except by fat grandads on bikes who don’t mind being used as traffic calming. However when I was spinning along it yesternight I had to ring my bell at a young fellow crossing the road while reading his smart phone.

Happy Days.

“We are normal and we want our freedom”

The most pressing short-term needs are, explaining to people who use motor-vehicles on public roads why people on bicycles need to claim time and space, and encouraging bicycle users to take enough time and space to be safe.

The statistical anomaly, that half the killings of cycle users in London, in 2013, were packed into fourteen days last month put the issue of motor-slaughter right up the agenda.

For a while no news or current affairs show on TV or radio was complete without a spot on the dangers of cycling. The resulting surge in demand for specialist commentary led to heavy squad-rotation. Not even the estimable C.M.Boardman MBE can be everywhere. I consequently got to spout opinions on BBC London Radio.

Some of the calls from members of the public are suitably random and there are moments when I start to ramble but it’s nice to air lunacy in public. In a mad World sanity can be a dangerous affliction.

Three things to remember in these crazy times.

  • People who travel by bike live longer.
  • People on bikes getting run down is not – primarily – a bicycle story. It’s a story about the dangers of motor-traffic in public space.
  • The most pressing short-term needs are, explaining to people who use motor-vehicles on public roads why those on bicycles need to claim time and space, and encouraging bicycle users to take enough time and space to be safe.

Is this woman broke? Samantha Cameron without mudguards.

Perhaps the strangest elements of this sudden squall were the comments of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, also on Radio London?

He seems oddly confident that the only significant reason a normal person would ride a bike is because they can’t afford to get around any other way. In the same interview Sir Bernard had already discussed the onward ramifications of the Andrew Mitchell swearing saga, which has a toff trying to ride a bike at its centre. He must have meetings with Boris. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t know senior police colleagues who use a bike to get to work.

Perhaps Sir Bernard is suggesting it’s poor people on bikes who get killed because they don’t have the social-presence of patrician fellow-travellers? Consider poor  Francis Golding, run down where Theobalds Road meets Southampton Row, 08/11/2013, died three days later, a lauded professional, also plenty old enough to qualify for free travel on tubes and buses.

I don’t know Sir Bernard personally but feel safe to assume that he’s no mug. You don’t rise from a humble background to become the country’s foremost peeler by being dumb. Why did he spout nonsense?

The idea that cyclists are reluctant victims of want is attractive to authoritarians. People voluntarily on bikes reveal the limits of the dominant theory of post-Thatcher Britain; that the only things that really matter are earning and spending. When our rulers witter on about ‘hard-working families’ they don’t mean ‘work equals force times distance’, they’re not thinking about people who’d rather waste time refurbishing an old bike than earning cash to buy a new one, or growing vegetables on their home patch, rather than purchasing ‘cheap’ those trucked in from distant lands. Our rulers definition of ‘work’ is restricted to paid employment, they’re talking only about economic activity. As Mayer Hillman observed, bicycle travel is a free-lunch you get paid to eat. By gaining satisfaction from something that is free-at-the-point-of-delivery folk using bikes reveal that right-wing theory – however useful – is only a theory.

Andrew Gilligan has boasted about riding his bike while wearing headphones, Boris once referred to using a phone while riding as ‘a free-born Englishman’s time-hallowed and immemorial custom’. Despite this they can’t admit that – while naughty cyclists may be an annoying, amenity issue – it’s the routine use of motor-vehicles that kills cities. They have to go along with the prevailing analysis that cycling is the problem, motor-dependence the default. To do otherwise is heresy.

Last Friday evening as I tooled by Manor House a collection of plods were congregated around the lights, on what looked like Operation Safeway duty. As a person of dignity in later middle-age, going to London for a night out, I was wearing black shoes, black trousers, a black jacket and a black hat. My leather gloves were brown. I was in good time and ready – if given unsolicited advice by any public servant on the absence of colour in my costume – to point out that the 3 watt generator, mit Standlicht vor und hind, on my bike was working fine, that the (mitchellesque expletive deleted) Queen of England travels in a black car, that I’d been riding these roads since their mothers were virgins and if they want to change the law of the land, to make clownish attire compulsory for bicycle users, they’d best start a campaign in their own (mitchellesque expletive deleted) time, not waste mine. They let me pass unmolested, which was probably best for all concerned.

