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...

15 comments on “Politics of cycling policy”

  1. Dave Horton wrote:

    That's a really interesting, well written post, Patrick – thanks very much ... You make a lot of thoughtful points, although I must say I disagree with almost all of them! 🙂 (but then I suspect that we disagree politically – given I think both Greenham Common and Ban the Bomb peace campaigners were/are genuinely wonderful, inspirational, uplifting ... as well as the Suffragettes and Clarionettes ... I'm not entirely sure why progressive politics for social change seems – if I read you correctly – to stop, for you, sometime before the Second World War? Or is it that you don't like to see your passion for cycling becoming enrolled into the messy and confrontational world of politics – which certainly, I'd have some sympathy with! – Although I love *both* the simple innocence and beauty of spending time on the bike, *as well as* the inevitable conflicts and disagreements involved in pushing the bicycle politically ...)

    But with regards to your final comments, I just wanted to put onto your radar an event which I and others are working towards sometime during the middle of next year, based on on-going academic research into cycling and its prospects in the UK – it'll be titled something like 'How does Britain build an inclusive cycling culture?' Because we certainly want to keep open – and work towards – the possibility that cycling in Britain can become a mainstream, perhaps even the main – within our towns and cities, mode of mobility.

    I love your blog – a lovely, warm and collaborative idea.

    All the best

    Dave Horton, Lancaster, UK

  2. Alan wrote:

    Plenty of meat (or the vegan equivalent) to chew on there, Patrick.

    Gotta love those academics and their humdinger sentences: "This was I think one of the recurrent themes of the workshop – although we rarely engaged in explicit critique of the currently dominant ways in which cycling is promoted, there seemed to be a succession of insights coalescing around the idea that cycling is undergoing processes of capture by particular discourses (in John’s presentation, to do with urban livability; in other presentations, to do more explicitly with competition amongst global cities, and/or new regimes of health and fitness), and is therefore being promoted to the benefit of some sets of interests (such as liberal, middle-class, white capital), to the exclusion of others (such as genuine social justice and sustainability)."

  3. Alan wrote:

    I cross-posted with Dave, and now feel horribly guilty about taking the mick. My apologies; I mean no offence.

    If your work can bring about cycling as the main mode of transport, I'm all in favour.

  4. Patrick wrote:

    @Dave – thanks for your comment about our blog. As the saying goes: "We like it."

    What I mean is that the bicycle as an instrument of social change (actual change) doesn't seem to feature much since the 30s. I was born in 1948 and I feel the 60s would have been a time when it might have, hence my reference to the Beatles – they changed everything.

    There are some interesting comments on the BBC's web page titled: Cycling to the left or to right?. I agree with Ed Vaizey on freedom of the individual. I grew to hate NuLabour and the Nanny State. I don't believe it's the Government's job to promote cycling. If they have a role, it is to facilitate, not instigate.

    I look forward to hearing more about the event next year (inclusive cycling culture).

  5. Kern wrote:

    My two cents worth:

    "People don't do what they believe in, they do what's most convenient and then they repent" (Dylan, Brownsville Girl).

    If driving is more convenient than cycling, most people will drive. To increase the cycling footprint you either make cycling more convenient, or make driving less convenient. It's not a matter of culture, it's a matter of infrastructure.

    The only example I know of where a politician made driving less convenient was in inner London when Ken Livingstone introduced a tarriff to make it more expensive. And the intent of the policy was actually to reduce motorists' inconvenience by relieving congestion. (Out of curiousity, can anyone comment on whether cycling changed in London as a result?)

    From my urban perspective (no chickens walking across our kitchen floor, sadly), convenience translates into a network of cohesive routes that keep me away from traffic. It irks me to see a road resurfaced and a perfectly serviceable gravel shoulder that could be put to good use as a cycling lane left unpaved. This is the rule rather than the exception in my neck of the woods.

    No politician is going to intentionally make driving less convenient. It's just not going to happen. A parking lane may be taken away and changed into a cycling lane, at the inconvenience of motorists, but this inconvenience is a byproduct of policy, not its primary objective.

    All of which is to say, Patrick, I think I agree with you. Facilitation makes for convenience.

    Alan, I agree with you, too – that sentence was way too long. Good ride today, by the way.

  6. Patrick wrote:

    Good points Kern.

    Wikipedia again: London Congestion Charge – "there were overall increases in the numbers of taxis, buses, and especially bicycles." Doesn't give figures, but the last time I was in London there were a lot of cyclists.

  7. Alan wrote:

    I found "Social Movements and the Bicycle" interesting, especially when gauged against my personal experiences.

    I don't align myself with social or political movements, and I'm not an academic. I'm just a bloke who goes about his business on a bike.

    But life is never that simple. I live in an affluent village in affluent Cambridgeshire, but miles from the nearest shops. A bloke who sells his car and cycles everywhere is clearly mad, a social deviant. Injury keeps him off a bike for a couple of months, but he doesn't buy a car. He becomes more passionate about cycling, buying a low-step bike to rebuild strength so he can use his real bike to build more strength so he can eventually, umm ... cycle to the shops. And, next year, go to more exciting places.

