Category Archives: Uncategorized

What do we want? Marginal gains!

When do we want them? After a statutory period of public consultation

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Oh, wait, no. The chant that greeted commuters on the Aldgate gyratory from the couple of thousand who turned out at short notice for the LCC “flashride” protest was:

Blue paint: not enough.

We always knew that Boris Johnson’s splashes of blue paint on big main roads were woefully inadequate and as we pause to mark the latest inevitable fatality to occur on the most lethal of the lot, CS2, the last thing we need is friends who tell us to be less ambitious in what we ask for.

The people who came to protest at Aldgate on Friday did so because they knew it was worth their time to do so: they know that what they are asking for is worth asking for. Worth fighting for. They came to ask for things that will make a real difference. A phase change.

Not marginal gains. Not splashes at the margins that “dance and dodge around motor traffic”. Nobody ever came out on a march with pickets asking for marginal gains.

Marginal gains are not enough.

But, despite decades of failing to motivate anybody with the prospect of marginal gains, marginal gains are what some would still have us campaigning for. Why? Because the cycling lobby is too weak. There aren’t enough cyclists to hold any sway.

It’s always good every now and again to have somebody new butt in, who hasn’t been paying attention, to run through and remind us of all the canards and zombie arguments. Welcome, Guy Chapman:

We can formalise the argument with a formula. The extent to which a cause is worth fighting is dependent on the magnitude of the payoff multiplied by the probability of actually getting your way. And the assumption is that there’s an inverse relationship between the magnitude of what’s being asked for and the chances of actually getting it. So we get fans of small payoff campaigns telling proponents of high payoff campaigns to “be realistic”.

Problem is, I reckon they’ve got their probabilities wrong. And they’ve got them wrong precisely because of the fact that you’ll never get people out on the street chanting for marginal gains. All except a small hardcore of campaigners will look at the payoff, shrug, and ask themselves what’s the point. Seeing nothing in it for ordinary people, the media will ignore it and politicians will dismiss it as a single issue minority pressure group asking for favours.

Whereas, if you get your strategy right, if you ask for something that is ambitious enough to motivate people to fight for it, you will have a much better chance of achieving your goal. If it’s attractive enough and inclusive enough to appeal to more than just the usual few suspects. If it has something to offer them.

The reason why we so often don’t get our strategy right all comes back to that pernicious way of thinking that is at the root of so much that is rotten in this field, and is so excellently demonstrated in the first of those tweets:

That is, the tendency towards the assumption of monomodality. In this case it causes us to think about cyclists’ issues, and ask ourselves what cycling campaigns can do for cyclists. Even when discussing the issue of what it takes to enable more people to make more of their journeys by bicycle — what we can do for people currently excluded from cycling — too many contributors to the discussion are encumbered by this idea that this must be a job for cyclists.

And there aren’t enough cyclists, therefore cyclists can’t achieve much.

Therefore there’s no point in trying.

When actually, the correct conclusion to all this is that if we are ever to achieve anything worthwhile, what we ask for has to appeal beyond cyclists: beyond those few who are happy to put that cringe-inducing cliché “keen cyclist” beside their name; beyond the hardcore who turn up to campaign meetings. Beyond the sort of weirdoes who tell to their bewildered friends that it’s fine if you “take the lane”. It has to actually have something obvious to offer to people.

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If you want to motivate and mobilise, your vision needs to make an obvious offer of something worth fighting for. (via Pedestrianise London)

At its finest, Go Dutch does that. It motivates and mobilises people who would just shake their heads in wonderment at the campaigns for marginal gains. It at least brings on board what are usually dismissively filed away under “occasional cyclists” — the third of the population who use their bikes on the very rare occasions when they can do so in a safe environment, but who otherwise leave them languishing in sheds, longing for the opportunity to use them more. It even brings on board a few people who aren’t even occasional cyclists, but who can see the possibilities when they are presented clearly in visualisations like those drawn up for Blackfriars and Parliament Square. Go Dutch motives and mobilises people because it has something to offer them. It gets in the Evening Standard because it’s of interest to ordinary Londoners. And it gets the attention of politicians because it’s for their electorate, not for a minority special interest group.

Marginal gains have nothing to offer to people like m’colleague opposite, who has taken Bikeability and lives on a 20mph street, but who still won’t use her bike for anything other than recreation because to do so in London is far from fun. Marginal gains have nothing to offer to people like my friend Shiv, who, if you even humorously suggest might “take the lane”, will explain that this is a “fucking terrifying” idea. Since they are not cyclists, they are at best going to ignore any campaign to make life marginally easier for cyclists as having nothing to offer them.

Go Dutch does offer something. They can see it making a difference to their lives. That could be for them. They can sign up to that.

Your country needs you

On Friday:

Join the London Cycling Campaign protest ride this Friday calling for clear space for cycling on our streets

Meet 6pm for 6.15pm start at Tower Hill (where it meets Minories) http://goo.gl/maps/8CzmeThe protest ride will last approximately 20-30 minutes, including a brief stop at the junction of A11 Whitechapel Road and A1202 Commercial Street to pay respects at the place where last week’s victim died
The ride will be marshalled by LCC staff and volunteers, and will finish at Altab Ali Park around 6.30pm

And read more about why at ibikelondon.

On Saturday:

National rally against road-building

Saturday 13 July 2013 at Crowhurst, East Sussex

Come to the Combe Haven valley to raise the alarm about Government plans for a massive programme of new roads. Join campaigners from across the UK for a rally and walk along the route of the most destructive and fiercely opposed new road being built in England – the £100 million Bexhill-Hastings Link Road.

That is all.

Stevenage is not Britain

So a dull grey 1950s new town of 85,000 people situated 25km beyond the London boundary on the far side of the Hertfordshire green belt seems to have become the unlikely topic that has dominated cycle campaigning discussion all spring. Driving this agenda is Carlton Reid, starting with his Roads Were Not Built For Cars blog describing the dense network of separated cycle paths that were built alongside the town’s big dual carriageway roads, and under the roundabout intersections, when the new town was laid out five decades ago.