Check the reversible rear-hub? Paul Smith stylish since the ’50s

Sir Bernard’s flat Sheffield accent reminds me of a recorded voice currently ringing round the Design Museum in Bermondsey, Paul Smith CBE from Nottingham. The show “Hello, my name is Paul Smith” explains how one person can keep a handle on a global brand. It’s not about bicycles but they run though it like the pin-stripe in a sober business suit, a sober business suit with a flamboyant paisley-print lining. The show’s not about bicycles but they pepper it’s content as…

  • …ubiquitous everyday conveniences.
  • …glorious, poetic symbols of transcendence and human potential.

While Bernard Hogan-Howe’s comments are a futile attempt to turn the clock back to the days of the vanishing tribe, when a bicycle was a – best-forgotten – symptom of austerity, the Paul Smith show heralds a future where human-powered mechanical travel is the default, non-walking, mode, the logistical skeleton of a World infused with peace, freedom and joy.

Bernard and Paul have things in common. They both left school and went to work without higher education. Hard graft has taken them to the top. They retain their accents. The puckish Smith is a decade older yet seems more youthful. What’s his secret?

death on the pavement

Moving the furniture, the kerbs and the lines on the highway may mitigate the threat of motor-traffic but if we want to solve – rather than ameliorate – the problem, these measures only make sense as part of an exit-strategy from motor-dependence. The problem is not technical it’s political.

It’s crazy days for bollard fanciers down here in the lower Lee – or Lea – Valley.

Tottenham Hale – where people used to holler over the marshes to hail the ferry – is enjoying its own, protracted, ‘Day H’.

The original ‘Day H‘ was the third of September 1967, when road traffic in Sweden switched from travelling on the left – in the British style – to using the right, like the Germans. In Tottenham we’re not switching sides but an extensive – fashionable in the mid-Twentieth Century – one-way system is being slowly returned to the direct, default setting. Happy days.

Downstream – where the A11 runs over the Bow Back Rivers – and travellers once used the straight ford through the swamps between Bromley-by-Bow and Stratford, there’s a new and novel street design that’s interesting, nice and funny.

A sight-seeing trip round the soon-to-be-former Tottenham Hale gyratory system is part of my current daily routine and last week I took the first possible opportunity to check-out the new extension of Cycle-Superhighway 2 on Stratford High Street. Exciting times.

An early visit to both is recommended, and for those unlucky enough to live beyond the catchment area of the mighty Lea – or Lee – there’ll  be more on all these modifications here soon. But first consider this sad site, a sorry reminder of the context and limits of infrastructure changes.

The floral shrine is memorial to Tamika Malo who was run-down and killed on Lordship Road – a residential street – in Stoke Newington, London, N16 last month. The crack in the wall…

…is where the saloon car hit. The damage, and witness accounts in the local press, strongly suggest that poor Ms. Malo was struck while on the sidewalk. This wouldn’t be too exceptional. Public-health statistics are always elusive but the best estimate seems to be that somewhere around 10 per cent of the people killed or seriously injured by crashes, while walking, are on the pavement.

In its very early years the London Cycling Campaign had a slogan ‘cycling is political’. It’s a welcome development that – thirty five years later – the slaughter of people travelling by bike is now a subject of political discourse.  These deaths are now recorded and discussed in greater detail, than those of slaughtered pedestrians; an inequity that tends to reinforce the popular misconception that cycle-travel is wildly dangerous.

Let’s not get into the slippery issue of the relative hazards of walking and cycling. Public-health statistics are elusive. It is worth noting that the two are roughly comparable.

Nowadays there’s lots of talk about the potential value of – what are colloquially referred to as – ‘segregated cycle facilities’. This form of words is problematic, ‘segregated tracks’ are always shared with others, on low-powered motor cycles and scooters, in motorised wheelchairs, skaters, skateboardists and often pedestrians and their dogs. It’s worth remembering that in Germany and the Netherlands the market for utility bikes is currently swamped by electric-powered bikes. In this context ‘segregated’ is shorthand – or euphemism – for ‘physically separated from heavy motor-traffic’. In this period in history taking the fact of motor-traffic for granted is never progressive.

Ms. Malo was killed while using a footpath physically separated from heavy motor-traffic. Moving the furniture, the kerbs and the lines on the highway may mitigate the threat of motor-traffic. It can change the way people think about public space. It can change the signals given to people about what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it. It reminds people that how we live now is not how we used to live or how we’ll live in the future.