    Of course, it's really self-interest. If I had a car, there would be no incentive to regain fitness. I am getting fitter faster because I cycle, and I do that because I have always enjoyed cycling more than driving. TV adverts that promote the freedom, exhilaraton and excitement of cars amuse me because I get that from bikes, not cars.

    I care about the environment, equality, over-bearing governments and the rest, but I'm not an environmentalist or socialist.

    I've realised what I am: a hedonistic cyclist. Who wants to join me? We could start a movement.

  8. Patrick wrote:

    Count me in. But I think 'a bloke who goes about his business on a bike' should really be classed as a political cyclist because you might have chosen a car instead, so yours are the sort of journeys that help "to make the transport sector greener and more sustainable," (to quote the Tory Party's and every other party's policies except Ukip). To be truly non-political you must cycle only for pleasure. Sorry!

  9. Alan wrote:

    Ha! Or perhaps it affiliates me to every party (except UKIP).

    I note that UKIP policies include: "We will consult on proposals for cyclists to display a cheap 'Cycledisc' to deter theft and give 3rd party insurance for car damage." They also want mandatory training. Yikes.

  10. Kern wrote:

    Patrick wrote: To be truly non-political you must cycle only for pleasure.

    I knew it! People who ride because it's cheaper (i.e. for economic reasons) are actually political, stoking their own economic cycle, stroke-upon-stroke. And since all economics is political, they must be Marxists to boot: the veritable vanguard of a fifth column!

    Better be careful, Patrick – you never know who's reading this blog.

    We need to work a good whiskey into this theme. Where's Garry when we need him? Alan, hopefully you haven't given up tippling now that you have remounted Brown Bike? Somewhere there's a rhyme waiting to be prised out ...

  11. Patrick wrote:

    ... stoking their own economic cycle ... Well put.

    I can't be much help with whisky. All I know is that £8 supermarket own-brand works just as well as a pricey single malt but doesn't taste as good. When I used to care, my choice was The Macallan. If I remember right, our previous Government (Lab.) wanted health warning labels on all alcoholic drinks.

  12. Garry wrote:

    Last night I had a shot of Dalwhinnie 15yr old, then Paddy, then Bushmills 16yr old. I don't know what that might have to do with this outstanding article except to say that I like to cycle my whiskeys!
    I cycle because I like it, and I like being fit. I do know that in countries like Germany, where I've cycletoured a few times, countries where cycling facilities are superb, many more people cycle than cycle here. I also know, possibly as a reflection of that, that fat people are much rarer in Germany. The people are strikingly thin. The Irish and British were thin when I was young. Now they're huge. Fast food has something to do with it, lack of exercise, especially walking, has a lot more to do with it.
    The thing about exercise is that you enjoy it when you're fit, but not before. To get fit, you have to go easy at it, or it's torture. Most people don't know that. They subscribe to a gym, torture themselves for 2 weeks and quit. Wrong approach entirely.
    If you factor the cost of the future treament of diabetes, heart disease, gross obesity and hypertension against the cost of providing attractive exercise facilities for the masses, the latter becomes very attractive, politically. This is the angle which should be pushed.
    The traffic is not the only deterrent to cyclecommuting in a place like Cork. The frequent rainfall is a major one. I would envisage four routes to the centre of the city, with covered cycleways as being a huge attraction to commuting. It would cost a fortune but it would have permanent results. It's good to dream.

  13. Patrick wrote:

    Garry wrote: ... fat people are much rarer in Germany.

    They are in Holland as well. At least that was my impression and I imagine it goes hand in hand with having more utility cyclists. I'm still interested in the differences between the UK and Holland. On David Hembrow's website there's an article titled the truth about Copenhagen where he says the cycling rate in Denmark has dropped 30% since 1990, which he puts down to insufficient segregation of bikes from cars. This has to be the biggest political issue amongst cyclists themselves – the activists in the workshop I mentioned (4th paragraph above) see segregated cycling infrastructure as 'problematic'.

    I still think it's all in the flatness. The flatter the terrain, the greater the return for policymakers who invest money in infrastructure. It must be the same with smaller travel distances. Holland is very flat and small, Denmark is a little less so on both counts, and the UK is much bigger with lots of hills.

  14. Labann wrote:

    Been cycling and writing about these issues for 40 years. Read "Bike&Chain"...

    I think what was overlooked in this thoughtful article was how resolutely pro-motor agencies, like AAA, since the 1950's guided roadnet design around existing US CFRs that mandate equal accommodations for cyclists, walkers and wheelchair users. There is no advantage from knowing this history, other than awareness how communities, hamlets and villages were destroyed to allow cagers to race through. Jane Jacobs knew. So did Ivan Illich.

    As an anecdote, drove today to a pre-Revolutionary era town in New England. Visitors routinely park and walk miles just to admire the varied architecture and shops, which span centuries. Reminds one nostalgically of life in the 1950's; questions the abused notion of progress.

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