Despite its network of “Dutch-style” cycle paths, Stevenage now has a modal share for cycling in the low single figures, just like its cycle track-free neighbours: it’s a typical British town, Reid points out.

The reason the cycle tracks didn’t work in Stevenage, he goes on to explain, is that car use was not restrained. The dense network of cycle paths parallels a dense network of high-speed dual carriageway motor roads linked with high-capacity roundabouts.

Others have already pointed out that the Stevenage cycle path network is ossified in its 1960s state, detached from the parts of the town that have grown since then. And others have already pointed out that the quality of the infrastructure is frequently far below modern Dutch standards, and doesn’t come close to the density of modern Dutch networks — accompanying only the biggest dual carriageway roads, with cycle users still expected to mix on through distributor roads that are much busier and faster than they would be expected to use in the Netherlands. And others have pointed out that the 14% mode share for cycling that Stevenage achieved in the 1970s — before the infrastructure had fallen so far behind the town’s expansion — is actually quite impressive for a town built for driving at a time when cycling in Britain was hitting rock bottom.

So I have no intention of discussing those things, or whether Reid is right to shrug them off. Because on the main point — that the primary reason people don’t cycle in Stevenage is because it’s a town built for easy motoring — everybody is agreed.

I’m more interested in whether Britain really has anything important to learn from Stevenage. Because Reid goes on to draw general conclusions about the UK from this town’s experience. Dutch-style infrastructure and street design, he says, would not be enough to get us on our bikes. At least as important is making it harder to use cars. Indeed, in a particularly bizarre episode that it’s probably kinder not to dwell on, he mocks the “build it and they will come” position with a weird sports analogy. It’s too easy to drive in Britain, he says, so using the car is too culturally ingrained for cycle tracks alone to get people cycling.

The problem with obsessing over the Stevenage story, then, is not that Stevenage is not the Netherlands. It’s that Stevenage is not Britain.

The Stevenage story tells us about mid-20th century new towns, which were built with dense networks of dual carriageways to keep high volumes of motor traffic flowing freely to all destinations. Traffic really is unrestrained in Stevenage. And Stevenage really does have a deeply ingrained car culture: populated by a self-selected pack of people who were attracted out of the overcrowded capital in the 1960s and up the motorway to the semi-detached countryside with the promise of a double garage and everything else that the white heat of technology could provide.

But most places are not Stevenage. It’s ironic that those who seem most fond of the Stevenage story are so often also those who like to point out that many of the streets in the City of London are medieval and so too narrow for cycle paths.

Most of us live in towns and cities that are not like Stevenage, physically or even culturally. Not to anywhere near such an extreme extent, at least. We live in cities which are, no doubt about it, car sick. Cities which have been scarred and divided by some big roads, and cities which have been disfigured by sprawling suburbias with double garage semis, certainly. They are cities where the car has done much damage, and where built-in dependence on the car still does great damage, and you wouldn’t catch me opposing car restraining policies if you were proposing them.

But though there may be little in the way of political policies to actively restrain car use in these places, the car is not, as in Stevenage, the free and fast and utterly unrestrained thing that it is in the new towns. In normal towns and cities, which don’t have the same dense network of dual carriageways joined by roundabouts, serving multistory car parks and double-garaged homes, the car must crawl down old streets narrowed by on-street parking; sit in the congestion that it inevitably creates; and on reaching a destination get waylaid by the task of finding suitable storage. Stevenage’s lesson about the need for policies of car restraint don’t matter for most of us, because in our towns and cities, there are already massive factors pushing against car use.

The problem for us is the lack of any alternatives to go to. In Stevenage the pull of the cycle path network has to compete with the much stronger pull of the road network. Supply of transport infrastructure far exceeds demand, so people opt for whatever’s most attractive. Everywhere else, the push of congested streets and insufficient public transport is met with the much stronger push of hostile cycling conditions. Here supply of transport infrastructure doesn’t meet demand, so people make do with whatever’s least painful.

So yes, of course the formula for building cycling is multifactoral. But there’s a very good reason why there is such a strong focus on campaigning for better infrastructure, and why we might even say: build it and they will come. This is the factor that has so far been missing. In London, in Bristol, in Manchester, Belfast and Glasgow, we have the push of congested roads and too many stored cars for the space available. We have the cycle training in schools and the glossy promotional campaigns. What we’re missing is the infrastructure.

If you care about growing cycling in Stevenage, by all means, go and campaign for the factor that is missing in that town: car use restraint. Good luck to you. Make it difficult to drive and I’m sure They Will Come, to coin a slogan.

I don’t really care about Stevenage. I care about enabling cycling it where it’s needed most, and I’ll carry on campaigning for the factor that is missing in those places: the infrastructure for it. In those places, when you build it, they do come — a phenomenon I’ll explore in more detail later in the week.

The choreography of a British intersection

Copenhagenize recently analysed in detail how Danes behave at an urban intersection. I wonder what they would make of the terrifying mess that is the British urban road junction?

You might recognise the junction from the Tour du Danger series.

In case you missed it…

…I made a little video with the incoming chair of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, who you might also know as the author of As Easy As Riding A Bike

Full story here.

Collective punishment and the bottom half of the internet

Dawn Foster writes in the Guardian Bike Blog of the case of poor Emma Way, who tweeted about having driven dangerously, hit another road user, and fled the scene leaving that person in a hedge. Way has since apologised profusely for having tweeted, so that’s not what I intend to write about today. We should all forgive and forget the fact that she tweeted. I mean, all she did was send a tweet. It’s not like she almost killed someone, or anything.

