What do we want? Marginal gains!

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


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.

Parliament Square
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.

14 thoughts on “What do we want? Marginal gains!”

  1. There’s another constituency – those cyclists who don’t want more cyclists on the street. My daily commute is made less and less enjoyably by the increasing quantity and decreasing quality of cyclists on the road. The last thing I want is to be forced into to dedicated cycling infrastructure clogged up with even more cyclists and probably their kids. If I have to cycle at walking pace I’ll take the car, thanks.

  2. That’s just daft. New bike infrastructure is no more likely to be mandatory than the presence of a new motorway meaning drivers can no longer use other roads.

    Making cycling less of a minority pursuit is in your interest – not least because it will mean that the police take it seriously if you’re hit by a car. But if you find it hard to share and cooperate with other road users, perhaps working from home might be your best option.

  3. Not trying to pass judgement here, but Tony, it seems like you haven’t understood the purpose of the post. What we should be striving for is a strategy that improves the experience of cycling for most people and not just keen cyclists like you and me. I’d rather get to work safe and with my lungs cleaner among more people on bikes than stressed out of my head and lungs full of smog among more cars and lorries. Also, should I want to “race the streets” of London on my bike then I am not using any of the cycling infrastructure present anyway; I suggest you do the same and avoid the “uninitiated” people on bikes… Finally, a huge thank you for, despite the increasing “high-quantity/low-quality” people on bike on your commuting route, you are still using your bike and do not get your car!

    Other than that, an excellent article to which I agree wholeheartedly! Keen cyclists and their aspirations for a cycling nation need to start being an inspiration to normal people who would like to use their bikes but are afraid to do so.

  4. Going Dutch means exactly what you don’t want, Tony: sharing your daily commute with people dressed normally, on cheapo bikes or on very expensive but slow and steady Dutch bikes, some with baby carriers or luggage boxes, happily traveling at low(ish) but steady speeds.
    No place for Lycra devils or wanna-be Cavendish emulators. Amazingly, it works.
    Sorry. If you want to train for speed do it in the open countryside out of peak hours..

  5. To put your own thrill seeking above somebody else (+ their kids) trying to get from A to B on a bike is just selfish Tony, and what really is daft is the misconception that the nation that has nurtured a successful market for extremely fast recumbents & velomobiles, are somehow a nation of sloth cyclists!?!

  6. One of the themes of this twitter exchange (I was a party to some of them) was Guy’s faith in John Franklin.

    Now, I don’t wish to criticise the central tenet of Franklin’s magnum opus “Cyclecraft”, which is apparently the “official” text on cycling in traffic. At one level, all he is doing is giving advice on how best to survive in extremely hostile conditions, and if you really do have to cycle on a busy road, I accept his advice for example that I am safer straddling the whole lane than I would be bumbling along by the kerb. In the world we currently inhabit, I also prefer to see that advice on “primary position” spelt out in words of one syllable so that our half-wit motorist friends might just possibly understand why we do what we do – it isn’t to wind them up, it is to try and stay alive.

    The problem is that Guy apparently accepts that Franklin’s expertise in cyclecraft (small c) qualifies him to give advice to our local authorities on road design for cyclists. It doesn’t, any more than once having been a traffic patrol cop qualifies Keith Peat to spout the garbage which he does so regularly. Unfortunately, local authorities are only too willing to accept Franklin’s status as an expert, because he tells tjem what they want to hear – don’t worry about us, we don’t need, indeed we dont WANT, special infrastructure, which costs oodles of money, we want training and a form of elitist acceptance ritual, a bit like “hazing” new members of a US inversity fraternity society – the kappa upsilon kappas, perhaps – which requires minimal cost or effort from the highways authority and causes least upset to the terylene-car-coat brigade whose vites they think they rely on for re-election.

    That isn’t going to change until enough voices speak loudly enough to say “Screw Franklin – listen to us instead”.

    I was out of town last Friday so couldn’t be at Aldgate, but I hope there will be more events that I can attend.

  7. not sloths, just “regular”, average speed on bike in Amsterdam seems to be 15 k/h, and traffic lights are set to give a “green light wave” (keep dreaming, UK people) to cyclist going at abour 17k/h, so no need to jump lights or to wait for them to change.
    I lived and cycled in NL, by the way, and EVERYBODY is on a bike for going somewhere.

  8. I agree with most of this, though I am uncertain about the extent of latent demand for utility cycling in Britain. In the Netherlands, before cycling infrastructure was invented, there was mass cycling on a level never seen in Britain. Even the queen rode a bike. The country was renowned for cycling (for original source research on this see Pete Jordan’s book “In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist”, it’s very entertaining).

    I do sometimes worry that the majority of British people still regard cycling as recreation, sport or transport for the poor, in a way that they don’t just across the North Sea. I wonder how easily that perspective will change with the introduction of quality bike lanes.

    Another issue is that it’s not always the case that pedestrian and cyclists interests are perfectly aligned, or seen by each other to be perfectly aligned. What appears to be happening in the City of London is that the authorities are pedestrianising large areas, probably because walking is the main mode of short distance travel with longer journeys undertaken by public transport. As Danny Williams has blogged, the effect of this policy can be to make conditions for cycling worse, an example is widening pavements and narrowing the carriageway, without introducing a protected bike path. Pedestrian/cyclist conflict a common complaint in London. This makes it a little more tricky to build the broader pro-‘active travel’ / living streets alliance you are right to propose.

    1. Jack, you are “uncertain about the extent of latent demand for utility cycling in Britain’, and point out that there were loads of cyclists in NL before bike lanes, etc. Fair point, but the environment for cars has changed drastically for the worse in the UK, at least in urban areas. In the 60s and early 70s, you could drive into central London easily, and park easily. I will limit my anecdata to one illustration. In the 50s my mother’s annual treat was a trip to the theatre, which involved driving to London and parking right outside the theatre. Even pre-motorways, that was more convenient than the direct train the family could have taken from a station a mile away.

      So I reckon there is a latent demand for cycling, purely because driving is now so crap in a lot of places (but safe). There’s an increased demand for scooters certainly.

      Also, flatness, while an overrated point, was more of an issue in the days of heavy bikes and rubbish/no gears. I guess that’s *a* reason the Dutch kept cycling as cars became more common.

  9. I think Luke makes a good point. The Dutch cycle network was put in during a time of increasing car traffic. We now have congestion charges in cities, and peak car seams to be here. What this means for cycle advocates is open to interpretation, but maybe Jack has a point about pedestrian streets and what that means for cycle advocacy.

    I like bike paths, but traffic calming is sometimes a better alternative and is perhaps easier politically now than it was earlier.

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