Reconfiguring streetscapes and highways may be useful and necessary but if we want to solve – rather than ameliorate – the problem, these measures only make sense as part of an exit-strategy from motor-dependence. The problem is not technical it’s political.

I’ve been watching Olympopolis – nestled in the Lea Delta –  for years. I’ll be paying for it for the rest of my life so am compelled to wring-out every possible drop of entertainment. Riding around, as it slowly opens, is a bizarre experience. Like recovering from a nasty bump on the head. Trying to reconcile what is, with memories of what used to be. Some of the boulevards have parallel, Northern European-style rad-weg. Sections of which probably qualify as ‘protected from heavy motor-traffic’.

This used to be a “wasteland“.

The metre-thick concrete bund is to stop cars, vans, trucks, buses or motorcycles crashing off the bridge on to the railway beneath. Temporary shelter for anyone on the side track is – no morbid pun intended – just a spin-off.

blood and blue paint

Are ‘Cycle-Superhighways’ a new category of municipal displacement activity? Containment Infrastructure?

The Mile End Road – the A11 –  is in the news because two inquests coincided last week. They enquired into deaths at either end of this corridor.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9lvjuO4oGw?feature=player_detailpage]

The word ‘tragedy’ is over-used but that’s what these awful mishaps are.

The two deaths have circumstances in common – people travelling by bike, going ahead at junctions, knocked down and crushed by left-turning trucks, a well documented systems-failure. In these specific cases the crashes aroused further interest because – since 2011 – this section of the A11 has also been ‘Cycle-Superhighway 2′(CS2), a new flavour of highway design  that consists mostly of bright blue surface treatments along the left of the carriageway and some direction signs.

Giving evidence PC Simon Wickenden of the Metropolitan Police Traffic Unit  suggested that the presence of ‘Cycle-Superhighway’ stripes may have contributed to the slaughter by encouraging riders to travel too far to the left and by giving them an unjustified sense of security. The coroner – who dealt with both cases – has criticised the Superhighways. Her report is published today. TfL have eight weeks to reply.

Two useful principles when riding on roads shared with other traffic…

  • …control the space around you.
  • …pick a line that minimises conflict with traffic trying to go in other directions.

At times these principles can contradict. It’s easier to control space when you ride close enough to a kerb, or other linear barrier, to prevent people in cars or trucks passing on one side. This allows you to pay more attention to what’s happening on the other side; but if – for example – you’re approaching a junction where you want to go ahead, and the leftmost lane is used by traffic planning to turn left, taking the second lane will reduce conflict with left-turning traffic, but also make it harder to control the space around you because – once you’re in the second lane – other traffic can pass on either side.

The decision-making process can be more important than it’s outcome. When you’ve a definite idea of what you’re doing it’s easier for other people to discern what you’re going to do next. The blue stripes have no legal weight. Anyone using  any vehicle can use that space but their presence encourages bike riders to follow them even if they’re not the safest, or most convenient, path.

The tendency of riders to follow the blue stripes reduces uncertainty. Uncertainty keeps people alert. The stripes discourage communication – looking and signalling – between road users. Communication keeps people awake and encourages them to look out for each other.

The Cycle-Superhighways are an initiative of Transport for London(TfL) who are responsible for the Capital’s major road network. Other roads are administered by local Boroughs. TfL answers to the Mayor. The Cycle-Superhighways were proposed by Ken Livingstone and are being implemented under the aegis of Boris Johnson. The stated aims of the Superhighways are “to improve cycling conditions for people who already commute by bike, and to encourage new cyclists”.

The coloured tarmac certainly offers superficial validation of the idea that cycle travel is welcome on these routes and they mostly follow radial, main roads – which makes sense, not only do these follow the level, direct desire lines, they’re the ones TfL controls. The ambiguous and legally worthless, Cycle-Superhighways are a product of the era of mixed messages but classic ‘Alibi Facilities‘ they are not.

Here’s Boris’s political place-man Kulveer Ranger who oversaw their first phase – but has since moved on – defending the blue stripes against early criticism.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=3-hkWF0NKIk#t=54sfeature=player_detailpage]

Around 52 seconds he says:- “To reinforce safety we wanted to define where other road-users could expect cyclists to be.”

And the big beast himself, reworking the mantra…

…around 45 seconds:- “This is somewhere where motorists can expect to find cyclists.”

Now I don’t know where these jokers have been living for the last ten years?