No, the thing that stood out about Dawn’s article was the marvellous opening comment from “EGriff”:

Before you get too righteous, consider the cyclist on Moorgate last night who went through a red light at speed, across a pedestrian crossing on green, with people on it then turned right through another bunch of crossing pedestrians. That’s the sort of thing pedestrians and motorists see daily, which is why the sight of a cyclist raises their blood pressure.

EGriff makes the excellent point that before we get too righteous about a specific event of dangerous driving in which the perpetrator gave the appearance of absolute disregard for the victim of her actions or the seriousness of what she had done, we must first consider a completely different kind of event, entirely unconnected to it, involving completely different people, at a different time, in a different part of the country. The event EGriff asks us to consider is of course highly relevant because the perpetrator of the latter had chosen to use the same mode of transport as the victim of the former, making them practically the same person, and definitely responsible for each-other’s behaviour.

Unfortunately, EGriff’s comment, posted on a newspaper website, is rather undermined by the fact that a reader named lili posted the following comment on a different newspaper website a long time ago:

Incest is just another word for Love, why can’t people understand this and just let people be?

And by the comments of Donna from Bristol, who posted this two years ago. And Richard from Islington who expressed this sentiment. And hundreds of others.

Before EGriff gets too righteous, he or she needs to consider the sort of things that his fellow newspaper bottom-dwellers do every day. The sort hateful, racist, sexist, and just plain stupid comments that get posted. I can tell you, defending incest really doesn’t reflect very well on EGriff. It’s racist, homophobic and sexist comments like Donna’s and Richard’s that are the reason the sight of a newspaper commenter like EGriff raises my blood pressure.

And it seems that newspaper website commenters don’t even know what they want. Are they against pavement cycling or in favour of it? Make up your mind, newspaper commenters.

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But even leaving aside their disgusting hateful racism, frequent incitement to violence, and plain stupidity, newspaper commenters like EGriff are undermined rather by their excessive concern for pedestrians. I should mention that I myself on occasions enjoy a little perambulating (this country has some fine landscape gardens and towpaths that are a delight for a pedestrian), and it certainly sounds like the incident EGriff witnessed in Moorgate was a frightening and reprehensible crime, and I am sure that the City of London Police will give it all of the attention that it deserves. But before we pedestrians get too righteous, consider the junkie pedestrian in Brixton a few years ago who threatened me while I was waiting for the N3 night bus, or the sexist pedestrians who harassed Dawn in the street as she waited at the traffic lights. Muggings, attacks, and sexist abuse are the sort of thing that folk have to put up with from pedestrians daily, which is why the sight of pedestrians so often raises our blood pressure.

And how much can we really believe EGriff’s story about the cyclist on Moorgate? Did this really happen on the green phase of the traffic lights? Every time I try to make a journey from the office in South Kensington to Bloomsbury or the City, crossing Regents Street from Hannover to Great Marlborough Street, I encounter dozens of pedestrians stepping out into the road right in front of me as they ignore their red signal. Isn’t it more plausible that scofflaw pedestrians were jumping the lights at Moorgate that night? Presumably the cyclist would have been unaware of their presence — one sees so many pedestrians who are totally invisible, dressed all in black without even a hi-viz vest.

And every morning, as I head over Wandsworth Common to Battersea, I encounter dozens of pedestrians — dressed up in those silly “training shoes” and watching their pedometers, or whatever it is they do, oblivious to the world — walking down the middle of the cycle path, either scattering the other pedestrians at 12kmph, or else wobbling all over the place at 2kmph. Usually with those pet dogs that pedestrians have, running out of control all over the place. Isn’t it more plausible that the pedestrians on Moorgate were completely oblivious to the fact that they were doing their hiking in the middle of a road or cycleways?

I should reiterate that I am myself often a pedestrian — I even once pedestrianed up Mount Snowdon in my youth. But if pedestrians want their concerns to be taken seriously, they first need to get their own house in order. Until these hiker hooligans stop mugging people and allowing their dogs to foul the cycle path, it’s hardly surprising that folk are hostile to the demands that pedestrians make for our streets — streets which, lets remember, they do not pay for.

The same goes for bus users — of which, as I have already mentioned, and am keen to reiterate, I am very occasionally one myself. Until bus users stop playing their rap songs out loud on their mobile phones, how can they expect their calls for better bus services to be taken seriously? And as for railway train users and their demands for lower fares and £30b investment in new high-speed lines, well… the less said about railway users the better. Lets just say, railway users have a lot to make up for before they should expect that kind of investment.

EGriff is far from alone in recognising that people should be held collectively responsible for the actions of others who happen to use the same mode of transport as themselves. And it’s hardly a new idea. Indeed, it is not only in those newspaper comment threads that it is recognised that investment in a transport mode should be conditional on the way that users of the transport mode behave.

So it’s good to see cyclists themselves doing the right thing and taking responsibility for the behaviour of total strangers — as Christian Wolmar and the Campaign for Considerate Cycling do. It would surely be wrong for them to instead put their efforts into, say, ridiculing the principle of collective punishment as absurd and illegitimate, and mocking the newspaper bottom-dwellers and occasional Tory councillors who propose such a dangerous idea.

You can find a more constructive look at this issue, from a very different angle, at As Easy As Riding A Bike.

An armchair seaside safari

As usual, for those who missed out on the latest infrastructure safari, here it all is in an armchair edition that you can ride through in Google Maps in the unlikely event that you’ve got nothing better to do:

http://goo.gl/maps/oD2di

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Reminder: a seaside safari

Don’t forget folks, it’s only just over a week ’till our nice relaxing bicycle ride to the beaches of Weymouth and Portland. On the morning of Saturday 18th we’ll gather in Dorchester ready to follow the 12km (7.5 mile)  Olympic cycleway to the seaside, and then perhaps have a look at some of the other infrastructure in the town.

