Politics of cycling policy
Out of curiosity I looked up "conservative cycling policy" on the web and read where the Conservatives stand on transport in general and cycling in particular. Under the heading 'Transport' they announce: "We will support sustainable travel initiatives, including the promotion of cycling and walking." Just like the previous Government did and not much happened. Also:
The Government believes a modern transport infrastructure is essential for a dynamic and entrepreneurial economy, as well as to improve well-being and quality of life. We need to make the transport sector greener and more sustainable ...
Cycling-wise I consider myself non-political. Riding a bike improves my quality of life because I enjoy it and I think it benefits my health. Naturally, I would like to see the Government, local authorities and other public bodies improve facilities for cycling and I think it would be better if people became healthier by exercising their bodies on bicycles (and by other methods: more walking, amateur football, etc) – a healthier population would reduce my taxes. But that's about as far as I go, politically speaking.
I don't believe much in political campaigns to persuade more people to ride bicycles. I don't think they make a real difference or that this is the role of the State. Besides, there's no more inherent virtue in cycling than in gardening or rambling in the countryside, or even sailing. I'm especially suspicious of people who organise Bicycle Politics Workshops and who passionately advocate that cycling can change the world. In my experience of the roads there is no deliberate war between motorists and cyclists (although they may be in conflict) nor do I think the Government wants to "push cycling off the roads." Aligning what the workshop delegates call bicycle politics with the politics of gender, class and race subverts the fundamental innocence of cycling. It is not a social movement. It might have been in the early days of Clarion but surely not any more. At least not mainstream. It's a transport choice, a leisure activity and a sport, purely and simply. Activist cycling projects with radical potential to confront the oppression of the car-centric motoring monopoly (to use Dave Horton's terminology) is unfortunately reminiscent of Greenham Common and Ban the Bomb.
Copenhagen is usually trotted out as the cycling Utopia, the role model for the democratisation of cycling. Copenhagenizers in Manchester (my nearest city) want everybody to ride a bike and even be anarchobicyclists on the grounds that democracy doesn't work. No wonder politicians are sceptical, if indeed they are. British Governments do seem to care about the nation's health, if only to save money on less working days lost and a smaller NHS, and they probably want less of the workers' time wasted in traffic jams.
The BMJ recently published a review of interventions to promote cycling to see if they have any effect on cycling behaviour. Physical exercise is healthy and, like walking, cycling is "easier to include in people's daily routines as a means of travel than other forms of exercise." By interventions they mean intervention with needy individuals (eg: obese women), individualised marketing to households, improved cycling infrastructure, and town or city-level programmes. Their conclusion is "relatively modest absolute increases in cycling at population level."
Not much justification for political action there, especially as the BMJ notes: "in most studies it is unclear whether such increases reflect new trips by infrequent or novice cyclists (which could represent early evidence of potential public health benefits) or additional trips by existing cyclists (which are less likely to contribute significant public health benefits)."
Both anarchism (or perhaps anarchobicyclism) and environmentalism portray the bicycle as a symbolic weapon in protests against the domination of urban space by the car – Reclaim the Streets, for example, 'a resistance movement opposed to the dominance of corporate forces in globalization, and to the car as the dominant mode of transport' (Wikipedia). Dave Horton has written a thoughtful article on Social Movements and the Bicycle. Whilst it may be true that bicycles helped liberate women in 1880s and the working class in the 1930s, the assumption of a high moral purpose in cycling as a rejection of technological advancement in the 21st century, and a tool of protest and civil unrest in support of Green Politics, is probably counter productive in a modern democracy. Governments will always win through, I think.
So who's now responsible for national cycling strategy in the UK? It's the Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, Parliamentary Under Secretary for the Department for Transport and the minister 'in charge of cycling,' with tough choices to make as the "greenest UK Government ever" announced its Comprehensive Spending Plan this week. The new Coalition Government is committed to localism: a devolution of power and financial autonomy to local authorities. Local communities will be freer to decide their policies and budget for local rather than national priorities.
Given the almost complete failure of the previous National Cycling Strategy to achieve its targets – doubling the number of trips by cycle (on 1996 figures) by 2002 and quadrupling it by 2012 – this may be good, even if there's less money to go round. Local democracy tends to be more responsive to public opinion, albeit local opinion. If they are well organised, cycling activists might soon have more success in reclaiming the streets in their neighbourhoods.
Norman Baker, incidentally, is the MP who in 2002 exposed the fact that the UK Government Ministers' car fleet had risen to a record size and said: "Ministers and senior civil servants are travelling around in expensive and bigger cars while at the same time the government is supposed to be encouraging people not to drive and use public transport."
The Government's best hope of reducing car use in cities is (or would have been before the spending review) better public transport – more convenient to use and cheaper than motoring. The infrastructure for Dutch style mass cycling in Britain is obviously unaffordable now. We missed our opportunities over 40 years ago in the 1960s when Barbara Castle (Lab.) was Minister of Transport and a little earlier Doctor Beeching (Con.) slashed the railways. If the Beatles had been cyclists...