Stating the obvious, for their benefit, the answer to the question:- “Where on the streets of Inner London do you expect to find cyclists?”

Is – of course – “everywhere.”

Indeed an unspoken corollary of their slogan might be:- “Don’t expect to find cyclists on the bits of the Mile End Road that aren’t blue.”

It’s instructive that the Cycle-Superhighway initiative came in as TfL were also engaged in ‘smoothing the traffic‘. Perhaps we have a new category of municipal displacement activity, a reaction to the rising tide of bicycle madness:- Containment Infrastructure?

Subsequent to two death crashes in two weeks at Bow Flyover late in 2011 the design of CS2 was modified. During one of the many consultations on the scheme a colleague observed:- ‘They should paint the whole road blue, or none of it.’

If the ambition is to validate cycle travel, to encourage riders onto the road without increasing complacency or limiting the options for cycle-traffic how about taking inspiration from the mysterious markings on Mare Street E8?

It’s a mistake to ever imagine that an organisation like Tfl speaks with one voice. This campaign – for example – contains some useful and progressive messages.

There isn’t anything good to take from the waste and horror of motor-slaughter but it’s worth noting that current coverage of the deaths on CS2 is different from, and more intense than, anything we could have expected during the era of the vanishing tribe. In former days disasters like these were ignored, or told tersely with a ‘what-do-you-expect-if-you-ride-a-bike?’ subtext.

Motor-traffic in general, the haulage business in particular, kills people. They kill people at a rate that would be a national scandal if any other source – bad food hygiene? enemy action? unmanned level-crossings? – were responsible.

Nowadays reportage on the slaughter of people using cycles may be more humane, with voices of bereaved friends and relatives, victim’s biographies, to transcend the statistics and reveal the true stories of suffering and loss, but it still tip-toes around the central issue. These stories are about trucks not bikes.

dreams and reality

Mainstream discourse still likes to hint that those who travel by bike are head-in-the-clouds idealists while treating fantasists who imagine you can reduce traffic jams by constructing highways as exemplars of cool rationality

As predicted last week the Government has preempted the current All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group inquiry by announcing £62 million of funding for ‘pro-cycling measures’ in England excluding London.On the subject of the APPCG transport minister Norman Baker said of its co-chairs Ian Austin MP (Labour, Dudley North) and Julian Huppert MP (Liberal Democrat, Cambridge) “They’re both cycle enthusiasts but they’re also realistic”.

dreams and reality -
Norman Baker – centre – being realistic and risking sunburn.
Norman Baker – centre – being realistic and risking sunburn.
Picture from the Guardian

Mainstream discourse still likes to hint that those who travel by bike are head-in-the-clouds idealists while treating fantasists who imagine you can reduce traffic jams by constructing highways as exemplars of cool rationality, even though the blind faith that building or widening roads relieves motor-traffic congestion went underground with a stake through it’s heart in 1994. The killer report was funded and published by the Department of Transport but perhaps their copy’s fallen down the back of a radiator somewhere?

Big ticket infrastructure – for example – a £32 billion, or probably more, railway line, whose economic justification is based on the assumption that you can’t work in a mainline train carriage, is regarded as a critical national policy issue, while English provincial towns and cities have to bid for modest ‘Cycle City Ambition Grants’, in a contest that can only have 2 or 3 successful candidates.

Distributing funds by ‘inviting bids’ and holding a beauty contest is wasteful and divisive. It might be a lot to you or me, but in national public-spending terms £62 million is half a peanut.

the example of Seville

At the turn of the Century cycle-travel accounted for just 0.02% of all trips in Seville – now 7% of journeys are made on a pedal bike.

A highlight of the first session of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group(APPCG)’s ‘Get Britain Cycling’ inquiry was Dr. Lyn Sloman describing the rapid – in local-government terms at least – transformation of the city of Seville in Andalusia now acclaimed as the ‘cycling capital’ of Spain.

Cycle lane in Seville - the example of Seville

the example of Seville

Starting from a very low base – at the turn of the Century when cycle-travel accounted for just 0.02% of all trips – now 7% of journeys in Sevilla are made on a pedal bike.

In 2010 I rode across Iberia – on the way to Fes taking as direct a route as possible across the corrugations of Andalusia, passing the delightful towns of Andújar, Baena, Cabra, Olvera and Ronda to hit the Mediterranean coast at the mouth of the Hozgarganta river. A slightly easier route, in terms of hills and navigation, might be to run down the Guadalquivir valley via Cordoba – with the added bonus of the chance to check-out Seville’s network of bike paths and ancient city centre – and then to proceed to the ferry-port of Tarifa – or Algeciras – via Jerez and Cadiz?