The original plan was to meet at Dorchester South station for the 11:52 arrival from Waterloo, but due to requests from those with connections, we’ll hang around just long enough (and not a second longer — we’ve a lunch at the seafront to get to!) for those on the 12:04 arrival to join the back of the pack as we set off. That’ll also give loads of time for those travelling from Bristol/Bath to make the short journey over from Dorchester West station.

If anyone arrives significantly earlier than the meeting time, they’ll probably find me just around the corner checking what’s on offer in the newly redeveloped brewery… perhaps not the new flats, though: even with the excellent advertising line they’ve taken, I’m not sure who’s going to be paying £1.25 million for a flat in Dorchester… I mean… Dorchester

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A seaside safari, again

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Back in August, Jim led a successful seaside safari in Worthing and Brighton, on which we looked at the good, the bad, and ugly bits of south coast infrastructure for cycling… while, of course, having a nice leisurely bicycle ride beside the beach in the sunshine.

Despite the latest easterly’s feeble attempts at bringing us one last delivery of snow and ice, it can not be too long before we have to start thinking again about days out on the south coast. I am therefore proposing a seaside safari to Britain’s sunniest town and original seaside holiday resort: Weymouth.

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Weymouth could be an interesting little case study for infrastructure: a somewhat smaller town than those we’ve visited on previous safaris, with the inter-urban Olympic cycle track on the main road into the town and, like Bristol, a growing network of away-from-road multi-user paths, including the Rodwell Trail railway path. It also has some infrastructure on hills.

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I’m proposing Saturday 18th May (while folk at the other end of the island are Pedalling on Parliament), meeting at Dorchester South at 11:52, for the (6 full-size bicycles per train) arrival from Waterloo. Folk travelling from or through Bristol would arrive five minutes earlier a couple of hundred yards away at Dorchester West. We’d spend an hour or two — depending on how fascinated everyone is by the infrastructure design — covering the 7.5 miles / 12 kms of mostly traffic-free route to the sea front for lunch, followed by options for further rides (probably the Rodwell Trail out to Portland Harbour and Chesil Beach), ending at a pub near to Weymouth station, or else the option for folk to split off for their own family afternoons with the Punch and Judy shows on the beach.

But that’s only if enough people express an interest. Is anybody interested?

Update: I have had sufficient interest here and on twitter/email/etc to give the go ahead exactly as described above. And cheap advance train tickets have just gone on sale today. If you want to reserve bicycle spaces with your ticket, I’d buy from the East Coast website. Though those with railcards (including the Network Card) might find that a flexible walkup ticket is not a bad deal on the weekend.

Condensing all this cycling stuff into eight minutes

On Wednesday afternoon I spent an hour chatting with Rachel Aldred at the University of Westminster. You might know Rachel from the likes of the Cycling Cultures research project, or from the London Cycling Campaign policy committee, for which she has just taken the chair, or from her blog.

We talked about the importance of researching cycling, Cycling Cultures, the “Get Britain Cycling” parliamentary inquiry, including what the barriers to cycling in Britain are and the infrastructural and systemic changes that are required to enable cycling, and about Rachel’s latest research into the uses and abuses of transport modelling. We also chatted about cycling campaigning: her research into it, and the great effect that the internet is having on it, plus her own work for the LCC.

Among other things, the ‘uhms’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘oh, no, lets do that bit agains’ and ‘who would have guessed radio could be difficult?s’ have been cut out, leaving eight minutes to be included in The Pod Delusion, broadcast in London at 11am tomorrow (Sunday) on Resonance 104.4, or else podcasted here. A longer half-hour cut which includes the campaigning chat should also be made available to download there, or here, or somewhere, at some point.

I fear eight minutes chat might not have been enough to discuss the entirety a topic that deserves to have a book written about it (agents and publishers can contact me on the email address in the about page if they’re looking for suggestions for the person to write it), and that we were perhaps talking a little too much to our already well-versed blog audiences rather than the general Pod Delusion audience. But if you liked it, I might consider leaving the comfort of the word processor behind again in the future.

That’s if I can find a way to get over that whole horror of hearing how your own voice really sounds thing.

“All that blogging has achieved is ‘Go Dutch’,” and other flattering criticisms

I had a most entertaining conversation after the Street Talks just past. I was ambushed by a cycling campaigner of the old school, for want of a better set of words. He helps to run a national club for cycling and cyclesport enthusiasts. You might have heard of them from their occasional forays into matters of transport policy.

This gentleman and I knew each other from previous transport policy discussions, and he was keen to pursue a particular pet issue of his — the idea that for “cyclists” to have political influence they must resolve their differences and present a united front. (Why that idea is wrong is not for this post.) Specifically, the conversation concerned whether there is any appetite amongst representatives of those campaigns which I have been involved in or support to have meetings with him and his own club, with the aim of resolving those differences and producing that united front.

I explained why I thought that any appetite was unlikely to be a large one, given our experience of such talking shops and our scepticism of that “united front” premise. The entertainment began when I suggested a far better method of achieving progress than small groups talking for a couple of hours behind closed doors (usually at length about the pet issues of whichever person can talk the longest and interrupt the most often): blogging. I hardly need to explain the merits of blogging to you. Writing is an excellent method of disciplining and clarifying thoughts and ideas, something that my brain is usually otherwise unable to do fast enough in flowing live discussion. Writing publicly doubly so, for if you are going to announce adherence to an idea in a form that attaches it to your name for all to see, potentially permanently, you make extra effort to ensure that it is not a foolish one. Blogging is primarily a means of motivating oneself to research a subject meticulously, and think the issues through thoroughly. But of course it’s much more besides. It’s a means of getting those ideas reviewed, by others who might bring facts that you missed and perspectives which were unavailable — a much wider, more diverse and more interesting group of others, in my experience, than the men (for it is they) who invite each other to discuss cycle campaigning behind closed doors.

These are, of course, just the same old centuries old processes by which ideas have been developed and spread. Blogging is simply the easiest technology with which to do it these days.

