“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.

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

  1. You’re absolutely right. David Hembrow and all those he inspired have achieved more in a few short years than Sustrans and the CTC have achieved in decades. It’s time for THEM to catch up!

  2. Yes, well, tell your acquaintance that I’ve had to endure over 30 years of utter crap in terms of provision for cyclists, to a background of deteriorating driver behaviour. If nothing else, at least you bloggerati (and tweeters) keep the rest of us mugs informed about progress (or not) and where the consultations are that we can respond to. I don’t remember old school cycle campaigners doing that through any medium at all, and lo, we end up with some ineffectual white lines on a footway or in the gutter. Beware the leopard and all that.

  3. @Peter: hey, careful where you swing that axe. Think you’ll find that Sustrans has built more motor-free cycling infrastructure in the UK than any other organisation so far. I’m a firm believer in segregation – that’s why I support Sustrans.

      1. True, I was letting my rhetorical flourish carry me away.
        What I was referring to is the change in thinking away from simply alleviating some of the worst effects of our car-centric transport policy and acknowledging that it’s all about how we design our roads and towns.
        Prior to the Blackfriars protest in March 2011 I don’t believe many people were even aware that there was another way. I’ll be the first to say I‘ll believe it when I see the first mile of proper cycle lane actually being built but nevertheless we’re witnessing a seismic shift in thinking, and that change is directly attributable to bloggers like David Hembrow who showed not only that was another way but also how it could be done.
        I didn’t mean to denigrate all the hard work of Sustrans volunteers (I’ve been there myself and will continue to do so) but we could have another 100 years of the Sustrans softly-softly approach and cycling’s modal share would still be scraping along at 1-2%.

  4. The biggest criticism that I can have of sustrans is that quite a lot of their (paid for by them) infrastructure is a bit rubbish- such as the 10,000th mile “genome path” just south of Cambridge. It isn’t terrible, just… a bit crap.

  5. My take on it is that blogging allowed a space for the expression of ideas that existed within cycling groups but which were suppressed by disapproval and ridicule. The idea of mixing it with the traffic took hold in cycle groups in the 1930s and the ideology has been reproduced ever since, handed down through generations of activists. You couldn’t get anywhere in any cycle group if you thought differently. I recall being told I was ‘ill-informed’, that cycle tracks ‘were by idiots for idiots’ and so on.
    When I went to cycle groups to talk about the need for cycle tracks there were always those who dominated the discussion and criticised cycle tracks. But always too I had people who came up afterwards and said that they agreed with cycle tracks, but said that were shouted down if they suggested them in meetings. Well the Net has given voice to those ideas and the small number of activists of the old school are being marginalised.

    1. Although I’d identify as an enthusiast (more than one bike, two have drop bars, I like to go fast sometimes) I’ve never been part of a club, or campaign group. I had seen paths &c locally, and didn’t want more of the same – a lot of my opposition to separation came from that.

      What changed my outlook was seeing David Hembrow’s examples of infrastructure that supports *everyone*, and an environment in which bike path didn’t automatically equal “crap”.

  6. I think the debate may have moved beyond the views of certain cycle clubs who seem to be people who cycle and tour whatever. The debate is now with the infrastructure for people who cycle and people who cycle if only they could feel safer. I think we are on the edge of something interesting in London. Yes, I agree that Sustrans has undertaken a colossal amount of work and their lifeblood is the hundreds of volunteers who keep an eye on the NCN which has many off road routes which kids and new cyclists can enjoy themselves without traffic.

  7. i think ridicule and ‘its not for me’ attitudes do not only apply to ‘cyclists’ and infrastructure, it also stretches to equipment too, I have had sales Reps refuse to test ride a dutch bike because it “was not for them”. Shimano make the comfort range of components, the range ideal for non cyclists almost unobtainable, The Bicycle has battles of culture from inside the cycle industry, from established cycle groups and from the bemused decision makers in local and national government are all missing the basic fact that people have a right to travel without a car…and the Bicycle makes that possible. It is a governments duty to provide for people to move without a car, it’s not complicated, just befuddled by the fact that cycling is basically perceived as a sport. A visit to any bike vendor will confirm that.

  8. I still cherish a vision of civilising and sharing our urban roads without need for segregation apart from on high speed highways – and by that I mean anything above 20mph. Standard urban speed limits are coming down across Europe towards 20mph and 30kph, and I believe that speed limiter technology and better enforcement, followed by cars better designed and adapted for urban use, will result in streets that both look and really will be much safer than they are now. And although this may sound a long way off, it can be achieved in a shorter timeframe and at much lower cost than across the board segregation.

    1. Sorry Richard, 20 MPH limits may work but only when they are properly enforced or design led. This is all to do with infrastructure and road design – most of the accidents at London junctions are occurring at relatively low speeds, you don’t need to go fast to kill someone when the traffic volume and road conditions are wrong. As I mentioned above, I live very close to a great off road cycle network but despite living in a 20 MPH area, on road parking and poor road design make cycling (and driving) a pain. I support 20’s Plenty but I’m not sure our police or road planners do. The Dutch segregation principles are based on both the speed and volume of traffic and this is what we should be looking at.

  9. I’d like to know who it was you were talking to. If it is a cycling group that I belong to I would want to leave.

    1. I’m almost certain I know who he is talking about BUT I think the last thing you should do is leave – like it or not these organisations continue to have a voice and they need to be changed from the inside. It’s fantastic to see that the committee, and TFL, are listening to the likes of Danny, Mark and co but the default position for local authorities is to give the opinions of ‘organisations’ a greater weight than that of individuals (and there is a logic to that position).

  10. I’m anti segregation because it makes all road users even less aware of each other and ultimately makes things worse. So Sustrans are doing a disservice to normal cyclists. They may well be helping families and occasional cyclists on dry weekends, but that’s about all.

      1. No, Australia exists, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Aside from the internets, where it could of course all be faked, I’ve also talked to people I trust who’ve reported being to the UK, including people born in the UK ~ but only in Australia, which they got to by traveling toward the East. SO as far as I can tell, the earth is flat, with the US over here on the eastern edge, Australia somewhere in the middle, and the UK over there on the western edge.

    1. If you get a decent segregated cycle system then more people cycle so the average driver is likely to be a cyclist or have a partner or partner or child who is a cyclist. So, on the occasions they have to share the road with cyclists they will be careful.

    2. I think you’ve made a compelling argument for why we should dismantle the interstate highway system here in the US; drivers become accustomed to driving quickly in the presence of nothing but other cars.

  11. I remember reading in the late ’90s, when blogs were still new, a bit of writing about blogs and how they were going to save humanity and create social change for the better. It was very idealistic, written by a Canadian First Nations Lesbian. I thought it was a very naïve piece. I didn’t think much of it at the time or since but now reading this I realize that she was actually right. Blogging has created social change. Previously marginalized people now have a voice.
    Campaigning for cycling infrastructure in North America has been going much quicker because we can read about and see pictures and videos of innovations in Europe and tell our politicians that we want it too.

  12. BRAVO!!!! This is something that needed to be said and I’m glad it was done in such an eloquent and polite way.
    I attended a meeting of this ‘club’ you talk about a few years ago and was totally baffled by the jargon being used. Someone there asked me how many inches I use on my bike (or something like that) and I hadn’t got a clue, still don’t.
    I ride a lot and I felt out of place amongst them, I dread to think how they come across to the general public.

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