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?

‘cycling struggles’

Three network infrastructure can be a useful part of any exit strategy from motor-dependance but some people’s expectation of its ability to solve emotional problems about what people feel expected and entitled to do may be over-optimistic?

I’ve been reading the series ‘Cycling Struggles’ on the weblog of Dave Horton a sociologist based in Lancaster. Despite the gloomy title these accounts of testimony, from people of various backgrounds, on their attitudes to cycling, are useful.

In an area flooded with projection, hearsay and simple-minded theory – they present real people considering real problems and weighing up real solutions. In particular they clarify that those who are frightened of cycling, or the idea of cycling, are drawn from the same population that creates the threat; a useful antidote to lazy assumptions, that everyone who doesn’t cycle has taken an active decision not to, and that the factors informing any decision are the same for everyone.

Here’s my own anecdotal contribution to the genre. An account of a true conversation from the streets of London. A strange story which highlights the complexity of human motivation.

‘cycling struggles’ - Tavistock Place WC1

Tavistock Place WC1

We met in the basement garage of a grand office block near Holborn Circus, EC1. I checked his machine which was in good order. He’d recently started commuting – 5 kilometres throught the districts of Holborn, Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia and Marylebone – to Marylebone Station where he parked his bike overnight and caught a homeward train into the Chiltern Hills.

He was a strongly built, white man, in early middle age, smartly dressed in business clothes. I didn’t ask his job-description but guess it was salaried employment, legal or financial. He’d requested the meeting for guidance on riding from Holborn to Marylebone which he’d been doing for a couple of weeks. He told me he rode among the mighty Chilterns – on his other bike – at the weekends.

It was a dark Winter’s evening. We ran through the basics, how to choose where to ride on the road, passing junctions, overtaking parked cars. The guy was an easy student. His basic cycling skills were sound. As a qualified car-driver he understood the rules of traffic. He appeared socially confident.

We worked North and West taking it in turns to go ahead. The strange moment came as we moved into the university district of Bloomsbury, WC1 in the southern part of the London Borough of Camden.

As we turned on to Tavistock Place – where you have the option to travel on a narrow two-way, green-tarmac cycle-track on the North side of the road – my client exclaimed enthusiastically. “I like this bit.”

When I cautioned him not to ‘switch off’, that there was still potential danger, from turning traffic at every junction. I was shocked by his reply.

“Oh yeah” he said with a chuckle “I know it’s more dangerous, but I like it.” He continued to recount near-misses he’d witnessed – between turning motor-traffic and cycle-traffic on the side-path – in the few days he’d been riding the route.

I was too bemused to ask why he particularly liked riding on the green tarmac when he thought it held more danger than the rest of the route. And anyway he was paying me money to help him, not to interrogate the apparent contradictions of his feelings. Here was a person near the top of the pile. A man, white, English, prosperous, comfortable, at the peak of his powers, not the kind of person you’d expect to be willing to submit to extra perceived danger to avoid the risk of social conflict?

The rad-weg along Tavistock Place is sub-standard. I don’t recount this story to suggest that all side-path infrastructure for pedal-cycles and low-powered vehicles creates danger. It’s also worth noting that dangerous conflict between motor-traffic using the main carriageway and traffic on this newest layer of infrastructure – slotted between the footpath and the carriageway – seems to have reduced over the years, as people have got used to the third fragmentary network in South Camden. When it first went in some people told me how much they liked it, others complained what a nuisance it was. I was happy for the first group and told those who complained about it not to use it if they didn’t like it. To stay on the carriageway and stop moaning. That way there’d be more space for riders who wanted ‘their own’ strip of road.

Three network infrastructure can be a useful part of any exit strategy from motor-dependance but some people’s expectation of its ability to solve emotional problems about what people feel expected and entitled to do may be over-optimistic?

A significant number of those killed or injured by motor-vehicles while walking are on the dedicated network of the sidewalk, pavements. A 100 millimetre kerb may make people feel safe but if the driver of a heavy motor-vehicle goes out of control it may not be much help?

Redesigning street furniture doesn’t necessarily make people more careful or considerate. That can be a quicker, cheaper, more complicated process.