But you know all this.

This gentleman, however — this fan of monocultural behind-closed-doors cyclist talking shops — has his own ideas about what blogging is, and he started by stating very bluntly that he will never ever participate in such things, useful, as they are, only for “preaching to the converted” (show of hands who was converted by the revelations of the likes of A View From The Cycle Path. OK, order, settle down again now everybody).* All that bloggers have achieved, he said, is Go Dutch — “a failed campaign”.

I believe that the London Cycling Campaign perhaps deserve some share of this most flattering of put downs — this backhanded criticism, if you’ll allow such a phrase — but he is certainly right that the campaign would never have happened without David Hembrow and Copenhagenize having shown us what we are missing; without the years of Freewheeler chipping away at the misunderstandings and misinformation of the anti-infrastructuralists, and the received wisdom of British cycle campaigning; without i bike london and Cyclists In The City paving the way at Blackfriars Bridge, drumming up protest on a scale that clubs and campaigning organisations had been failing to do; and without Vole O’ Speed putting the case for the campaign to LCC members.

Those people and many more must each take their share of the blame for Go Dutch. They must take the blame for the most significant shift in the direction, ambition and courage of campaigning in more than half a century. They must take the blame for a coherent campaign with clear vision and simple attractive pitch. They must take the blame for a campaign that people actually thought worth campaigning for, even in the dreich and drizzle, in their thousands. They must take the blame for a protest with a cause that was capable of motivating and attracting more than just the same old crowd, including a healthier-than-usual turnout of women, families and older people. They must take the blame for full-page stories exploring their campaign goals in the Evening Standard and national newspapers. They must take the blame for all of the main mayoral candidates feeling the need to debate the issue in public, and for all of the main mayoral candidates pledging support for their demands. They must take the blame for the first signs of the TfL supertanker turning: for the latest “Cycle Superhighway” designs being a world apart from the earlier routes.

If Go Dutch is all that bloggers have achieved, then in a few short years bloggers have achieved something far more exciting, far more concrete, and far more worthwhile than his club has achieved in decades.

But Go Dutch is a failed campaign, apparently. Because Boris won’t have turned London into Amsterdam by the end of his term. Or something. Luckily, this man and his club have just launched their own campaign, for a “cycling utopia”. So we can all look forward to the great success of that.

I am being unfair. I am judging someone by the ideas they propose in the middle of flowing debate immediately after describing my own lack of comfort with this medium for developing ideas. But there is a point to all this. Go Dutch is an appealing and popular vision. In addition to the thousands of cyclist and would-be-cyclist  supporters it motivated, the LCC campaign marches in step with The Times’ and Cities Fit For Cycling; with the academic community; and with the likes of the Cycling Embassy and dozens of local campaign groups around the country. And here it is being criticised by a man who believes in the utmost necessity of cyclists presenting a united front. I wonder whether he or his club have ever thought to check who it is that’s marching out of step?

* I’ve never really understood “preaching to the converted” as a criticism anyway. The Pope preaches to the converted, and he’s way more influential than the bloke who shouts about salvation on the pavement outside Brixton tube. Preaching to the converted is what motivates the converted to action.

Insults, injuries and incompetence

Boris shouldn’t just apologise for blaming cyclists for getting injured. He should correct the policies that are based on this mistake.

It will come as news to nobody that making a journey by bicycle on Britain’s roads means exposing yourself to a considerable number of people who are operating potentially lethal machinery despite having neither the skills nor the temperament for the task. The fact that a significant proportion of the people society has allowed to drive on the public highway are simply not competent behind the wheel is far from a new phenomenon. Indeed, it was one of the inspirations for starting this blog two and half years ago.

Over those years the blog has strayed off into all sorts of other areas, like designing out the need to deal with incompetent drivers entirely, but the original issue has been back at the top of my mind — partly due to the other thing I’ve been working on. Mostly, though, I think it’s because of the forceful reminder of the fact that comes from moving to SW17, just off Cycle Superhighway 7. Perhaps I’m just imagining it, or perhaps it’s simply the psychological bias towards to the recent, but after a New Cross-Bloomsbury commute, the roads between Tooting and South Kensington seem to have more than their fair share of the sort of motor vehicle operators who demonstrate a screaming lack of the aptitude and/or attitude that the activity requires.

It’s particularly highlighted in south west London by the near zero speed limit compliance around CS7 between Kennington and Clapham outside of the rush hour congestion, and the folk using the bus and cycle lanes to pass already speeding traffic as they try to get their high-powered cars — which I’ve always presumed must be stolen from the West End — back to Stockwell and Streatham. Or the few folk who still insist on commuting to the City by car, desperately seeking a ratrun back to the Surrey suburbs and not allowing any of LB Wandsworth’s traffic calming to slow them down as they slalom in and out of cycle lanes on residential streets like Burntwood Lane…

Burntwood Lane, LB Wandsworth

Morons in South West London just see traffic calmed residential streets with schools on them as the next level up in the game. Few of the bollards shown remain in situ.

And yet there is one person to whom this blindingly obvious problem might have come as news, at least until recently: Boris Johnson. During his successful campaign for re-election in the spring, the famously carefree with facts Mayor made the absurd claim that two thirds of cyclists who had been injured and killed on the city’s roads were breaking the law when they were injured. After months of pretending that he was trying to remember what the evidence for the obviously fictional factoid was, he finally retracted it — once the election had long passed.

Last month, Jenny Jones MLA asked the mayor to apologise:

In your response to question 2450/2012, you admit that Transport for London’s statistics and research completely disprove your previous claim that two thirds of cyclists who have suffered serious injuries were breaching the rules of the road at the time. Will you now apologise for wrongly blaming cyclists who have been killed or injured on London’s roads through no fault of their own?

The mayor instead decided to send a great big “fuck you” to victims:

Please refer to my response to MQ 2450 /2012.

