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.

Why do people have such strange ideas about modal choice?

Glasgow’s literacy and numeracy rates are amongst the lowest in Europe. Since it has a smaller population of readers to serve, Glasgow should invest less in schools.

Compared to the rest of Europe, a low proportion of people in Glasgow are healthy. The relatively small number of Glaswegians making use of their health indicates that Glasgow can invest less than the rest of Europe in health services.

Glasgow has the lowest employment rate in the UK. Therefore we should do less to invest in jobs in Glasgow than elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a very low proportion of Glasgow’s population is willing to use a bicycle for transport in the city. Therefore Glasgow should invest very little in providing for bicycle transport

One of my policy recommendations has been implemented by Glasgow City Council. Can you guess which one? That’s right. Glasgow City Council do not interpret a lack of healthy people as a reason not to invest in health services, but they would interpret a fall in the number of people cycling as a reason to cut funding for cycling infrastructure Glasgow.

(For some reason Glasgow City Council do not see the fact that Glasgow residents own a negligible number of electric cars, and indeed that fewer than half of all Glasgow households have access to a car of any kind, as a reason not to give those few who are rich enough to be able afford an electric car a gift of free storage space all over the city.)

It’s obvious enough that investment in literacy, health and jobs is not aimed at helping those who are already healthy educated people in employment, but at those who are not and who would benefit from being so — indeed, that low rates of literacy, health and employment are indicative of problems that politicians should be fixing. So why do people have such difficulty grasping the point of investing in enabling cycling?

I’ve written before about this bizarre idea so frequently cited by politicians (and incorporated into their absurd cost-benefit analysis model for transport infrastructure spending) and commentators these days — that somehow everybody has made a completely free choice, entirely uninformed by the environment around them, the options that have already been provided for, or the constraints imposed by the laws of physics; and that it’s the politician’s job simply to provide for what people have demonstrated is their choice. The absurdity of this position is encapsulated rather well in the fabricated Henry Ford quote beloved of management consultants and self-help book authors — “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

Stupid though the idea is, I can understand why right-wing politicians and a libertarian government would want to pretend that everybody’s current transport use is the result of a completely free choice and so exactly reflects the modes of transport that we would most like to be using and which the government should provide for, and that therefore any government action which resulted in modal shift would be an unacceptable state intrusion into personal lifestyle choices. What really infuriates me is when campaigners — and it seems to be peculiar to cycling campaigners — hobble their own campaigns with the same stupid idea.

It is an idea that is closely tied up with those soft measures campaigns: it is the idea that there is no point in anybody asking for any kind of cycling infrastructure because there are currently too few cyclists for the request to be heard, therefore we need to focus on “more realistic” soft measures and encouraging more people to ride, until eventually there might be enough cyclists to make an effective lobby. Well if you’re designing your campaigns around policies to provide things for cyclists — to solve “the problems that cyclists face” — of course they will go unheard and ignored, just as a campaign to “solve the problems that cable car users face” would be a stupid way to go about getting a cable car built. Cyclists are “a curious, slightly nutty irrelevance“, and Cyclists campaigning on behalf of Cyclists doubly so. It’s why the Cycling Embassy was so desperately needed — a campaign for a new transport infrastructure for all, not the usual request for a bit more room for Cyclists; it’s why LCC’s Go Dutch campaign succeeds in attracting attention beyond the usual suspects; it’s why the name Cities Fit For Cycling suggests a good campaign, while the headline Save Our Cyclists didn’t.

If you think you can’t campaign for cycling infrastructure because there aren’t enough cyclists, you’re doing it wrong.