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.