But it seems to me that Boris has much more to make amends for than merely insulting the victims of bad driving and the way we operate our streets, and he needs to take far more substantial action than making an apology.

Because Boris is responsible for the problem, and if he really has been labouring under the delusion that it is cyclists who are responsible for the carnage on the capital’s streets then his mistake would at least explain why his policies have so far failed to do anything to address the problem.

The office of Mayor of London has always incorporated the role that in the rest of England and Wales is now played by the recently introduced Police and Crime Commissioners. Policing priorities are therefore ultimately Boris’s responsibility. And there is no remotely realistic policy in place for tackling the problems of life-threatening incompetence, aggressive anti-social behaviour, and barefaced criminality amongst operators of motor vehicles that is on near constant display every evening along Cycle Superhighway 7 and the residential streets of south west London. Boris has allowed deadly dangerous driving to carry on as the norm, apparently because he was oblivious to it, preferring to pursue policies targeted at changing cycling behaviour.

He has added insult to injury and he needs to apologise for both.

Stainless steel has spoiled my railway station

In the absence of my having written for the blog anything worth reading, here’s the next best thing: some frivolous nonsense that I amused myself with on the train a while back and couldn’t be bothered editing into shape. It’s basically 5 minutes that you’ll never get back.

a picture what I took for Wikipedia

Despite the timeless complaints of rising fares, overcrowded commuter trains, and the engineering work that forces us to sit around for an infuriating few minutes longer than we had scheduled for, a romanticism remains attached to the railway. It might be hard to find when we’re waiting on a signal failure outside Clapham Junction, but it all comes back when we escape the peak time commuter train and take to the tracks not so much for transport but for travel.

Partly it is the change of scene. Partly the scenes themselves: the landscape and architecture and history that we pass through. The great gothic brick terminus stations with their vast glass trainsheds, and the lichen-covered concrete of the art deco signal boxes beside the line. The high viaducts over big rivers, and the tunnels that take you to some surprising new scene. It’s the lush green embankments marching through the flat fens and low wolds, and gently curving as they snake through high Pennine moors of Yorkshire and bleak empty wildernesses of the West Highlands and Sutherland. It’s the sea spray on the window beside the beach at Dawlish, and the crowd of crossings on the Tyne. The crawl of the ironically named “sprinter” train on the Cambrian Coast route, treading a careful line between the beaches of Cardigan Bay and the peaks of Snowdonia. The tangle of the brick arch viaducts with the rivers and canals on the final approaches to Manchester Deansgate and Birmingham New Street, and that mysterious metallic clatter in the tunnel between Edinburghs Waverley and Haymarket.

Glenfinnan

It’s the Britain that the railways tied together, not the railways themselves. Oh no. I have little time for romanticisation of the trains themselves, or the selective memory that comes with it. I have no longing for the era when thousands died from the lung diseases caused from a lifetime breathing air thick with soot; no longing for the time when deaths in train crashes were almost as casually accepted as deaths on our roads still are today. I have no illusions about the comfort and customer service offered by the early railway companies, who went out of their way to make the third class services — which they had been reluctantly compelled to provide with regulated fares — as unappealing as possible.

I like the fact that stations these days are well lit and relatively free from the fear of crime; I like the fact that wheelchair users can (mostly) access today’s trains, and the visually impaired can see where the doors are; I like the fact that the clickety-clack rhythm has been traded for safe and reliable continuously welded track. The high costs, overcrowding and unreliability of long distance commutes may be modern phenomena — but only because modern trains are fast enough, efficient enough and reliable enough to enable the lifestyle choice of long distance commuting. The modern railway, for all its imperfections, is far better than the imagined romantic railway of the past, and I have no time for those who complain that this or that aspect of it lacks the “character” that it once had.

That is, until they ruined my local station with stainless steel fixtures. Templecombe, an unimportant little station in a plain village in an unassuming corner of Somerset, is one of those places that means so much more to those who romanticise the railway than its hourly service of early 1990s diesel units to Waterloo would suggest. The station represents all that was lost of the railways and all that went into saving them. Once a busy interchange between the Somerset and Dorset Railway and the Southern Railway’s main line to the West Country — one half of a fierce competition with the Great Western for the custom of London’s holidaymakers — the station has lost entirely one of its lines, and had the other — finally thoroughly defeated — reduced to a single track shadow of its former self and left to decline for several decades. The station itself was one of the many closed in the Beeching Axe, and perhaps its main claim to fame comes from being one of the first to have reopened, thanks to the hard work of campaigners and volunteers in the 1980s.

It’s thanks to those volunteers and campaigners that Templecombe has those things that give the railway its character. The elegant brick signal box with its old-fashioned futuristic style, and the Victorian iron footbridge with its once carefully painted orange, white and blue detailing. The little waiting room decorated inside with vintage posters and large photographs of the station’s past, and the carefully tended flower borders behind the platform. That was, until they ruined it with stainless steel fixtures. On one of the country’s last remaining lines to be controlled by old fashioned lever-operated points and signals, worked by signalmen in signal boxes at stations along the line, Templecombe and its neighbours have always, out of operational necessity, been staffed full time. Until, that was, the commissioning of the line’s new modern signalling system in the spring, allowing all of its station staff to be replaced with a computer in a Basingstoke office block.

With no staff left to help wheelchair users cross the single remaining track to the isolated platform, a new accessible platform — a flat pack pre-fab — had to be added on the near side. Characterless concrete with a thin smear of tarmac, no vintage posters are pinned to the stainless steel “shelter” with its deliberately uncomfortable rough sleeper-repelling seating, no baskets of flowers hang from the stainless steel lamp columns, no orange, white and blue hides the stainless steel of the perimeter security fencing.

It turns out that the olden days were definitely better — but only the ones between when I was born and when I turned into a nostalgic old man.

Some notes on the National Cycling Strategy

I wrote this on Monday, but have been so busy I didn’t notice that I hadn’t tidied it up and posted it. But I don’t have time to tidy it up, so here it is, rambling and unfinished, and probably of interest only to a rather limited audience of campaigners…

A flurry of conversation seems to have broken out looking back at the National Cycling Strategy of 1996. This is good: understanding why past policies and campaigns failed, and learning how to do things differently, is important. And the current conversation is centred on a pretty fundamental disagreement over what exactly went wrong with that policy. Freewheeler has already described the dispute over which history is correct, and expresses some scepticism regarding this version of events which was given by Roger Geffen of the CTC:

Back in 1996, the cycling lobby managed to get some ‘fine words’ on cycling written into a new National Cycling Strategy (NCS), together with some ambitious targets for increased cycle use. It had taken several years of persistent effort, led by CTC, to get that far.

However, at that stage, the Government had made no commitment either to fund the NCS, or to integrate it into wider transport policy objectives. In other words, the targets to increase cycling weren’t seen either as a way of contributing to the wider aim of traffic reduction, nor were the aims of reduced traffic or reduced speed seen as necessary for cycling to flourish.

At the very moment when we needed to focus on securing funding for the NCS, and integrating it into a wider policy framework which supported cycling, the cycling lobby instead broke into a big argument about segregation. This merely provided Whitehall with a perfect excuse to allocate no funding to cycling – “if cyclists can’t agree what they want, what’s the point of funding it?” In other words, we allowed ourselves to be divided and ruled. Hence the NCS never got anywhere near achieving its targets (which were then abandoned c8 years later), and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since.

I’ve seen Geffen make these claims before, and, like Freewheeler, I’ve looked for corroborating evidence and never been able to find any. Quite the opposite. Having researched and written about the history of cycling policies (you’ll have to wait for that), I’m having a lot of trouble reconciling Geffen’s memory of the NCS with the published history. Geffen’s account doesn’t fit with what was happening either before or after the adoption of the policy in 1996.

Firstly, Geffen’s description of the policy’s context — that it was the result of years of persistent lobbying effort — doesn’t seem quite right. One must remember that transport policy was actually a comparatively high profile issue in 1996. The third major wave of road building, launched with Thatcher’s 1989 Roads for Prosperity paper, had led to the inevitable backlash and fierce protest, with the M11 Link, Twyford Down, Newbury Bypass and with Swampy at Fairmile. Lefty environmentalists hated the road building, but so did conservatives, concerned about the shires, heritage, their homes, and their chances at the looming election. At the same time the “new realism” of transport policy and planning, which recognised that accommodating car use growth can not be a sustainable policy, was spreading beyond the academy. And so George Young, the bicycling baronet, was appointed Transport Secretary in 1995 in order to shift the department’s policy. Road building was scrapped and the NCS was developed. So if the Conservatives and Labour were falling over themselves to say nice things about cycling in 1996, I fear it was less a case of the government suddenly giving in to CTC lobbying and more to do with the fact that voters across the spectrum had united against the extremely unpopular road building policy.

Second, Geffen portrays a policy which was written and targets which were set, but which then failed to get off the starting blocks because funding was cancelled. But this is not the National Cycling Strategy that the official documents describe. Granted, official documents are themselves hardly to be considered reliable histories of policy, but the discrepancy would still seem to warrant explanation. There are discrepancies with the original NCS document itself, but the more interesting contradictions are with this House of Commons brief history of cycling policy, with the 2005 DfT NCS review document (which led to the replacement of the NCS with Cycling England), and with Golbuff and Aldred’s history of cycling policy.

The National Cycling Strategy obviously failed. But not because it failed to be implemented. Far from quietly disappearing in 1996 while cyclists argued, the incoming Labour government — with John Prescott in charge of transport — took up the policy and increased its priority and the available money. Local authorities were instructed to develop cycling plans in their Local Transport Plans (the process by which central government part funded local transport projects back then). This is what Keith Bingham refers to in the piece that Freewheeler quotes from:

Sir George told us it didn’t need any money as such, because transport planners would be required to include cycling within the budget already provided for general transport development.

The NCS was funded, by the mechanism that was (and in essence still is, with minor variations like LSTF) in place for funding such things, and things did get done. The NCS review of 2005 found that something in the region of £200,000 of the DfT’s money had been spent by local authorities implementing their cycling plans, buying enough paint for 674 advance stop lines, 3093 kilometres of gutter cycle lane/car parking bays, and 4072 kilometres of shared pavements, along with several thousand cycle parking places.

This was an era of a great proliferation in useless facilities, and all the while that this crap got built, people carried on abandoning the bicycle as a mode of transport.

(The decline in use private transport over this period is compensated for by a great increase in the use of trains and, in London at least, buses.)

£200k spread across the whole nation (well, the DfT’s jurisdiction of England excluding London, at least) and several years is obviously as good as nothing — worse than nothing when it’s paying for crap like advance stop lines and other useless lines painted on roads. But how were the government to know otherwise? The mantra of the day was that cyclists are cheap to provide for: all they need is some Sheffield stands, a bit of paint, and “improved road user courtesy“, which is easy, right?

The strategy failed not because of a lack of funding but because of a lack of any understanding in government — national and local — about what needed to be done and why. The miserly sums spent on it merely reflect the fact that nobody had any idea of the scale of the problem or of the substantial changes that are required to fix it.

The main fundamental flaw in the NCS is that which was identified by the 2005 review: that local authorities — overstretched and lacking the necessary expertise, and in some cases actively opposed to the policy — were put in charge of implementing national policy, with inadequate guidance and resources. The miserly sums spent reflect less central government’s refusal to pay, and more local authorities’ lack of clue and/or care about what they actually need to do to break down the barriers to cycling. It’s why Cycling England was created to replace the NCS in response to the 2005 review, with an annual budget soon rising to 2000 times the amount the department was spending each year on local authority delivery of the NCS, and close supervision of what the money was being spent on.

The other big flaw — the one which was only partially recognised by the review — was that guidance for what to provide for cycling was not, and (despite revision) still is not, fit for purpose. Advance stop lines and crappy cycle lanes are what authorities were told they should be painting, and advance stop lines and crappy cycle lanes are what got painted.

The lessons from the NCS episode are that local authorities shouldn’t be put in charge of delivering national transport policies, and that there’s no point in having a policy at all if the people in charge of it don’t know what works and what doesn’t and what actually needs to be done or even why they should be doing it.

The final thing to comment on is the claim that another reason for the failure of the NCS is that it was not set in a wider framework for modal shift. In fact, the history of cycling policy that I’ve given is very closely tied up with the wider transport policies, which are documented at length in Shaw and Docherty’s Traffic Jam — a review of policy in the New Labour era. I’ve already described the context of the rise of the NCS: the dramatic demonstration that public opinion was against road building, a shift in policy away from attempting to accommodate growth in car use, and the installation of a transport secretary friendly to cycling. When Labour took over in 1997, we got in John Prescott a very rare thing: a transport secretary who seemed to actually want the portfolio, and who set out a vision, the New Deal For Transport, the opening lines of which reiterate the consensus for radical change in policy at that time, and propose an “integrated” and “sustainable” transport system. Prescott promised investment across the board, including giving 25 cities tram networks.

But the government were shaken when the “consensus” for reducing car use was challenged by hauliers blockading refineries in 2000, and the new deal had the fight taken out of it when John Prescott moved on from transport in 2001. Transport policy was crippled by the fact that there was strong public opinion against accommodating growth in car and truck use, but some equally strong opinions and powerful forces against taking from the road to provide for the alternatives. And so after Prescott a succession of short tenured transport secretaries — bland career politicians hoping to avoid controversy — passed through without really doing anything much at all. Without any leadership, the the tram networks quietly died, “sustainably” and “integration” lost all meaning, and the National Cycling Strategy plodded along without anybody really noticing how ineffective it was until 2005.

I could continue and go into whether it’s really more important to have one united “cycling lobby” than to at least have a clear voice asking for the right things, either then or now, but this post is already long and rambling enough, and I’ve no time for pruning and editing.

The telling death of a railwayman

Here, to keep you occupied while I work on something else, is a very short extract from a first draft of something else. It’ll need a bit of work. The context is that it comes amongst a long discussion of societal and judicial attitudes to dangerous driving, including the right to drive and our reliance on cheap road haulage and distribution with lax regulation, and illustrated with several of those case studies with which we are now all too familiar. (The pictures aren’t part of the extract, I’ve merely taken them from the Rail Safety and Standards Board Annual Safety Performance Report, and from STV news (warning: autoplaying audio/video)).

In 2011, a railway worker was killed. Just one. His name was John McInnes, an infrastructure maintenance worker who looked after lines in the north of Scotland. McInnes had thirty years of experience in a job that can come with all the hazards of working alongside fast trains, around heavy machinery, on high structures and amongst live wires. He was killed on the evening of the fourth of July 2011, while travelling to a work site on the Highland Main Line at Kingussie, only five miles from Crubenmore, where this whole story started. But McInnes did not die on the tracks. Accessing the work site by the A9 trunk road, his van and a car crashed with enough force to spark a horrific inferno that took firefighters 45 minutes to control.

This ironic tragedy highlights the already stark contrast between safety on the roads and safety on the railway. For more than a decade, railway workforce fatalities have been measured mostly at the low end of single figures, and five years have now passed without a single passenger or crew member having been killed in a train crash.

There wasn’t always such a profound difference between the safety cultures of the road and the railway. The navvies who built the Victorian railways were treated as expendable labour by powerful company owners who fought safety regulations, not only during construction, but also in everyday operation. Even when the railways were nationalised in the late 1940s, the toll on the workforce was still more than 200 every year. But strong unions demanding their right to safe workplaces, and public opinion demanding change when things go spectacularly wrong — as when major crashes occurred during the Railtrack era — has ensured that, these days, many layers of safety are built into every part of the railway.

The railway industry investigates not only all of the deaths on the tracks, but also the injuries and near misses below them in the Heinrich Triangle. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch makes extensive inquiries, consults the detailed operational records, and reconstructs events, leading to fifty page reports highlighting the lessons that are to be learned, the working practices to be revised, the rules which must be better enforced, and the new technology which should be adopted. The occurrences that it investigates are mostly what we would call accidents. Nobody was really to blame, and it is not the intention to find anybody to blame, only to prevent anything like it from happening again.

And so we have developed signalling systems which make it almost impossible to accidentally crash a train: train positions are automatically detected and the system keeps them apart by lengths of several train braking distances, refusing to allow the signaller to put trains on collision courses and automatically triggering the brakes if the driver fails to stop at red. Engineering work is checked and double checked and measured automatically by high-tech high-speed engineering trains on rolling schedules. In the event that engineering work must be carried out during live traffic, the engineering gangs work with dedicated trackside lookouts using flags and air horns to warn of approaching trains, while drivers sound their own horns until all workers have ensured their position is safe and signalled a clear acknowledgement in reply.

The railway has developed a culture in which staff at all organisational levels respect the fact that the railway is a hazardous work environment and that they must take seriously their responsibilities for the safety of their colleagues and passengers. But it did not achieve its enviable safety record simply by demanding respect and courtesy, and nor did it do so by imposing harsh penalties on workers whose momentary misjudgements ended in catastrophe. It designed a system which forgave those misjudgements: one which accepts that when humans are in control things will go wrong, so the system should be designed to allow humans to make minor mistakes and recover from them before there are any consequences.

In 2011, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch did not have to investigate a single worker death. John McInnes was on the road when he died at work, and when you work on the road, you’re still expendable labour.